Treasure Chest 

Laura Besterfeldt turns nipples into art'for a good cause.

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At first glance, people with their chests and breasts exposed'lathered in oil and drizzled with hot wax'seems erotic. Walking into this very situation in the front room of Laura Besterfeldt’s apartment is instantly intriguing, to say the least. With the tools of her passion strewn about, and a greasy hardwood floor below, she is collecting her specimens'soon to be captured in sterling silver forever.

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She is casting nipples to make pendants. And, despite first impressions, the encounters are very intimate and the stories that are incidentally extracted during the process became an inseparable part of the work.

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“Casting is about honesty,” Besterfeldt says. “There’s no intention; it just is.nn

Just as everyone’s body is different'the contours, size, color, shape of the nipple'so are their histories. Her work deals with what she describes as “making maps of our skin.” With this project, she’s been documenting a particular moment and its physical element. And in this space, people were able to relinquish their timidity and become accessible.

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It started with one pendant, made by request. After making one of her own, people were constantly curious when they saw the piece around Besterfeldt’s neck. She began hosting “casting parties” in her apartment, where she would invite small groups of people over to make wax molds of their nipples. These gatherings gained a lot of momentum for the project.

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The sense of community that formed in this setting was fascinating. Everyone was interested in both Besterfeldt’s process and the individuals being cast'and was able to adjust to a different social demeanor. As the buzz spread, since people who had been cast were excited to talk about it, more and more castings took place. More and more diverse bodies became involved. She cast third nipples, pierced nipples, mothers and their children, women who breast-fed, a pregnant woman, twins, women who had breast reductions, women who had breast implants and women who had mastectomies. The age range was men and women from 11 to 86. Often people who came as spectators ended up in wax.

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After all the baby oil, ice, wax, carving, casting, and polishing, the resulting sterling-silver impressions have something more to offer than a mere reflection of the original. They present a new view, more intimate and detailed than what you see with your eyes when you look down at your own body. It is preserved and has become a snapshot, a relic of the body that can span time indefinitely, unlike actual living tissue. At a distance, human bodies appear very similar, but in close proximity to each other, their scars and histories become visible. This process, which has yielded such a vast array of results, is what prompted Besterfeldt to plug it in to a cause.

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She was unsure where to start when the beauty of coincidence intervened. When Besterfeldt explained to a young inquisitive girl that her pendant was a cast nipple, the girl mentioned that her yoga teacher teaches a class for breast-cancer survivors called “Quality of Life.” She was talking about program leader Amy Conn at Centered City Yoga, where Besterfeldt regularly attends classes. After attending one of Conn’s classes, Besterfeldt arranged to donate a portion of the proceeds from her show to the program, and to cast Conn and several of her class regulars.

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Conn herself is a breast-cancer survivor. She prefers “survivor” because to say someone is fighting cancer she feels sounds derogatory and denotes resistance. And she does exhibit the qualities of a survivor. After being diagnosed two years ago, she became an active advocate, not a victim. For the better part of a year, she underwent radiation treatment and, not long after it concluded, went to Washington, D.C., to meet with Congress and lobby for legislation on treatment for the uninsured. “Cancer is costly,” she says, “so wellness should be free.nn

This became the motto for the program she initiated at Centered City Yoga, which encompasses not only survivors but also their friends and family. The program involves a free weekly class and three six-week workshops throughout the year. The supportive forum involves not only yoga practice but also the sharing of their experiences with cancer: remedies, doctors, etc. No breast cancer is alike, Conn says; no person is alike.

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This is the common thread that links her to Besterfeldt’s project. No two nipples are alike, and the imprints obtained from casting her and her class attendees can relay their own tales through appearances alone. One woman mentioned that the process allowed her breasts to give positively again, after their having been a conduit for keeping another human alive and then becoming cancerous and having the life taken out of them. The project helped them come full circle.

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LAURA BESTERFELDT: 2ND SKIN
nKayo Gallery
n177 E. Broadway June 15-July 6
n532-4717
nReception June 15
n6 p.m.–9 p.m.

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About The Author

Cara Despain

Bio:
Cara Despain is an artist, freelance art writer and curator. She is co-curator of GARFO Art Center and faculty at the Visual Art Institute.

More by Cara Despain

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