Cat Gwynn: 10 Mile Radius
As the scope of my own life shrank I was forced to look even closer and realized this kind of thoughtfulness allowed an inner expansiveness that transcended many of the fear-based boundaries I had ever imposed upon myself. The images in 10-Mile Radius are the intimate moments and lovely people I happened upon – all immeasurable markers along my path. – Cat Gwynn
My long time friend, fellow Six Shooter, and talented photographer, Cat Gwynn has just released a new book, 10-Mile Radius, published by Rare Bird Books. It wasn’t a project she was expecting to create, but in 2013 she discovered a lump in her breast and the difficult journey back to good health allowed her to see herself, the world, and her neighborhood anew. This book inspires a shift in thinking about illness; it’s about being present and reclaiming personal sense of being in the world, and most importantly, within oneself. An interview with Cat follows.
As Cat states, “As the scope of my own life shrank I was forced to look even closer and realized this kind of thoughtfulness allowed an inner expansiveness that transcended many of the fear-based boundaries I had ever imposed upon myself. The images in 10-Mile Radius are the intimate moments and lovely people I happened upon – all immeasurable markers along my path.
Cat Gwynn is a Los Angeles-based, award winning photographer. She was educated in photography, film, and fine arts at Otis Parsons Art Institute, and has completed numerous master workshops with such esteemed artists as Mary Ellen Mark, Joel Peter Witkin, and Barbara Kruger. Her artwork is collected and exhibited in international galleries and museums, and is sold through the Susan Spiritus Gallery. Cat’s images have been published in a number of photo art anthologies, including Ed Hardy’s seminal book, Forever Yes: Art of the New Tattoo, and have appeared in many other publications including Artforum, Texas Monthly, and Artweek. Her photo memoir, 10 Mile Radius is being released in the fall of 2017 by Rare Bird Books.
10-Mile Radius: Reframing Life on the Path Through Cancer
How do you find beauty and meaning in the most ordinary things when your life is being pulled away from you by the most extraordinary circumstances?
On May 4th, 2013, I found a sizable lump in my right breast. Ten days later I was diagnosed with Triple Negative breast cancer – a disease long feared. My mother had succumbed to breast cancer after a five-year battle. Now it was my turn to live with it.
Living with cancer is a confining experience; doctor’s appointments, a rigorous treatment schedule, down time to recuperate, then onto the next round. As the treatment protocol intensified, my immune system became more compromised, requiring limited exposure to the world around me. So I mapped it out: my day-to-day existence was now reduced to about a ten-mile radius.
In order to survive this ordeal, I needed the courage to say yes to it all. This meant sitting with mortality, difficult side effects, and every other uncertainty being thrown my way. Surrendering to this confined reality, I decided to engage in a daily practice of seeking out images with my iPhone that would connect me to the immediacy of life. There was no filtering what I found, only a genuine curiosity to see things as they were and how I chose to frame them.
I didn’t set out to make an art project about my experience with cancer, but over time realized it was a conceptual way to show my quest for well-being and willingness to uncover aspects of the world that are normally overlooked. By being present with deep truth, I was opening myself up to my own healing. This process created an opportunity to witness my life and share it with others resulting in authentic bonds and connections to many things beyond myself.– Cat Gwynn
Congratulations on 10 Mile Radius! What a powerful and profound journey. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your growing up and what brought you to photography?
I was raised in a complex family. My parents were smart and loving in many ways, but clueless and self-centered in other ways. Me, being the empath who absorbs everything, took on the burden of our broken family dynamic, which has colored everything in my life in both positive and negative ways. Everything was and is a dichotomy. But there’s something astute about dichotomy…if you’re willing to see beyond black and white you begin to understand it’s all shades of grey. I didn’t understand that as a kid but it certainly informs my life now.
But my philosophical insight aside, I think you’re asking about my literal upbringing! I was born in LA, moved to Fullerton when I was a kid and lived in banal, upper-middle class suburbia. I never fit into that framework. When my parent’s divorce busted up the family I got into drugs and punk rock, and while that’s certainly problematic in many ways, still it helped form me as a burgeoning artist and gave me permission to find my voice and push the envelope.
How did you get started on the project?
