Each radiation mask is molded to fit a patient’s face precisely. Plastic screws around the edges fasten to a table, immobilizing the head and neck for targeted radiation therapy. Photo courtesy of Joan’s Fund.
Johnson, the artist, says there’s something a smidge unnerving about using a radiation mask as the foundation for art, because its original purpose is anything but pretty. Radiation therapy has to be done with precision so that only cancer cells are destroyed and healthy tissues are left unaffected. Each radiation mask is specially fitted to a patient. During the procedure, the patient puts on the mask, which is then screwed into the table, leaving no wiggle room and little room for technician error.
“It’s so sad and scary,” Johnson says. “You lie on your back, encapsulated, and your head is literally screwed to the table.”
Even though the masks serve their immobilizing function well, it’s no surprise that patients are happy to be done with them once their treatment regimens are completed. Some people even get creative when it comes to disposing of them.
“Some of these survivors talk about taking these masks and running them over with their cars,” Johnson says.
Using such an object as a medium was new for Johnson, who works mostly with textiles, and for most of her gallery colleagues, who are primarily painters and ceramicists, but Johnson says it gave them license to explore.
“There’s some kind of twisted, nice irony about having this torture device made into something beautiful and then having money raised to help fund this research.”
While there were few guidelines to follow when it came to the planning and execution of the masks, the artists involved were paired with head-and-neck cancer survivors.