Q&A: Bekki Vaden, Founder of the BreastStrokes Fundraiser

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BvadenBekki Vaden will be among those painting naked torsos when the non-profit BreastStrokes has its 7th annual Painting Days event May 16-17. A $10 sitting fee goes directly to two women with cancer in this area, and the paintings are photographed from neck to navel with photos auctioned at a later event. Vaden founded BreastStrokes.

Do the women who model choose from pre-selected designs?
They may choose pre-selected flash from the artist painting them, and we leave it up to the artists to accept a request or not. We worked mostly with requests in the past, but after painting our 1,000th butterfly, the organization has really pushed our volunteers to paint more uniquely marketable designs. There aren’t really any limitations. I always ask myself, “What would I hang on my wall?”

What’s been the most unusual painting request?
I’m not sure if it was our most unusual, but it is definitely one of my personal favorites: Mayor Madeline Rogero’s likeness painted by Jessica Gregory, who has worked hard as a volunteer for us for the past six years.

Why did this seem like a good approach for cancer fundraising?
It kind of started out as a joke. One day in 2009 I was bored at home and painted googly-eyes on my nipples and a silly, toothy grin on my belly. I took a picture and sent it to some friends for a laugh. At the same time, I found out about a friend of a friend who was diagnosed with stage 4 aggressive breast cancer. Some of my friends were working hard to put together a fundraiser for her, kind of an art flea market. I called my longtime pal Ammi Knight and asked her if she thought it would be a good idea to paint some different things, photograph the artwork on our human canvasses, and then put them up for sale at the fundraiser. She was all in. We invited about 10 lady friends to my tiny home in Old North Knoxville, and Ammi brought her friend Tovah Greenwood, who happened to be a professional photographer. We partied and painted. Tovah, who is now the group’s president, took the photographs, and I sold about 14 prints at the first fundraiser. We held our second painting day a few months later at Tovah’s photography studio and 75 or 80 women showed up to be painted. It wasn’t super organized then, so a lot of ladies that came in to be models ended up painting their friends. That was when we realized that not only is this project benefitting someone in need, but we, as a community, were benefitting spiritually and emotionally. Women were laughing and bonding, survivors were telling their stories. We were looking at one another’s bodies and having discussions.

Does the project stir up strong emotions?
I have been asked on several occasions about how I reconcile our work with pornography and the objectification of women. My answer is fairly simple: Our project is one of individual empowerment, not dehumanization. Every woman comes through that door willingly and we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable for our own personal reasons. One model had a chemo port and a colostomy bag. She and her close friend came and were painted together. She told us afterward how thankful she was for the experience. How she hasn’t wanted to be naked in front of anyone, but when she took off her shirt before her friend and artist, she felt okay and held her head high. We even changed our name from “Knoxville Paints the Tatas” because we wanted to take away any notion that we were sexualizing a disease. We aren’t here to “save tatas” or “save boobies.” We are here to empower and provide support to the whole woman; body, mind, and spirit.

What happens with the money raised?
We give it directly to our beneficiaries, women with cancer who need financial aid. There are no limitations as to how they are able to use the funds. They can pay medical bills, mortgages, utilities, groceries, or take a trip to Dollywood with their kids.

How much time do you personally spend with BreastStrokes?
Over the years, I’ve painted on and off, taking time for having babies and starting a business. Tovah and Ammi, who is now the group’s vice president of arts, have never taken a year off that I know of. In fact, their proverbial torch bearing is exactly what has gotten BreastStrokes to where it is now. We have monthly board meetings and spend a lot of evenings in between making calls and answering e-mails amongst other things. The work is always more intense around our events. Cancer has ravaged our families and stolen our loved ones. It’s personal for everyone involved.

Are there other ways BreastStrokes raises money?
Sure! We sell calendars, which are very popular, T-shirts, koozies, magnets, etc. We also take direct donations. We typically have one fundraiser a year, like last year’s bachelor auction/celebrity bartending event, to raise money for operating costs. We also have sponsors who basically pay for our calendar to be printed so that money from those sales plus whatever we make at the auction can go straight to our beneficiaries

Is a certain body type, cup size, or skin color more difficult to paint?
We’ve painted all sizes and shapes and different designs work better on different body types. It’s part of the challenge for the artist that makes it so fun.

Is it awkward at first?
imageOur models are vulnerable, so I make myself vulnerable as well by painting topless. I’m already topless when I meet my models, so it might be more awkward for them! We are all about respecting personal boundaries. I’ve had models that want certain parts of their body covered up or enhanced. I’ve painted a woman who didn’t want her nipples to be touched, so I painted a design on her sternum and stomach and we cleverly disguised her nipples behind props in the finished photograph. We can cover your scars or make them shine. And some ladies like to take a shot of whiskey—whatever they want. It’s their body!

Does the paint tickle?
It does! There’s always a lot of laughter in the studio. We use non-toxic craft acrylic paint and Snazaroo™ body and face paints. We have one artist who works strictly with spirit gum and rhinestones, and another who uses gold leaf

Does every painting tell a serious story?
Whether the painting tells a story or is simply a beautiful pop design, everyone has their painting day story. The events are really fun and there’s lots of, “Wow, you look great!” Or, “When did you have your mastectomy?” I would never describe the events as somber, although many women have heartbreaking stories. We focus more on all of the uplifting energy circulating between us and throughout the studio.

Do you have a favorite torso you’ve painted?
I’m a big fan of a Jackson Pollock-like painting I did. The colors are wild and it was really fun to splatter the paint. The model was also a joy to talk with.

How would you define success for this event?
One where women show up excited and leave smiling, full of heart. I used to hear a lot of negative self talk in the beginning: “I hate my boobs,” or, “Mine are ugly.” I almost never hear that anymore. Women are high-fiving each other in line and looking at one another, realizing, I think, that we aren’t so different. If I can help one woman see herself as valuable, beautiful, and brave, I know I’ve done my job.

Painting Days: Saturday and Sunday, May 16-17, 2 p.m.-9 p.m. at Ironwood Studios (119 Jennings Ave.), BYOB, guests invited, women-only event. For more information or to volunteer to paint, see the group’s Facebook page or e-mail bekki@breastrokesknoxville.com.

Rose Kennedy came to Knoxville to work as an editorial assistant on 13-30’s Retail Appliance Management Series and never saw a reason to leave. Her “so uncool I’m cool” career among the alt weekly newspaper crowd has led to award-winning articles on Dr. Bill Bass and the Body Farm and cyber-bullying at West High School, and treasonous food columns about preferring unsweet tea and feeling ambivalent about biscuits.

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