Coping with loss by creating art from the unexpected and strange beauty of cancer cells.
In June 2001, when Angela Canada Hopkins was in her last semester of art school, her father died of pancreatic cancer and her art took a dark turn along with her mood. A few years later, Hopkins came across some images of cancer cells online and was struck by their strange beauty. She embarked upon a series of paintings featuring the cells and found that she could use them to create images of hope and healing. To find out more about how cancer cells can become art, MD Magazine recently spoke with Hopkins about her unusual choice of subject matter.
MD: Tell me how you became interested in cancer cells as a potential source for your art.
Hopkins: In June 2001, my dad succumbed to cancer, and I decided the best way to overcome my new enemy was by embracing it through my art. It was natural for me to turn to my art as an emotional outlet. When he was sick with cancer, I wanted nothing to do with it, I had no visual of what cancer looked like. But later, I wanted to feel like I was conquering an enemy or moving past the darkness in my life. I really needed to see something positive from it and really needed to visually identify what it was rather than just thinking of it as this vague, nebulous thing, I wanted to know specifically what it looked like. Once I started doing the research of looking at cancer cell slides, I saw that the design of the cell was really interesting and that there was the possibility of portraying it positively and bringing almost a message of hope and awareness to the issue.
MD: So when your dad was sick, you were never presented with an image of cancer cells by the doctors—I guess that’s not something that they normally do.
Hopkins: No, not really and honestly I don’t know because I didn’t go to a lot of the doctor visits. It was mostly my mom and dad going, and my dad never really did the chemo side of treatment. He did a lot of home health care and hospice at home. It was more just trying to make his life as comfortable as possible at the end because he chose to take more of a holistic approach than chemotherapy.
MD: So where did you come across the images once you decided to look into what cancer cells looked like?
Hopkins: Initially it was just a Google search, just finding the images online. This was around 2006.
MD: So it had been about five years since your dad passed away when you started looking at them.
Hopkins: Yeah, when he died, I could never have thought of anything like this. I was so hurt and upset that at the time that wouldn’t have been something that I would have painted. And I do get that feeling a lot when people look at my art who have had a recent death in the family or are struggling with it right now, it really brings those emotions to the surface. I have definitely engaged in some conversations where people were very adamant that this is terrible to convey on canvas: “How could you do it?” So I think you do have to kind of be in the right mindset. I would have never done this either myself that long ago. So, given the space of time, there’s been some healing for me and this is kind of more therapeutic healing for me, I guess.
MD: I was curious about what sort of reactions to the paintings people have had who have either had cancer themselves or have loved ones with cancer. Has their reaction been uniformly negative, or do you find that some people have a different kind of reaction?
Hopkins: Mostly positive. There are some people who do have an adverse reaction to it.
MD: I noticed on your blog that you’d sold at least one of the cancer cell paintings to a hospital, the Memorial Hospital in South Bend. How have people there reacted to it as far as you know?
Hopkins: You know, I don’t know. That would be an interesting question to pose to them. They have two cancer cell paintings there and they use it in a conference room and honestly I don’t know—that would be a great question to ask them.
MD: Once you started looking at images of cancer cells, how did you decide that they might be a fitting subject for your art?
Hopkins: I guess on a visual level, I was starting to feel more drawn to abstracts, and so the design quality appealed to me. I also liked the idea of painting something that is physically there while abstracting it to make it pleasing to the eye so it’s colorful with lots of interesting shapes, different patterns.
MD: What sort of process do you go through to transform raw images of cancer cells into a painting?
Hopkins: Often when cancer cells metastasize they send out these spider-like fingers or projections, so I’ll reference that and often make the cells have these appendages coming off, splitting in all different directions. And then when cells divide, you’ll see the two circles next to each other, or when cells are undergoing apoptosis where they are dying they’ll almost start to break apart with all these smaller circles or circular protrusions and they kind of self destruct from the inside out. So I just sort of take this little bit of medical knowledge that I have and just try to give it my artistic interpretation and try to approach it from the visual standpoint of making it something interesting to look at.
MD: Is there a particular emotion that you’re trying to get through or that you feel when you look at these cells?
Hopkins: Yeah, definitely, that expression of hope is what I am aiming for by making them colorful and visually appealing, I’m trying to keep everything uplifting. When I was doing art when my dad was really sick, everything was very negative, and I used a lot of black and blues and a lot of symbolism and imagery. So I feel like I’m really approaching it from a different point in my life. And so I want in the process of moving forward and healing, to keep it positive.
MD: Do you have favorite type of cancer cell, aesthetically speaking?
Hopkins: I suppose the ones that are more meaningful to me that have a little more symbolism for me. For example, I have one painting that a hospital in Kettering, Ohio just bought and it’s called “Wearing Plaid with Cancer.” I chose that one because my dad used to always wear plaid shirts, so I made the background a plaid pattern and the foreground has the cancer cells, so it’s almost like you’re looking from the inside out, so you’re seeing the cells first, almost like you’re looking through the layers of skin to see the clothing on the outside.
MD: It sounds like there’s a fairly brisk market for your work among hospitals—and I saw that one of your paintings was featured on the cover of an oncology journal. Do you feel that that world is particularly attuned to this work, people who work with cancer?
Hopkins: Yeah, it does seem like they are. They took that journal to a trade show and had a lot of people picking it up because they were interested in what kind of art was on the cover. So they ended up deciding to use my image for the rest of the year because of the positive feedback they got. So I guess that’s the kind of feedback I’m hearing from that industry. But for me it’s really just about being able to get my message across. I think that those journals are really helpful about bringing awareness to the issue.
MD: How has painting cancer cells affected the way you paint other subjects?
Hopkins: You know, they are so different from anything else that I do. I think the abstract quality of the paintings has really made me appreciate abstract work even more and in my other artwork given me freedom to paint abstract even more. But they really are unique compared to anything else that I have done.