I met Ashley a couple of years ago when she came to see me for a haircut. We quickly learned that we had a couple of friends and a recent breast cancer diagnosis in common. I wanted to feature her in my blog because I am moved by her artwork and I always enjoy our conversations, coming away from them feeling inspired and facilitated in my own healing process. I would describe Ashley as a unique and soulful woman, someone who is wise beyond her years, a great artist, and a role model for practicing gratitude. Her illustrations are only available for viewing on social media at the moment but I had the great pleasure of viewing her collection in person when we met for this interview. Here is a snippet of the conversation that Ashley agreed to let me record for this project. I hope you enjoy it and take the time to visit her instagram and the illustrations that she agreed to share in this piece.
SP: What is your name and age?
AG: Ashley Gierke. I’m 32.
SP: You were diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. Can you talk about your diagnosis and treatment plan?
AG: Yes. I was diagnosed two years ago, at age 30. I was experiencing symptoms prior to my diagnosis. I had swelling in my right breast and some changes in my nipple and I pursued seeing a doctor. I didn’t have health insurance at the time so it was a complicated process. Eventually I had a mammogram and they found something suspicious and we had it biopsied and I found out it was malignant. My treatment was a bilateral mastectomy. I began with that and about a week before I was kind of healing and ready to go back to work… I was in the reconstructive process for implants…one of the nurses used a syringe on me that they had dropped on the floor and five days later I got a staph infection and had two additional surgeries, and two more after that, so a total of five surgeries, one of which was more of a cosmetic thing. No chemo. No radiation.
SP: And you’re on medication.
AG: No, I’m not.
SP: You were on Tamoxifen?
AG: Yes, but I stopped taking it about nine months ago.
SP: Awesome. I want to talk about this later, but first want to ask what you did to prepare yourself for treatment (physically/emotionally/mentally)?
AG: I immediately made some pretty significant changes to my lifestyle — I started eating vegan, increased my physical activity, practiced yoga more frequently, took supplements, and slept as much as I could. I also did a ton of reading and research and talked to everyone I could to be as informed about cancer and my treatment as possible. And then I slowly started eliminating everything that felt toxic in my life, from chemicals to relationships. I became much more conscious of how I was spending my time and the people I surrounded myself with.
Before surgery a bunch of close friends and family came to visit. I took a spontaneous road trip to Marfa with my best friend from California, ate delicious food, and acquired all of the strange clothing and equipment you need for recovery. Oh, and one of my dear friends took a mold of my chest. As an artist I wanted to be able to use my form in future work should the need arise. I still haven’t cast it, but I do have a very special memory of that intimate experience. I think it was a way to ceremoniously say goodbye to my breasts. I’m really grateful for that experience—thanks, Suzanne! Overall, I became much more present with my life and took things one day at a time. It was a surprisingly happy time.
SP: Were you scared?
AG: I think initially I was scared. It’s a surreal thing to hear you have cancer…I very quickly went into survival mode and decided that everything I did moving forward needed to be in support of that. Prior to my surgery I didn’t know the extent of treatment I’d need. I didn’t know if I would need chemotherapy or radiation. Not knowing that was probably what scared me most. I’ve never really been afraid of dying. I’m terrified about losing the people I love, but I’m not afraid of my own passing. I think I had come to terms with that being a possibility, since the mastectomy was a major surgery. I had felt that my life had already been so wonderfully privileged that if this was the length of my life, I was ok with it.
SP: I wanted to ask you what are your side effects of treatment? How has your body changed from before? But now that I know you’re no longer on medication, let’s talk about that. I know you were having some issues or side effects with your medication.
