What about self-acceptance? The inteview with Gabrysia Bartosik.

I remember our first meeting. It was in 2021, as part of the Art in the Service of Spirit and Body (Sztuka w Służbie Życia i Ciała) series organised by the Art for Life Foundation (Fundacja Sztuka dla Życia). My Portrait Studio was hosting a photo shoot entitled Portrait of a Woman. You entered the studio beaming with joy and turbo energy, you indicated that you were very excited about the session and looking forward to it, and that as soon as you finish treatment, your wound heals, you absolutely want a portrait with that scar. At that time you were in the middle of chemotherapy, bald, without eyebrows and eyelashes and just before your mastectomy. You were suffering from breast cancer.
I admit, your attitude made an electrifying impression on me. Did you have absolutely no worries, doubts, fears about immortalising yourself in such an image?

Let me start by saying that the workshops I attended (also as part of the before mentioned series) contributed very positively to the progress of my treatment. The weekly trips to the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice, where we did wonderful things acting through art, is what I love in hundred percent. Art allowed me to get through my illness more easily.
I looked in the mirror and saw my face completely naked, with no hair, eyebrows or eyelashes, and I realised that this could be a stage image. I was able to turn this into action and I regret at the moment that I took so few photos of myself at that time. I know now that if I had to shave my head as part of some artistic endeavour, I would do it without a problem. When hair grows back, it’s like a person is born again. I love change, it’s a part of my character.

So if you hadn’t attended the workshop would you not have turned up for the session, or would you have turned up but with a slightly different attitude?

I probably would have come, but one thing stemmed from the other, I treated the session like a reward. I was already interested in photography then, but maybe I was more reluctant to expose myself than I am now.

Exactly, because it must be mentioned that you experiment with your image, you create montage photographs, processed self-portraits. You show yourself, sometimes your nakedness, clearly the stereotypical ‘pretty look’ is not a priority in your work. You use yourself as a material.

I love turpitude in art, so I can do anything with myself and I’m fine with it. I love myself in every look and appearance. This character trait, has helped me to accept my new look. For many women, losing their hair during treatment is the end of the world, they lock themselves away at home, they don’t want to show themselves in public. I walked around with a bald head the whole period of chemotherapy and it didn’t bother me at all, in fact I felt like a mythical, strong amazon. Besides, it was a temporary state and I saw shaving my head as a gesture of standing up to fight, I felt like a warrior.

How did you accept the situation – the cancer treatment and consequently the loss of your breasts? How did you work with yourself to accept what had happened and – changed but happy – move on?

For me, experiencing cancer was not a negative thing. It has built me up, made me even stronger, opened me up more to art. For example, I recently took part in a body celebration class in nudity. It’s brilliant, this shamanic strength and power of women is very uplifting.

I’m not thinking about breast reconstruction. I love the asymmetry, and I can’t stand artificiality, I won’t do anything that is unnatural. I have accepted the changes. And the new folds of fat, because skinny I used to be. I’m different, I’m older, I’m more mature and it’s a natural process. You can’t look the same as you used to when you were 20. You can’t fight against time.

A year later we met again in my Studio and did what you announced. The result was a portrait with a visible mastectomy scar. I remember, you talked about your body then with complete acceptance and tenderness. Was it always like that? Have you always treated yourself well and accepted your appearance? Did this perhaps change when confronted with the difficult experience of oncology?

I was a fat kid as a child, my relationships with my peers were not good, so as a result I became a slacker. And what is funny, till today I have been left with an aversion to sport, PE was my weak point.
I created my own world, I read a lot of books, I was a good girl, a perfect child. In the eighth grade I grew and got slimmer a lot, thus it was easier with self-acceptance, but in fact I was never very complimentary.

And over the years I felt, now in adulthood, that something was wrong, I noticed that I wasn’t making myself happy, that I was getting along with everyone around me without taking care of myself. And it finally blew up. On the occasion of my divorce I went through therapy, I went from a pupa to a butterfly, I blossomed, I felt alive. That was in the early 2000s.

My childhood experiences have influenced my adult life: I’m not a herd person, I’m an individualist.
And nowadays I just take care of myself, I try to eat well and moderately. I’m greedy for life, I want more and more of it. Evidently the madness turns on in me at a ripe old age! I started hiking, I travel, I want to be close to nature, I want to feel life, I catch every opportunity.

But ultimately it was art that made me accept myself totally. I got to know performance theatre, real theatre, without artifice, falseness, and this art form seems the most authentic to me and I felt part of it. There is a fine line between art and life, for example, like Marina Abramović or Frida Kahlo. I am inspired by women artists, strong personalities.

I am not afraid of old age, I know how I want to live. I can’t bear to despair, to wallow in my sorrows. My character is so brilliantly constructed that if something bothers me, I get out of it, I change the situation like clothes. I need to have inner peace, then I feel good.

This is an extraordinary quality. When we are faced with a difficult change that requires us to rearrange the blocks and put a piece of our lives back together, accepting that the new helps us to move on. Do you share your own experiences to help others?

I deal with women who are going through what I went through and I see that talking about my approach to the situation helps them. They look at pictures of me from that time and become convinced that it might be worth facing their new image. I am approached by colleagues, or their friends, for words of support and advice. For example, I once gave a tour of the oncology department in Gliwice to a friend who was just starting treatment.

You can’t just shut yourself up at home and not talk about what you’re struggling with. I have encountered great kindness and words of support from people at a time when I really needed it, people want to help. For example, a neighbour brought me a homemade cake. And my friends were planning a trip to Morocco together for the time when I finish my treatment. So it’s not possible to hide, to pretend nothing is happening, to sit alone at home.

I can already express what I think, feel and expect, I can fight for myself. I am a tangible living example that it is possible to go through this process and live a normal life.

If there is someone who is reading our conversation and needs support on topics related to cancer treatment, can they reach out to you?

Yes, I am ready to help, happy to talk and share my experience. You can write to: gabrielaxy@wp.pl.

Thank you Gabrysia for an inspiring talk, I wish you all the best!

The portrait above is part of a series entitled Beautiful People.

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