Kat Toronto is a multidisciplinary artist from San Francisco who is currently using self-portraiture to create a universe of her own. While her photographs are visually strong, unique and sometimes haunting, the story behind them is one of a woman who had to fight for her life.
“Dolls in the House of Venus” is a new series-in-progress comprised of Polaroid photographs and Super 8 films that delve into a complex set of questions brought about her confrontation with cervical cancer at 29. The series focuses on her alter ego, Miss Meatface, who emerged shortly after her diagnosis. Using photography and short films, she sets out to explore the changing roles that gender play in the life of a 21st century feminist, the cultural ideals of feminine beauty and the push and pull of dominance and submission through the act of revealing and concealing.
I asked Kat if she would agree to do an interview with me.
Here is her story.
Kat, you’ve been told at age 29 that you were suffering from a cervical cancer. What events lead up to your diagnosis, or, how did you discover what you were suffering from was cancer?
The most frightening part of the whole experience was that I had absolutely no symptoms. No pelvic pain, no irregular bleeding. Nothing. I went in for my three year pap smear and received a call about a week later from my gynecologist that the tests had come back abnormal. She said that there was the possibility that it might have been a false positive and that I needed to return to have a small biopsy taken from the cervix. I returned and had the biopsy which subsequently came back positive for abnormal cancerous cells. Getting the phone call was the worst part because I don’t think anyone at 29 is prepared to hear that they have cancer.
How did you cope emotionally?
Emotionally it was extremely difficult. I truly felt that I was alone and I was also in a very unhappy relationship at the time which added to the feeling of loneliness and isolation. I had been told by my doctor that if I wanted to have children I needed to do it as soon as possible because in order to stop the cancer from spreading I needed to have a total hysterectomy. The problem was that I was with someone I knew that I definitely *did not* want to have children with. I eventually decided that even though I wasn’t 100% positive I didn’t want to have children that I needed to have the hysterectomy for the sake of my own health. Emotionally each day was like a roller coaster, one minute I’d be thinking logically and feel like I had a clear vision of everything, the next minute I would become angry and I would become overwhelmed with an avalanche of questions: “Why is this happening to me?”, “Did I do something to make this happen?”…etc.
Tell me the story behind Miss Meatface. How soon after your diagnosis did she come to life?
I’ve come to realize that Miss Meatface had been residing in my psyche in one form or another for quite some time. When I was in college in the early 2000’s I fell in love with photography and began taking self-portraits. After I graduated I began focusing my art attentions elsewhere and it wasn’t until around the time that I was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2010 that I started to think about photography and self-portraiture as a way to express all of the complex and confusing emotions I was feeling at the time. In late 2013 I began a photo series of self-portraits called the Spirit Saints that I now realize was the true beginning of my Miss Meatface persona. This was also a pivotal moment for me because it was at this time when my obsession with hoods and masks began.
How did the people around you react to Miss Meatface? Did they understand her purpose?
There was an interesting mix of reactions when I began shooting the Miss Meatface images. Many people were a bit shocked and confused because they were used to seeing the dreamy popsurrealist images I had been previously creating for the Spirit Saints series but I think that those close to me know where Miss Meatface is coming from and how she is an emotionally therapeutic entity for me.
Can you explain your creative process? How did you end up elaborating such a strong persona as Miss Meatface?
I actually find a considerable amount of inspiration for Miss Meatface shoots from random items that I stumble across at second hand shops. It can be a piece of clothing, vintage doll or doily. Sometimes it’s a particular space, location or room that will strike me. Miss Meatface began as an elaboration on the characters that I had been created for my Spirit Saints series, they were the very first incarnations of Miss Meatface. With each shoot a new facet of Miss Meatface emerges and from there I expand on those facets. She is a constantly evolving organism.
At age 32, you underwent a total hysterectomy. How did this event affect your views about your own place as a woman in society?
It was an incredibly strange feeling at first. I have a penchant for thinking too much so during the recovery process while I was at home by myself I would start questioning where I stood in regards to being a woman, both physically and metaphorically, and I became incredibly depressed and confused. The best way I found to explore this confusion and depression after the operation was to do it through photography and self-portraiture, and so began my foray into the world of Miss Meatface.
