Pensacola, Florida
Sunday October 13th 2019


Everyone’s Invited

Valerie George tackles breast cancer, punk rock and more in her solo exhibition “Welcome to My Party”
By Savannah Evanoff

Carole King was onto something when she sang, “You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet,” in her iconic 1972 album “Rhymes & Reasons.”

It’s a principle Pensacola artist Valerie George has had to live with, as her life seemingly doled out one bitter per one sweet. The latest occurrence of it came with her “Welcome to My Party” solo exhibit at the Pensacola Museum of Art, where she reflects on 15 years of artwork after being promoted to full professor at the University of West Florida.

George’s celebratory speech in February rolled around just after she was diagnosed with her third bout of breast cancer—a beyond bitter and uncommon amount of recurrences.

“In the face of mortality, there’s a moment to celebrate accomplishment, to celebrate life, friends, family, heroes,” George said. “What I was interested in showing were works that were those special moments in life, in which my life changed my art practice and my art practice changed my life.”

Although the exhibit’s title drips with playful sarcasm, it showcases her life’s work in installation art, video, performance, sculpture, photography, new media and drawing.

Some works are quite old, she said, but some she made in 2019 right after her double mastectomy.

Submitting a pile of text and images to petition for full professor made George feel accomplished. And now seeing four rooms occupied with her favorite works, well, there aren’t words.

“Whether or not they like it, I would like for people to feel as if they’ve encountered something that’s very honest,” George said. “It’s difficult subject matter talking about breast cancer, mastectomies, punk rock and grandmothers.”

“A brand-new body”
If it isn’t obvious, the exhibit is diverse—featuring installations that confront mortality, heaven and George’s background in the Pensacola punk scene. She lived in The Javelin’ Joint, a punk house, as a 29-year-old adjunct professor and is now a member of the 309 Punk Museum Project’s board of directors.

The stairwell is an ode to George’s female family members (AKA her heroes)—her aunt Hazel, a breast cancer survivor who also had a mastectomy, and her mother and grandmother, who have their own powerful stories.

“They feel like their strength was passed down to me,” George said.

The ground floor features three rooms—a large portion of one is a body of work from 2010 called Nam June Psych. George concocted a recording studio inside the back of a biofuel-powered 1983 Mercedes 300TD wagon and went cross-country to make collaborative art.

The newest material is “Welcome to My Party.”

“That work is about this new experience in a brand-new body, after a double mastectomy, and the highs and lows of feeling confident that this will be my last bout with cancer but then taking a nosedive three days later and feeling like I’m not going to survive it,” George said. “The highs and lows and fears of cancer treatment—the spectrum of emotions one experiences when they go through cancer.”

So, yes, welcome to Valerie George’s party. Your invitation wasn’t lost in the mail.

“What cancer looks like”
As fate would have it, George first learned about cancer through art.

An art history professor introduced her to Hannah Wilke, a 1970s performance and body artist who used her body to critique culture and the oppression of women.

“She was highly criticized, because she was very typically beautiful,” George said. “In her early 40s, she was diagnosed with lymphoma. She continued to photograph herself as her beauty faded right before your eyes. Her hair fell out, she became incredibly bloated and got patches all over and had tubes hanging out of her body.”

“That body of work was the first time I ever encountered what cancer looks like,” George said.

George was 38 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.

“It was a very special moment to be so young and diagnosed with something that really asks you to take a look at your life and mortality and really face that,” George said. “That was interesting, difficult, scary and powerful. It certainly rearranged my art practice a bit, because I had to stop.”

George put her art on hold through surgeries and radiation an experience that not only changed her body but also how she viewed it.

Statistically, one out of eight women gets breast cancer. And if you don’t get diagnosed, someone you know or love will.

George channeled the subject into her art starting in 2016.

“We don’t talk about women’s breasts unless we sexualize them,” George said. “It’s important to talk about them in this way, where we investigate what it feels like to have this body part turn on you and essentially try to kill you. It weaponizes right on your body, which is a really strange experience to process.”

“Fighting against the sun”
During a sabbatical after her second round of surgeries, George trekked alone to see land art sculptures from the 1970s, such as the Spiral Jetty and Sun Tunnels in Utah and the
Amarillo Ramp in Texas.

“I went to experience all of these really important land art sculptures I’d been looking at in history books my whole life,” George said. “What I thought was interesting is they were pretty much the same age as me. These sculptures had been living outside, fighting against the sun, the wind, the erosion and the heat, and they were deteriorating as much as I was.”

She turned the landscape into her art studio, taking photos of her body and projecting them onto the sculptures.

“Those were really fun— well, fun is not the word,” George said. “They are a lot. They’re very heavy, but they’re quite visually stunning because the sculptures themselves were stunning. It felt very much like a collaboration with these sculptors who I hold in high regard in terms of art history—and most of them are dead.”

“One of them died at the last site I did, Amarillo Ramp.”

“Sense of journey”
Felicia E. Gail, the former curator of exhibitions at Pensacola Museum of Art, first met George in the ‘90s at the punk venue Sluggo’s. They later became friends and were once roommates.

“I was a fan of her work from the beginning,” Gail said. “I loved her sense of journey and the way she incorporated motion and sound and all mediums to inform an idea to surrounding the aural. Her work that she did in the desert in the last couple of years was pretty poignant to me … Thinking about a person taking agency and being in environments that might leave one to feel very vulnerable and using that within the dialogue of the artwork is really interesting.”

In honor of George’s exhibit, Gail abandoned her academic voice and wrote a passion-filled essay.

“The artist must embrace every hurt wound, carry every damaged nerve and scrub rocks into the gaping holes of our hearts,” Gail wrote.

“The word “cancer” conjures up many feelings, becoming ineffable to describe,” Gail said. “What’s so amazing about artists is no matter what shit the world throws at you, somehow you have the tools to make it transcend and make it humorous, real and raw in a way that can be translated to many different people,” Gail said. “There’s a sense of redemption in that, where you’re not going to let it get you.”

“To stop at the word “humor” doesn’t give the artwork all the credit it’s due,”
Gail added.

“It’s also warm and family and really about the journey,” Gail said. “I think the word ‘journey’ is the word I cling to most when I think about Val and her work and everything she’s doing in regards to her personal fights and wins and the way she looks at artwork,
the world and the people she encounters.”

“Celebrate the life”
“Welcome to My Party” is certainly a celebration—sans streamers and cake. There are, however, balloons, disco balls and other images used to represent breasts.

“When you think about microphones, disco balls and balloons, you think party,” George said. “When you use them as a metaphor for breasts that have to be removed, it turns that idea on its head. I’m trying to celebrate the life that I’ve had, but it’s not always a party.”

WHAT: A solo exhibition featuring installation art, video, performance, sculpture, photography, new media and drawing
WHEN: On view now–Friday, Aug. 2
COST: $7 general admission, free for University of West Florida students
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.

George is hosting an artist-led tour of the exhibition at 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 20.