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Beauty and the Big C

A local artist makes art from a killer disease.


Photo: Courtesy Shannon Leitch

In the spring of 2009, cancer was working its way through the people Shannon Leitch loved. She decided to turn her sadness into art, using limestone, ink, watercolors and wax. A graduate student in fine arts in printmaking at UH, she had no idea when she started her series that she would end up facing the specter of cancer herself.

Leitch’s work, which recently went on display at Cedar Street Galleries, examines cancer at the cellular level, using real images of cancer cells to explore the intersection between the beauty of natural structures and the ugliness of disease and death. “I was struck by the organic forms,” she says. “They really are very beautiful—there’s a light you see in them. But that’s deceptive, because these rogue cells hang out in your body and can be so destructive.”

“Stripped Bare—Case Study One,” one of her earlier pieces, shows breast, lung, colon and cervical cancers side-by-side, in one-inch-square blocks, like filmstrip. These were the exact cancers facing her loved ones—including the cervical cancer doctors suspected was growing in her.

An orchid blooms in a web of breast cancer cells.

Photo: Courtesy Shannon Leitch

“Some pieces make people uncomfortable, some people are intrigued by it and some people see beauty,” Leitch says.

Her subsequent work shows a progression: While Leitch was dealing with the worry and anxiety of waiting for the results of a cervical cancer test, the threat of sickness led her to experiment with elements of growth and healing.

By superimposing organic forms over the macabre rendering of disease, flowers could bloom from Petri dishes through a destructive cancer.

Fortunately, doctors found no cancer in Leitch’s body. Among her friends and family, not all were as lucky. Her art served its cathartic purpose—she says she’s done with the project and is now halfway through a new, yearlong drawing project, exploring her own compulsive tendencies. Shannon Leitch’s work is on display at Cedar Street Galleries, 817 Cedar St., 589-1580, cedarstreetgalleries.com.


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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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