Frissure – reviewed by Dr Ruchika Singh

‘Frissure’ by Brigid Collins and Kathleen Jamie (Birlinn, 2013).

Dr. Ruchika Wason Singh is a Visual Artist based in Delhi. Her areas of interest include the sociology of art and social -psychology. She is currently Associate –Professor (Contractual) in the Dept. of Painting, B.F.A., College of Art, New Delhi, India.

Correspondence to Ruchika Singh,


As I hold Frissure I wonder what to expect from a collaborative creative project woven around the post-traumatic recall of an ordeal with breast cancer. My enthusiasm to read the book is layered with both anxiety and curiosity, of looking at the experience of the physical pain of one person and the nature of the response to it by another. Developed by Kathleen Jamie, a poet and a survivor of breast cancer and Brigid Collins, a visual artist, an illustrator and her visual respondent; Frissure utilizes poetry and painting to address questions around the embodiment of cancer, mastectomy and the surgical scar.

Any dialogue with physical pain post-recovery can be a systematically documented reclamation of the medically trespassed body or it can lead to a cathartic release incorporating the medical and personal spaces, objects and people encountered during the experience. In another light the detour can also transcend to a metamorphisized notion of the experience of notched body, re-constituted into the present. It is this transformative process of a symbol of pain evolving into a metaphor of beauty; reshaping our perception of the representation of embodied pain which sets Frissure apart. This involved looking beyond surgical procedures and medications, understanding its humane aspects and probing the social and psychological dimensions of this painful experiential terrain.

Built through an interdependence of faith and empathy as integral to the nature of the collaborative relationship, Frissure is significant on account of its process as well as the outcome. Unique to this collaboration in Frissure is that it pairs Kathleen and her experience of undergoing mastectomy as a tangent; with the observational, artistic and empathetic skills of Brigid in a dialogue with one another. This relationship is different from that of the relationship between Kathleen and her pathologist. This breaks the archetypal notions of representation of the remnants of the surgical experience, as symbols of physical loss and pain; and focuses instead on the interactive artistic exchange which appears psychologically liberating for Kathleen and makes Brigid look at the wider humane aspect of her art practice and  herself.

The subtle blue coloured hard bound book begins with a preface by professors of the Centre for Medical Humanities, Jane Macnaughton and Corinne Saunders orienting the reader about the interdisciplinary nature of Frissure. An introduction by Kathleen and a word by Brigid records the exchange of ideas, experiences, thoughts, drafts of writings and drawings during discussions; and the moments of sharing, unearthing, despair, withdrawal, difference and consent these entailed. What follows is the carefully designed pages with images of Brigid’s works juxtaposed with prose poems by Kathleen on the parallel page. These images are visual responses by Brigid to what Kathleen ‘laid bare’ during their interaction. The process is extended by text written by Kathleen, which is, in the present reference to her scar, is a far cry from her painful affiliation with it in the past. Mutually they work towards the reconfiguration of pain associated with the scar.

Interestingly the chronology of the images of works in the book is in congruence with the progression of the project; gradually transforming our perception of ‘the scar’ as a symbol of the surgical experience into analogies from nature. In this flight off the pre-determined affiliations, the first is an image of ‘the scar’ in the aftermath of the medical gaze as a cut, an incision, a violation archived on paper. It gradually moves out of the body and begins to metamorphose into a river, flower in nature, fissure, in a rock and small sculptural forms. Its identity begins to soften and lose itself between layers of thin paint and other materials used by Brigid along with the parts of prose poems inserted into the works, serving as a validation of the same by Kathleen. Their search shapes Frissure to move towards a larger gendered frame in later works, thereby moving from Kathleen’s personal experience to finding its universal relevance.

The parallel location of images and text also charts the course of reading the book. It simultaneously involves both the speech and the sight of the reader, so as to cumulatively enhance the import of the process and the outcome.  In between the pages I also found interspersed, anecdotes of the material and conceptual progression of the works. However during the course of reading what I did keep looking for, are the specific details of each image such as the title, medium and size of the work, customarily provided under each work of art. Also, considering that the process of the project is equally important for the reader to be sensitized to; a peek into Brigid’s preparatory sketchbook and Kathleen drafts of poetry would have made the reading more interesting.

The readership for Frissure extends into the domains of Visual Art, Gender Studies, Health Psychology and Medical Sociology .It also provides another angle to projects on the subject such as The Scar Project (2013) a collaborative project by photographer David Jay. Frissure also takes further our readings of Mary Jacobus’ exploration of the representation of mastectomy and the analogy she draws between a surgeon and an artist in First Things: The Maternal Imaginary in Literature, Art and Psychoanalysis (Routledge,1995). In his book Emotional Intelligence:Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (Bloomsbury, 1996) Daniel Goleman wishes medical practice widens its vision-in order to acknowledge the therapeutic impact of emotional care as parallel to clinical or surgical procedures performed on patients. As an interdisciplinary field Medical Humanities provides the scope for understanding the same through Frissure.  

By losing the scar to the newly found landscapes Frissure charts a route for the body violated in the past to find itself again, in nature, from where it came.  As for me, the reader, having undergone like trajectory of physical pain in recent times, as the book ends, I am left in a mood to turn my reconciliation with my experience into my art.

Works cited:

Goldman, Daniel. 1996. Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. London: Bloomsbury.

Jacobus, Mary. 1995. First things: The maternal imaginary in literature, art and psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.

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