It all started with a painting of her son as Spiderman – and then it became much more than just realizing a child’s innocent daydream!
The “Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project“ is an inspiring initiative that celebrates the superhero inside every breast cancer patient. We reached out to the artist behind these empowering portraits, Barbara Porwit, to find out more about the project and to get to know these captivating superheroes better:
1. What (or who) inspired you to start “The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project”?
This project started as many things do – an unexpected journey.
As an artist, I’d always been fascinated with figures and faces and in 2009 I did a portrait of my son as Spider-man. As you might expect, it was fun – and the image is fun — but it was also something more. As a viewer, you can tell that it’s a kid in a costume, but he KNOWS he can do it, he KNOWS he’s going to get the bad guy and save the day.
I realized this was about something that is in ALL of us. I was just beginning to explore this idea of the everyday superhero when it seemed everyone I knew started to get breast cancer.
Well, that is a journey that no one wants to go on – and like most people I was shocked, I was worried about my friends but I didn’t know what to do. Then I realized – what am I doing in the studio?
I connected the dots, and the Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project was born.
2. You are the one who usually asks this question, but we’d like to ask it this time: If you were to be immortalized as your superhero of choice, who would you be and why?
My goodness, thank you for asking this question. I am even more impressed with you now – this is one that is often overlooked (which I am fine with – the project really is about honoring and celebrating others).
It’s funny, I HAVE grappled with this question a bit and found I’m a bit hesitant to step into the superhero ring myself, but even so there have been a couple answers to that question that have been floating around.
One would be that we would do a family portrait, with me as Wonder Woman and with my son drawing the monsters that I would be fighting — another is something that pulled from my simple hometown roots as a girl growing up on a farm in Wisconsin: that I would be 4-H girl: that I would dedicate “my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living – for my club, my community, my country and my world.” and my costume would be just a t-shirt with the 4-H clover on the front and pictures of head, heart, hands on the back.
Another idea is that I would be the “Scient-artist” — and my superpowers would be science and art, and I would use them to help the world. My costume would be my studio pants all covered in paint with a white lab coat, lab goggles, a palette and paintbrushes.
I was always good at math and science and the other thing I am doing right now is taking classes to hopefully become a physician’s assistant – so hopefully I WILL use that power for good too in this world— as you can see I find that we have powers already within us and it’s about how we use them. I guess I haven’t thought that much lately about if I myself can fly….
3. Superheroes have a history of empowering cancer patients and promoting awareness (among them the viral super-heroine self-check posters featuring cat woman and wonderwoman). What’s the appeal and benefit of using superheroes in relation to cancer, in your own perspective?
This project, for me, is really just one focused application of the much broader concept of the Everyday Superhero portrait. Over the long haul, I believe I will end up working with people from all walks of life with this concept and help them find the superhero in themselves.
But for people affected by breast cancer, there are a few things I believe are special for them. One, we are lifting up for them what they have the opportunity to recognize themselves as going through the universal hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell: “An individual is called away from “normal life” and asked to go on an adventure away from society where they will face a great danger and undergo an extreme ordeal. If successful, they return to society bearing some treasure they are able to share with their community and they are celebrated and honored as the hero they have become”
We know that for all people facing a life-threatening illness, you cannot assume what “victory” is or what the “outcome” will be. But if they retain a victorious spirit, that is something that cancer cannot take.
Even so, we are also hoping that connecting with inner strength in a fun and unintimidating way will contribute to benefits of positive emotions, which is something research is finding can have significant impact on outcomes – in health, in life measures and in relationships.
At a time when most of the decisions they have to make are gut wrenching, it is also a chance for these women to be in control of something that is limited only by their imagination – at least in their minds (and on canvas!) they get to be immensely powerful and capable of fantastic feats – and they get to look however they want and wear whatever they want. I give them the gift of coming up with the visual that tells their story the way they want it told.
4. How do you select the women for this project?
Well the project is still young.I started with women I knew, but we are now starting to work with people who come to us from coming through the studio and finding out about the project.
In the future, it will depend on funding – how many we can choose from those nominated by loved ones, and how many may be sponsored by community organizations who want me to work with the hero they want to raise up and celebrate. We do have a nomination form and an interview form for potential subjects.
5. Does it take long to develop the superhero’s character and how involved are the patients/survivors in the process itself?
Oh, it’s very much about the process that each subject goes through.
We do not hurry it, it can take anywhere from 3-6 months from the first conversation to the last stroke of paint. I want them to take their time and be very comfortable with each step along the way.
We have a first meeting where I ask a few questions and listen a LOT. I have to find out about them – who they are, their cancer journey — that is key —- and then we turn the page by starting the process of re-imagining themselves after cancer. It really is an organic process individualized for each woman. Some come up with a strong simple concept right away, some take more time to really ponder things. Then we get to talk about boots! (and hair, and pose, and costume… it’s fun and meaningful all at the same time).
6. Several of the superheroes you’ve developed have unique superpowers closely linked to the cancer experience, like Radiation Diva. Do you find it makes them more relatable to other cancer patients? Please share why.
