Artist Karen Yee: Self-portraits with cancer
Until the shoe drops
Karen Yee has documented her struggles with cancer through self portraits
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Karen Yee has been on Death Row for 13 years. The executioner is always on-call, and lingers close by. You could say, in fact, that’s he’s gotten under her skin. Under her skin, and in her very bones.
“In 2003, I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer,” Yee says, “which is a pretty rare, aggressive type of cancer. I went through two years of treatment, very arduous, chemo, then surgery, then chemo again, and radiation, then reconstructive surgeries. I’ve been through the wringer.”
The El Segundo resident had always been “artsy.” She liked to draw and make things and had toyed with the idea of trying to paint in oil. What actually pushed her into doing so was her sudden brush with mortality. It was, she felt, now or never.
“When I started painting I found it was tremendous therapy,” Yee says. “I would sit at the kitchen table using a tabletop easel, and when my daughters would come home from school I’d have to move everything so they could do their homework. That went on for a few years. Then I took over a structure in the backyard as my studio. I found that when I was in my studio and when I was painting it was really the only time that I was living in the moment. I wasn’t thinking about if I was hungry or if there were bills I had to pay. It was the only time I just didn’t think about anything else but what I was doing.”
Yee didn’t let up on her painting once she felt better, but she did begin to wonder if oil was the medium best suited to her subject matter.
“I like to paint traditionally and realistically,” she says, “and I found that I could do that better with acrylics. That’s what I paint with now. And as soon as I just accepted the fact that this is my style, I kind of found my voice and I got a lot more recognition and more compliments on my work.”
The amount of painting that Yee manages to complete has depended on her fluctuating health and energy.
“This past year my cancer has been active,” she says. “A year ago October I started chemo and I was on chemo for a year, and this is like the third or fourth time that I had to do chemo because my cancer would become active again. So, from October 2014 to 2015 I was on one chemo after another and I wasn’t responding to anything. It just kept progressing and progressing.
“In October 2015, my doctor told me, ‘This is it. You need to get your things in order. Your liver is more than 50 percent affected.’” She explains: “It started in my breast, and then spread to my bones, my liver and my lungs. So that’s what I’m fighting now.”
It was back to more chemotherapy, in which Yee’s doctor didn’t place a great deal of faith, but he did think it would buy his patient more time.
“So I tried it,” Yee continues, “and I responded. My tumor markers started coming down.” However, “the chemo really knocked me for a loop. It was really strong chemo and I had no energy, so for this past year I’ve pulled back. I’ve pulled all my paintings out of shows and tried to get them all back because I didn’t know what was happening, and I haven’t had a lot of will or energy to paint. I am working on a few pieces, but it’s not like I used to.”
Mirror, mirror, on the wall…
When we see Yee’s paintings of herself we realize that pictures are indeed worth a thousand words.
“The self-portraits that I did about my experience living with cancer was definitely therapy as well and definitely a voice that I needed to express for my own benefit. The first of them was a nude torso because I think I was just so freaked out about my scarred body and what it had been through. I felt like an empty shell, Frankenstein, with all these scars. It was kind of coming to terms with who I was, but I was still embarrassed about it so I didn’t include my face, just my torso.
“In 2009, the cancer came back to my bones,” Yee says, and at the time she didn’t want to go through chemo again. “It was a horrible experience. My doctor knew that, but he also knew that I had to do it. ‘I’m really sorry, but you have to go back to chemo.’ I was like, whatever, let’s kick this sucker to the curb. I don’t care, I’ll do whatever’s necessary. So, I wanted to do a self-portrait that portrayed that resolve and determination, which is why I painted myself in the armor with wings, like I was a fighter. My doctor loves (that work) so much he has a copy of it in his office.
“Every few years I would do another (self-portrait),” Yee says, “depending on where I was at. I was talking with other metastatic breast cancer patients about what it’s like to live with cancer, and I said it’s like living under the sword of Damocles. I have a very good life, I love my husband, I love my children, we travel, we do things, but always, always, the cancer is hanging over my head, and I know that one day the dagger’s going to fall. So that was the reason for that painting.”
Regarding her latest self-portrait (“The Waiting Game”), Yee says, “my husband didn’t want me to do it because he thought it was too dark, but I think it’s actually more hopeful than it looks. I’m behind bars, like I’m on Death Row, because I felt like 12-1/2 years ago I was given a death sentence. You know, when you have cancer it’s like getting a death sentence. But people live for years on Death Row, so you learn to live with it, kind of. You have this thing hanging over your head, but what’re you going to do? You’ve got to keep on living, right? You got to keep going.
