Living Beyond:The Woman Inside Project

woman inside

When I first read about the Woman Inside Project I was so impressed by the beauty of the task that creator Lissa Rankin has taken on, that I contacted her to find out more.  Lissa, a physician and artist, began the project of making plaster casts of the torsoes of breast cancer survivors, five years ago. The aim behind it is to reveal the true beauty that lies within each breast cancer survivor.

Today in a guest blog post, Lissa shares more with us on this project.


Lissa Rankin

Breasts in bikinis on the beach. Breasts in beer commercials. Breasts in movies, on television, on billboards and buses, and in magazines. Breast implants to make your breasts bigger. Breasts peeking out of the Playboy behind the counter at the 7-11. If you were an alien assessing our society for what we care about, breasts would be way up there. When you have breast cancer, you lose a piece of you that society really cares about. Which can make you wind up feeling less than whole.

As an OB/GYN physician, artist, and writer, my aim in creating The Woman Inside Project is to shine a light on the beautiful woman that lies within each breast cancer survivor. When I began this project five years ago, I was arrogant enough to think I could hand-pick the women with the “interesting” stories, but I was quickly humbled to realize that every woman is beautiful when you take the time to see her.

For this project, I spent the past five years casting with medical plaster the torsos of women with breast cancer. When I complete the cast, I hold it up and say to the woman, “So this is what the world sees. Now tell me about the rest of you.” I then listen for as long as it takes her to unveil the breathtaking woman inside.

When the woman goes home, I paint her cast with encaustic, pigmented beeswax, the medium about which I wrote my first book Encaustic: A Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax (Random House, 2010). I also transcribe her story into a first-person narrative of the beauty I see within each woman. Women I have cast describe it as a spiritual healing of sorts, during which I touch their bodies, cast their pain, then remove it and transform it into a work of art.  The stories I write are gifts to each woman, revealing to her the way I see her, letting her know she is heard and witnessed.

Every woman’s story demonstrates a different type of beauty. When she was diagnosed, Jo was a busy OB/GYN physician and holistic healer helping women with diseases such as breast cancer. Chemotherapy left her unable to use her hands, so she had to leave the practice she loved. Chemo is now long behind her and the wounds have scarred over, but she admits that she still feels wounded. However, I have a feeling her healing work in the world is not over.  The healer within her radiates like a lighthouse from a cliff, and I have no doubt it is her big heart that women need, not her hands.

Pam didn’t wait around for cancer.  Adopted as a child, Pam knew nothing about her family history until her adoptive mother died and the biological sister she never knew existed called with bad news.  In Pam’s biological family, everyone died of breast cancer- her mother and maternal grandmother were already gone.  Pam decided not to take any chances and opted for a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy.  Opting not to reconstruct her flat chest, Pam wears her body like a badge of courage, opting to choose love over fear. When I asked her what she looks like inside, she told me she loved hot rods, sports, and body building, but mostly she loves people.  She said, “I guess I’m like ketchup- Heinz 57, that’s me. All the ingredients all wrapped up in one is what you get.”

I could go on (and I do), with story after story, woman after woman.  Not to diminish their pain, but breast cancer survivors are not so different from everyone else. While traumas such as breast cancer crack us open and force us to grow, we all experience painful wounds that threaten to unravel us.  It’s how we respond to our wounds that truly tests us and gives us the opportunity to blossom. When viewers experience The Woman Inside Project, I hope they realize that each of us has the capacity to be this beautiful.  

While I chose to cast breast cancer survivors because their wounds are so visible, I could have cast any group of survivors and the stories would be equally riveting and awe-inspiring.  When people have been to hell and back and you invite them to tell their truth, what emerges is a slender green stalk that, with tending, blossoms into full flower.  The women who participated in this project have created a garden for which I can claim no credit.  All I did was give them a piece of earth, a little water, and a whole lot of love, and they have bloomed.  It has been an honor to be their witness.

The Woman Inside Project will begin a national tour on January 24 in partnership with my friend and exquisite photographer Nancy Bellen in a joint exhibit of our work titled, “SHE LIVES.” The show begins at Commonweal , nonprofit health and environmental research institute in Bolinas, California.

Lissa Rankin is an OB/GYN physician,an author, a nationally-represented professional artist, as well as the founder of Owning Pink, a website and series of workshops committed to building authentic community and empowering women to get their mojo back. She practices holistic women’s health at Clear Center of Health in Mill Valley, California. Her nationally-recognized abstract encaustic paintings and sculptures are represented by galleries in San Francisco, Santa Fe, Boston, Atlanta, Laguna Beach, Houston,and Bethesda.  She is the author of the forthcoming What’s Up Down There: Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend (St. Martin’s Press 2010) and Encaustic: A Guide to Creating Fine Art With Wax (Random House, 2010). She currently lives in Northern California with her husband and fellow artist, Matt Klein, and their daughter, Siena.