Nina Luna’s painted mannequins grab your attention, using intense color and pattern like a full-body tattoo.
The 61-year-old La Mesa artist created the collection of murals painted on female mannequins to tell the story of her three-year battle with breast cancer that started in 2011 and resulted in a double mastectomy.
Drawing heavily on her Latino and Native American roots, much of Luna’s work has a strong Central-American folk style with a distinctly modern vibe. Like her giant Dia de los Muertos skulls with bulging breasts for eyes.
“I freak out when I finish one,” said Luna, who is self-trained and had never painted seriously until her cancer treatment. “I step back and think, wow I can’t believe I did that. I don’t know where it came from. It’s just there.”
Luna talks about her work with a degree of enthusiasm that leaves no question her life is driven by positivity.
In remission since early 2014, Luna said painting the dismembered female torsos began as an outlet in which she could release the pain and fear she felt after her diagnoses and the ultimate loss of both breasts.
“I had no idea where this was going,” said Luna. “All I knew was that because I had lost my breasts, it was something that I needed to do as part of my healing process. After I did one, it came out so well that I did three more.”
After completing those first few pieces, the art had taken hold of her. Previously a small-business owner headhunting in the freight-hauling industry, Luna was unable to work during her treatment and recovery. So she decided to leave the stress of the professional world behind to do something positive with her art and with her life.
Luna’s ultimate goal is to help breast cancer survivors who are struggling financially as she has due to their cancer and its treatment. She wants to tell the stories of other survivors through her art and create an organization that could sell those works. The profits would be shared with the cancer victims and their families.
“If I had a studio that cancer survivors could walk into and I could concentrate with them in that environment and grab their stories out of them,” Luna said. “Then I think that would probably be the best thing that ever happened to me. I visualize that constantly.”
Luna’s work celebrates the female form’s power, fertility and beauty, which she says many breast cancer survivors feel they have lost.
“You’re still a woman. Even though you feel like you’ve lost something, you haven’t. You’ve gained life out of this,” Luna said over the phone from Riverside where she’s been spending most of her time these days, helping her father through his own bout with cancer at 91 years old.
Luna’s life now revolves around her art and her family, including her son, an Army captain, and her three grandsons.
Luna’s mannequins, her “girls” as she calls them, were recently featured in the Oceanside Museum of Art for Dia de los Muertos, and her work is currently on display at The Art Stash in La Mesa.
“Cancer for me was not a bad thing. Cancer for me has been a good thing,” Luna said. “It opened up this beautiful world that I never knew even existed and it’s been a great journey. I have no complaints. Not one.”