After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis, Philippa Hughes Makes Big Changes
In many respects, this summer has been a typical one for Philippa Hughes. But “typical” for Hughes means unreal in the best possible ways. The Pink Line Project founder spent two months eating and surfing in Los Angeles, Sicily, and Portland, Ore. She took a writing workshop in Maui conducted by author Rebecca Walker. At the beginning of October, she was baptized in the name of performance art by artist Holly Bass, dunked in the Capitol Skyline Hotel pool during the (e)merge Art Fair.
But her summer has been abnormal in a singularly horrible way, too. On Aug. 29, Hughes was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two Sundays ago, she celebrated both her 45th birthday and National No Bra Day—this year, fate lumped them together—by burning bras with loved ones at a friend’s place in Maryland and toasting s’mores over the embers. On Monday, Hughes will check in at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, having spent the last month and a half preparing for a life-changing but necessary procedure: a double mastectomy.
Hughes will spend the next six months rehabilitating and going through breast reconstruction.
“I have to keep reminding myself that this kills people,” Hughes says, talking about the breast cancer her doctors caught at Stage Zero. “I was in Caribou Coffee the other day, and they had a tribute to a woman who used to work there who died of breast cancer. People fucking die. I’m just lucky they got it when they did.”
Hughes can’t be sure what post-op recovery means for her personal ambitions. But she doesn't plan to be off her feet for long—in fact, it would be hard to imagine the scene-maker cooling her heels. (During our interview, she mentions a Nov. 8 art opening she’s hoping to attend.) The only thing she's sure of is that change will come for the initiative for which she’s best known: the Pink Line Project, her online portal to the D.C. art world and the face of her sweeping event-planning brand.
The unofficial hostess of the D.C. art world, Hughes started organizing salons, panels, pop-up exhibits, and other art-oriented events in 2006. By 2010, she was arranging dozens of high-profile arts happenings each year, producing almost one event per week under the banner of the Pink Line Project. Today, museums from the Corcoran Gallery of Art to the Textile Museum to the Phillips Collection know to call Hughes when they need a party—and access to the 5,000-plus people who belong to her network.
The Pink Line Project website as followers know it will come down this month. And Hughes is done with planning events, barring one 2015 festival to which she’s already committed. Those changes were coming even before she was diagnosed with cancer. All year, Hughes has been gearing up to reduce Pink Line Project to its core so that she can focus on her own creative pursuits. She just never had a deadline, she says, until Aug. 29.
“In six months, I’ll be paddle-boarding,” Hughes says, when I ask her what she’s eager to get back to, if it’s not the enterprise she’s been building since 2006. “I specifically asked my surgeon when I’d be able to surf again. He said that he’d never had that question before.”
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In January, Hughes resumed a blog she started during one of the more notorious Pink Line happenings. She launched Art is Fear to coincide with a May 2011 performance in which artist Agnes Bolt lived in a plastic bubble inside Hughes’ 14th Street NW home for a week. That piece demonstrated the malleability of the Pink Line mission, which is to connect people through art, whether that takes the form of seeing, collecting, exhibiting, or enduring it. (“You know, we’ve never spoken since,” she says of Bolt.)
Resuming that blog, Hughes resolved to write daily, with a plan to update it every day for all 79 days the artist Marina Abramović sat across viewers in an upright chair at the Museum of Modern Art. Planning for the June 2013 SuperNOVA performance art festival in Rosslyn, Hughes says, kept her from doing anything more ambitious with the exercise. “SuperNOVA took it all out of me,” Hughes says.
It was that weekend-long festival, featuring some 100 performances spread across Rosslyn, that got Hughes seriously rethinking her commitment to Pink Line. She says she began mulling ways to get back to the simple arts-agenda format that drove visitors to her first blog, HooGirl, back in 2006. It was that weekly blog post, in which she told readers what art stuff she was seeing over the weekend, that “was generating most of the traffic. So that’s where I got the idea, ‘Oh, people want to be told what to do.’”
So when Hughes debuts her revamped site this month, it will feature a core mission statement and a signup field for a weekly newsletter. Although in the past she’s employed a crew of mostly unpaid interns, she never recruited any this summer, knowing that she’d be traveling the whole time—so the Pink Line professional pipeline is closed. (Hughes’ assistant and only employee, Becca Gurganious, who has been with Pink Line Project since the start, will help her answer email and address outstanding administrative matters while Hughes recovers.) Otherwise, Hughes is happy to keep telling people what to do, but she’s no longer interested in supplying young professionals with art parties. She considers events bad for her health.
