Lauren Henkin

Lauren Henkin, Visual Artist

Growth

I’ve had two major surgeries in the last 12 months. 8.6 x 6.4 x 3.8 In 2004, I first learned of a growth in my abdomen. It was a benign tumor, but unusual to have at 29 years. My doctor said it would expand and should be removed surgically. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t want surgery. I could barely stand a flu shot much less the thought of being cut open. At the time, I thought the best course was inaction — maybe it wouldn’t grow, maybe it would shrink.

What I wasn’t aware of was that this thing would grow into such a large mass that I would feel incessantly uncomfortable in my skin and ever-aware of it’s ability to further embed itself within me.

Six years later I was 35, divorced and without kids. After years of steady growth, it would deceive me into believing that it was a baby I was carrying — a clever disguise to avoid removal by a woman already fearful about a future alone. Having it inside me, increasing with a sense of entitlement and feeling more and more like a child was a bittersweet reality to face every night lying in bed, always questioning why the life I planned wasn’t the one I was living.

10.8 x 8.7 x 7.2 During the first few years of living with this invader, I became used to the frequent sonograms and exams. The resulting number combinations measuring the size of my growth held greater and greater meaning. I began to know, without needing to reference previous year’s results, what the numbers referred to—how much wider, how much longer, how much deeper. I could, by memory, immediately assess by how much the new dimensions surpassed the old ones.

12.2 x 7.8 x 9.3 A week before Thanksgiving 2009 I met my doctor once again for an exam. The conversation began unexpectedly. Instead of being presented with numbers, I was told, “We have another issue to talk about.” I didn’t want to know.

One of my ovaries had been aggressively taken over by some other, completely new growth. Maybe it was cancer, maybe it wasn’t. They wouldn’t know for sure until it was removed and tested. The doctors assured me that the chances were low that it was cancer, but the thought that haunted me was of someone taking what was mine since birth. It felt like a violent crime — and one requiring my consent. One week later I was in surgery.

I was asked if I wanted to remove the older mass at the same time. Kill two birds with one scalpel. No thanks. It was happening too quickly and in some strange way, it had become an adopted part of me. It felt as wrong approving it’s demise as it did to cut out my ovary.

11.6 x 8.4 x 10.6 Sometime before this first surgery, I began photographing urban landscapes — trees, weeds, shrubs and other vegetation attempting to grow in unlikely places. At times invasive, at times reclaiming, at times succumbing, it was hard to know whether to champion these subjects or hone my garden shears. There is a fine line between what is deemed invasive and what is merely reclaiming a rightful environment. Who am I to judge, even when the domain is my own body? I never connected these urban growths to the ones in me. I was drawn to them because they persevere. They are survivors. Emerging through asphalt, suffocated by electrical wires, trapped between buildings, standing proud even in defeat, they are both accommodating and unyielding. I respect them.

17.8 x 11.9 x 8.6 Eight months after my first surgery and I felt the most uncomfortable yet. I didn’t sleep easily. I like lying on my stomach, but could no longer. My clothes were tight despite eating less and less. I was exhausted. I learned at my next appointment that the large tumor still in me merged with smaller ones, making all of my symptoms more acute. I could feel its shape within me. Any attachment I had, as an adopted part of my body, was quickly disintegrating. Exactly one year after removing my ovary, I decided again to undergo elective surgery and the six hours it would take to slowly extract it.

I didn’t make a connection between what I was seeing on my ground glass and what was inside me until I visited the studio of a fellow artist and examined some x-rays she had hanging. Immediately, it made sense. I was connecting that which I had tracked for so long in my body with similar tales of survival in the external landscape. These humble subjects, ones I found beautiful, would enable me to let go of the fear and willingly accept these aggressive beings that will, most likely, be in me for the rest of my life.

For me, it’s difficult to think of plants as invasive. But in these contexts, deeply embedded in the industrial urban fabric, they are just that. They are what don’t belong. I needed to change my perception of what is “invasive” — to find some kind of respect for anything that persists in growth, no matter what the environment. I fear that someday I will breed a tumor that isn’t benign and will eventually succeed in its attempt to overtake. For now, I am content to photograph growth I could favor, that of the natural reclaiming a small piece of its habitat.

Thank you to all of you who have helped me in the production of this work, either through printing, editing, sequencing, and/or general support. Special thanks to Dale Schreiner, Kirsten Rian, Michael Borek, Beth Kerschen and especially, Tyler Boley.

Hope to see you all in September.

© Lauren Henkin. All rights reserved.