AG: Yeah, I was taking Tamoxifen. It’s a popular drug that is recommended to women whose cancer is estrogen driven. My understanding is that it blocks cancer cells from utilizing estrogen in its growth. Initially I was experiencing hot flashes from the medication, but the weight gain was what I struggled with most. Those side effects were tolerable though. It was the idea of messing with my hormones again that didn’t sit well with me. My cancer was 98% estrogen and progesterone positive and I had been taking birth control for twelve years prior. The first thing the doctor told me when I got my diagnosis was that I needed to immediately stop taking birth control and in every appointment that followed this was reiterated. I was surprised at how important this was to them and frustrated that I hadn’t previously known about the strong link between our hormones and cancer. So there I was, on Tamoxifen, yet again chemically messing with my body and feeling crappy about it. After grilling my doctor for more information about the drug I learned of a test that can predict its effectiveness. (In the past the recommendation was that women take the drug for five years and has more recently been upped to ten years.) I pursued that test and found that taking Tamoxifen wouldn’t benefit me for the additional five years. This was alarming to me because had I not asked these questions and mindlessly followed the doctor’s recommendation I could’ve been unnecessarily taking this drug for FIVE YEARS more than I needed. This made me feel very uncomfortable so I decided that I would rather believe in my body’s ability to naturally heal and thrive if I cared for it well, than consume something that I didn’t fully understand or feel good about.
SP: How has your body changed from before cancer?
AG: I think the most obvious change is the look of my breasts. I have two large scars, one across each breast, and I do not have nipples. But when I’m clothed and out in the world I don’t think anyone would know.
SP: You dont appear to have been sick. The only obvious change is evident when you are naked.
AG: Yeah, exactly. It’s been an interesting process adjusting to my new breasts. At first I felt really confident and empowered. I was proud of my scars and liked that they communicated that I had been through an intense experience, but made my way to the other side of it. But after that experience we shared, things shifted for me…at least temporarily.
SP: After you left the salon that day you posted a picture of a new drawing you made. It is a body with two monsters on the chest in place of breasts. Can you talk about why that was such an emotional experience for you?
AG: Yes, that day we showed each other our reconstructive work. It was a very difficult, emotional experience for me. Like I had said, prior to seeing your breasts, I was somewhat pleased with my own results. I had felt confident with where I had come physically and appreciated the scars as being a piece of my story (which I still do). But seeing how beautiful yours were made me feel sad about my own. I felt cheated in a way… I guess I hadn’t realized what was possible with reconstruction. I was disappointed that I had gone through so much and still felt so far from having cosmetic results I was truly pleased with. As much as I wanted to bury those feelings, I new that facing and processing them were important to my healing so I made that drawing.
SP: Because the diagnostic process happens so fast. You have to make decisions really quickly.
AG: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We get thrown into this process of making really significant decisions and have to rely on the expertise of our doctors. I guess I was second-guessing my choices after that encounter. Ultimately I’ve made peace with what they currently are and I know that they will continue to evolve throughout the course of my life. Besides, there isn’t anything I can do about it now, I’m not in a financial position to pursue more plastic surgery and I honestly don’t even know if I would if that was an option. As you know, surgery can be incredibly exhausting, taxing and risky.
SP: Yes, it is… I think we should talk about the drawings now. You are an artist. I see you kind of reckoning with your cancer and everything through your art. So I think that has probably helped you to arrive at much of the healthy attitude that you have about what has happened to you.
AG: I think that’s true. I feel so lucky to have something I can go to and rely on. To know that if I put in a little time, I’m going to feeling better on the other side of it. It works in that way every single time.
SP: It’s like a therapy session every time you draw.
AG: Yes, exactly.
SP: How often do you draw?
AG: I average about a drawing a week, give or take. Whenever inspiration strikes, really.
SP: Your most recent series is a lot of drawings with human bodies. Mostly obviously female. Some obviously male. Can you describe the series and how it came about?
AG: Yeah. So, it came about while I was recovering. I was still at home when I did my first drawing and it was because I didn’t really have the energy to do the other thing I used to do. I had spent 10 years doing intricate paper cuts. And you know it was quite labor intensive in a way. I was still healing and I was like “I have all these ideas and I have all these things I’m thinking about but I don’t have the energy to do this paper stuff”. I just started drawing and found that a really huge evolution in my practice of art making happened. Most of what I had been doing in the past was driven from my love for materials and tactile things and color. You know, so much of it was abstract. And suddenly I was making art from a place of these things that I was thinking about and deeply cared for and that was what was motivating the creatition. So that was a huge shift for me. So, then these drawings became much more about the idea of the process of making them than it did aobut the finished piece.
SP: You use a female form in your drawings. Is it you?