“It is extremely important not to stigmatize women’s health issues, the more they can be brought out into the open and discussed freely and openly, the healthier the world will be from it.”
Have you completely recovered?
Physically I have totally recovered, yes. Thankfully hysterectomies now have fairly quick recovery times due to advances in medicine but psychologically and emotionally I know that I will always grapple with things.
Where do you stand, in 2016, as a feminist who had to fight cervical cancer? What are your reflections about your role in society?
I feel that my role is to open as many conversations as possible with people about my own experience with cervical cancer and to make it something that people are not afraid to talk about. When I first received my diagnosis and told my friends, I was surprised at how many of them went through similar situations themselves but had never spoken with many people about it because they were self conscious or embarrassed by it. I think that the more open these issues can be discussed the better society as a whole will be from it. It is extremely important not to stigmatize women’s health issues, the more they can be brought out into the open and discussed freely and openly, the healthier the world will be from it.
Tell me about your new series, “Dolls in the House of Venus”. What is your goal with this project?
The “Dolls in the House of Venus” series began over one weekend during a recent visit to a friends house in the UK who is a latex fetishist and also into dollification. I’ve always had a penchant for latex but to also have access to dollification masks was incredibly inspiring and I was thrilled to be able to incorporate them into my Meatface images. This experience helped to draw me even deeper into my thoughts and photographic examinations regarding gender, identity and sexuality. My ultimate goal for the “Dolls in the House of Venus” series is to discover more about myself and my sexuality in the age of the selfie where the hypersexuality of young women runs rampant. Rather than looking toward the future via digital photography I’ve chosen to look to the past via Polaroid photography and Super 8 films in order to dig deep into where I, as a 35 year old woman who has experienced cervical cancer and undergone a total hysterectomy, fits into the 21st century as a sexually active feminist female.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I tend to draw my inspiration from a wide variety of sources, from vintage kitsch decor to Elizabethan and Tudor portraiture and the work of Leigh Bowery. I adore the photography of Pierre Molinier, Claude Cahun, Ellen von Unwerth and Cindy Sherman, Elmer Batters and Eric Kroll to name a few… Also, old latex and fetish magazines like AtomAge and John Willie’s Bizarre Magazine.
How do you think/want other people to respond to your art?
At first glance I think that people see my work and immediately think “How bizarre!” but the more they look at the images the more questions begin to form in their head and they begin to ask questions not only about the person in the photographs and the photographer, but also of themselves.
With Miss Meatface, you created a universe of your own where the bizarre and the unusual meet. Do you sometimes feel like you have to justify your art or the meaning behind your work?
I do think that it is important to let your audience in on the concepts and ideas behind your work, just as much as it’s important to leave some mystery behind it as well. I don’t feel like I need to justify what I do per se since I create my photographs because I view my photography as just another part of myself like my heart or my lungs and without it I wouldn’t be able to survive, it’s just a huge bonus that people seem to find it intriguing and enjoy viewing it as much as I enjoy creating it!
Would you say that art and Miss Meatface saved you during the most difficult times of your life? How did it help you understand yourself and your life?
Absolutely, yes. Through Miss Meatface I’ve been able to become more comfortable with myself and my sexuality after having experienced cervical cancer and a hysterecomy. Without photography and Miss Meatface I think I would probably be crippled with depression, having my emotions eat me alive from inside. Art (and photography in particular) has been an amazing outlet for me over the past few years, it really honestly has been a life saver.
Where do you see Miss Meatface going in the future?
I feel certain that Miss Meatface and I have quite a few more adventures ahead of us and that she will continue to evolve and grow with each photograph and film. She’s taken me on some fantastic journey’s thus far and I can’t wait to see where she will take me next!
What would you like to say to women who are, or will be going through the same thing you went through?
I know that it may sound cheesy, but it is important to remember that you are not alone. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to feel all of the emotions that you are going through. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in asking others for help and support. Open yourself to friends, relatives and strangers about what you are experiencing, you will likely change others’ lives as well as your own just by starting a conversation.
The international exhibition for the completed “Dolls in the House of Venus” series has been set for July 2016 at the Resistance Gallery in London. More details to come.