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Choosing to live -- 1 in 8: The Torso Project

  • Submitted image<br/>“Picking Up the Pieces” by Pam Roberts.

    Submitted image
    “Picking Up the Pieces” by Pam Roberts.

  • Julie Bloniasz photo <br/>“Golden Goddess” by Carrie, 2013.

    Julie Bloniasz photo
    “Golden Goddess” by Carrie, 2013.

  • Julie Bloniasz photo<br/>Hope Schneider with her torsos.

    Julie Bloniasz photo
    Hope Schneider with her torsos.

  • Beth Reynolds photo<br/>“She Was Cast on Me”

    Beth Reynolds photo
    “She Was Cast on Me”

  • Julie Bloniasz photo<br/>“Angels-Butterflies” by Julie Bloniasz.

    Julie Bloniasz photo
    “Angels-Butterflies” by Julie Bloniasz.

  • Beth Reynolds photo<br/>“Other Side of the Chasm” by Anne Wibiralske.

    Beth Reynolds photo
    “Other Side of the Chasm” by Anne Wibiralske.

  • Photo by Beth Reynolds<br/>"Garden" by Amy Simone Erard.

    Photo by Beth Reynolds
    "Garden" by Amy Simone Erard.

  • Pam Roberts

    Pam Roberts

  • Submitted image<br/>“Picking Up the Pieces” by Pam Roberts.
  • Julie Bloniasz photo <br/>“Golden Goddess” by Carrie, 2013.
  • Julie Bloniasz photo<br/>Hope Schneider with her torsos.
  • Beth Reynolds photo<br/>“She Was Cast on Me”
  • Julie Bloniasz photo<br/>“Angels-Butterflies” by Julie Bloniasz.
  • Beth Reynolds photo<br/>“Other Side of the Chasm” by Anne Wibiralske.
  • Photo by Beth Reynolds<br/>"Garden" by Amy Simone Erard.
  • Pam Roberts

One plaster torso is covered with a mosaic. Another wears a tutu. One is painted gold. One represents “a garden, where life springs eternal.” The photos accompanying the pictures of the torsos all depict women, mostly in their middle years.

These images are among the striking illustrations in the new book “1 in 8: The Torso Project,” compiled and edited by Pam Roberts of Shelburne Falls.

Roberts is a long-time teacher of writing and art in a healing setting, particularly for cancer patients. (Full disclosure: I participated in one of her writing workshops for the bereaved.)

She has written all her life. She became interested in facilitating writing for cancer survivors at the time of her own diagnosis with breast cancer in 1993.

“I was a member of Genie Zeiger’s writing workshop,” Roberts said. The late Zeiger was a gifted writer/teacher in Shelburne Falls. “I went to my next workshop and started writing about my diagnosis. Whatever Genie suggested that we write about, I ended up writing about my cancer ...

“I think the diagnosis of breast cancer, any cancer, first brings shock and confusion and then a myriad of emotions — fear and grief. For me personally, I was in my early 40s and had two young children so I was longing to live long enough to raise them. I did have a mastectomy. I had six months of chemo. I took tamoxifen. I did a number of complementary treatments.”

She went on to explain that working in Zeiger’s writing group and receiving feedback from other writers became critical to her healing. “I would write about the fear and people would call it brave.

“(The group) transformed my fear into courage and love. I feel blessed that I was able to experience that and I strive to recreate my experience in my workshops, through the written word or through visual means.”

Her first experience creating a plaster torso was for a contest called “Show Us Your Bra” for a breast-cancer-awareness fundraiser. This led to her gathering together a group of friends to make casts of their own torsos. There were eight “torsoettes,” as they dubbed themselves, in that original group.

The number was symbolic. As the name of her book suggests, one in eight American women is diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Standing among her seven friends, Roberts represented that one in eight.

She found the experience so rewarding that she went on to organize torso-making workshops for cancer survivors and their supporters. She believes that this visual process is very different from writing.

“Torso making is physically messy. You get plaster all over you. It’s very hands-on because you’re rubbing the plaster in. It comes from a different place, I think. It’s not linear the way writing is. It’s using a different part of brain,” she told me.

“I am always surprised at how many different ways women approach this blank white canvas of the torso and how many different ways they go about embellishing it. It’s wonderful to watch.”

The workshops take place over the course of a weekend. On Saturday the participants make the plasters casts of their torsos. The torsos dry overnight. On Sunday, the torsoettes decorate the casts. Roberts leaves time at the end of the workshop in which the artists can write about their plaster creations and the experience of embellishing them.

Over the years, Roberts and her workshop participants have created about 80 plaster torsos. She has organized frequent exhibitions of torsos. One took place at Greenfield Community College last fall.

Last year, she decided that a book would provide a permanent exhibit of the Torso Project — and also spread the word about this endeavor. She convinced artist Matuschka, who is perhaps best known for posing for a photograph in “The New York Times Magazine” showing her mastectomy scar, to write a foreword for the book. Matuschka also spoke at the recent torso exhibit.

The book depicts more than two dozen torsos created in workshops over the years, along with photographs of, and words from, their creators.

Two of the torsos come from Hope Schneider of Greenfield. Schneider is a longtime friend of Roberts and one of the original torsoettes. Her first torso’s breasts are decorated with bull’s-eyes. The accompanying written entry says, “One in eight arrows aimed at my breasts. Will one of the arrows hit their mark or will they miss and hit another pair?”

In 2012, Schneider became one of the “one in eight” herself when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The next year, she attended another workshop and created a new torso. In this one an arrow has pierced one of the targets on her breasts.

I asked Schneider how she came up with the concept for her first torso.

“It just kind of came to me,” she explained. “I was struggling trying to think how I would decorate it. I’m not a frilly, fancy, pink kind of person.”

She added that the “one in eight” statistic had moved her. “You feel like you have these bull’s-eyes on you.”

She called the experience of returning to torso-making “very moving.”

“It makes you feel like you’re in a very supportive environment,” she said. “Being with this group of women. It’s powerful. It’s emotional. It’s healing. You go through a gamut of emotions. You feel very cared for. You’re with all these other women sharing their stories.”

Both Schneider and Roberts found that the torso-making not only heals the participants but affirms them, as people and as artists.

“In the workshops,” said Schneider, “people who might not consider themselves artists are able to create a work of art. I think (art) is something everyone can do. We don’t always get the encouragement.”

Roberts hopes to continue leading torso-making with funding from Rays of Hope. The book “1 in 8” received financial support from the Lloyd Symington Foundation, Greenfield Cooperative Bank, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts and Cohn Financial Services. It was designed by Lisa Clark of Shelburne Falls.

“1 in 8: The Torso Project” costs $18.95 plus tax. If not available at a local bookstore, it can be ordered from www.torsoproject.org for $25; this price includes tax, shipping and handling.

The website also offers readers a chance to make tax-deductible donations to Fractured Atlas, the national arts-service program that is spearheading funding for the Torso Project.

Tinky Weisblat is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook” (www.merrylion.com) and “Pulling Taffy” (www.pullingtaffy.com). She is always looking for new books from Franklin County-related authors to review for this paper. If you have a book suggestion, email her at Tinky@merrylion.com.

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