AG: I guess I see the female form that I use as a stand-in for myself when I first begin a piece. But very quickly I forget about that and refocus on whatever it is that’s specifically driving the piece. And that’s why I’ve continued to draw the figures without heads or completed limbs. The drawings aren’t about me or specific individuals, but rather our collective struggles. I believe that ambiguity helps others identify with them.
SP: Your drawings move me in such a visceral way. There is a sense of humor to your art that I like but I also feel like I can connect with some of your feelings about what its like to experience your body changing and cancer, through your drawings. One of my favorites is a drawing of a giant breast strapped to a body, like its weighing the body down, and it has a little flag sticking out of the top that says “Good bye”. Another one has a woman looking down at her breast and instead of a breast there is a cactus growing out of her chest. And then I saw in your book that there was another one following where she has cactuses all over her body. So that was like a continuation of that one I think. In another, there is a female form with just the word cancer pointing to a zillion different points of the body. One of my favorites that really hits me hard has the body laying on her back and it has a sign that says “Im sorry I didnt care for you well”. And then there is a woman with a bear head. And the one where you have illustrated the measurements of your tumor. Can you talk about any of these pieces? .
AG: I think the tumor drawing ranks in my top five favorites. Tumors and/or cancer are generally thought of as terrifying and awful things. And they are, but they can also be other things and for me cancer has also been one of the best things that ever happened in my life. The tumor functioned as this alarm, an urgent wake up call that I had to make changes in my life if I wanted to continue living. I mean how freaking wonderful to have that warning, that slap in the face? Not everyone gets that. Cancer transformed my life and continues to teach me how to live better. It was the catalyst for massive amounts of happiness and joyful experiences that I hadn’t had the perspective or wherewithal to participate in before.
SP: Is “Im sorry I didnt care for you well” in your top 5 too?
AG: No, it’s not, but I do like it. The sign above the body is suppose to be a chalkboard. Like when a child or student does something wrong and the punishment is to write about it over and over. It’s about that practice of drilling something into your mind until you learn it. I’ve really been trying to learn how to care for myself and also to practice forgiveness for decisions I made in my past.
SP: DO you have a favorite? Or do they change?
AG: I have two favorites currently, but they do evolve… The first is the one with the caption; “It’s time to treat it like the sacred land it is.” It’s the one with the landscape across the body. And the second is “Death will not wait for us to live.” I believe these words are Elizabeth Gilbert’s and when I read them I was completely taken by their truth. The flowers growing out of the body, reaching toward a shining sun, (to me) speak to the choice we have each day about how we want to live. It’s about life being less about its duration or the length of life we have, and more about the quality of each day; a quality that we play a big role in creating. Both of these pieces and many others I’ve made touch on the idea of valuing our bodies and the time we have in them. I suppose that’s become a theme.
SP: You have a lot of bugs and plants in your drawings. And a lot of them are connected to the body or both of them are in the picture at the same time. What is your obsession with those things?
AG: I think my interest in nature (plants and insects specifically) began back when I was living in Illinois and working at a fabrication studio where we created exhibits for natural history museums. My boss was a hunter, taxidermist, and all around lover of the land and that exposure really ignited this appreciation within me. When I moved to Austin that curiosity was fueled even more by all of the new insects I was discovering. I became quite obsessed with observing them. For a period of time I was coming home from work and searching my yard for new critters. I would crawl around studying their uniqueness, and photograph them. My neighbors must’ve thought I was craaazy!
Those photos evolved into paper-cut pieces that people were really excited about. I was even invited to present this artwork at the Alamo Drafthouse Dionysium series on bugs. It was a fun time.
I continue to be fascinated by them and I think at the heart of this interest is compassion for the underdog. They’re incredibly beautiful, diverse, and complex little creatures that have such a bad rep. I’m confused by the way many humans despise them. How horrified some people get at the sight of a cockroach or spider, this behavior seems so irrational to me and I wonder if we actually mean our hatred or if we’re just programmed to feel this way and ride that out without really questioning it. I think it’s unfortunate to be so disconnected.
SP: That just reminded me of one drawing that I just saw in your book that has the mastectomy scar with the fly kind of attached to where the nipple would be.
