In recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke to our friend and collaborator, Deborah Forman, an abstract painter, artist and breast cancer survivor. From her home in Rhode Island, she shared with us her experience of diagnosis and treatment as a young mom, how fashion empowered her, and lessons from the ocean. While our voices only met over the phone, we imagined ourselves somewhere by the sea, wrapped in organic alpaca, marveling at the world’s unpredictability together.

M.PATMOS: Nice to speak to you Deborah! How is life as an artist these days?
Deborah: You know, it’s funny because there’s kind of an isolated hermit factor to being an artist and so, in some ways, the quarantine and the pandemic have almost justified this natural behavior of just wanting to close yourself up in your studio. I think artists are pretty good at being resourceful in antisocial situations. So, it’s actually been a really productive year for me.
M.PATMOS: Glad to hear it.
Deborah: In terms of showing work, that’s a whole other conundrum. I was slotted to have a solo show in the Spring at my gallery, Candita Clayton Gallery, but it was shifted virtually onto Artsy and still up there for viewing, but of course it’s not the same as having an in person show. It’s so sad that there are no gallery openings but there’s been a lot on Instagram — people are interviewing other painters and it’s become this visual portal into seeing each other’s work and sharing ideas. Everything’s nuts right now, so it’s mostly a production time really. I definitely miss cultural events and hearing music and looking at art.
M.PATMOS: As do we. It was nice to have some of your work up in the shop over the summer.
Deborah: Yes, that’s true! I did have some pieces up at M.PATMOS this summer when it reopened. They were the actual collages that were used as the prints for the Spring/Summer collaboration that we did.
M.PATMOS: The geometry and the lines work so beautifully on clothing. What inspired you to adapt your art for textiles?
Deborah: Well, it was really based on the friendship that Marcia (Patmos) and I have — she’s one of my dearest, oldest friends from Rhode Island School of Design and I was doing these collage pieces and she liked them. I think she thought they would look really cool on a garment and I really love Marcia’s taste. I think we respect each other’s aesthetic sensibility and so it was easy to take that next step into designing things for her. We have a shorthand in how we get ideas across about how things should look — you see that in how the collection came together.
M.PATMOS: Was there anything about the style of the clothing that particularly suited your work?

 Deborah: Well, there is an ‘at peace’ quality in both of our work. That’s something I often look for in my painting — finding a quiet moment in the work somehow. I think that’s what I love about Marcia’s work too is that it has an understated ease to it with a sophistication of color and texture. The hand of the materials is really comfortable and soothing to wear.
M.PATMOS: And for those who may not be familiar with your art, how would you describe it? Are you mainly a painter?

Deborah: I would say it’s in the realm of geometric abstraction with an emphasis on color interaction. I’m inspired by a lot of different things, the landscape, the ocean. I live in Rhode Island, which is the Ocean State, so the Atlantic has always factored in my visual scope. I think seeing the vastness of the horizon always puts your own place in the world in perspective and then seeing the waves and the flux of the surface of the water is calming. And then I also love the decorative arts as well — I love the meaning and metaphor that’s in patterning and so I’m trying to combine those two things: the spatial depth of landscapes with the kinetic, rhythmic, aspect of patterning and have those two exist at the same time. So, I’m mainly a painter and I’m an educator too.
M.PATMOS: Where do you teach?

 Link, acrylic and pastel on panel, 3'x4', 2020 

Deborah: I’m painting full time now, but I have taught at Wheaton College for many years as well as at RISD continuing education. And I’ve also written a couple of books; I’m an author of two art instructional books, “Paint Lab” and “Color Lab.”
M.PATMOS: You mentioned attending RISD as a student — such a competitive school. Were you creative as a kid? Did you dabble in finger painting? 

Deborah: Yes, I always knew I wanted to be an artist at a really young age. When I was very young, I thought I would be a writer, but I always knew it was going to be something in the creative field. I luckily had parents who were pretty supportive and we always had supplies in the house. I was always setting up art projects, you know, I would put together a still life and get out the oil pastels and it was always fun. I was lucky that there was a combination of interest and the supportive environment. RISD undergrad is such a great place — that Freshman year you really get fully immersed in so many different media and I really took to painting and color and eventually ended up getting my MFA at Parsons in painting.

