Artist's sculptures show how she came to terms with breast cancer

Artist's sculptures show how she resisted then came to terms with disease that eventually took her life

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Pittsburgh sculptor Cydra Vaux had planned to give a talk Thursday at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. But the breast cancer that she held at bay for 12 years claimed her on July 13. She left a wonderful gift, however, in the form of 18 compelling terra-cotta sculptures made as she resisted and then came to terms with the disease.

Her family and friends will instead participate in a public salon, "Struggling Toward Utopia: Reflections on Cydra's Art, Life and Legacy," 6 p.m. at the Westmoreland @rt 30, 4764 State Route 30, the museum's temporary location while its Greensburg building undergoes renovation and expansion.

The Shady Side Academy Junior School art teacher was an accomplished sculptor with a lifelong interest in feminist issues combined with a utopian outlook that sought balance between men and women achieved through mutual respect. Her finely crafted and richly detailed works incorporate references to a variety of world myths, religions and symbols, particularly those of places she visited including India, Egypt, Brazil and the U.S. Southwest.

Vaux was first diagnosed in 2001. After a mastectomy, the cancer went into remission, then returned in 2009 and spread to her liver. She was 51 when she died.

She was born in Utah but her family was from Washington state, and she became familiar with the iconography of the Northwest as a child. "Self Portrait With Totem to Protect Life and Ward off Cancer" (2011) builds upon the form of a totem pole. The boat atop the head of the figure, fashioned upon the Hindu goddess Kali, references the crescent moon found on goddesses' headdresses and the Viking ships of the artist's Scandinavian heritage. Three equal-armed crosses in the boat represent balance between heaven and earth and are figural stand-ins for the artist, her husband and son. The boat and crosses allude to Max Beckman, who fled Germany after the Nazis deemed his art "degenerate."

"May our family sail away from the atrocity of cancer," wrote Vaux in her extensive and articulate commentary, which she considers "an integral part of the work, and not an afterthought."

The abundance of symbolism continues through this and the other works as Vaux combines global and historic archetypes and beliefs to construct her own powerful mythology. Her observation that life is multi-faceted and filled with more gray areas than absolutes is reflected in the works' in-the-round construction. The front of this sculpture, for example, is fierce -- to "ward off malevolence," while the back features "regenerative spirits." They represent two presumed opposites that in fact often combine. "Here, fury is claimed as a positive force that unites with life to offer protection. As I continue my battle with cancer, I claim the gifts of these two services."

While working in metaphor and allegory, Vaux does not shun vulnerability, a sharing that those with like experiences will find particularly meaningful. In the 2012 work "Drawing Strength From Art and Ancestors," the artist depicts herself nude. Her head is bald and belly bloated from chemotherapy. A bandage covers her abdomen drain tube and a scar replaces her left breast.

In 2008, a blood test indicated a problem her doctor attributed to medication. "The doctor was wrong, very wrong," she wrote in her description of "The Holy Act of Cleansing" (2009). In "Institutions Support Yet Suffocate; Transcendent Art Restores" (2013), she reflects upon the duality of medical treatments and institutions that both diminish and support quality of life.

She worked simultaneously in 2011 on the two pieces placed at the exhibition end. "Self Portrait With Horse and Skeleton" masterfully weaves the three figures in a movement-filled, tension-fraught dance. "Self Portrait With Mirror Image of Death and Church Window" is quiet, almost submissive, as the artist's right hand and left knee meets death's opposites. The horse represents life and the skeletons, death. As she worked, she realized the sculptures were in dialogue. The former "images me shunning death and choosing life." In the latter "I surrender to the mystery of life and death, which is mediated by the transcendent power of the Divine: the church window."

Not every sculpture addresses Vaux's cancer. Her decades-long examination of what she saw as the patriarchal absorption of women's history led to works like "Pope Joan of the Wind" (2005), inspired by the apocryphal pontiff, and the celebratory raunchiness of "Cancan Girls: Baubo and Demeter" of 2008.

She wrote of the portrait with mirror image of death, "I am not at peace with death ... I desperately want to be among the living. ... But it is better for my own sanity to stand and face it in the eye. I have stopped running from death, and there is a bit of freedom in that."

That is a courageous stance, but perhaps more instructive to the memory of Vaux as artist, teacher, wife and mother are her comments for the 2013 piece "Self Portrait With Wolf (based on a dream)." Here she faces the wolf in the eye.

"I knew that our society values the civilized, and not the wild-free-primitive." She embraces the wolf and "was crying with the relief of our understanding and the pain I felt for him." We may only hope that this creative free spirit is running with the denizens of a fantastical universe that she so open-mindedly embraced.

The exhibition continues through Sunday. New location hours are noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission and parking are free. Information: 724-837-1500 or See Vaux's sculpture at

Pop-Up Studios

The museum continues Pop-Up Studios after a successful launch last week. Colombian wildlife artists Paula Andrea Romero and Emmanuel Laverde will lead a workshop in botanical illustration for ages 15 to adult from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 2. They have illustrated environmental projects and their works have been published by Discovery News, National Geographic and Birdlife International. ($40 includes art materials; participants should brown bag lunch.)

Pittsburgh artist Wade Kramm, who will exhibit at the museum next month, will create an installation artwork with workshop participants from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 13. ($15 includes materials, wine, beer and snacks.) Studio space is limited and reservations are suggested.

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.

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