Well, Jill (AKA Radiation Diva) was one of the women who tipped the scale for me and made me know I HAD to do this project. She – totally independently of knowing I was even doing something with superheroes in the studio, sent out posts during her radiation every day saying “such and such song was playing on the sound system during my treatment today -what superpower do you think that gave me?” — and people would write back and say “you got the power to make people walk the line – ” or “you got the power to make animals strike curious poses” or “you got the power to get Jessie’s girl” – so now she has her Radiation Playlist with all the songs and her list of superpowers she got FROM her radiation.
That just blew me away. You are going through cancer and THIS is what you are doing with it.
Yes, we DO hope that others going down a similar road, seeing these images and reading the stories about how these women have responded to cancer will open up their minds to options they have to respond to their own situation differently.
What’s different about this project also is we are taking real individual people and giving them access to this superhero persona development, it’s not a superhero that is far off in the distance and outside themselves.
The other thing that is different is that we aren’t just talking about “fight like a girl” or focusing on the “battle” part. We are opening this up to letting their imaginations play with however they would be and whatever they would be able to do if there were no limits – and it’s much more playful and fun than just talking about battles and winning.
They are rededicating themselves to whatever cause they want to use their powers for – like Suzi Kazal Forst, who found joy and justice rose to the top and is now using her powers of humor to bring joy to the world and going on international justice missions to help widows in Uganda.
7. How have patients/survivors reacted to their character depictions and to the project itself (in general)? Please share any interesting stories or anecdotes, if possible.
There is something profoundly powerful that has happened not only for the superheroes, but also for their friends and family, their medical care providers and other people who have been through cancer or know someone who has been through cancer. It’s something that touches everyone seeing people they can relate to depicted in this way.
Katy Tessman Stanoch, AKA Wonder Woman Katy ( says that becoming Wonder Woman represented her return after the awful experience that cancer was – like it is for most people. She has gone on to write a book to help children understand what is happening when their mothers are going through breast cancer. Her book, “Our Mama is a Beautiful Garden” helps instill hope and understanding at a time when things can be bleak and scary. Her life is entwining with her new persona in big ways.
Anne Drow, AKA Ruby Runner, recently said this:
Anne “Ruby Runner” Drow: “When Barbara first asked me to be part of this project, it was almost like a dream come true. I was getting tired of being just someone who suffered because of the ravages of cancer. I wanted to be more than someone who survived.
I wanted the inner me to still shine through, and becoming the Ruby Runner gave me that opportunity. We have all changed in big ways and small. Some of the changes you can see, others you can feel. Some days I can move mountains, other days I could take on a newborn kitten and lose.
But, though the “new normal” is not my choice, I’m still here, I’m still fighting the good fight and still making people smile. So, it’s all good… No, I still can’t run and run and never get tired, but when the days are long and painful, I can look at her and know she is in there biding her time, waiting to come out and run!”
8. What message(s) do you hope to send across to breast cancer patients through this project?
Basically, we hope to help inspire and celebrate the heroic nature of individuals affected by breast cancer.
By re-imagining themselves as playfully powerful, we hope to help breast cancer patients reconnect with inner resources they may have forgotten they had.
We also hope to create more opportunities for people to experience positive emotions and genuine connections with others during difficult times, and to help friends, family and community share in celebrating and honoring people they love and care about.
9. In a country, like Lebanon, where people struggle to talk openly about their cancer experience, do you find that relating it to superheroes and illustrations like yours helps bypass the taboo by giving it a different dimension?
What is kind of magical about this project is that it is instantly approachable, playful and fun, at the same time moving and heartfelt. The underlying messages are definitely delivered and understood.
Everyone knows at least one person who has been through breast cancer (that’s too many people by the way) – and they all come away thinking about that person and what they went through – sometimes in a different way.
If that person is still alive, they might think about telling this person “I saw breast cancer survivors as superheroes today, and I think you are a superhero too –” it’s a way to change the conversation.
10. What are your plans for The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project? Where do you see it heading?
There are many dreams for this project – but most of them will be dependent on the funds we can raise.
We want to go into different communities and serve them in whatever way works best for them – to bring the show with the paintings and the stories as a way to bring hope and encouragement and inspiration — we hope to offer additional art therapy “Show us your Superhero” workshops for patient support groups, family members and care providers so each community can create its own hall of heroes which will stay with them long after the paintings go to the next town — and of course the availability of commissioning their own superhero portrait to raise up their own hero to honor and have the large scale painting to be a permanent addition to their hospital or other community site reminding them of their own success story in future years.
We also are just starting the process of one of the other long term goals of the project: to offer the use of the images to help raise money for local patient support programs and potentially someday to help fund research looking into prevention and cause. Regla de Oro Gallery in Minneapolis, MN is currently seeking sponsorship to create merchandise (tote bags, Tshirts etc) to sell to raise revenue for the project and will donate a portion of proceeds to Angel Foundation which provides financial assistance and other support to cancer patients and their families here in Minnesota. The show will be at Regla de Oro March 17-April 26 with a fundraiser reception for Angel Foundation on March 21!
So, since we’re on the topic of superheroes: Which superhero do YOU relate to most or would like to be immortalized as – and WHY? We would love to hear your answers! Please share in the comments section below 🙂