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Frame by Frame: Harriet Woodford on cancer and the art projects that helped see her through.


Harriet Woodford, photographs by Steve Erickson

Photos by Steve Erickson | On display until June 8, 2012 | UI Hospitals and Clinics (Near the Rooftop Cafe on the 8th Floor) | FREE

Benefit ft. Alejandro Escovedo w/ Illinois John Fever| May 19, 2012 | The Mill | $50/$60. | 19+ after 10 p.m.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in Oct. 2010, Iowa City resident and Leaf Kitchen co-owner Harriet Woodford underwent 5 months of chemotherapy and 2 months of daily radiation treatments, along with a mastectomy. Currently cancer-free, she is grateful for her journey, and aware that it might not be over.

She watched her body transform day by day. Weight came off, her hair fell out with chemotherapy, and she lost a breast. As she watched herself change, she enlisted the help of photographer Steve Erickson, friend and preparator at the University of Iowa Museum of Art, to help document the metamorphosis.

“My diagnosis and surgery was so quick that after coming home, it was difficult for me to accept my body and what just happened,” Woodford said.

In the photography project, she and Erickson utilize a technique called a shadow box, which creates a dark background, but brings out detail in the image, making it look more three dimensional. The images–over 200 total–are striking in detail. From the stitches on her chest to photos with her family, Harriet’s life was captured frame by frame.

There are shots of her torso revealing her chest with one healthy breast and one missing, another of her holding her cat, and a  few that she had taken with her parents.

“I don’t know why, but I thought it would help me see myself better if I could see myself in a photo,” Woodford said. “Something not me, but still me.”

The project is now on display at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in the Project Art gallery. It can also be seen at bodyspirits.blogspot.com.

“Cancer sounds horrible and it is/was,” Woodford writes in an email, “my decision to make it very beautiful and to make it art was just my way of coping.”

Harriet and her father William. Photographs by Steve Erickson

She went through the ordeal with her father, William, who battled cancer for over a decade. He died in May, 2011, at age 87.

“He was a really great man and I think he stayed strong for me until my radiation was done,” Woodford said, adding that her father ended radiation treatment in April and went into hospice care. “There’s a great portrait of us when we’re both bald. It’s really striking seeing that portrait, even though it hangs in my house.”

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In retrospect, Woodford sees the project as a chance to see herself “literally and figuratively,” facing the scrutiny for her shaved head and the loss of one breast.

“Women’s breasts are often identified as what it means to be a ‘woman,’ and to have one removed makes you experience a whole range of emotions from, ‘I’m more than just my body,’ to ‘Am  I still attractive?’ Having a creative outlet for me was very helpful,” she said.

For Woodford, the project helped her mark the time from the minute her body stopped being attacked by chemicals to the rejuvenation and repair process. “It was awful, it was like the worst flu ever but it never went away,” Woodford recalls. “Having a photo shoot somehow defined events and time. I knew it would get better.”

And it did. Throughout her treatment, Woodford said she realized how much she meant to her family and friends, and she has also gotten feedback about her portraits at the hospital, people finding them beautiful and inspiring.

“I had no idea how people would react, but it’s cool,” she said. “Whatever we can do for one another is what it’s all about–life, that is.”

Now cancer-free, Woodford faces the expensive medical bills from her treatment. To help ease the debt, her friend and touring musician Alejandro Escovedo is hosting a benefit for her on May 19 at The Mill at 8 p.m.

Escovedo, of Austin, Texas–himself a survivor of a life-threatening bout with Hepatitis C–will be performing an acoustic set featuring new material.

Woodford wrote that Escovedo is “an amazing musician and an old friend who wants to help,” explaining that they decided to do the show after catching up in person last year when he performed for Iowa City’s annual Iowa Arts Festival.

Of the upcoming benefit, Woodford says “I really want this benefit to be more of a thank you. I’m cancer-free one year; it’s pretty amazing.”


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