Breast in show: Project raises breast cancer awareness.

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 4/22/10.] Last fall, Traci Pena, owner of Reincarnation – the “upscale resale and fab finds” boutique on River Street in Rutland – was hurrying around town pitching a crazy idea to local artists, businesses and community members. The idea? Make plaster casts of women’s (and men’s) chests, give them to artists to turn into unique pieces of art, and auction them off all in the name of breast cancer awareness. Pena dubbed it “Lasting Mammories.”

“Initially, people were hesitant; they had trouble visualizing what this project would look like,” said Pena, who in addition to Reincarnation recently founded the Pink Ribbon Diva Foundation, a nonprofit that provides aid to local individuals and families who are dealing with breast cancer.

Pena describes it as a way to locally support people who are affected by breast cancer.

“I want to help women and their families with the everyday aspects of their illness,” she said, explaining that the money is intended for day-to-day necessities like transportation, groceries and childcare – the basic needs that often become a burden when a loved one is undergoing treatment.

But the notion of getting women to bare their breasts (even for a good cause) is not something women usually jump at. Add to this the fact that Rutland is a fairly buttoned-down community, and it looked like Pena might be fighting an uphill battle. However, she managed to get some early adopters, and once others began to see the process, they came around.

“People have an odd reaction to breasts,” Pena says, making a nod to our country’s puritanical roots and, at times, stifling modesty. “But I like to push the envelope, make people think.”

And that’s exactly the goal of “Lasting Mammories.”

“I wanted to look at breast cancer in a different way,” said Pena, “I wanted to raise awareness, but do it in a beautiful, fun way.”

Breast cancer is an issue close to Pena’s heart. Her mother lost her battle with the disease at 37. Pena was only 6 years old. “Breast cancer irreversibly changed my life before I even knew what breast cancer or breasts were.”

To that end, Pena has dedicated “Lasting Mammories” to the memory of her mother.

“I believe she is watching over me,” she said emotionally, “I think she would be proud.”

While her mother was Pena’s motivation to raise awareness of breast cancer, it was a similar art project that served as her creative inspiration. During her time out west, Pena encountered something called “Breast Impressions,” a project which made plaster casts of women who were about to lose their breasts to mastectomies.

Pena loved the idea, but took it a step farther by allowing the models to determine the shape of their casts. Each one is a different canvas, which was then randomly assigned to an artist. The result is a widely varied mix of colors, shapes, and mediums.

Some celebrate the form and curves of the model, putting the breasts on full display. Some are touching depictions of love and loss – a mother-daughter dual piece connects the two generations with a pink, satin ribbon. Others are subtler; the butterfly created from Pena’s cast is a true transformation.

Indeed, transformation is a major theme of the project and much of Pena’s work. The Pink Ribbon Diva Foundation’s logo is a butterfly, which Pena describes as a “symbol of change, joy, resurrection, transition and celebration.”

In the models, she witnessed this first hand: “I saw the transformation of these women, baring themselves, feeling good about their bodies, knowing that everyone is beautiful in their own right.”

On April 9, the pieces debuted with a showcase and concert performance by singer/songwriter Kacey Jones at the Pyramid Holistic Wellness Center in Rutland. The gathering drew nearly 100 people. The 18 resulting pieces are currently on display and up for bid through the end of month at Pyramid.

Following the premier, Pena is pleased with the results.

“It’s so powerful to see it come to fruition,” she said of the project. When asked if “Lasting Mammories” would happen again, Pena said yes, but was uncertain as to when. However, the Pink Ribbon Diva Foundation is currently offering to make casts of any woman about to undergo mastectomy. Pena describes it as an opportunity to for women to retain a memory of their breasts forever.

But Pena is anything but a one-trick pony. She already has plans for a very different community art event for next year. In the meantime, she’s in the midst of planning her annual “For the Love of Tea” celebration.

The traditional tea party and “re-fashion” show will take place on May 2 at the Lilac Inn in Brandon where, among other things, it will be the final chance to bid on the “Lasting Mammories” pieces, which will be awarded that day. (For more info visit http://www.reincarnationconsignment.biz or search “2010 For the Love of Tea and Re-Fashion Show” on Facebook).

While both the tea party and “Lasting Mammories” have been successful outings for her foundation, Pena notes that the real reward comes in the way she has seen these projects impact people’s lives. Pena cited the 50-year-old woman who, after viewing the exhibit, was compelled to get a mammogram for the first time in her life.

“It’s a fun way to start a serious conversation,” Pena says.

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