After photographer Eileen Powers was diagnosed with lymphoma in fall of 2018, her community showed up to help. They made hair for her.
Cancer was putting her life on hold: Her business as a photographer, graphic designer, and illustrator foundered. She stepped away from pursuing her Master of Fine Arts at Lesley University. And in February 2019, she was hospitalized for emergency surgery.
“My hair was coming out in clumps and I was in so much pain,” Powers said over Zoom from her home in Yarmouth Port. Her partner, Tom Yonce, came to the hospital and cut it all off.
When Powers got home, friends and family brought pot roasts, meatloaves, and casseroles. But the chemo had nauseated her, and she couldn’t eat them. The first thing out of everyone’s mouths — “how do you feel?” — wearied her.
“People really wanted to help, but they were uncomfortable talking to me, or they didn’t know how to help,” she said. “So I thought to myself, how can I take this energy and make it something we could both benefit from?”
The answer came to her as a joke: She was bald. She needed hair.
“I’ll just ask people to make hair for me and it’ll be something goofy and funny,” Powers said. She models the wigs on Instagram. (Find her page at www.instagram.com/canyoumakehair.)
Folks have made hairpieces out of shoestrings and paint swatches. A musician friend fashioned one from guitar and banjo strings. Powers makes some herself.
“I found kale at the supermarket one day and I thought, well, that looks really cool,” she said. “I can fit that under a hat and that’ll work. And it did. Then we cleaned it and we ate it.”
She taught Yonce how to use a camera and art-directed every shoot. But chemo is nobody’s best look.
“At first it’s shocking,” said Powers, who is 54. “The drugs make your skin splotchy. I have no eyebrows. Some of them make your face swell. It was really humbling to be in front of the camera.”
The treatment was rough. In addition to the surgery and chemo, Powers underwent a stem cell transplant and immunotherapy.
But she continued to glam up and clown around. She played Donald Trump and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a boxer and a birthday cake. Cancer had besieged her sense of self, and the bright, colorful sendup of fashion photography helped.
“I absorbed all these other identities in order to try to build a new one,” she said.
More wigs came in. She spoke to art students and medical students about the project. She exhibited it at the Cancer Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she was being treated, so other cancer patients could see them.
“If they were going through chemotherapy, maybe they would see these and say, ‘you know what, I don’t know if I’m going to live or die. But for this small moment of time, I can laugh,’” Powers said.
The project helps cancer patients. It also helps helpers.
“There’s something wonderful about being invited in to play, with her needs in mind at the same time,” said Ara Parker, professor of expressive arts therapy at Lesley. Powers brought “Can You Make Hair for Me” to one of Parker’s classes last year. The visit blossomed into a studio project and virtual exhibition.
The photographer’s friend, artist Richard Zeid, made curlers out of letterpress prints.
“For the people making wigs, it gives them a way to support the person going through it,” said Zeid over the phone from his home in Chicago. “For Eileen, it gave her a creative outlet, a way to deal with it, to accept it and make something better out of it.”
Acceptance has been crucial for Powers, who is uncomfortable with the notion of cancer being a battle.
“I learned quickly that I had to accept the circumstances if I was going to progress with whatever limited life I had at the time,” Powers said. “I think acceptance is really the first thing you have to do.”
In February, 2020, she was declared cancer-free.
But her relationship with cancer goes on. She calls the disease “a specter.” The project continues, too. It’s the focus of her MFA thesis; she graduates from Lesley in June. These days, she shoots moodier, black-and-white self-portraits.
“Once I became cancer free…here I was left with the ruins of my life,” she said. “I think the pictures now reflect that insecurity.”
Powers has collected the photographs in a book and landed an agent. She wants to encourage people to think about how to collaborate with sick friends on a creative project.
“It gave us this bridge. We could talk about the hair. We could talk about how silly it looked, what I might want to wear,” Powers said. “And then we could talk about how I was feeling.”