Healing Through Art

Stockton pottery artist’s breast cancer experience inspires new design

Photo by Shannon Lea Rock

Tara Heinzen is an artist. She’s also a breast cancer survivor—though she may buck that particular term—a woman, a proponent for body positivity, an entrepreneur, and a beacon for self-love and female empowerment. Tara, in a lot of ways, was always these things, but an experience with stage 0 breast cancer has influenced her life, her artwork, and her outreach for the past 8 years.

Stage 0 is a term used to describe a threat of breast cancer without any detectable masses. For Tara, her own mother had suffered stage 3C inflammatory cancer, a type of cancer that causes inflammation, discharge, and pain without any detectable mass until it’s at stage three or four. Tara tested positive for the BRCA1 gene and at age 35 began to have some of the same preliminary symptoms her mother experienced at 41. In 2012, after meeting with doctors, Tara opted for an immediate prophylactic double mastectomy.

Photo by Shannon Lea Rock

Many of Tara’s friends didn’t understand her decision to cut off both of her breasts without any detectable cancer in her body, but Tara—a single mother—didn’t want her own children to endure a lengthy battle the way she had with her own mother at 16. So, Tara started the process. She also decided to get reconstructive surgery after the mastectomy so she would again have breasts. Doctors told her implants after mastectomy helped women heal emotionally, and Tara did subscribe to the idea that breasts would give her confidence.

During recovery the burgeoning pottery artist couldn’t work as she had been. Her upper body was weak and between each surgery she would have to rest and recover, which meant she couldn’t manipulate large vessels and she couldn’t throw clay on the wheel.

To feed her creativity during recovery she began making small pinch bowls and other items she could create with less strength, but Tara yearned for the work she had done in the past. As complication after complication arose—from what Tara would later identify as breast implant illness (BII)—she racked up 17 surgeries and her artwork was forever changed.

Luckily, Tara was able to find the strength to pivot. As illness racked her body, showing up in the form of skin sensitivities, food allergies, GI symptoms, and more, she began to mold flow lines into clay tiles, a task she could manage even after each surgery. “Born and raised in Stockton, I’ve always felt connected to rivers, so it was natural for me to express the surrender I had to go through, flowing with what life presented to me that I could not control,” she explained. “I began a new style and direction as an artist, out of desperation to express what I was feeling.”

After working with the flow lines in small pieces, a friend, who was not an artist, rolled out large hunks of clay for Tara to work with. The pieces were uneven and lumpy, but somehow that was even better. She ended up creating a series of tiles that represented both her healing and her journey with breast cancer and BII, and showed it at an art show at Delta Community College, where it won several awards. Kathy Hart, president of Delta College, bought most of Tara’s pieces before the show began, and Tara knew that she had stumbled onto something important.

Tara eventually made the decision to remove her implants and just be herself. Flat chested and with scars, Tara felt stronger and still feminine with the ability to produce art in larger scales. “When it’s all said and done, the years of struggle, I can now say I do not regret it. My art and artistic endeavors reflect it all, enabling me to connect more with others, and hopefully share a message of self-acceptance, self-love, and healing for other women who struggle to embrace all they are,” Tara says.

Tara also wanted to give back as a way of thanking the powerful women who helped her reclaim her own life in many ways from surviving domestic violence, getting out of a toxic marriage, and her health struggles. She started Healing Earth-Arts Circle, a space for women to gather monthly to connect, encourage, and heal together, through artistic projects centered around connection to our inner Goddess and community of sisterhood (she plans to expand the efforts to all genders). She’s also part of the Stockton Strong Market, a group of female makers and entrepreneurs supporting each other. And, Tara works with local artists (photographers and painters) on collaboration projects encouraging and recognizing beauty beyond scars (one of which produced the photographs used in this story).

“It’s a privilege as an artist to use visual and tactile expressions to connect, bring awareness, and voice to some of the issues we face as women,” Tara says. “Facing breast cancer is scary, and one of the biggest fears I hear from women who ignore early signs and avoid taking preliminary action, is around the attachments to breasts.”

Peep her works:

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