In The Spotlight

John Magnan, ’67

When John Magnan's wife was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer, he turned to art "out of fear" and used his work as a way to document her experience. Now, his 16-piece exhibit, "body image/body essence" is helping countless other cancer patients find solace.

Magnan, '67, who had recently retired from his job as a senior executive with the National Security Agency, was pursuing a lifelong avocation in woodworking as a student in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts when he met Mary Wellman. The two married a year later. Less than two years after that, they heard the devastating news that Mary had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

"We knew nothing about ovarian cancer," Magnan says. The couple turned to the Internet to find out as much as they could about the disease. What they found out was alarming - survival rates at this stage were extremely low.

"I started dealing with it by making art," Magnan says. "It turned out to be a way for both of us to cope."

Magnan's first piece was "Sharps," a wooden egg he covered with 46,000 pinheads. He used the cut-off pin ends to form a prickly nest. The work took seven months and "became both a calming mantra and symbol of my wife's convalescence."

"Mary had just started chemotherapy and her hair started falling out, so I became interested in the question of hair," Magnan says. Starting with a graduate school art project, an 8-inch egg made of wood, he began experimenting with ways to represent hair. The egg became, for Magnan, the symbol for the exhibition as well.

As Mary's illness progressed, she and Magnan met other women and their families who were battling cancer. He became inspired by their stories and created, over a 15-month period, the "body image/body essence" exhibit.

Many of the pieces are about hair, he says. For example, "Day 17," a mirror crafted of cherry wood, is dedicated to a woman Magnan met who lost her hair all at once, while shampooing. He notes that she squeezed the water out of the ball of hair, put it in the sink, "and then shuddered to realize what she would see in the mirror when she looked up."

Another piece, "They Say It Never Grows Back the Same," is created of pine, birch and hairpins. Magnan says this was inspired by the conversation of women in chemotherapy, which "inevitably turns to a discussion of hair." With this piece, he "attempted to capture the humor that tends to characterize these interactions."

More upsetting than the loss of hair, for one woman, was realizing she could never have children. "The Nest," made of copper, hair and holly, was Magnan's way of representing her loss and showing how ovarian cancer "damages many eggs, defiling many nests."

His favorite piece in the exhibit is called "The Burghers of Bigelow 7." Sculpted of a variety of woods and steel, the piece is Magnan's interpretation of IV poles as people. "Watching women recover from surgery and endure infusions, I came to view the ever-present IV pole as a human form," he explains. "It was as if a second person followed them wherever they went."

Magnan's exhibition traveled the country for nine years. It was shown in 17 cities, documented in magazines, and featured on national, local and PBS television broadcasts. Mary was able to be part of 10 of those exhibitions, Magnan notes, adding that her dream was that one day, the exhibition would find a permanent home.

This summer, that dream will be realized when the exhibit is permanently installed in the new Women's Cancer Center at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where Mary's beloved oncologist recently accepted the position of president and CEO.

"Considering this a sign, I offered the exhibit, in its entirety, to the center, and they honored me with gracious acceptance," Magnan says. "To have it go to the hospital where Mary's doctor is is an amazing coincidence."

This new home will enable the exhibit to continue to be a source of consolation and support for cancer patients, many of whom find that the art allows them to cry or share their feelings with others for the first time. "As an artist, that's pretty satisfying to know you've helped someone communicate to a loved one what they are feeling," Magnan says. "If it gives them some catharsis, validation, then I'm happy."