“So I painted my infusion line,” Yee continues, “and instead of going to the bag of chemo it ended up going to a telephone like it was a line to the governor’s. Because I feel like every time I have chemo it’s like a reprieve or a stay of execution. Also, I’m holding a shoe like I’m waiting for the shoe to drop, because I know eventually my time’s going to be up when I exhaust all my appeals.”
And when the time comes…
Having a life-threatening health condition makes one appreciate the time that remains, except of course when the pain is unbearable.
“It has taught me to do the things I want to do now,” Yee says. “I had always wanted to go to Europe, so I went. I was like, Okay, I’m going. That’s it, I’m not waiting.” As with her desire to make art, her disease motivated her not to put things off.
Some people, however, prefer to keep their medical condition to themselves, or to share it only within the family.
“I understand,” Yee says. “A lot of people don’t like to talk about it. I know from this support group I was in there were a lot of women who said they never told their co-workers. They didn’t want anyone to know. I’m much more of an open book. To me, it’s almost like a secret is a burden. It helps me just to talk to people about it, to let people know what’s going on with me.” She laughs. “I don’t know if I’m burdening people with my troubles, but…”
How did Yee find out that she had breast cancer?
“I was 43,” she replies (she’s 56 now), “and I had not had a mammogram. You’re supposed to start when you’re 40, and I just noticed that something was wrong with my breast. I asked my husband, Does this one look different than that one? and he’s like, No, no, but I knew. So I looked in the phonebook, and I lucked into one of the best oncologists in the business. Inflammatory breast cancer has been misdiagnosed by breast cancer oncologists because it’s so rare and it’s often mistaken for something else, but he knew exactly what it was.
“I went in on a Wednesday. He took a biopsy. We came back on Friday for the result, and on Monday I was on chemo. That’s how fast it happened. But he saved my life, more times than I can count.”
Some of us, if handed a very serious verdict from our physician, would inevitably wonder, Why me? Yee says she didn’t spend much time thinking about that, and actually feels that her husband agonized over it more than she did.
She circles back to her painting where she’s holding her shoe.
“An artist friend of mine asked me if it meant because I was holding the shoe that I had control over it, that I could let go and say when the end is up. And I said, I never thought of it that way. When I started thinking about it, I really felt I had no control over it, because there have been times I’ve been in so much pain and so tired of it all that I am ready to say I’m done, I want to stop — and my husband and my doctor encourage me to keep going. So, I know I’m not in this alone. When it’s time, it’s time. It’s not going to be in my hands.”
Wanting to be there for her daughters is also what motivates Yee when the pain seems overbearing. The girls were nine and six when she was first diagnosed, and now they’re 22 and 20. Undoubtedly it’s had a tremendous effect on their lives growing up. “I always try and keep the girls in the loop and tell them what’s going on with me,” Yee says, “just so they know and they’re prepared.”
Down, but not out
In the past, Karen Yee was involved with various local art groups, the Torrance Artists Guild and the El Segundo Art Association, for instance, participated in the “Power of Art” shows and volunteered at ESMoA. But because she’s often on heavy medication she doesn’t drive or else stays close to home. “It’s hard for me,” she confesses. “I get depressed, I get lonely, I get weepy.
“I know a lot of it is psychological,” she continues. “When my doctor told me last October, Get your things in order, I sat down and I said, Okay, I got my things in order, Now what? I was kind of waiting. And that’s also why my latest self-portrait is called ‘The Waiting Game.’”
For the moment, because Yee’s body has responded positively to the recent round of chemotherapy, she has received her reprieve, her stay of execution. The shoe will probably not drop anytime soon. “So I’m trying to rally, I’m trying to have hope,” she says, and it’s true, we’ve all heard cases of people surpassing their projected life expectancies.
“When I first got my diagnosis,” Yee says, “I think my odds were 50-50. I wasn’t even sure I was going to live past that first year. When my second daughter graduated from high school my doctor asked me, How did the ceremony go? And I said, It was outside, it was in the football field, it was hot, it was long, it was boring; but 10 years ago I didn’t know if I was going to be here to see this day, so I was very happy.
“And I try to remember that. Every day I get is a gift.” She pauses. “This May will be 13 years for me, and I find that incredible, just incredible.” ER