Gwen Noel, Colyn Noel, Jude, Denise Freestone, Sarah Manno, Elizabeth Elliot

The idea for this series evolved out of a sequence of unanticipated events, ultimately resulting in a collaborative body of work with Anna Parish and Gwen Noel.  The lyrical nudes in this series document these two women’s journeys with breast cancer.  Anna eventually recovered completely and continues to do well.  Gwen’s journey was much longer, taking her through years of numerous remissions, recurrences, surgeries, and treatments which eventually culminated in her passing.

When I began this series, I was running my own photography business and taking on photo jobs of any kind that came my way.  Occasionally I was hired to do nude photographs.  If the client wasn’t too bizarre or dangerously crazy, I would usually take the job.  I had just finished a couple of nude jobs with two women who were in their final month of pregnancy.  After those, I had a job doing a poster for a construction worker who moonlit as a male strip-dancer.  His last name was Steele and the header on the poster read “Buns of Steele”.  All in a day’s work.  

Anna had seen my pregnancy nudes and called wanting some nudes of herself.  I took the job; we grew close during the shoot and became friends.  When the shoot wrapped up, she asked me, “Aren’t you curious as to why I wanted these nude shots?”  She then proceeded to tell me, “I wanted them to remember my breasts with.  I always want to remember them as they are now. Tomorrow morning, I have surgery scheduled for a full mastectomy.  Doing this shoot helps me deal with the process.”  

I was deeply moved and asked, “Would you be interested in following up with a similar shoot after your operation?”  We got together a week after the mastectomy for our second shoot and then again several years later for a final shoot.

Around the same time, I was visiting with my friend, Gwen, and mentioned the work Anna and I were doing.  Gwen was a professional dancer and had just been diagnosed with breast cancer herself.  Gwen was interested in doing something creative with her experience with cancer and suggested we work together on this project.  Her belief in me as an artist was unconditional; the trust was there.  We conspired to embark on a lengthy series in which I would create lyrical nude studies documenting her process. We had fun with it, laughing and feeling sunshine all along the way.  

Through the years, her body morphed a great deal.  At times, she looked like a skeletal concentration camp survivor; at other times she was bloated to the point that her skin looked like a balloon ready to burst.  You need to look closely at the shots to realize it is the same person.  Towards the end, I had a ceramic-artist make a funerary urn for her; she wanted her daughter to have a beautiful vessel to hold her ashes.  I brought my gift to our last shoot in an assisted care facility where she was receiving palliative care.  In the shot I call “Genie in a Bottle, Ashes to Ashes”, I blocked off an abandoned hallway in the care facility by hanging a sheet down from the ceiling.  I set up a little photo studio in this private nook.  I then rolled Gwen, in her wheelchair, past all the elderly patients and nurses into our secret space.  Behind the sheet, she disrobed and I helped her get on the “throne” I had constructed.  I positioned her feet behind the urn as if she were a genie coming out of the jar – a dark scenario of a body that would soon reside inside.  We had so much fun with our mischievous little performance, while the world bustled by on the other side of our curtain.  As people passed by, no one could have imagined just what we were doing on the other side of that flimsy sheet.  After years of bonding together on this project, we knew this was to be our farewell shoot. A week later, Gwen passed.

During the shooting for this project, the air was one of escape and fun.  Laughing defiantly in the face of mortality was an act of therapy which resulted in meaningful expression.  We were putting a positive spin on something negative by using it in a creative way to make art.  But after all the shooting for the project was done, I was in my car and spontaneously began to cry without any understanding of why. I wasn’t sad about anything. It didn’t take long to realize that I had repressed so much in order to maintain my positive attitude with Gwen.  Those emotions of deep grief were finally surfacing.  I couldn’t work on the project any further.  I put it on the shelf for several years before I was finally able to complete the series. The finished work debuted as a solo show at The Colorado Photographic Arts Center.  The show was received with acclaim and evoked deep emotion from those in attendance.


The serpent symbol appears in several of these images.  It is a recurring motif in my own work and was a symbol that Gwen used in a fairy tale she wrote about her relationship with cancer.  I have included it in this website gallery as a tribute to this amazing woman and her undaunted spirit.  She was an inspiration to all those that knew her. 

Gwen Noel's Story

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    Copyright John Bonath 2019