art, healing and living with terminal breast cancer: an interview with tattoo artist, Beth Fairchild
Beth Fairchild is a mother, artist, advocate and yogi. She’s also living with terminal cancer.
When she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2014, at the age of 34, she experienced the usual range of emotions while battling the disease – anger, grief and fear. Eventually, the shock of her diagnosis led her to becoming a breast cancer activist. In 2015, she joined METAvivor, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness of advanced breast cancer and equity in research and patient support. At the time they were awarding about $250,000 in research grants. Last year they gave away $6.3 million.
Since then, she’s witnessed an increase in funding for metastatic breast cancer research and more awareness about the disease. Through a series of online campaigns and virtual protests carried out through social media, she began to see the conversation around breast cancer shift to reveal more of the realities of the disease.
Although Beth left METAvivor this year to devote more time to her health and family, her advocacy continues through her art work.
She began working in the tattoo industry in 2001, and has been doing areola tattoos since her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2011. While she felt a connection with her clients prior to her diagnosis — her work is even more meaningful since her own mastectomy and breast reconstruction.
Throughout her life, art has been a way to express herself, even when she couldn’t find the right words to do so.
Here’s what this NC and NJ-based artist has to say about art, healing and living with terminal breast cancer.
What is it like to live with terminal cancer?
It's very challenging to live with a terminal illness. Besides the doctor's appointments and the scans and the side effects of my medication, the mental and emotional fatigue can be exhausting. I think that as a society, death and dying isn't something that we really talk about. We kind of shy away from those conversations. And when you're forced to think about it every single day, it's exhausting. I mean, I think that every single day that I wake up, I look in the mirror and I'm facing my own mortality day after day after day. And it is draining. It's frightening. It's the unknown. But at the same time, it's my life. It's the path that was laid out for me.
I'm going on seven years of living with this disease, which is remarkable. And every day is a gift to me.
Tell us about your journey as an artist.
I was always drawing or painting or building things out of wood, even from an early age. I knew I wanted to create things with my hands. I was also infatuated with tattoos. My great uncles had them, and my best friend's mom had them, and I knew I wanted to be tattooed, but never considered tattooing as a medium until I visited a tattoo studio with a friend of mine. Once I saw the process I was hooked.
How did you become a tattoo artist?
I started off a bit backwards, learning the business side of things, running the front desk, scheduling appointments, and doing the bookkeeping, then I graduated to cleaning, scrubbing tubes and making needles. I drew and traced A LOT. I learned about the more famous tattooists and studied their flash. I knew the artist by their style. A traditional tattoo apprenticeship is hard. There were many tears and lots of self-doubt, but I stuck with it, and here I am.
How did areola tattooing evolve?
I realized there was a need for areola tattooing after my mother had breast cancer and underwent a lumpectomy that took most of her areola. I knew I could restore the lack of pigment by tattooing color back into the skin. Until then, I had been unaware that areola tattooing was a service people sought out. Knowing nothing about breast cancer, scary radiation, etc., I signed up to take a medical tattooing class. I learned a lot about the medical side of things and developed my own techniques to tattooing areolas. Of course, with my own breast caner diagnosis under my belt I have a much deeper understanding.
Are you self-taught in this or are there a lot of other artists doing this work as well?
My foundation for areola tattooing was a formal training, but I develop my own style and technique, as most artists do.
Who was/is your artistic mentor and why?
Two female tattoo artists: TeeJay Dill and Sarah Peacock, were doing areola tattoos, and I was amazed by her work. Then when I decided to dive in, I trained under Rose Marie Beauchemin-Verzella who taught me the ins and outs. I strive to be as good these women I look up to.
Can you share how this work – the meaning of it and your purpose and connection to it has changed since your cancer diagnosis.
Of all the tattooing services that I offer, areola tattooing is by far the most meaningful. It’s seriously life-changing for the client. To see the finished result, the final step in their reconstruction process. I was doing areola tattoos before my own diagnosis and did feel a connection to my clients through my mom’s experience. And even after I was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, I really couldn’t relate until I had my own mastectomy and reconstruction.
Do you practice other forms or mediums of art?
I draw and paint, mostly nudes and abstracts.
How important is art in your life?
For me, art is an outlet for many things, dispersing energy and emotion and healing.
Is it a vehicle for healing for you, and if so, how?
Yes. At least for healing mentally and emotionally. I can express myself through even when I can’t find the words to describe how I’m feeling.
The themes for the past couple of issues of Snapdragon Journal have been grief (denial and anger.) Have these been themes in your own art, and if so, how?
I draw a lot of breastless nudes. I suppose that's how I express grief in my art. The loss of my breasts was traumatic, as I believe any amputation would be. Because I create art for other people, I mostly draw things they are feeling or experiencing. I put their own thoughts and emotions to paper and to their skin. It's oddly therapeutic for me too.
Have you been able to work through these emotions through your art?
I think by drawing women without breasts or with scars and seeing the beauty in their forms allows me to look at my own body from a different perspective. And for me, tattooing is forever and the designs I put on people will long outlast my own life, in a sense creating a living legacy after I’m gone.
Is there anything else you’d like to do artistically?
I’d like to paint larger pieces, murals. I’m actually volunteering at a local animal sanctuary and they’ve asked me to create art on some of their bare walls. I have a few other projects around the house I’m working on, hand-painting signs for the year and designing a mosaic installation for the back of my house.
You have a number of tattoos - when did you start getting them?
I started getting tattooed when I was 18, and seriously collecting in my early 20s. My first tattoo was for my mother.
Are there any specific ones that have a really special meaning?
I have my daughter’s name on my wrist which is special for obvious reasons and I have my grandparent's portraits on my forearm. I also have a matching breast cancer ribbon tattoo with my mom.
How do you decide on the designs?
I’ve been around the tattoo industry for 20 years, and I know a lot of amazing artists. I find I get the best results when I give the artist a concept and let them design my tattoo. If I like their work and their style and their energy, I know it will be a great experience and outcome.
For more about Beth, visit her website at bethfairchild.com or follow her on social @bethfairchild.