Among the short list of Karyn Mannix’s accomplishments are artist, curator, fashion designer, gallery owner, and — chief in this group — breast cancer survivor. Six years after her diagnosis and treatment, Mannix will host the “6th Annual Birdhouse Auction” at her Southampton art gallery to benefit the Ellen Hermanson Breast Center at Southampton Hospital. Mannix discusses the evolution of breast cancer care on the East End and why it is important for public figures, like honorary event co-chairs actress Renee Zellweger and designer Betsey Johnson, to talk about their breast cancer experiences.
This is the sixth annual “Birdhouse Auction.” What was the inspiration for the first event?
I am a six year breast cancer survivor. When I was diagnosed they [the Southampton Hospital staff] were there. Susan Barry Roden [a certified patient navigator and founder of the Breast Health Coalition] helped me out. When you get diagnosed you need help even though you may think you don’t. I told them I would return the favor and help them raise money. I said this in a room in Southampton Hospital that was covered with birdhouse wallpaper. That was how the birdhouse came into play.
Since you were first diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, how has the availability of testing, information and treatment for breast cancer changed on the East End?
The hospital really has state-of-the-art equipment with mammograms and sonograms and breast MRIs at [the Ellen Hermanson Breast Center at Southampton] Hospital. When I first got there they didn’t have those machines. Now they have the technology.
There is a lot of outreach so maybe the disease is noticed more. There are a lot more volunteers helping to raise money to help the women with breast cancer. Even the auction is for the women who are going through breast cancer. We help the people who are suffering and going through treatment. This goes towards the little things like money for transportation back and forth from radiation and chemotherapy treatments, if they need a babysitter or if they need someone to clean their house. Those are the things people don’t even think about if someone gets sick with cancer.
This is the fifth year actress Renee Zellweger has served as an honorary event co-chair and its the third year designer Betsey Johnson has co-chaired the auction. Both women have experiences with breast cancer — Zellweger found two benign lumps on herself and her friend died of breast cancer and Johnson is a breast cancer survivor. How important do you think it is for public figures to be open about their own encounters with this type of cancer?
It is very important. No one is immune to getting cancer. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. It doesn’t matter your background. I am the only one in my family with breast cancer. It was even something I was looking for and made aware of. This can strike anybody. One of my friends was diagnosed three weeks before me. One in eight women get breast cancer and we joked that she was that one out of eight. Three weeks later it was me. No one is immune to it, including men.
In addition to owning and running your own gallery and working in the fashion industry for a number of years, you are an artist yourself. In a conversation piece with Hamptons.com, you were asked what gives you an edge in your art and you replied, “My mind . . . I take an unconventional approach, and my art shows other people’s inner dialogue.” Did your creative process and art change after your diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer? Did you begin to depict your own inner dialogue?
I have always talked about it [in my art]. I did pieces about breast cancer before my diagnosis. A lot of my work was based on gender and females’ perception of their bodies. [The diagnosis] changed my life. It was a big eye opener. No one ever thinks they will get cancer. I dove more into the female body and the whole role of gender. I had pieces before about breast cancer, but I guess I could relate to it more. I don’t know if I can put this into words.
This year 64 people have participated in the event and crafted birdhouses, and not all of them are artists. The participants range from Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman to architect Preston T. Phillips. How do you choose the people who contribute to the auction? Do you find that many of them have been touched by breast cancer in some way?
Every single person in the show has known someone with breast cancer. I mean it is almost impossible not to know someone who hasn’t been affected.
[In the selection process] I start with artists and architects of course because they are used to building. Jay has been an advocate for breast cancer in Suffolk County. Most of the people are artists. Then there are other people who have been helped by the breast center, people who have basically gone through the breast center at some point or another.
There are always waiting lists. Last year we had over 80 birdhouses. We have less this year. I like to keep the numbers lower so that everything sells. Sometimes birdhouses that people submit go into a raffle.
From an ivy covered birdhouse to a birdhouse that looks like a table globe, the participant’s vision for their pieces runs the gamut. How did the participants this year creatively interpret their birdhouses in terms of theme, materials used, construction methods, etc.?
No two are ever similar. I don’t know how that happens. No two are covered in beach glass. Every year they are better and better. There is a variety. Some are made out of metal, polyresin, cork and glass. They are made out of everything. Dennis Leri did a deconstructed birdhouse. Jay’s is a glass pyramid. Some are made out of gourds. Some are real birdhouses by builders. Some you can’t put outside.
And it is a bit of a challenge to work on these three dimensional pieces. Most of the artists don’t work in three dimensions. Most of them are painters.
The “6th Annual Birdhouse Auction” will be held at the Karyn Mannix Contemporary Gallery, 36 Hampton Road, Southampton, on Saturday, October 9, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Proceeds from the auction will benefit the Ellen Hermanson Breast Center at Southampton Hospital. Admission costs $40. For more information or to purchase tickets call 726-8715.