About the Bust Project

By Toby Hilden
My mother died of metastasized breast cancer in February of 2001 after valiantly struggling with the disease for five years. After her death, in the months that followed, a large part of coping with the emptiness in my life was my art.
When I first started my Breast Cancer Art Project I was driven by subconscious motives I wouldn't understand until much later. It began from a need to create something out of the emptiness in my life, a time consuming project to fill my days with errands and give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Mom and Toby
Earlier in 2001, I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to create a sculpture using fiberglass, a media I had never worked with before. In the past, I had made countless three dimensional pieces out of paper mache, a favorite medium of mine. It is an easy, cheap and forgiving material to work with, but ultimately the end result always felt temporary. Of all the paper mache sculptures I had created in college, not one of them survived in a U-Haul. For what I was preparing to do, that subconscious motivation was telling me I needed to go stronger, more durable. permanent.
I began to educate myself on the basics of fiberglass construction. I learned it was the process of laminating resin and glass weave fabric. I found that there are several types of resins, all with different qualities, and even more types of fabrics, all with different weights. One of the fabrics I was drawn to was ballistics grade kevlar, which is used to make bullet proof vests. I thought, what a strong and permanent sculpture that would make!
fiberglass bust project After some research and experimentation, the gears were starting to turn in my head. I quickly saw the versatility of fiberglass is not in layering or building it up like with paper mache, rather it was in casting. With a media like fiberglass, I could create graceful and unique sculptures by pouring resin into molds and forms. My first attempt at a fiberglass torso was a far cry from the sleek high concept sculpture I envisioned. It was bumpy, uneven and porous. I applied layer after layer of coating compound and used auto body patch filler to even out the rough spots.
It all became clear to me, one morning as I labored in my garage with a power sander, trying to smooth out the bondo. With beads of sweat trickling down into my eyes, I started to wonder what exactly was I doing? This sculpture is way too thick! Why the ballistics grade fabric? Why the over kill? It finally dawned on me what that subconscious motive was. I was attempting to create breasts that were indestructible. This was the gift I wanted to give to my mother and my metaphorical fight against breast cancer. This insight was the catalyst I needed to move forward. I envisioned dozens of sculptures, auctioned off for, Breast Cancer Charities. Building Breast Impervious To Cancer, it would be a tribute to mother.
breast cancer art project I was infused with purpose, and for the first time in months, I felt good. I sent out a call to the San Francisco art community. I asked for "Women willing to be covered with plaster for a breast cancer art project". I did this, realizing how strange my request must sound, wondering if anyone would "get it". I was absolutely overwhelmed with what happened next. Women of all different ages and backgrounds responded. Not only did they all "get it", they came with stories and messages of hope, and each brought her own unique energy to my project. After mother passed away, one of the hardest things for me, was that I was so far away from my family.
I felt alone and didn't have much of a support system. However, this project and my kind volunteers became the support group I needed, when I needed it most. It was a wonderful healing process to be able to share stories about my mother with these women and to learn about their personal experiences with cancer. What started as a diversion became an art project. I created sculptures that embodied beauty...and strength. In the process, I found new strength of my own.
View some of the end results: The Bust project
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