AG: Ah, the giant mosquito drawing. This is one insect I’m not a fan of as it actually directly affects my body. We have a love hate relationship; they love me, I hate them 😉
SP: And they carry diseases
AG: Yeah… <laughter> I think at the time I drew that I was fighting the staph infection and was self-administering antibiotics through a PIC line. It was summer and my mom and I would sit out on my porch and for the first time in my life they weren’t biting me. They clearly were sensing the antibiotic in my system and steered clear. It was a strange and delightful observation and got me thinking about all the ways we experience pain and discomfort. Something I became very familiar with as I experienced cancer.
SP: In a lot of your drawings, you illustrate scars where nipples would normally be. Why haven’t you had nipple reconstruction?
AG: I’ve gone back and forth a lot about nipple reconstruction. There are times when I’ve wanted it and more that I haven’t. During the process of cancer treatment I was faced with a lot of decisions that had to be made quickly. I tried to learn as much as I could, but in many occasions I had to just trust my doctors; I was kind of flying by the seat of my pants. I have no regrets about the choices I’ve made as I know I did the best I could with the information I had, but if I could go back and do it again, I might have done some of it differently. Getting nipples is clearly a cosmetic component of the reconstruction and because my health isn’t dependent on them, I wanted to take my time with it. I want to be sure that if I get them, its because I’m driven by a deep desire to have them and not by some societal pressure. My main goal now is to care for my body well and make decisions that are in support of that and not those based in what others might think is beautiful, sexy or essential to being a woman.
SP: What is it like for you to be a single woman in the dating scene at the same time as you are learning about your new body?
AG: Overall it’s been really great. I was in an eight-year relationship that ended as my cancer treatment ended. Dating became a tool to assist me in learning about myself and recreating my identity outside of this long, often times co-dependant relationship. Each date was a new opportunity to communicate who I was—a person that was proud of her experience, but who also had so much to grow into. I was learning about myself as I chose what and how to present to others. It’s challenging at times to share my story and show my body for fear of how it’s being interpreted, but thankfully almost all of the men I’ve dated have been nothing short of kind and compassionate.
SP: It doesn’t sound like you have a lot of anxiety about having to explain yourself in an intimate setting
AG: Nah, I’ve always been an open book. Sometimes I think I share too much… Sharing my cancer experience (in the context of dating) has been a bit of a struggle though. It’s not easy to tell people and it’s hard to know when is a good time to do so. I often worry about my story scaring people away and I’m fairly confident that with some it has. Social media is making it increasingly difficult to keep private. I’m conflicted about it because I’m obviously open about my feelings, my drawings and Instagram account reflect this, but I also crave being in control of when in my relationships people learn my story. I believe in being authentic and the value of talking about the things that I love and also struggle with. We all need to know that we’re not alone in the things we face and feel. But I don’t always want my experience with cancer to lead someone’s experience of me because it’s just one piece of who I am.
It’s funny because sometimes I feel like this interesting specimen that people want to know about. They’re curious about what I’ve been through and admire my outlook on life, but they’d rather keep me at arms length. I’m coming back to insects again—it feels similar to a cool bug that one may want to collect and hang on their wall, but that they don’t actually want to experience the living version of. Sometimes my insecurity kicks in and I wonder why someone would choose me… this isn’t easy to say aloud and chokes me up a bit, but why would someone choose to be with a woman that’s had cancer when they have a whole world of woman to choose from that haven’t been sick. Even if they’re not conscious of it, I can’t help but wonder and worry about the deeper biological connection to reproduction and survival.
SP: It’s an additional challenge
AG: Absolutely. And then the other side of that coin is that I have so many more things to offer because of it. I’ve had a very profound and rich experience that others might not have had and I believe there’s a unique depth to me because of it. It’s a lot to process and find peace with, that’s for sure.
SP: Ok so let’s talk about the penises. You have a lot of penises in your art and they are funny, I think. Can you talk about that?
AG: I’ve phased out them out a bit, but there was indeed a time when I made a lot of dick doodles. Penises are weird and silly and fun to joke about. The most basic way to speak about these drawings is that the penis has been an obvious symbol or stand-in for males. I definitely don’t want to generalize men or simplify gender so it’s tricky territory to traverse, but the penis imagery has been a way for me to access and explore the experiences I’ve had and things I think about with regards to men.
SP: You have recently started dancing lessons. How has that affected your body image and any other aspect of how you see yourself?
