Overcoming Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the past two years has not only tested University of South Florida MFA graduate student Megan Hildebrandt’s inner strength, determination and endurance, but it also dramatically changed the course of her artwork.
After spending the summer of 2009 going through intense night sweats, a constant sore throat and massive swelling on her neck, Hildebrandt found out she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma in her first month of graduate school at USF.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a form of cancer usually found in organs that clean the blood and fight against infection, such as the lymph nodes, liver and spleen.
From September 2009, Hildebrandt underwent six months of chemotherapy at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, but she stayed firm on pursuing her higher education and artwork like nothing had changed.
“For me to move back home to Michigan [to] lay on my parents couch would have been the worst thing possible,” Hildebrandt said. “I had to keep busy. I had gotten into grad school with a good fellowship, and I wasn’t going to give it up.”
Prior to her cancer diagnosis, Hildebrandt focused mostly on the various communities that she lived in and explored them through performance art.
“My work was really different,” Hildebrandt said. “It was still involving labor and repetition and my body, but it was in a really different way.”
Every Saturday morning for one, eight-month performance project, Hildebrandt scrubbed and washed the front entrance steps of many Baltimore homes dressed in a traditional blue maid outfit and light-brown boots. Cleaning the front marble steps was something mothers and their children did every Saturday on a regular basis during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s in Baltimore, so Hildebrandt attempted to resurrect this tradition and reconnect people on a personal and cultural level.
This performance project, like many others, was documented with a comprehensive photograph collection and even video. But at the outset of chemotherapy, Hildebrandt’s artwork took a different turn.
“I think getting cancer at 25 is not the norm,” said Sarah Kelly, a fellow MFA graduate student and close friend to Hildebrandt. “I think [her art] was a way to speak to a community whether you had cancer or not, like struggles that we all face as human beings. She does it with great dignity, poignancy and humor.”
She began to draw and paint pictures and portraits of her neighbors, new plants and animals around her, and sinkhole victims afflicted by the destruction of their homes and properties. Hildebrandt said there was a parallel between a sinkhole victim’s plight and her cancer diagnosis.
“The idea of the ground disappearing from under you and your house being gone is just as brutal as a cancer diagnosis,” she said.
When Hildebrandt finished her cancer treatments, she started to make a lot of pencil sketches that resembled comic book art. At this point, Hildebrandt’s artwork chronicled everything that she physically felt or was going through moment by moment fighting the disease, such as the major swelling on her neck.
From her depictions of her fight, Hildebrandt transitioned to painting figurative images of her emotions including how things actually felt during treatment.
For instance, when Hildebrandt underwent surgery to remove her chemotherapy port, the medical staff did not use anesthesia. This made the entire procedure extremely painful and upsetting for Hildebrandt who then turned those feelings into art.
Hildebrandt also experienced the complete loss of her hair as well as terrible nausea from Doxorubicin, one of the chemotherapy drugs she ingested intravenously.
In the image below, she draws a group of cancer patients swimming in a sea of this red-colored drug and wearing headphones while watching television. Hildebrandt watched a lot of television during her chemotherapy sessions.
In chemotherapy, Hildebrandt suffered from short-term memory loss as well and created a figurative painting of this side effect.
“I wasn’t that creature with gold glitter pouring out of my head,” she said. “I wanted to paint the feelings.”
Hildebrandt is working now on a 30-page graphic novel called Tunnel Visions – a collection of her artwork and writings on her experience with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and general ideas of mortality at a young age. With the help of a grant from Hampton Arts Management, Hildebrandt will author, format and self-publish her book in the near future.
Originally from an affluent suburb of Detroit, Hildebrandt got her BFA from the University of Michigan before coming to USF. She is in her last year of graduate school and also teaches art classes on campus. She aspires to become a professor of art and continue painting and drawing.