Cancer Ward 12: July 2017, Dynevor Centre Gallery, Swansea

Here is the ‘Show page’ for Cancer ward 12. There is a lot to see so please do keep scrolling down. I hope that it will provide some feel of the physical exhibition. All comments/feedback very welcome of course as it helps me to progress and develop my work.

Artist statement and rationale

Art and Medical Science have romanced each other throughout history. As an artist and researcher, the focus of my work is to reinstate the import of art in relation to medical science and achieve a productive balance between the objective necessity to treat the disease, and a more subjective understanding of the existential experience of illness. This calls for a renegotiation of arts role and value in contemporary practice, and, as an artist in medicine I work towards the advocacy of patient autonomy and the humanisation of medicine through the creation of what I call a metalanguage, a form of communication through art practice that goes beyond both the verbal language with which the patient tells his or her story, and the visual language manifest in the artwork.

My practice is based on autoethnographic principles wherein personal observations and experiences are primary, and through working with patients and with health professionals in the clinic, the ward, or the operating theatre environment, I have come to understand what I do as an empathic act of witness. My aim is not to posit objective truths but rather to expand and enrich the dialogue between art and medical science through offering profound subjective insight.

The results of my work in exhibition form are intended to communicate across the boundaries of convention and taboo. The metalanguage here becomes itself a voice that can articulate the nuances of suffering so that, in dialogue with the drawings, the viewer is invited to engage at a profound, intuitive level, thus enhancing, hopefully, his or her awareness and understanding of the existential and very human experience of illness.

(This project is a development of the successful Medicine Unmasked project ( carried out at Singleton Oncology Department 2014-2015 and is also part of an ongoing study of the nature and value of the ‘art intervention’ in medicine.)

Jac Saorsa 2017


an art-science project drawing on literature and on life

IMG_0635The Project

The Cancer Ward 12 project began with my being ‘artist in residence’, on the Oncology Ward of Singleton Hospital, Swansea, which is a 30 bed, general oncology, haematology ward where patients with a variety of cancers and disease related symptoms are treated and cared for. Treatment may include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and symptom control, and ranges from radical management to palliative care. I was on the ward for 8 days, including some nights, immersed into the day-to-day life of the ward, interacting with patients, their carers and families, and with the medical staff. I documented what I saw and experienced through drawing and written narrative.

The second part of the project is ongoing and involves developing all the notes and sketches made on site as a basis for creating a substantial a body of work in my Cardiff studio. This work has culminated, to date, in the present exhibition.

I would like to thank Prue Thimbleby, Arts in Health Coordinator, the ABMU (Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board) and all of the patients and staff at Singleton Hospital in Swansea for their support for this project.



When a piece of art is complete the STORY is far
from over, indeed it has only just begun. The
inherent COMMUNICATIVE FORCE of a drawing or
a painting lies in its capacity as an autonomous
art object to maintain a dialogical aspect beyond
the relationship with its creator. As a work of art
it can be conceived as of NARRATIVE CHARACTER
in that it can simultaneously express and provoke
emotional significance in a intersubjective
relation with the viewer, thus opening up a
DISCURSIVE SPACE within which he or she can
create his or her own narrative, and, most
importantly, this significance need not necessarily
be tied to logic or any sense of linearity.

IMG_0658“Artists are like philosophers. What little
health they possess is often too fragile, not because of
their illnesses or neuroses but because they have
seen something in life that is too much for anyone, too
much for themselves, and that has put on them the
quiet mark of death”. (Deleuze and Guattari 1994:172)



A day in November, 2017.
I saw him on Monday
I told him about the project –
he was interested
He wanted to be involved.
He was eating, expecting a visitor,
I told him I’d come back.
D. died today,
before I could.
I can see his face
I can hear his determination
He had a heart attack – a surprise
J. said “We were all over him for four hours”
But they couldn’t do anything – in the end.
J. said’ “we’re all upset”
D. died today.

IMG_0653“KOSTOGLOTOV was sitting in a sunny spot on a stone
below a garden bench. He was wearing his boots and his
legs were curled uncomfortably beneath him, knees just
off the ground. His arms were dangling lifelessly to
the ground. His uncovered head was hanging forward.
He was sitting there warming himself, his grey
dressing gown open, as unmoving and angular as the
grey stone. His head with the cap of black hair was
baking hot. The sun was scorching his back as he sat
there motionless, soaking in the March warmth, doing
nothing and thinking nothing. He could sit blankly like
that for a long time, gleaning from the suns warmth
what had not been provided for him earlier in the bread
and soup.”
(Solzhenitsyn 2003:347)

