Viewing ovarian cancer through the art of sculpture.

I began creating body image | body essence when my late wife, Mary, was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer. At first I responded to the visual impact of hair loss, with several pieces in the collection exploring the conflict between "who I am" and "what I look like." Later, during hospital visits, I met many other women with the disease. Their expression of the impact of cancer on their lives inspired other pieces, ranging from life with an IV poll to the exhausting impact of chemotherapy to bravery. The result is a collection of 15 sculptures that traveled the country to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.

With the support of Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, body image | body essence opened at the Boston Museum of Science, and then traveled to museums, universities and galleries in 17 cities across the country. It now resides on permanent display at Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia, PA


I covered this 8” wood egg with 46,000 pin heads using the cut off ends to form the prickly nest. Cutting and embedding each pin into the wood, a task spanning 7 months. The egg, an artistic symbol for female, in my mind became a symbol for the exhibit as well.

8” - pine, steel, walnut
©2000, John Magnan

The Burghers of Bigelow 7

Watching women recover from surgery and endure infusions, I came to view the ever-present IV pole as a human form. It was as if a second person followed them wherever they went. Referring to Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais, (men sentenced to die in return for the end of Edward III’s siege on their city) these “IV poles” portray women dealing with thoughts of their own mortality. In the end I see it as a hopeful piece, as the Burghers of Calais were ultimately spared by the sympathetic pleas of Queen Phillipa.

life size - ash, maple, purple heart, walnut, cherry, curly birch, steel
©2000, John Magnan

370 47 16

At times my patients seem prisoners to a large, unstoppable medical system. Once committed to treatment, their tests and procedures take on a life of their own, sweeping them along to some invisible and unpredictable conclusions. Their patient identification numbers became their passport to treatment. This sculpture portrays one “mug shot” during post-infusion hydration.

12” x 16” - paper, hair, photos, ports, hospital tubing, hospital bracelet
©2000, John Magnan

Day 17

I dedicate this piece to the woman who told me the chilling story of losing her hair. Unlike most others, she lost all her hair, at once, without warning, while shampooing. Squeezing the water out, she placed the ball of hair in the sink … and then shuddered to realize what she would see in the mirror when she looked up.

24” x 36” - cherry, mirror
©2000, John Magnan

Chemo Brain

Everyone laughs at the phenomenon of forgotten or lost thoughts plaguing women during chemo. This is my way of looking at it. My writing along the side says, "I had a great idea for this sculpture, but now I can't think of what it was."

24”‘ x 36” - hospital tape
©2000, John Magnan

They Say It Never Grows Back The Same

It seems when women who have had chemotherapy meet, the conversation inevitably turns to a discussion of hair. A frequent topic concerns the appearance of their hair before and after treatment. In this sculpture I attempted to capture the humor that tends to characterize these interactions.

52” tall - pine, birch, hair pins
©2000, John Magnan

Beyond Exhaustion

There is a “look” in the infusion center. Chemotherapy chemicals drain the soul, especially as the months drag on, blood levels drop and the grind of repeated visits takes its toll. The long ordeal is reflected around the eyes. It’s a look that’s more than tired; it’s a look that’s beyond exhaustion.

life size masks - clay, steel
©2000, John Magnan


In the midst of chemotherapy and hair loss, many women turn to wigs. My late wife Mary asked me to make her a carved wood wig. Here it is, carved out of walnut, and indeed wearable.

life size -walnut
©2000, John Magnan


These life casts of Mary were taken during the height of chemotherapy treatment to document the completeness of the hair loss. They so strongly resembled personal armor that I followed the lead to create a bronze helmet and shield as symbols for the battle waged by all dealing with ovarian cancer.

life size - bronze, leather
©2000, John Magnan

Teal Madonna

The 2000 teal ribbons forming the “hair” of the Madonna reveal the widening part often evidenced on women once the chemo begins to leave its mark. As the first outward sign that one has cancer, the inevitable hair loss drives home the undeniable reality of the journey that is only beginning. Where will it lead? How will it end? One can only hope, or pray.

42” x 28”philippine mahogany, holly, ribbon
©2000, John Magnan


In Echo’s stance of power and determination I see the strength and spirit of all women living with and fighting ovarian cancer. They find meaning through their bravery and determination, defying the odds to hang on to a new normalcy, and that is their victory.
42" tall

white oak, pins, glass
©2006, John Magnan

The Nest

One survivor explained to me that losing her hair was devastating, but even more devastating was “knowing I could never have children.” Her comment led me to realize that this disease damages many eggs, defiling many nests.

36” x 26” x 16” - copper, hair, holly
©2000, John Magnan

Dear Diary

Excerpts from prescription receipts, clinical trials, insurance forms, hospital bills, etc. adorn this abstract head as reminder of the myriad of words assaulting patients during cancer treatment. Mary hand-stitched her treatment dates on the linen pillow case, made from a discarded skirt which no longer fit. Unrecognized at the time, the bloated waistline that made the skirt too tight was a symptom of the progressing ovarian cancer.

18” x 22” - pine, paper, linen, down/feather pillow
©2000, John Magnan


Meaning “stratification,” this set of nested Russian dolls portrays the stages of hair loss many women experience during chemotherapy. As each patch disappears, right down to the eyebrows and lashes, the woman is challenged to rely on her inner self. Matryoshka embodies the conflict between image and essence.

6” nested doll - birch, walnut, glass, human hair
©2000, John Magnan


Repeated wax castings of bald head and torso examine the remnants of both the artistic process and the regimen of treatment. On one hand, the forms are copies of the waxes which led to the bronze casting for Warrior. At the same time they are reminders … traces … of the surgery and hair loss experience.

life size – wax
©2000, John Magnan