Kari Lynn Hewett is an artist, warrior, and survivor.
Oh, and she also has breast cancer. I mention her diagnosis as an afterthought as it fails to capture the intricacies of her brilliance. Her approach to her cancer journey and the aftermath speaks to a sense of purpose, creativity, and rife with wittiness and gumption.
Kari was first diagnosed at the young age of 36 in 2017. She’d just moved to small-town Ontario with her husband. An emotional shift ensued, and the aftermath entailed lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation - somewhat aggressive due to her youth.
Her treatments incited a shift in her physical aspect and altered daily life - 'shift' is an understatement. Treatment and hair loss left her both emotionally vulnerable and physically exposed. But she didn’t let her ‘loss’ rob her of her sense of self. She constructed art on top of her bald head using jewelry and artwork. Kari used her hair loss as a canvas for life.
I ‘met’ Kari through radio while listening to the CBC podcast, ‘Now or Never’. Her story provided insight into human suffering, affording humour and hope to others in similar situations; they too can overcome their battles.
Q&A with Kari Lynn Hewett:
Did cancer affect your art? Was there something you gained from your experience with cancer?
My experience with cancer has shifted my sense of identity as an artist in a few ways. When you come in direct contact with your own mortality you reassess virtually everything in life. Treatment, while exhausting, forced me to take time for myself and ‘play'. At the same time, the reactions I received helped me take my creativity more seriously as a therapeutic tool for myself and possibly for others. As so much was being drained from me, my creativity remained, and I realized how important that is to me. It's central to my identity as a person and artist. Before treatment I hesitated to refer to myself as an ‘artist’, because it felt pretentious. Now I think life is short...there’s no room for that kind of self-doubt. Though I’m still working on that.
Did you ever consider a wig or alternate hair coverage, or was the head art/jewelry an immediate inspiration?
I never considered wigs, aside from briefly considering some crazy, brightly coloured ones. I prefer to deal with difficulties in life head-on (no pun intended). Putting a wig on to make everything look ‘normal’ felt like a lie that makes things more difficult. It was summertime and wigs are hot and itchy. It’s not that I wanted to be confrontational, and, I wasn’t looking for any kind of pity. I just didn’t like the idea of being sick and worrying about how other people felt about it. People have their own ideas about what going through cancer and treatment mean. This is my cancer. Going through treatment does not feel ‘normal', I didn’t feel like spending energy on trying to maintain a normal-looking front.
I didn’t launch into ‘head art’ with the plan of it going as far as it has - I was trying to have some fun and do something that could help counteract the 'pity' responses. I was puttering around my studio, tethered to an IV pole for hydration. A friend had told me I'd look good with a Mohawk, so when I came across some bright pink faux-fur, I faked one. It was fun, and got a response, so I thought I’d try something else. I'd recently done some mosaic work with buttons. From there it just took off.
Did the chemotherapy detract from your sense of identity solely due to hair loss?
Chemotherapy can mess with your sense of identity. You feel weaker, but it’s more than that. All of your senses can be affected. Chemo-brain can make you feel like you’re losing your mind. I struggled to follow film plots at peak chemo-brain because because I couldn’t remember what had happened ten minutes prior. I would go up or downstairs and often wouldn’t remember why. Things also taste and smell different. The smell of your own skin is different, foreign, because of the chemicals working their way through your body. Skin can be sensitive to everything. It's not always horrible, but it can feel like being a stranger in your own brain and body.
And then, of course, there *are* social aspects—there will be people who give you the ‘head tilt’ and handle you with kid gloves, because they don’t know how to react. That got to me. A lot of the ‘freak out’ aspect of hair loss is rooted in the fact that hair is one of our most important social signifiers—for all people, but particularly for women. Most don’t consider ‘bald’ a feminine trait, and lack of hair robs one of the tools we usually use to convey identity. Think about the impressions you would have encountering these different women, for example: one with her hair cropped in a buzz cut and one with a single braid to her waist. I’ve never been much of a person for styled hair, but I felt its absence and was relieved knowing I could be creative and expressive with my head as art.
It flipped the script about what my baldness signified. It meant I was sick, but now it also means I’m funny, it means I’m creative and a little bit crazy - it means I’m beautiful. It gave me something to work on, and gave friends and family a source of distraction. I didn’t go into treatment trying to create ‘art’ but the process, the response, and the analysis taught me my creations could be both art and therapy.
You identity yourself as multifaceted, you’re involved in a choir, have multiple degrees, paint, and have travelled with a circus. Has that changed during and following your treatment?
With the 'Stuff-on-my Head project', I've found an area where my interests overlap, where I can use my skillset including my degrees in sociology and psychology, and where I feel like I have some things to say and do that could be helpful to other people. This is often a challenge in the fields of the arts. I suspect my interests will always remain broad and intersectional.
Was the CBC 'Now or Never' program in February the first public attention you garnered following your head-art, or did other media hone in on your unique journey prior to the podcast?
Previously I was featured in ‘the Windsor Star’ and interviewed by Susan Wheeler-Hall on ‘Living Well Today.” Susan’s a personal friend so I don’t know if it counts, but she’s worth checking out - inspirational. The ‘Now or Never’ podcast found me through the ‘You Got This’ support group.
With a recent recurrence in the spring of 2019, do you intend to recreate new forms of head-art and jewelry?
In March I was diagnosed with a somewhat-more-extensive recurrence, and am currently back on chemotherapy. Thanks to this project, I am looking forward to making use of this time to create more ‘head art’ images, and the support it garners has helped me keep up my enthusiasm and self-image enough to keep performing and making gains in the rest of my life. I am also exploringing different angles the potential for development into a form of art therapy for others.
Suffering from night sweats? No problem! Check out some of our most popular moisture-wicking pyjama styles.