M.PATMOS: That’s excellent. Well, in thinking of this time of year and the fall season, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, as a survivor yourself, we wanted to highlight your story and share some of your experience with cancer if you are willing?

Deborah: Ask away.
M.PATMOS: How was it for you when you first learned of the diagnosis?

Deborah: Yes, well, it is absolutely devastating and terrifying when you get that diagnosis. I’m about nine years out from having first been diagnosed. I just found it through a routine mammogram, so I’m a big proponent of getting your mammogram — it’s really important not to blow it off. Had I not done that, I would be in a very bad situation. The protocol is that after Forty, you’re supposed to get them regularly. And I know a lot of women that just don’t do it; it’s troubling. I think what happens is that women, they’ll often have young children, or they’re the caretaker in the house and they kind of put themselves last on the list of people they need to take care of and it’s important to make sure that you don’t sweep yourself under the rug that way.
M.PATMOS: Did you go through chemotherapy?
Deborah: Yes, I had a lumpectomy — I had two lumpectomies because they didn’t get clean margins the first time and then I had chemotherapy. I had four rounds of chemo and then I had radiation; I had a lot of radiation. So, I went through a year and a half of treatment and just kind of being prodded… It’s a real physical hardship to go through that stuff. It’s important to really take care of yourself and surround yourself with people that are going to help and support you and love you, all those things. That’s really important. And my heart goes out to anyone who’s going through that now, it’s not easy.
M.PATMOS: For other women who may just be learning of their diagnosis, do you have any words of solidarity or advice?

Deborah: The shock of it all is real and it can really flatten you. But then you think okay, where do you go from there? You have to have trust in your doctors and you’ve got to be careful about Googling too much — researching on your own on the internet. You did not go to medical school and just trust your doctors that they know what’s best. Really, I did do that and I made myself more terrified and that doesn’t help. Something I tried to do also, was stay active and exercise. Right before I went into treatment, I was almost training for an athletic event. I stopped drinking and was trying to make sure my immune system was in good shape going into it. I found that to be really helpful. It was scary too because I had a young child, so to have that fear of your own mortality, that “Oh my God, I’m not going to be here for my kid,” and just the layers of terror that parents can feel around that kind of stuff. It was a lot, I can’t just say I ate kale and meditated and made it through because that really isn’t what happened at all. You have to show up to the appointments and do what you need to do — you’re just like a dutiful human body. Then, when I was finished with everything, with the treatment, there was the worry of if it was going to come back. I had a year of being consumed with worry all the time, so much so that I was crippled by it; I was making myself sick. The irony struck me that I had gone through this cancer treatment journey to be well and that’s when I understood that I had to shift my modality of maneuvering through this new post-cancer life. I had to evolve. I realized there are some things that you just do not have control over. It sounds cliché but we don’t know what’s coming around the corner and have to be grateful and find joy in the present because that’s really all we have. So that has helped me to let go of dwelling in the future too much and instead think of what can make me happy today. Find gratitude and make sure that you don’t waste enjoying the present moment.

M.PATMOS: And probably reduce stress as much as possible.

Deborah: Reduce stress and just toxicity in your life wherever it may lurk — if it’s in your workplace, if it’s in your relationships, if it’s in how you talk to yourself. When I got the diagnosis, I immediately got into therapy and that is also key. It’s really hard to do this on your own and I found that I really needed help and support in being able to process it and therapy was an absolute essential to get through it. If you need help you should get it and certainly a cancer diagnosis is a lot to take on. For me, I found it helpful to process that in therapy.
M.PATMOS: You mentioned you had a young child when you were first diagnosed. Did you share anything about your illness at that time with your child?

Deborah: I have a son and he was five years old when I had to start treatment and you know, I just couldn’t… I couldn’t bear to tell him. And he was like, “Why did you cut all your hair off?” And I just felt like I couldn’t…. I don’t know if in retrospect that was the right thing to do, because when he found out later when he was older, he was mad that I hadn’t told him then. But, I was very lucky that I had a good prognosis, so I felt like I was going to get through it and I felt that it wasn’t going to help him in any way. I don’t know if I agree with how I handled that, but maybe I didn’t have the tools to know how to at the time. But I did tell him a couple years later.
M.PATMOS: At the risk of sounding vain, how hard was it to lose your hair?

