Alum's Art Books Depict Fight With Cancer
When Martha Smith Hall ’71
was on the verge of a new career, close to completing her
Master’s of Business Administration from Dartmouth’s
Tuck School and headed for a high-powered job in advertising,
she received her first diagnosis of breast cancer.
It was 1989. Hall was 39.
Remission from the disease followed a litany of treatments
and for 10 years she thrived in business, rising to become
the director of customer satisfaction at the New York offices
of L.L. Bean, the popular Maine catalogue company of outdoor
clothing and gear. Then she received her second diagnosis:
a recurrence of breast cancer, more widespread this time.
Hall’s life took countless turns in the years following
her cancer recurrence. She quit her job and moved back to
Maine, her home state. She molded her schedule around a streaming
succession of treatments—radiation, chemotherapy, counseling,
more prescription drugs than she could organize.
And she returned to art, which
she’d studied as a Smith undergraduate, not only for
pleasure, but therapy. Eventually, she concentrated on creating
artist’s books to express her experience in dealing
with cancer, and through which she realized emotional release,
communication with her loved ones, and the creation of a legacy.
Hall’s books, composed of poems, prose passages, ironic
quotes by health professionals and striking images, are intensely
moving in their directness and chronicling of a receding life.
Her books achieve a rare balance of artistic beauty and poignant
She continued producing books during the next five years as
her health steadily deteriorated and her artistic ability
In 2001, Martin Antonetti, curator
of rare books in Smith’s Mortimer Rare Book Room,purchased
Hall’s The Rest of My Life, a poetic reflection
on the duration of her treatment, artistically crafted in
scribbled notes and organized in a box like a Rolodex file.
“It has been more than a year since I was diagnosed
with a recurrence of breast cancer,” begins the piece.
“Friends ask, ‘How much longer?’ There is
no answer. I don’t have an answer. The doctors don’t
have an answer.”
Hall even made a book about the college’s purchase of
that book titled Anxiety (to Martin Antonetti).
“It was clear to me at the time that with these books
Martha had embarked upon a project of systematic catharsis,”
recalls Antonetti. “She was attempting to make sense
of all that was happening to her, to document her collision
with the health care profession and at the same time to exorcize
some horrible demons.”
Other books address aspects
of her life with breast cancer, such as one titled Prescriptions;
a piercing work called Voices: Five Doctors Speak;
and a particularly moving card catalogue compilation of remembrances
of similarly afflicted acquaintances called Ghost Friends.
In fall 2003, Antonetti curated
an exhibition of Hall’s books in the Mortimer Rare Book
Room, which later traveled to Bowdoin and Wellesley colleges
and Yale University.
“No one—not even Martha and her family—had
seen all her work together before,” says Antonetti.
“It was overwhelming. The whole series had a powerful
and potentially transformative logic. It was clear to me that
we would have to document this and share her insights with
a much wider readership.”
A catalogue of that exhibition, Holding In, Holding On:
Artist’s Books by Martha A. Hall, displays pictures
and the content of Hall’s art books, with a foreword
by Letha E. Mills, one of Hall’s physicians, and a statement
The catalogue was recently selected as a winner of the 2005
Katharine Kyes Leab & Daniel J. Leab American Book
Prices Current Exhibition Award, given for outstanding
exhibition catalogues and brochures by the Association of
College and Research Libraries, a division of the American
Library Association (ALA).
“The committee chose the Smith College entry because
of its use of exquisite photographs of each book displayed
and the moving texts written by Ms. Hall herself,” wrote
Melissa Conway, chair of the ALA awards selection committee
of Holding In, Holding On. “As an example of
how best to exhibit artist’s books, it is an outstanding
production. As a record of one woman’s struggle against
a terrifying disease, it is a shining example of how an exhibition
catalog can be a powerful work of art in itself.”
In December 2003, only two weeks after a visit to Smith for
the well-attended opening of the exhibition of her books,
Hall finally succumbed to her 14-year fight with breast cancer.
She’s survived by her husband, Allen Hall, and two daughters,
Gabrielle Hall ’99, and Danielle Hall, who received
a master’s in education at Smith in 2003.
“Martha the person was a victim of a dreadful disease,
but Martha the artist was a healer,” says Antonetti.
“Martha shows us the catalyzing power of art. In over
two decades of curating exhibitions, this has been the most
significant, emotionally charged and personally rewarding
Hall’s award-winning exhibition catalog will receive
honors during the annual ALA conference on June 26. Antonetti
will attend the conference to accept the award.
Meanwhile, through her artistic and insightful books and her
award-winning catalog, Martha Hall’s legacy will live
Copies of Holding In, Holding
On are available for $15 from the Mortimer Rare Book
Room. For more information, consult