cwwoqskwiaacuvrMany of the patients ask me how I cope with listening to their pain
but its not so much the surprisingly, powerfully profound emotions
that arise from the levels of HONESTY AND TRUST that they offer
me, that I carry as my burden, it is more the questions the work has
raised. So many questions about how cancer patients are
understood, cared for, listened to (or not), and the nature of the
disease itself of course, the daunting reality of what I am seeing
and experiencing, the resonances with my own family history. This
is evidence from the ground up and my answer to those who ask me
how I cope is that, actually, I don’t – not in any way at least that
allows me to detach. I need to feel it all subjectively in order to
express it and articulate it. Not ‘coping’ is how I make my work.
The form of autoethnography I use as a basis for my practice has to
be an inclusive and open ended way of observing and expressing.
The autoethnographical first person – the “I” – is referenced by
the ‘self’ and it is indeed my self that I try to give. Many people I
talk to on the wards have expressed misgiving as to whether what
they have to say is of any worth. It always IS of course but in the
end it is not so much in the telling but in the meaningful exchanges
between us, exchanges that sometimes need no words at all, that I
believe real value exists. I see my writing and making images about
people from the first person perspective as a process of CREATIVE
CONTINUITY where meaning becomes fluid and ‘persons’ are
celebrated for the UNIQUE INDIVIDUALS they are.

IMG_0678This painting, along with the photograph of Mavis at her 60th birthday celebration, is
generously loaned by Mr John Lock, who wishes both to be part of the exhibit.
“Can you paint my portrait?”
She is in a ‘cubicle’, a single-occupancy room on the ward. She is very ill, the cancer
is in her spine and the prognosis is not good. Her husband is with her, as he has been
throughout. They both smile as I enter the room and the husband insists that I sit
down in the chair that he vacates for me. They willingly, enthusiastically, agree to
talk with me and tell me about their lives together, about their children and the
grandchildren they dote on and how the cancer has affected everything in their
world. They want to know about the project and they want to do “anything that
might help”. I turn on the tape and ask also if I might make a drawing of her as she
lay in bed.
And so they begin to talk. The love between them is tangible in the warmth, the
familiarity and the time-worn, habitual fluidity of the way that they interact,
interrupting each other to get the story right. She is weak, her voice very thin and
feint so she eventually allows him to tell it his way and, as the tape is running, he
talks for over an hour while she smiles and murmurs agreement.
I tell them a little about myself. I talk about my work and show them pictures on my
phone of the portraits I am painting for the Breast Cancer: a creative intervention
project. She has me hold the small screen close to her face so that she can see, and
then she says, very quietly yet determinedly, “Can you paint my portrait? From a
photograph? Take it here, now?” She looks at me – almost through me – and I hear
her husband draw breath. All three of us know why she is asking, why she wants the
painting… It is agreed.
I make the painting quickly – I put all the feeling and sensation that I have of my
meeting with an extraordinary ordinary woman into it and I send a email when it’s
finished to let them know. He rings me to arrange delivery. I ask how Mavis is and he
says, “We buried her last Monday”. He thought I knew – that a relative had already
told me – we stand in short silence across a sudden void in time and space, this man,
bereaved, and me.
He welcomes me into his home. Over coffee he tells me that I have captured the
‘real’ her. He says, “That’s her. You’ve really got her. That’s the look she always gave
me when she was telling me off!”

MAVIS LOCK 1948 – 2017



“Through the square of skin that had been left
clear on his stomach, through the layers of flesh
and organs whose names their owner himself
did not know, through the mass of the toad-like
tumour, through the stomach and the entrails,
through the blood that flowed along his arteries
and veins, through the lymph and the cells,
through the spine and lesser bones and again
through more layers of flesh, vessels and skin
of his back, then through the hard wooden board
of the couch, through the props, through the
filling beneath the boards, down, down until they
disappeared into the very stone foundations of
the building or into the earth, poured the harsh
x-rays, the trembling electric and magnetic
fields unimaginable to the human mind, or else
the comprehensible quanta that like shells out of
guns pounded and riddled everything in their
(Solzhenitsyn 2003:77)


We sit cocooned
In minute moments
Fragments of chat
Keep us light
With the pink and pastels on the walls.
But we are cold meat
For your imprecise science.
We wait to cook
In a place
Hidden from these watchful words.
I lie unbreasted,
Ungarnished, tarnished
Red above my bones
You hover
With your silent blitzing breath.
We go alone
Into your whitened nuclear chamber
Partake in awe
Of your Smart Arts
Smiling goodbyes
To the watching, knitting queue.
Amended 14th Feb. 2013

IMG_0662She says that patients need to feel valued and
listened to rather than be placated.

She says she has so much appreciation for the staff, who
attend very well to her physical and material
needs, but always there is, underneath her
abundant platitudes, her yearning to be heard, to
voice her fears and anxieties before they eat
away at her self assuredness just surely as the
cancer is destroying her body.

The staff are too busy. They cannot hear her. So the veneer of
appreciation is hardened into an impenetrable
smile that keeps her fears submerged until,
unbound, they burst through to the surface in
painful nightmares.


IMG_0619IMG_0638IMG_0639IMG_0640IMG_0641IMG_0643IMG_0645 copyIMG_0645IMG_0647IMG_0649IMG_0702IMG_0650IMG_0704IMG_0703IMG_0637IMG_0655IMG_0656IMG_0657IMG_0660IMG_0664IMG_0667IMG_0672IMG_0673IMG_0675IMG_0678 copyIMG_0680IMG_0685IMG_0687





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s