At first, most were shy that afternoon last September, modestly folding their arms over their bare breasts. But it wasn’t long before the 23 women who volunteered to have their chests painted to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer abandoned their inhibitions and joined together in what many described as an “empowering” experience.
Organized by Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh, “Painting by Numbers: 32B, 34C, 36D,” culminated last weekend with a photographic exhibition of the artwork painted on the 24 models — which included one man — at Jask Gallery in Lawrenceville.
The models were painted by 14 female artists and then photographed by two female photographers. The identity of the models is confidential, and their faces are not shown in the photographs.
Several of the models were survivors of breast cancer and had undergone mastectomies; some also had reconstructive surgery.
But many of the models that joined together last fall at the Wexford Health and Wellness Pavilion volunteered their time and their bodies in solidarity with, or in memory of, a friend or family member who had suffered from breast cancer.
Such was the case with Betsy Rascoe of Mt. Lebanon, who has not had breast cancer, but who has been diagnosed as “high risk” and who has had multiple associated surgeries.
“My friend [Gerrie Delaney] had just been diagnosed with breast cancer when I heard that Hadassah was looking for models,” Rascoe said at last Thursday night’s opening reception for the exhibit. “I said to her, ‘This is something we can do together.’”
Prior to the event, Rascoe contacted the artist who would be painting her to discuss the design she wanted on her chest.
“I told her, ‘I want whimsical, I want happy, uplifting, fun,’” Rascoe recalled.
The end design was a Peter Max-inspired, vibrantly colored, spacescape, with which Rascoe was thrilled.
During the painting and photography, each model was in her own private room in the health center, but soon the models joined together in the hallway, which was closed that day to the public.
“We brought appetizers and wine,” Rascoe said. “It was such a fun environment. People were running around half naked, chatting away, sharing their stories with each other. It was very relaxed.”
Sandie Heiss, the artist who painted Rascoe, admitted it took her awhile to get fully comfortable with the idea of painting a woman’s bare chest.
“I was more inhibited than the models were,” she said. “I didn’t know how they would react to me putting my hands on them. But they were very open. We talked more than we painted. I was very honored to be asked to do this.”
The paintings varied in subject and style, with each model choosing her own design after consultation with her artist.
“This is the first thing I have done with Hadassah,” said photographer Melissa Shontz, adding that she had been recruited to volunteer her services by member Miriam Quast.
A 23-year survivor herself, Shontz decided to be painted as well.
“The general tone was almost joyful,” Shontz recalled. “It was almost liberating, revealing yourself bare-chested, but for a good reason — not to be prodded or given a diagnosis.”
Artist Jasmine Karnavas agreed that the atmosphere the day of the painting had been one of strength and camaraderie.
“It was very empowering,” Karnavas said. “Most of us [artists] had never painted anyone. But it ended up being a collaborative effort, listening to the story of the model.”
Francine Surloff, who modeled in memory of her sister who died of breast cancer, said that although she was nervous at first, Karnavas put her at ease.
“It was an unbelievable day,” Surloff said. “There were women of all ages and all builds.”
Surloff is “not uncomfortable at all,” she said, having her bare, painted breasts on display at the exhibition.
“It’s worth it if even one person would get a mammogram because of this,” she said. “My sister waited, and when she finally went, she was stage 4. She inspired me to do better things. I want to make a difference.”
The printed photographs are available for purchase framed and unframed. One hundred percent of the sale’s proceeds will go to breast cancer research.
Similar events have been sponsored by other Hadassah chapters across the country in the last few years.
“I am thrilled beyond words,” said Barb Scheinberg, president of Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh. “We will definitely be doing this again.”
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, except for skin cancers, with about 12 percent of women in the United States developing the disease during their lifetime. The risk of developing breast cancer is slightly higher among Jewish women than among other women due to the high prevalence of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations in Ashkenazi Jews.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.