While many sculptors attempt to enshrine the beautiful in stone, Jill Lion sculpts what plagues her. During the late ’80s, it was the threat of breast cancer, and she forged her very personal response to the disease and the loss of her breasts with work now collected in a graphic six-piece show, “Reckoning in Stone: Jill Lion on Breast Cancer.”
The Baltimore sculptor conceived the idea of four powerful soapstone pieces in 1989, when she was awaiting the results of her first biopsy. Three breasts (representing Lion and her two sisters) in various stages of the disease are carved in the center of each of the large, elliptical masses of stone. Lion created the two other pieces in the exhibit after her radical mastectomy, which she opted for after precancerous lumps recurred and she was given a 30-percent chance of developing cancer. The first, carved in alabaster, which she designed immediately after her 1991 surgery, contrasts her “nice, saggy breasts” with the curved scars. The second, a soapstone column that resembles a tree whose limbs have been sawed away, conveys feelings she hadn’t expected when she chose the surgery. “Losing your breasts is comparable to having all your arms and legs cut off,” she says.
Lion, 55, hopes the exhibit will get people talking about the disease. When she told her sisters, now 51 and 58, of her condition, they later confided that they had both had breast lumps and had undergone lumpectomies. “It would have been a good thing to know,” she says, since researchers have determined that breast cancer has a strong genetic component. Lion’s maternal grandmother died from cancer and her uncle also had breast cancer.
The exhibit runs from Nov. 8 to Apr. 13 at the National Museum of Health & Medicine, 6825 16th St. NW. Lion also has two pieces on display at Amnesty International’s new Capitol Hill offices.Julie Wakefield