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NewsJun 1, 2021

A graduate’s cancer treatment inspires her MFA thesis

With her series 'can you make hair for me?' Eileen Powers ’21 turns self-portraits into collaborative performance art

Eileen Powers in a striped shirt and one of the "heads" she and her collaborators designed.
Eileen Powers in one of her reflective self-portraits wearing a striped shirt and one of the "heads" she and her collaborators designed.

A lot has happened to photographer Eileen Powers since she began Lesley’s low-residency MFA in Visual Arts program in 2018.

She was diagnosed with lymphoma, which required intensive treatment, surgery, and frequent trips to Boston hospitals from her home on Cape Cod. Her illness derailed her plans for two semesters and forced her to shutter the graphic design business she had run for 20 years.

But when she returned to the MFA program, she drew on her experience of the physical and emotional effects of cancer treatment to push her creative work in a surprising new direction. She created a collaborative self-portrait project “Can you make hair for me?” in which she enlisted friends, supporters, and fellow MFA students to create hair for her, physically or digitally.

An Eileen Powers self-portrait wearing a fanciful salad-inspired "head."
Eileen Powers captures a self-portrait wearing a fanciful salad-inspired "head."

Her aim was to bring a much-needed dose of levity, color, and fun to an often grueling experience. The results, which she shared on Instagram, were spectacular. She and her collaborators made hair (or as Powers calls them “heads”) from materials ranging from dried oak leaves and lettuce to candy, ribbon, and drinking straws, and her performative self-portraits are whimsical, vibrant, and often comic. With her bald head serving as a kind of blank canvas, Powers takes on different moods and personae, including portraits where she plays the role of Dolly Parton, Donald Trump, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

She found that the environment of the MFA program and the support of her professors, mentors, and fellow students helped stimulate and broaden her creativity.

“I found that within the visual arts program, that people were really willing to experiment,” she says. “So if you came into the program as a painter, you might not necessarily leave as one. You might leave as a sculptor, or you might leave doing something completely different.”

Her portraits fell somewhere between photography, sculpture, and performance art.

Eileen Powers in a Donald Trump-styled self-portrait wearing a wig knit by fellow MFA alumna Corina S. Alvarezdelugo
Eileen Powers in a Donald Trump-styled self-portrait wearing a wig knitted by fellow MFA alumna Corina S. Alvarezdelugo

“It was really something that made me kind of take all of the things that I learned and apply them in a different way, which I really loved. It was a very beneficial exercise for me as an artist.”

While she focused on “Can you make hair for me?” Powers also continued working on other photography projects and experimenting with digital collage. “I’m somebody who makes a lot of work. So during the semester I’d start with one project, and I think ‘Oh, this is going to be my project for the whole semester’—it never happens. I had four projects last semester because I’m always doing something.”

She collaborated with Lesley expressive arts therapy professor Ara Parker on a virtual exhibition of “Can you make hair for me?” with graduate students in the Expressive Arts Therapy program making headpieces and hair for her. She also exhibited her work at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center where she received treatment and at Creighton University, where she also worked with students in the Department of Medical Humanities, which bridges the visual arts and medical fields.

Recently “Can you make hair for me?” was featured as part of “Artoma: The Art of Cancer,” a Chicago show featuring five artists of different disciplines whose lives were impacted by a cancer diagnosis. She was also invited to participate in the “Blossom: Fighting Cancer” show in Paris and has been a frequent guest on podcasts to discuss her work.

In February 2020 her doctors declared Eileen cancer-free. Her hair is growing back. She is producing a book of her photos and essays about her experience and was featured in a recent story in the Boston Globe. And as always, she has several different creative projects in the works.. And as always, she has several different creative projects in the works.

She’s grateful for the time she spent at Lesley.

“The MFA program is outstanding. The students are so engaged and come from so many different disciplines. The faculty are fantastic and encourage students to think in new ways. It’s a very cohesive, supportive community and I just got so much positivity from it. I’m so glad I chose Lesley.”