By LINDA G. RASTELLI
Five years ago, artist Nanci Hersh, then 42, was struggling with how to tell her three- and five-year-old boys that she had breast cancer.
I didnt want them to hear it from someone else. I had to tell them, but I didnt want to scare them,” she says. “Its hard to know how much information to give.
Hersh shared her concerns with her cousin, Ellen McVicker, a special education teacher in Colorado. McVicker, in turn, wrote a story about a woman telling her young son that she has cancer. She emailed it to Hersh.
Ellen wrote a beautiful story, Hersh recounts. She said, Maybe one day youll illustrate it, but I didnt really see that coming. I just said, Well, maybe.
Well, maybe not. A mixed media artist whose work has been exhibited across the United States, as well as in Australia and Japan, Hersh says she had “no interest” in illustrating a children’s book.
“I didnt know how, she said last week during an interview in her studio, housed above the garage in her Fairview home. She also hadn’t done any illustration since her undergrad days at Pratt Institute more than 20 years before.
Rather, Hersh’s work integrates snippets of things such as old books and her childrens outgrown clothing to create visual journeys of whats going in her life.
I like textures, lines, tools, found objects, turning the ordinary into extraordinary, she says. Inside her house is a coffee table made from a vintage door, with the doorknob still attached.
At the time of her cancer diagnosis, she was experimenting with the idea of womens work. She combined images of iron burns with pictures cut out from an old gardening book that showed white-gloved women spraying insecticides.
It just seemed perfect, she says of the work. Heres these women trying to eradicate bugs by spraying something toxic. The parallels to her battle with cancer were compelling. Theyre trying to eradicate breast cancer, she says of the figures.
Cross sections from a tree chopped down by a neighbor provided further inspiration. They resemble breasts, and theyre about the loss of a limb, she explains. Coming to terms with having part of your body cut out.
Hersh visited her cousin in Colorado, where McVicker continued urging her to illustrate the story. Hersh reluctantly agreed, but wondered if she was the right person for the task, and kept dragging her heels on getting started. The following summer, though, Ellen visited me in New Jersey and said, If you dont do it, Ill get somebody else. I knew I was supposed to do it then.
Last year Hersh finally illustrated the story, titled “Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings.”
To prepare, Hersh spent time perusing childrens books, determining what she did not want. I wanted the book to be uncluttered. Often with a difficult topic, (illustrators) make the people animals, like dinosaurs, she says. I knew I wasnt going to have cute cartoon characters; its just not how I draw.”
The books illustrations are gouache with watercolor pencil prints of a mom, her son, and a butterfly that serves as a kind of good luck charm. The story explains that cancer is not contagious, not anyones fault, and having bad feelings about it is normal. Hersh says her three-year-old, Nate, once told his surprised teacher, My mommys having surgery; she has bad cells.
Hershs doctor, Dr. Beth Deutch, director of HerSpace: Breast Imaging Associates in West Long Branch, helped McVicker to explain cancer treatment simply. She invited Hersh to curate a show in 2003 and chose her Chrysalis 2, an etching and aquatint, to represent the annual Art of Survival, an exhibit by women artists that have been touched by breast cancer, at Herspace. Money goes to the Diney Goldsmith Breast Cancer Research and Treatment Foundation. Art of Survival also became a book, published in 2006.
The women made a few efforts to find a publisher, but decided to focus on selling the book directly to large groups and to the public through the book’s website. The response, says Hersh, has been “heartwarming.
Eight giclées from the self-published book as well as six mixed media pieces can now be seen (and purchased) at No Ordinary Joes coffeeshop on Broad Street.
When she was hanging her artwork there last week, a customer commented that the work, although done in very different media, was clearly by the same person.
I felt like hugging him! I never know if other people see it. All my work is connected,” she says, Its all close to my heart. He told me it was joyful, and I had never seen my work that way, but I want it to be.
Cancer hasnt changed the way she works, Hersh says, but it has helped her focus on how she can help others touched by the disease.
Cancer helped me slow down a little and teach me not to be so hard on myself. I tell people to let yourself heal, she says with a wry smile. You get to lie around and let people help you, which helps them, too.
Hersh grew up in Middlesex county, visited Hawaii after her college graduation and wound up staying for 11 years before returning to New Jersey to marry Scott Dight, with whom she has two children, Nate and Griffin. Her art is in the collections of The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and the corporate collections of Johnson & Johnson and Kaiser Permanente, among others.
Shes considering another collaboration with her cousin, When Someone You Love Has Died, but is unsure whats next. Hersh points to a photo on the wall of her studio of a life preserver floating in a pool taken during a trip to Hawaii. I swim a lot and Ive been thinking about what keeps us hanging on tools for getting through your life, she says.
Playing around in her studio is how Hersh finds her creativity.
This is the stuff, she says, “that primes my pump.