I’ve been a meditation practitioner for many years and when I got diagnosed with Triple Negative breast cancer, a rare, very aggressive and deadly form of breast cancer, I knew sitting on a cushion wouldn’t be enough so I decided that the only thing I had a choice over was to create another mindfulness practice that could keep me in the present moment and help me cultivate joy. I love being a photographer, so I turned to my iPhone as an easy way to capture images each day and taught myself how to use the apps to process the photos I was making. Over time I started to see an aesthetic develop. My original intention wasn’t to make a series about my experience with cancer, but as time went on the work developed into a wonderful collection. This daily photo-making practice, which I dubbed ‘my gratitude practice in motion’, truly became my life-line.
The work feels very formal—I almost got the sense that photographing in this way allowed you to control your vision, when so much else was out of your control?
That’s probably true to a certain degree, but I’d say more of a subconscious response to my situation than a definitive choice. I wanted to approach my whole life with a willingness to take it all in – not turn anything away, even the bad stuff. My eyes were always open; I didn’t want to miss anything. So when I’d frame my shots my aim was to honor the essence of ‘what is’ as beautifully as I could. That might be the last time I’d ever see that again and I wanted capture my reverence. When I look at these images they feel like precious jewels to me.
Also interesting that so much of the work is filled with brilliant color, that you were finding small celebrations of life.
Again, this wasn’t my original intention but you’re right, the colors are brilliant and celebratory. During my illness I learned to listen to what my body needed in order to heal, so the vitality I captured I’m sure was medicinal. My creative impulses were like a magpie or a four-year old girl where every shiny object or pretty bauble lured me in. And lord knows I love me some spangle! Sometimes our path has to be showered with nuggets of gold to propel us forward
Tell us about getting the book published?
Once this body of work started to unfold and I was conceptualizing how to turn it into a story, I started thinking about how a book like this could be published. It’s first and foremost an art book, but it’s also memoir with a narrative that spans a wide audience base. I needed to find a publisher that would not only respect this unique hybrid of a book I was proposing to make, but also had the ability to promote and distribute it in a broader way. I approached Tyson Cornell, who is the founder of Rare Bird Books that’s based here in Los Angeles. He puts out about fifty or so books a year and his catalog is eclectic, smart and compelling. He’s a risk taker and knows how to package and sell books. He was supportive from the beginning and when he pitched the idea to Publishers Group West, the distribution company, they were on board too.
What do you want your readers to take away from the book?
That it’s not just a book about cancer! Serious illness can be a catalyst to seek out a deeper understanding of what it means to be alive, but you don’t need to go through cancer to appreciate how meaningful your one precious life is. You just need to wake up to your life…over and over again. 10-Mile Radius is about scope, how most of our limitations are self-inflicted, but even dealing with something as truly reductive as cancer you can still generate expansiveness. It’s about facing our biggest fears and not losing ourselves to them but rather finding ourselves through them.
This statement is so powerful: “Having an honest interchange with the very thing that threatened me, saved me. It empowered me to rise up and meet myself in ways I never could have imagined.” How is the Cat we meet today different?
Honestly I feel like I am the same person in many ways, just more enhanced with the positive attributes one garners after going through something so immense: courage, honesty, urgency, wisdom… And I find that I’m more conscious about releasing negative thoughts and situations much sooner than I would have before cancer. Mostly though, it’s a daily awareness of how grateful I feel to have this second chance and not take things for granted.
Shortly before I got diagnosed, I had started a phenomenal black and white portrait project, Cry for Me. I’ve shot for this project on and off over the past few years but because of my illness and working on my book I couldn’t give it my full attention. But now that I’m done with the book, creatively this is where I’ll be putting my efforts. Both projects – Radius and Cry – delve into the redemptive healing powers of vulnerability; one through facing mortality and the other through breaking gender stereotypes. And this is where we are right now in the world…this crumbling, confused, divisive world, but I believe both projects are hitting the zeitgeist perfectly.
And finally, describe your perfect day.
Wherever I am and whatever I am doing the perfect day includes making photographs! It could be as fantastic as being in Paris looking at art, enjoying delicious food, wine, and great conversation. And I could be just as happy sitting quietly on a bluff observing a red hawk glide gracefully over a valley. Either type of day is beautiful to me because it’s about deeply connecting to life.
RADIANT PEOPLE (I met on my 10-mile radius)
Finally radiation. I chose a facility close to my home. It was a mile each way, so I figured I’d get some exercise and could make photos along the way. I start observing people I pass on my daily walk to treatment. We all seem so different when really, at our core, we’re the same. These folks don’t necessarily know I’m going through cancer. I certainly don’t know what they’re going through.
But we all have a story…
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