Hollis Sigler was a visual artist who created a body of work called, Breast Cancer Journal: Walking with the ghosts of my grandmothers. In 1985, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. At that time, her disease was a much more private concern and she got on with her life, “hoping that she would be among those who had experienced a sobering confrontation with cancer, one that for the most part was resolved.”
In 1992, the cancer was found in her bones, and “she got angry, and then she got busy. Her frustrations with the confusing and meager flow of sometimes contradictory clinical information, with the lack of outreach resources, with the sense of being isolated with a potentially terminal disease while simultaneously certain that everywhere there were thousands, no millions, of women in precisely her position,” led to her activism and to the journal.
She began publicly acknowledging her cancer by painting to express not just her own experience, but her family history, and as political consciousness raising. Both her mother and grandmother had breast cancer. Her paintings express the challenge of the disease, “all its moments of despair, revelation poignancy, sorrow, exhilaration, agony, hope, dejection, frustration, and tenderness,” James Yood wrote in one of the introductions. The other introduction was written by Susan M. Love, M.D.
Sigler came of intellectual and artistic age in the 1970s and she understood those aspects of feminism that led to publications like Our Bodies, Ourselves. “She knew that women, one by one, often beginning in isolation, had created new networks of communication to provide exchanges of information that would directly address critical issues in women’s lives, that would combat those structures, intended or unintended, that had hitherto frustrated women’s efforts to inform themselves more fully.”
Sigler also had experience with art activism through her role in the Artemisia Gallery, a feminist cooperative in Chicago the 1970s.
Sigler describes the creative process throughout the series, and how it evolved as she gained some emotional distance. The first works directly related her feelings and experiences with the diagnosis, and later became more reflective. One group of drawings was done almost immediately after readings of Tibetan Buddhists, specifically The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Sigler said that that book, along with The Cancer Journals of Audre Lorde, gave her perspective about her attitude toward permanence.
Sigler was featured in “Paint Me a Future,” a documentary film about art therapy produced by Dr. David Kaminisky, Palm Springs, CA. Her breast cancer journal was published by Hudson Hills in 1999.
Sigler was born in 1948 in Gary, Indiana and died March 29, 2001, in Prairie View, Illinois. She received the distinguished artist award for lifetime achievement from the College Art Association just one month before she died.