With all she's gone through, Susan Wallack could write a book and name it Joy and Pain: A Midlife Woman's Renaissance.
Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if that's her next project.
But right now, Wallack, a lawyer turned interior designer turned poet turned lawyer (again), is painting. She's good at it, too. Her exhibition, "One-Part Paradise," showing at the Muse Gallery in Old City through Sunday, is a delightful array of vivid collage, assemblage, and mixed-media pieces, all with stories to tell.
"When people are naked, there's more vulnerability," she replies when I ask why so many images are of naked women with full, cherry-nippled breasts. "I have no reason to dress people. It's more elemental without clothes."
"I love these women," she says, looking around the gallery. "They have things to say."
And I'm guessing a big part of what they're relating is Wallack's tale of trial and triumph.
Wallack first went rogue in 1997, leaving her high-pressure job as a medical malpractice attorney for her own interior design business - a slowed-down, bliss-filled path she vowed to take after winning her battle with breast cancer.
Or so she thought.
The cancer recurred in 2004. Along with it came more treatments and more uncertainty.
"When I first got cancer at 42, I asked God to let me live so I can raise my son, and he did that," said Wallack, whose stylish jeans, mules, and funky necklace skew younger than her 65 years. "When I got cancer again at 58, I just wanted to do stuff. It's very unsettling to grow old and think, 'I'm going to die and there's so much work left to be done.' "
Well, Wallack's not going to die - at least not yet, though doctors did discover something suspicious in her other breast recently. "I don't know what it's going to be," she shrugs. "Cancer is like an old friend - it's there."
But it has forced her to practice law again, because her health insurance provider threatened to drop her coverage if she wasn't active.
So now, in addition to her art, Wallack does pro bono work for the Volunteers for the Indigent Program (VIP), trying cases for folks who can't afford a lawyer. Most of her clients are women fighting domestic abuse and custody cases.
"I love it - it's where I should have been in the beginning," the Manhattan transplant says. "I'm still volunteering at Ronald McDonald House, I have a 70-year-old boyfriend, and I paint. It's the best balance I've ever had in my life."
Inspired by Bearden
Like most collagists, Wallack points to Romare Bearden, one of America's most prolific visual artists of the 20th century, as her biggest influence. Not only because her technique suggests Bearden's, but because the social statements she makes through her work mirror his.
Her muses include the novelist James Baldwin; Primo Levi, the chemist-turned-author and Holocaust survivor; and Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy and compassion.
Not to mention the artist herself. The correlation between Wallack's life and the spirit of the people her images embody is pretty obvious.
"I grew up in idealism," says Wallack, the granddaughter of Polish-Russian immigrants. "I came of age in the peace era. We really believed people would do good and want [peace]. We thought we could do it."
Today, Wallack creates her nirvana by "making a mess" - scraping, chalking, pasting, painting, and affixing gemstones on the sparkling bolero jackets and earrings worn by her nude heroines.
She's self-taught. So what?
"I have a fairly irreverent attitude toward this," she says.
"When you're 50 and can't have babies anymore and men aren't whistling at you anymore and you think you're used up - no, no, no! I gave myself permission to do what I do and it's been the biggest gift."
For more information about Wallack's exhibition, go to www.musegalleryphiladelphia.
Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Annettejh