“People come in, and then just stop,” says Brenda McMahon, of her Gulfport gallery’s latest exhibit, Radical Self-Acceptance. And no wonder: The exhibit features nearly a dozen stunning photographs of intricate body art captured by Tampa-based photographer Michelle Caudle. But these aren’t just any tattoos. They are badges, tributes, armor – images emblazoned across the chests of breast cancer survivors.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer in women. The National Cancer Institute estimates one in eight U.S. women will get diagnosed at some point in their lives. The disease is an epidemic, reflects McMahon, which touches nearly everyone.
Which is why she wanted to devote October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to a fundraiser to help those struggling with the illness. After a successful partnership with Susan G. Komen in 2022, she wanted to explore a new concept: survivors who use breast tattoos as a step for healing and reclaiming their bodies.
That’s where a “beautiful spark” of a new idea came in, says McMahon. Caudle, who photographs glasswork for McMahon Gallery artist Susan Gott, is also vice president of The Affirmations Project. The nonprofit provides emotional and financial support to cancer and domestic violence survivors in the Tampa Bay area. A signature event for the organization, Caudle revealed, invites breast cancer survivors whose bodies have been altered by surgery to paint an affirming words and images — “blessed,” “gratitude,” or “fighter,” for instance – across their chests. Caudle has photographed this empowerment-through-body-art since 2016.
Radical Self-Acceptance began to blossom.
The Bodies of Warriors
It’s easy to see why many gallery visitors initially mistake Caudle’s photographs for paintings. Their lighting is pitch-perfect, with stark black or white backgrounds fading into warm tones of skin, then back into shadow. Complex figures – cranes with feathers arched in flight, flowers drifting on a breeze – gracefully hug the curves of the models’ chests and arms. Archival matte photo paper gives each image the weight and flow of brushwork.
Caudle’s composition is equally arresting. Close cropped around survivors’ breasts, there is a feeling of strength-in-vulnerability, beauty-in-alterity. These are not the breasts so readily and regularly sexualized in our advertisements and television; they are the gorgeously real bodies of women warriors. And while survivors’ faces do not appear in Caudle’s photographs, many contain a fascinating details — a silver swoop of earring, bright crimson points of fingernail — that speak to each subject’s personality.
Since the exhibit opened Oct. 6, McMahon has watched gallery visitors engage with the show with a mix of emotions. Many are wowed; many recognize the contours of their own struggle to reinhabit bodies transformed by cancer.
“It has been an incredibly healing show,” she declares.
Moreover, the exhibit offers visitors a chance to give back. Through Oct. 31, McMahon Gallery will contribute 10% of gallery sales back to The Affirmations Project. Many of the artists currently on exhibit will also match this donation with 10% of their own proceeds.
McMahon happily recalls the exhibit’s opening night, when many of the models were present to see the work they had helped to create.
“They stood back and said, ‘I never realized how beautiful I am.'” For her, this is the central message of her exhibit: “Radical Self-Acceptance. Because it is a radical act for women to love themselves.”
Radical Self-Acceptance, Brenda McMahon Art Gallery, 2901 Beach Blvd. S., #104, Gulfport. Through Oct. 31: Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun. & Thurs., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. brendamcmahongallery.com; 727-454-0453.