AG: I started taking tango lessons about three months ago. I don’t think it’s really affected by body image per say, but it has influenced how I think of myself. I use to be very guarded and fearful of trying new things and meeting new people. My experience with cancer and dating has transformed me into a much more outgoing, lively person who’s eager to learn and grow and tango has been a great place to do this. Many of the people that know me well think it’s funny that I’ve started dancing and tango none-the-less! I’m not much of a dancer and it’s definitely an interest I never would’ve predicted, but it’s been such a rewarding find. I was TERRIFIED when I took my first class (it was for a hot date so I couldn’t pass it up ;)) and it took me waaay outside of my comfort zone. I’ve since made a bunch of new friends and have formed a community of sorts. I’m really proud of what I’m cultivating there. I also recently realized that like art, tango is something I do that always makes me feel better than I did before I practiced it and that’s a pretty wonderful thing to have.
SP: What makes you feel beautiful? What made you feel beautiful before cancer?
AG: It’s funny (or maybe sad) I don’t know that I ever truly felt beautiful before. I mean I knew I was decent looking, other people would tell me I was pretty or beautiful, etc. but that didn’t necessarily translate into me believing it. It took re-building my life and my identity to not only appreciate, but also love both my physical body and non-physical being. But to answer your question—my laughter, my quirkiness, my thick hair, the things I create, my ability to have fun and to see the good in others, my curves, my desire for connection, and my green eyes are all things that make me feel beautiful.
More than ever people approach me on the street, in the grocery store, out in the world to stop me and tell me they think I’m beautiful. It’s such a flattering and lovely experience. But I sense it has less to do with my actual physical look and more with an aura of positivity and approachableness that I don’t think I carried much in the past.
SP: Let’s talk about your process. You shared on Instagram that you begin most of your drawings with a doodle. Can you describe it further?
AG: I’m a deeply emotional person and always analyzing something and I guess I’ve learned how to harness that stuff and make things with it. I’m regularly jotting down notes, quotations, lyrics, things that inspire me, etc. I make a lot of quick crude sketches to capture my fleeting ideas and then will flesh them out further when I have the time. It’s a very organic process…
SP: Do you have a time that you set aside for yourself to work on it?
AG: Most of my ideas come at inopportune times (which is why I make the notes and sketches), but when they hit I’m eager to work with them. I’ll typically do my drawing at night. It’s rare that I will go to my desk to work if there isn’t something already on my mind. There are also times when an idea will surface and not excite me so I won’t give it much attention, but then it’ll keep visiting and grow into something I can’t ignore. It’s been fun to observe and develop my practice.
SP: Right now you are only sharing these on social media. You dont have them for sale and a lot of people are asking to buy them. How does soical media change how we get to experience art? Do you plan on having a show at some point, or offering them for sale?
AG: I’m making these drawings because I need to for my own fulfillment and wellbeing. The experience of making is what’s most important to me and what drives this work. And once the art is made I think about its life—do I want to file it away to never been seen again or do I put it out into the world? I started sharing the work through social media early on and people were very receptive. I’ve been fortunate to receive a ton of love and support for my art. It’s an artists dream come true, really. I’m honored that people are connecting with it. And at the same time I’m afraid of tainting this really blissful experience I’m having as the creator with the responsibility and challenges that often come with running a business. There’s a lot on this subject that I’m thinking about and working through, but I can say I’ve selected ten drawings that I plan to release for sale in the near future.
SP: That reminds me of a conversation we had last time we cut your hair about you helping people use art as therapy. And maybe thinking about having sessions or something.
AG: Several people have reached out to me through social media with private messages communicating that my process has encouraged them to explore the things they struggle with through their own artwork. I cannot think of a better compliment and I’m so deeply flattered to know that my work has that kind of meaning to people. Inspiration is a beautifully powerful thing. I sometimes dream about how to generate more of it—be it through book publication, workshops, group therapy sessions, etc.
SP: Who inspires you?
AG: So many people. First and foremost, my Mom; she loves so generously and has been a beautiful example of never settling for a life that’s less than what you desire. My boss, Lieve, inspires me for her unrelenting drive and effervescent positivity. Danielle LaPorte, our friend Kat who has been fighting cancer for several years, so many of my friends, people who choose happiness, and really just anyone that’s sharing their truth and striving to live authentically.