JEI OLSON: THE ALCHEMIST
Fianceé, builder, painter, artisan soap maker, DIY-er, tomboy, sister and daughter of breast cancer survivors
Diagnosed in 2009 at age 42
Double lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiation
Jei Olson is a tinkerer — even her name reflects her ability to fashion something fresh out of existing material. (When there were too many Jennifers on a job, she pronounced herself Jei. And so she was and is!)
Jei brought her decisive, creative personality to her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
“I decided it’s not going to change who I am,” she said “Instead, it was going to make me more of who I am.”
After her diagnosis, Jei decided to seek joy — and goofiness — during treatment. That’s why she shaved her hair before chemotherapy made it fall out. A photo of her defiant pose on that day, complete with a playful tuft left on her crown, is the basis of the portrait.
“It felt good to take ownership of it,” she remembers. “Laughing in the face of danger made it my own.”
Jei did not wear hats, scarves or wigs while she was chemo-bald. During treatment, other patients and medical staff were always eager to see what stick-on tattoo would be on her scalp during appointments — a pirate’s skull and crossbones, a crown, a glittery design.
“If I could delight someone else, it lifted me up,” she said.
One of the most tense and unpleasant parts of her treatment was the ongoing difficulty of getting a needle into her veins for blood draws and IV’s. The situation was resolved with a permanent mediport. Thinking of the mice that she kept as pets as a girl, Jei imagined a clockwork mouse as its guardian.
Jei thinks she emerged a more complete and focused person as the result of her breast cancer. Despite the losses, she is not sorry to have had the experience.
“I don’t regret any of it; I wouldn’t undo any of it,” she said. “It clarified what is important.”
DRAWING ON THE SUPERHERO WITHIN: Artist’s notes
Jei is a native Minnesotan now living in Manhattan, so we conversed and collaborated online. Fortunately, Jei has an instinctive attraction to image and a fluent visual vocabulary. She sent me more than a hundred pictures in bits, swatches and snippets. It was a fantastic swirl of collage that included illustrations from Oz books, paintings of Gustav Klimt and ornate classics from the Art Nouveau era. Jei layered rich ideas to create a unique superhero persona. She describes her as an enigmatic stranger, “…a brainy inventor, hot-air balloon traveling circus artist…” who touches down, performs magical feats and vanishes. “I communicate telepathically with anyone who’s receptive, and when I laugh hard enough, I can fly.”
From the mechanical wings to her steam punk goggles, Jei needed to be portrayed with a swagger and in bold color. She requested no pink in her portrait.