Deborah: Well, it was really hard. I preemptively shaved my head before I got chemo. I remember I went to Supercuts and the woman that shaved my hair, I told her what was going on and she said that she was an ovarian cancer survivor, and we both cried when she shaved my hair off. It was like she was meant to be the person that shaved my head — it was this incredibly poignant moment of sisterhood and cancer survivorship and yeah, a little vanity. It’s tough to shave your hair off, especially for women I think. But it was kind of freeing, I was like wow, I never knew my head was that shape; I had never done it. So that was wild — I remember thinking, well what’s going to be my cancer look? My style icon was Rhoda, you know, Valerie Harper? So, I got really into vintage scarves by Vera, Liz Claiborne, and Yves Saint Laurent that I would find on Etsy. I would wrap my head in them and would work an exotic eye and earrings and that was my look. It actually fueled my love of textiles too. I think it made me feel powerful, you know, it’s an empowering look I think: I may not have my hair and I may be going through cancer treatment, but I’m still pushing a strong look. I’m not hiding it, I’m pronouncing it.
M.PATMOS: Sometimes fashion really does help you become the person you need to be for the day.

Deborah: Fashion is important, it expresses how you feel about yourself and who you’re saying you are with what you wear. When we had our twentieth reunion for RISD, I had just finished treatment and I was such a hollow person and I was like, I don’t even want to go. And I remember Marcia took the train and she brought five or six outfits for me to try that she schlepped in these big garment bags so that I could look good and feel better — I’ll never forget it; it was the sweetest thing.

M.PATMOS: Do you feel you have to be extra cautious about potentially contracting COVID?

Deborah: I mean, I’m definitely careful. Because I’m nine years out, I’m not in the high risk category — you have to be having chemo currently to be more at risk. So, I wouldn’t say that’s a realistic fear, but it’s been interesting because with the pandemic, I feel strangely prepared. Because okay… Unpredictability? Check. Feeling of impending doom? Check. I’ve been dealt these kinds of challenges before. It’s totally different, of course, it’s more global, not just my own universe. But in dealing with it personally, I feel like cancer has given me some tools for that. I’m not totally gob-smacked by it. I’ve been talking with some friends and they just can’t… I guess the disappointment of things changing suddenly has been hard for people to deal with and I definitely have experienced disappointment with the pandemic as well. But I think, well, what does today hold? Do I have some paints I can push around and play with? Can I enjoy hanging out with my kid as much as I can — even though he’s thirteen — Can I be present for the ones that I love? I mean, I really try. You know, what’s good today? What’s good right around me right now?
M.PATMOS: About your art, you’ve written that through trials, the colors eventually reveal how they wish to be structured. That seems like a good philosophy for life as well as art: to stop overthinking and worrying, to keep going and trying and life will reveal itself in each of us how it wishes to be.

Deborah: What you put energy towards becomes stronger. So, yeah, things will unfurl naturally in the flow of life and time. There are elements of life that are out of control and trying to find a way to be okay with that is hard. It’s interesting, in teaching all these years, when I look at students' work, the most interesting are the ones that embody that spirit of curiosity because they’re open — I think you have to be that way when you’re painting. If you try to control things when you’re making them, they never feel right, you can just sense it. And you know in a way, that’s part of going to the ocean too, it’s constantly changing and the flux and flow of it is always a good reminder that’s what life is like: you can’t hammer it down, everything is always changing.
M.PATMOS: And the vastness of it is humbling as you mentioned.
Deborah: Yes, and it makes you feel a little smaller, which can be a good thing. If your anxieties or your worries are taking over — it just gives you a little context I think.
M.PATMOS: Well, thank you so much for sharing such a personal story, it was lovely to speak to you.
Deborah: It was lovely to speak to you, too. Don’t forget to get your mammogram.



Find out more about Deborah Forman on her website and Instagram.