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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.


Test Day, by Martha A. Hall, February 1999

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 meaning.

She continued producing books during the next five years as her health steadily deteriorated and her artistic ability developed substantially.


The Rest of My Life, by Martha A. Hall, November 2000

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.


Voices: Five Doctors Speak, by Martha A. Hall, August 1998

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 by Hall.

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 project.”

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 on.

Copies of Holding In, Holding On are available for $15 from the Mortimer Rare Book Room. For more information, consult http://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/rarebook/publications.htm.

 

 
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