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Image: The New Normal, John Conway
The New Normal: John Conway with breast cancer survivors.

The New Normal: John Conway with breast cancer survivors

The New Normal is a collaborative community arts and health project exploring the lived experience of breast cancer through a visual arts lens. The project took place from 2016 to 2017 with artist John Conway and breast cancer survivors Niccy Elmer, Grainne Healy, Bernie McIntyre and Sandra O'Rourke in Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, The LAB, NIVAL, the ARC Cancer Support Centre and Graphic Studio Dublin. The project was funded by the Arts Council Artist in the Community Scheme, with additional funding from Kildare County Council Art Service. Four women who were breast cancer survivors collaborated on all aspects of the project.

Take a ticket, wait…
Follow the yellow line, wait…
Machine presses, wait…

Extract from The New Normal

The aim of the project was to explore the collective and individual experiences of breast cancer survivors, with the goal of devising an output that would be relevant, accessible and impactful to general viewers and a specific audience - people living with breast cancer, as well as functioning as a critical, stand-alone art object.

Research for The New Normal originally began during the artist's residency with Waterford Healing Arts Trust in 2015. Engaged research and development of the project took place after consultation with Dr Nicola Elmer, a psychologist working in an oncological setting, who became a project participant. Collaborative research took place at the ARC Cancer Support Centre in 2016 with a group of participants who voluntarily responded to an open call.

The research stage of the project involved a variety of collaborative, process-driven visual art exercises that sought to alleviate the pressure of producing a fixed art outcome. This helped to build trust in processes and emerging outcomes, setting the tone for an open, reflective and immersive approach to making. This allowed the group to share and examine their experiences and question how they might be represented through visual art.

This methodology, along with drinking tea, allowed space to explore and discuss potential outcomes. It also allowed time for reflection on the value of the growing social bond, sense of trust, and the healing aspect of exchange among the group which developed as a result of the collaborative processes.

This responsive approach led to an increased focus on the importance of communication and the weight of the written and spoken word. In turn, this led to an exploration of haiku writing, automatic writing and the power and relatability of idioms that reference the body, which could be experienced and interpreted differently by people at different stages of their breast cancer journey.

Heart Broken
Cold to the bone
The pitying look
Too tired to think
Worse for wear

Extract from The New Normal

Of particular interest was the after: the start of the post-treatment new normal into which survivors are ejected. Shopping lists, reminders and to-do lists became significant; the reality that life carries on and one must function within it, despite the weight of illness and trauma. The capacity for words to carry layered pragmatic meaning became emblematic of the group's shared traumatic experience, as well as that of a wider target audience.

The research phase ended in 2016 with an emphasis on the value of non-literal communication through visual art. It became essential that the work created could be intimately disseminated to other people experiencing breast cancer at the group's choosing (rather than viewed in an inappropriate setting). The group then began exploring book art and printing methods as a vehicle for their spoken and written work, as a means of communicating solidarity with other people experiencing breast cancer.

The project realisation phase began in 2017 with a group research visit to the National Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL) in NCAD. This allowed the group to examine a wide variety of art books and discuss what else a book could be, and what forms it could take. This research was further supported by exploratory skill workshops involving book binding and letter-press printing, as a way of gaining knowledge of the proposed working processes.

The finished work is a limited run of 20 letter-press printed, hand bound books, composed of quotes and writings from the research and development phase, as well as compilations of idioms, lists, and participant poetry. The publication also contains six printed illustrations drawn by the lead artist. These were selected for inclusion by the group based on their perceived resonance with participants’ experiences. The book was printed by the group in Graphic Studio Dublin, with the assistance of printer Mary Plunkett.

The initial process of formatting the work and its contents was through group consensus. This was supported by the group's new working knowledge of the printing and binding process. The lead artist then made executive decisions in order to draft multiple versions that were then hotly discussed, reasoned over and altered within the group. The process of arriving at a finalised work challenged the group artistically and inter-personally, but ultimately strengthened the finished work. It was the most contentious part of the process, where the artist had to find balance between his role as facilitator, collaborator, and lead artist.

The completed New Normal was launched in October 2017 at Temple Bar Gallery & Studios in Dublin with an exhibition of the publication and additional selected prints. A copy of the work is held in the collection of NIVAL. The remaining books are being disseminated by participants at their discretion to other people experiencing breast cancer.

The project was evaluated by ongoing and post-project conversations. The impact the project had on participants was particularly significant on a personal level and on levels of exposure and engagement with visual art processes. On a visual art level, the project introduced the group to various technical skills which were expanded on during the devising process and applied in the production of the work. The collaborative and dialogue-driven process allowed the group to discuss and challenge their preconceptions of art, its role and potential. Through this engagement the group discovered the impact of non-literal representation in their work.

'It didn't really matter if my work looked good or sounded good. What mattered is that I expressed it.'

- Project participant

The positive impact of the project on an individual and collective basis, as well as satisfaction with the quality of process and output, allowed participants to reframe their experiences of breast cancer and in some cases to own their experience in a more positive light.

From the artist's view, the project has helped to reaffirm the capacity of both the artist and visual arts within challenging, non-traditional settings. An openness to embracing process-driven methodologies allowed the participants to share and articulate their experiences, as well as to identify the post-cancer experience as a significant but overlooked part of their journey. The group's openness to process was matched by bravery and trust in sharing their experience. These factors enriched the work and its development processes, allowing the project and its output to develop naturally into a significant personal experience and a significant high quality art work. Establishing a safe, trusting and caring environment was essential to the success of the project.

Additional evaluation emphasised the value of the project as a community site, where the quality of communication was integrated into the processes and the output. Based on this, The New Normal are currently seeking funding sources to roll out a new expanded phase of the project with additional members and a changing roster of lead artists.

A video created and edited by John Conway, giving insights into the project by participants and the artist, can be viewed here.

This case study was adapted from here.

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