, Salem, MA

October 16, 2012

Breast cancer fight inspires a special hat

Ellen Hardy
The Salem News

SALEM — Hats, hats, all around. This year’s Peabody Essex Museum’s exhibition HATS: An Anthology of Stephen Jones, has prompted an explosion in the attention being given to hats.

This year an exceptional entry crossed the threshold at Salem Arts Association’s PEM-inspired show “Off the Top of Your Head.” For the sixth year, the SAA show drew entries from all over the region. The SAA actually drew in milliners and fashionistas in addition to conventional media. The exhibit hung in the carriage barn of the Andrew-Safford House in Salem (its use donated by PEM) for the month of September. Sue Grillo, a Salem artist, entered one the most impressive pieces in the SAA show.

Grillo is a two-time breast cancer survivor, diagnosed originally in 2002 and then again in 2010. Did you know that women can get reimbursements to buy wigs because they lose their hair — sometimes up to $300 — yet they cannot be reimbursed for hats? Most women prefer hats, especially in the summer months because they breathe, and in the winter because they can be warmer.

When Grillo was first without hair she began to crave a hat that would keep the back of her neck warm. None could be found in her research that could feel like the hair on the back of your neck. As an artist who attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City and Mass College of Art and Design in Boston, Grillo had worked 15 years designing costumes for experimental theatre in Boston — so it was natural that she began to sketch what she was looking for and could not find. The sketches developed during her first round but no prototype was created as she began her second round of chemotherapy. Although in her sketchbook it had developed into a full-blown, fleshed out, and complete concept ready to be executed.

Along comes the PEM inspired show — and voila — she put her considerable talents into action and made the prototype of what she calls “Warrior Coverage.” As we know the media likes to say we are battling cancer — as if we had weapons to combat it! Grillo wanted the comfort and coziness of a hat but to cover her head like a wig.

A single mom, she remembers her young son stroking her hair and being left with a clump of hair in his hand. She went on to wear wigs because that’s all you could get reimbursed for and to see her son stroke her head and be surprised that there was no hair left in his hand. But the idea of the “Warrior Coverage” hat in her sketches had yet to be realized until 2011, after she was diagnosed with stage 3 again in 2010 and the news emerged that SAA would hang a show about hats.

She knew this time she “had to do it!” Despite myriad complications, including a flood in the closet where she stores her sewing machine, she managed to finish that plus another hat and both pieces were juried in the exhibition. They had to be completely hand-sewn.

Working under the trade name Lily Royale Productions, she will make custom hats for those who would like them in the material of their choice. She can be contacted through Salem Arts Association, where you will find some of her work in the Salem Arts Gallery on Artists’ Row. Many folks stopped to enjoy her entry without the knowledge of the story behind it. In fact one woman wanted her email because she has a sister fighting the disease and it resonated with her unknowingly. Wigs can be itchy and hats are so much more comfortable!

Ellen Hardy, also a breast cancer survivor, is now interim executive director of the Salem Arts Association.