“I don’t want to dwell on what could’ve caused this, but I can’t imagine stress is not a factor,” Hughes says of her breast cancer. She notes that cancer doesn’t run in either side of her family, and she’s relatively young and healthy. She boasts that she hasn’t had a soda in 15 years. Now it’s time to cross out hosting parties, too. “No more events for sure,” she says.
Dialing down her programming means stepping back from some enormously popular D.C. programs. Pink Line Project is responsible for celebrations such as the annual Cherry Blast parties, the hippest draw during the Cherry Blossom Festival, as well as the newer Lumen8 festival, the bougiest event in Anacostia. That doesn’t mean all these productions are canceled. Hughes is committed to doing SuperNOVA again in 2015, for example, since its sponsor, the Rosslyn Business Improvement District, has elected to continue the performance art festival on a biannual schedule. That she thinks she can handle. The rest she thinks she can hand off.
“I might let the No Kings Collective guys do that one,” Hughes says, referring to Cherry Blast—and to Peter Chang and Brandon Hill, whose No Kings enterprise boasts Submerge and other pop-up exhibition events made from the Pink Line mold. “I feel like when I first started, there was no one doing it. Before me, there was the Decatur Blue/Signal 66 crowd,” she says, referring to late ’90s- and early ’00s-era art collectives, brick-and-mortar institutions from the days before DIY meant pop-up.
Now, there are plenty of candidates to take on Hughes’ biggest programs: Not just No Kings, but also Brightest Young Things, Worn magazine, and others. “I think I still have a role, but let’s just let other people do [the events].”
Instead, the art doyenne is ready to devote her time to a memoir, one that would tell her family’s story. “My Vietnamese side of the family, my mother’s side, they escaped from North Vietnam in 1954 and lost everything and went to the south—and had to leave South Vietnam in 1975 again and lost everything,” Hughes says. “I got to grow up in Richmond in a classic suburban cul de sac. I was never hungry. I have relatives who were left behind, second and third cousins who work in a Nike factory. How different our lives are.”
That’s the first of four books that Hughes says she wants to write. Don’t expect any Eat, Pray, Love–type reflection from Hughes any time soon, though.
“I’ve met all these different women who’ve been through it,” Hughes says, referring to the double mastectomy. “Every single woman that I’ve talked to has said that it was the shittiest thing ever, but their outlook on life became better. I think part of what I’m pissed about, though—I already had an awesome life. I already had, I felt like, a good outlook on life. I’m already the kind of person who does whatever she wants to do.”
Now she expects to do some things differently.
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“Once I got over being scared of dying, then it’s just the emotional toll of having someone hack away at your body. It’s like your sexual identity, basically,” Hughes says. “I’m making weird decisions, like, ‘Do you want the round boobs or do you want the tear-drop boobs?’ I don’t even wear makeup.”
Hughes and her friends decided to throw a No Bra Day birthday party in part because she doesn’t think she’ll need those bras anymore, even after reconstruction. (And, she says, because she finds herself appreciating Susan G. Komen for the Cure and its all-pink breast-cancer awareness campaign: “As much as people complain about Susan Komen, that organization politicized things so much. Now insurance pays for reconstruction. In the past, they just lop off your boobs, and too bad—you deal with it. Whatever [Susan G. Komen for the Cure] has done, at least they’ve definitely done good things for women in this regard.”)
The No Bra Day party also served as an advance thank-you to her friends who will be helping out while she’s incapacitated, handling chores from feeding her cat to monitoring the various tubes coming out of her body. Those friendships may be the most important thing Pink Line Project has given Hughes.
“My mantra has always been using art to connect people together. I told people they should do that, and I did it myself,” Hughes says. “I do make a lot of superficial connections, but those led to deep, meaningful connections. Those are the people who are going to be cleaning out my [body’s] drains. I did that, not knowing this was going to happen. I just did it because I knew it was important. And now those very same people are going to be taking care of me when I need them.”
Hughes offers that Pink Line Project has helped her prepare for this diagnosis and procedure in more philosophical ways, too. “Everything that’s happened in the last five years, 10 years, my whole life maybe, has led me to this moment,” she says. “And getting interested in performance art, something that’s ephemeral, helped me to understand that things don’t last. Your life doesn’t last. I started thinking about that so much.”
Less helpful is the irony, hardly lost on Hughes, that her favorite color would come to carry some uninvited significance in her life. From the start, Hughes has fielded questions about whether Pink Line Project had anything to do with the pink ribbon movement. Breast cancer won’t change her answer or her outlook.
“No,” Hughes says. “I will never hate the color pink.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery