At the beginning of her second semester as an MFA student at SVA, recent alumnus Nina Frenkel (MFA 2012 Illustration as Visual Essay) was diagnosed with breast cancer. After treatment for the disease, while working on her thesis, Frenkel created a character called Brave Chicken to help her cope with the experience. Displayed recently in the MFA Illustration Thesis Exhibition at Visual Arts Gallery, Brave Chicken is now taking part in Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Patient Art Show at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, 1275 York Avenue, in the West Dining Room, May 21 from 5-8pm (opening reception), May 22 and 23 from 2-8pm, and May 24 from 2-5pm. On the eve of the exhibition, SVA Close Up caught up with Frenkel to find out more about Brave Chicken.
Talk about the inspiration for your Brave Chicken series.
Brave Chicken is a character that came to me from my experience of going through the emotional aftermath of breast cancer treatment. I was diagnosed at the beginning of my second semester in the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program at SVA in January of 2011 and went through treatment from February through November. By the time treatment ended, we were working on our thesis projects, and I knew I wanted mine to be about health and healing. But what I learned over time was that for me, figuring out how to live life after cancer treatment is very much about learning to keep moving with fear as a constant companion. To me, that is where health and healing began—finding a place to put my fear so that it wouldn’t keep me from moving.
So one day this past February, I was at the studio during a stressful period where I was waiting to have a follow-up PET scan. I realized I was completely exhausted from having to be brave, when all I felt was scared. And I realized that I was both: brave AND scared, most of the time. I was drawing while I realized that, and I wrote down in ink: Be a Brave Chicken. It felt right to me, and as I started to draw and form her, the metaphor became more layered and rich. She shares the same initials with breast cancer.
Brave Chicken happened in three mediums. Why?
When I initially proposed my thesis and I wanted it to be about “health and healing,” I didn’t know what it was going to look like. But I had an instinct that the process of making the thesis had to evoke health and healing in me—both in using expressive materials and in following my gut about the story-telling. I knew from experience that working with Sculpey was very tactile and fun for me, so I proposed that a part of my thesis-making would be my own art-therapy where I was making characters out of Sculpey and experimenting with how they related to each other, to play out some of the drama/trauma I had been through.
I also had a desire to make posters and comics. David Sandlin, our Thesis Instructor, seemed to totally understand and embrace this three-pronged approach, and that helped me a great deal in feeling good about doing it. He also encouraged me to have a through-line through the mediums, in the form of an “avatar.” In that way, he helped midwife the birth of Brave Chicken.
I’m very happy that I did this three-pronged approach: I feel that school is a time of growing and experimentation, and I wanted to really try a lot in that last semester since the prior two I was undergoing treatment and was barely hanging in.
Where does Brave Chicken go from here? Is BC’s work done, or will BC’s story expand? Does BC fit in a particular period of your life that’s in the past, or is BC in your present?
When I discovered Brave Chicken, it wasn’t long before I figured out that there are some basic universal themes here. In this world, who doesn’t have to be a Brave Chicken? So yes, I plan to keep working with her. One of the most challenging and rewarding parts of my thesis was making a “comic” about a touching conversation I had with a cab driver: once Brave Chicken materialized, I stuck her in the back seat as a stand-in for me, and the telling of that story flowed much more easily. Moving forward, I have two more Cab Conversations that I scripted out, that I would like to realize in comics form, with Brave Chicken in the passenger seat. If this character can help other people feel connected, understood, or better in any way, I will feel like my work has done what I wanted it to do.
Brave Chicken and all images copyright Nina Frenkel 2012.