by JOANELLE MULRAIN
Sometimes when we reflect upon our youth experiences, we find a touchstone that changed our path. For Nadine Terk, it was the discovery of painting. Growing up in a rural Minnesota farming community, little Nadine experienced a wonderful childhood. Always feeling safe, she knew the long road that led away from the house ended at a freeway. When she got to the end, she just turned around and came back home. Soon, wanderlust caught hold, and off she went to discover the world, always keeping her family roots.
She attended Santa Clara University for two years, and the following summer she hitchhiked around Europe. After returning home, Terk received a grant to go to Japan and immerse herself into all things Japanese. Upon leaving Japan, curiosity led her to visit India, Nepal and Turkey. Finally home, she began a master’s program in Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, where she met and married her husband, then moved to San Marco, where she began painting full time in her garage.
Nadine’s life changed when she met internationally known portrait artist, art historian, connoisseur and collector, Nelson Shanks. Through his eyes she learned the skills of representational oil painting versus the 1980s Abstract Expressionism, which was popular at the time. When she watched Nelson, she saw his beautifully poetic economy of movement as he painted.
As a portrait artist, she began thinking of the intimacy between humans, calling upon her memories as a child, especially those involving women in her family who were diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mother, Marilu, is a survivor, but her grandmother and aunt died of the disease.
“Not everyone knows how to be with someone who is suffering,” says Nadine, as she reflects on the emotional pain she experienced while holding her aunt’s hand while she lay dying in bed. “I learned at a very young age because my aunt asked me, ‘I am not going to die, am I?’” she says. Her aunt’s husband didn’t know how to talk to her, and friends were afraid to visit-–she felt so alone.
Terk remembers when she was only 11 her mother had a mastectomy with no reconstruction. She never saw her mother’s breast scar; it simply wasn’t talked about. No one knew how to start the conversation.
She said her mom compared it to losing a limb, but one would talk about losing a foot or a hand, never a breast. She remembers when her mom visited her in Japan. They visited the hot baths, but Marilu kept herself covered; in response, the Japanese women started covering themselves in respect. Marilu became Nadine’s first subject in the survivors project.
They talked about how they hoped this exhibit would begin a conversation about hope beyond breast cancer, which led Terk to audio and videotape each portrait sitting. “As a nurse and survivor, I have a debt to repay, so when Nadine asked me to participate, I said yes,” says Marilu. “You never know how your life touches someone else’s, so I thought maybe I could help others continue on, as missing parts of our bodies does not change who we are.”
“They really don’t look so bad,” Marilu says of her breasts after seeing the finished portrait.
Terk carefully chose her videographer, Patrick Barry of Blue Llama Studios. “I knew that if the women were comfortable with him filming while I was painting, they understood the expression of this healing experience on my canvas,” says Terk.
Each woman wore a microphone, and a boom mike was used along with three cameras-–one on the painting, another on the woman’s face, and one filming in wide frame. Terk had a microphone on her, too, so the conversation between painter and subject were recorded for the exhibit’s audio tour.
“This way, I was able to capture the whole story,” says Terk.”Each woman could move about, pick their pose, and wear whatever they wanted or nothing above the waist. There was no hesitation to disrobe and prepare their chests for me. Some exclaimed: These are not my breasts, they are gone, and I am alive!”
“It’s a great project,” says Jeannie, another story in the exhibit. “Nadine helped me process more thoroughly, deal with it much better, and when I wanted second opinions and needed more education, she taught me how to explore options. She kept me moving in the right direction, and then I knew I was going to be ok.”
“Nadine even accompanied me to appointments and helped me find my own way because I went through so many transformations,” Jeannie went on to say. “Nadine helped me become more aware of what I was going through, and it gave me more control.”
Another woman, Astrid, told Nadine that she sees her breasts as beautiful artwork and wears them like jewelry.
Michael Fallucco, MD, plastic and reconstructive surgeon, invited Nadine into the OR to see a 10-hour breast reconstruction using the diep-flap procedure, which obtains fat for insertion into the area where the breast was removed in order to reconstruct the breast. During the surgery, Terk saw a parallel between the surgeon and Shanks, both artists, both exhibiting beautiful and poetic styles, economies of motion, artistry and precision.
“Nadine’s tribute to the patients’ strength to be this open with their bodies and tell their personal stories takes some of the stigma away; they can be open about their new bodies,” Fallucco says.
“As I worked with each woman, so many stories were shared,” says Nadine. “These stories became larger than the paintings. Each woman went through the process to help other women, to give back and give hope.”
“We were in a very intimate space, and it was all about the conversation. I hope I was able to take a very tough situation and begin a dialogue about the physical self; they allowed me to let their voice become my canvas. Each expressed that they felt happier, more beautiful and alive afterwards,” Terk says.
Another women, A., who participated, states, “It’s a powerful message, one of hope – a reminder that many new doors open up, when others close; that the disease changes everything around you and everybody else, as well.”
The exhibit premiered during the Pink Ribbon Symposium at the Thrasher-Horne in October and then travels to St. Vincent’s Riverside in November. Terk plans to complete her documentary and possibly write a companion book hoping to inspire others.
by JOANELLE MULRAIN