As soon as Nedra Bonds heard she had breast cancer, she knew one thing: She would somehow turn the experience into an art project.
Bonds is a textile artist, but she's far from the stereotypical creative introvert working alone in a studio.
"My thing is community," Bonds says. "I want people to be able to get free and express themselves.”
In those early days after the diagnosis, she wasn't sure how cancer could be an art project. But people who knew Bonds weren't particularly surprised when she decided to throw a party. Specifically, a Fuck Cancer Party. It was on April 10, the day before her birthday, at the InterUrban Art House in downtown Overland Park, where Bonds is on the board.
Dozens of people of all ages, races and communities showed up that Sunday afternoon. Friends she'd known for decades came from as far away as Seattle; others she'd only known for a short time came, too. Many of them were activists of some sort.
"And my idea is that, we have cancer in the community," Bonds said. "We have greed, we have hate, we have all those things that create the isms that separate people. Whatever your thing is, we need to focus on one of those kinds of tumors that’s in the community, and let’s do something about it.”
The kitchen filled up with food. People wrote thoughts on an easel, and at a screen-printing table in the back of the crowded room, stacks of white T-shirts got covered with a "Fuck Cancer" logo created by artist Lauren McGill.
She said it was totally like Bonds to throw a party for the occasion.
“Any issue she has ever had, she’s always responded to it with an art event, or with a piece," McGill said. "I like that she involved a lot of different mediums, ways of expressions. So you can color over there, doodle, jot down your thoughts. You can make a T-shirt, you can make a button.”
About halfway through the party, several of Bonds' friends gave speeches about what they'd learned from her, how she'd improved their communities.
"The way I do art projects, I let them evolve. I include as many people as possible in the process: This is the concept — what would you like to do with it? This is what it’s turned into," Bonds said. "I have cancer. I’m not doing the pink ribbons, I’m not doing the survivor thing. Trips to the doctor, food — not that’s not what I need. What I need is for folks to come together, and let’s talk about this in a different way."
Bond isn't the first patient to say "fuck cancer" (even if, as she explained, it's an acronym for "finding universal cures to kick cancer"). But she's probably the first patient to wear an artistically designed and screen-printed "Fuck Cancer" T-shirt to a chemo treatment at the University of Kansas Cancer Center.
But that's what Bonds did for her final treatment three months later.
“This was done by a 12-year old at the party. I wore hers first because I just think it’s cool," Bonds said. "I’m not trying to be nasty. I’m trying to be real.”
It was a hit.
“They took pictures of it at the doctor’s office this morning," she said with a laugh. "They see the colors first, and then they come closer and read what it says. If they say something I’ll explain it to them. If they don’t, I’ll let it go — just like a regular art project. So I’m a walking art piece today.”
Bonds was in a good mood that day, but she knew she’d be too sick for company in three days. The tumor disappeared after her first treatment, but her kind of cancer is genetic, so it's likely to return. To try to prevent that, she’ll have radiation and a double mastectomy. And she’s on a clinical trial, helping test possible new treatments.
What’s most on her mind, though, are more art projects.
Years ago, the building that's now the KU Cancer Center in Westwood was the headquarters for Sprint, and Bonds had an exhibition of her quilts in the first-floor hallway. She can envision another exhibition in that same space, of cancer-related art.
"They’ve got art around this building but it’s about landscapes and fruit and things. So it’s really not germane to why people are here," Bonds said.
Besides presenting art that feels more relevant to patients and giving artists a different sort of venue to display their work, Bonds said, such a display would be good for the medical staff as well.
"It would help them look at things differently or be able to release what it is they’re feeling and dealing with every day," said Bonds, who, despite feeling like a number, was complimentary of the care she was receiving. "The staff goes through all kinds of changes too, dealing with people who are suffering, who are afraid, who are alone. It affects them and you can tell by how comforting they are with you."
Other projects are already in the works.
After her Fuck Cancer party, she said, “The Latinos got together and want to do an art project dealing with health for Latinos, and the Interurban Art House wants to combine an additional exhibit in the fall. So there are going to be a lot of opportunities opening up. I’m really happy about it.”
Plenty of artists have dealt with with cancer by making art. But Bonds' approach is uniquely her own, a signature across the quilt of her life.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.