Suzanne Gibbs speaks to Emmeline Downie
On her intention:
Initially, my intention was to depict the stark reality of facing cancer from a woman’s point of view and of that as the sitter’s sister. I decided to explore and convey our emotional journey, moving forward. It was Sally’s initial courage and positivity, with her sense of humour that compelled me to compose a scene rather than just a portrait. I wanted to illustrate that behind her baldness, lack of eyelashes and eyebrows, she was still a courageous woman of beauty and confidence.
I imagine it is not until some of us lose our hair that we realise how important it is to us. Apparently both men and women fear hair loss most, as one of the side effects after being diagnosed with cancer. Sally, however, was not so fearful and with her great sense of humour, made many jokes about her hair loss. Unlike myself, she had been very experimental in her youth with her image and was courageous with expressing her identity. For those who are old enough to picture it, she was a punk with a mohawk hair style. Sally seemed able to accept the baldness as her new, but temporary identity. The problem, however, is that baldness on a woman has become a symbol to the world that you have cancer. In Sally’s words, ‘I wear the wig because when the public see the baldness, they feel uncomfortable, because they only see cancer. Without the wig, I feel like I have the word cancer written on my forehead.’ As Sally had come to terms with losing her hair and not her identity, it was most likely the underlying anxiety and horror of losing my own crowning glory that compelled me to attach her hair to the painting. Unable to face my own fears of losing my hair, I wept as I combed each strand and applied it to the canvas, so it became deep rooted and reunited with her portrait.
I wanted to create a colourful, fun and vibrant portrait of my sister, despite the challenges and uncertainties she is facing in the picture. Sally has always loved painting her face and as a punk in her youth, she was able to use colour creatively and expressively in her everyday life, exuding confidence in her appearance, happy to turn heads. Her identity was intrinsically linked to her pop culture, self-expression, and creativity, so she was unperturbed by public opinion. Today, people are more conservative with their appearance and it is difficult to believe that there was a time youngsters wore a chain from their ear to their nose and decorated their faces with bright coloured make up of oranges, greens, bright reds and blues. Layers of colours, patterns and textures were worn where we now see fashion as labels and logos. Sally is not only remembering her past, but using that dormant creativity to express her new identity. In her portrait, where the cancer has taken away her eyebrows, her hair and her eyelashes, she simply adds them herself and further enhances her features, with colourful gems. I placed her at the dressing table, new face on, like an actor in a play, ready to face the world.
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