Philippa Hughes: A D.c. Artist Living Like Her Hair Is On Fire (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Philippa Hughes: A D.C. Artist Living Like Her Hair Is On Fire

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and even though we're a few weeks into the year, 2014 is still pretty brand new, all things considered. So this week we're celebrating all those clean slates and turned-over leaves with a show we're calling, "Fresh Starts." One thing about fresh starts is they're not always so cut and dry, so pinpointable. Sometimes a fresh start is a work in progress. And that's definitely the case for 45-year-old D.C. resident Philippa Hughes.

MS. PHILIPPA HUGHES

00:00:39
It is hard to say where to begin. In fact, I think when people want to have a fresh start, they think a lightning bolt is going to come down and hit them, and everything is going to be great, or changed, or somehow different. And in fact the change happened over a period of time. But the day I was diagnosed with cancer, I can point to as a day that everything did change. So I've labeled that day the worst day of my life.

MS. PHILIPPA HUGHES

00:01:10
But all these things were already in motion. That just sort of accelerated everything. And then seeing that City Paper article was just like sort of the nail in the coffin as to "Old Philippa."

SHEIR

00:01:22
Philippa's right. It is hard to say where to begin. But for this story, let's begin with "Old Philippa." "Old Philippa" arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2001, as a lawyer.

HUGHES

00:01:34
I was lobbying for a group of investment advisers. As far as law jobs go, it was actually probably a really good one for me to have because I am kind of a social person and that's basically all that was. But I just felt so constrained. And I just knew that creative life was for me. Like, I knew that I had to be in a creative life, somehow.

SHEIR

00:01:56
So, she started to write. She began a blog.

HUGHES

00:01:59
Called "The Adventures of Who Girl," which was me.

SHEIR

00:02:01
And as a longtime lover of the arts, she devoted some of her posts to reviewing arts events around town.

HUGHES

00:02:07
It was those blog posts about art picks each week that started getting the most traffic. And then that's what led to me thinking, "I should do a calendar of all the arts events in D.C. -- not just what I'm doing." And that's what led to starting Pink Line Project, a website that listed every single art event that happens in D.C.

SHEIR

00:02:26
Now, if you know the name Philippa Hughes, chances are good it's through Pink Line Project. Because after Philippa launched the calendar in 2007, she also started hosting events -- basically for fun, at first.

HUGHES

00:02:38
Like, I was doing these little salons in my home. Like, I was thinking -- I don't know -- I was like a modern-day Gertrude Stein or something.

SHEIR

00:02:44
Then the salons began to grow.

HUGHES

00:02:46
That led to finding a raw space on 14th Street and turning it into an art party, basically. And we had video art, performance art, this cool band, and like hundreds of people came. The next time I did it, I charged $10, and then I realized, like, "Whoa, I might be able to make some money doing this. I'm going to quit my job." So I did.

SHEIR

00:03:09
Next thing she knew, she was hosting events all over the place.

HUGHES

00:03:12
You know, I had this Super Nova performance art festival. I do an event called Cherry Blast every year, which is part of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

SHEIR

00:03:19
And her writing was kind of falling to the wayside. Then in fall 2012, Philippa hired a business coach.

HUGHES

00:03:26
To think about how I was going to evolve Pink Line Project. And we did a mission statement and a values statement, and I started to realize that mission and values statement was not just about the business. It was about myself. And I started to see myself differently, as somebody who not only wanted to be a producer and supporter of artists, but to actually create art on my own. And I started thinking back to how Pink Line Project began in the first place, where I just wanted to write. And that blog turned in to this bigger thing that kind of got out of my control. And I ended up having to run a little business, instead of writing.

SHEIR

00:04:06
So, Philippa vowed she would go back to writing every day. Toward the end of 2012, she remembers reading this article.

HUGHES

00:04:13
About living as if your hair is on fire. And something about that really struck home with me. With this idea that you should always be running, or hustling, living as if you're about to die, basically. Which sounds depressing, but actually for me, it became very motivating.

SHEIR

00:04:32
She embarked on extensive travels. She took a memoir-writing workshop in Maui. She visited her family. She felt like she was really finding herself again. There was just one problem.

HUGHES

00:04:43
For like a good two or three months it was, like, in my head that something's wrong. I was having this little discharge from my breast, which was unexplained. But what's so weird because I actually even had, like, my annual exam during that time and they didn't see anything. I had two mammograms and two sonograms done and they didn't show anything.

SHEIR

00:05:06
Eventually, Philippa went to see a doctor at Georgetown. It was August 29, 2013, a.k.a. the worst day of Philippa Hughes's life.

HUGHES

00:05:17
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I didn't expect her to say what she said because I was just, in my head, I was like, "Oh, no problem." So I was sitting there, and she even said, "Do you want to call anybody?" Or "Do you need to talk to anybody?" I'm a very inward-looking person. Despite my very social exterior, I am actually very private, and, like, I just wanted to keep it within myself. I just wanted to kind of process it alone. So, I said, "No. I don't want to talk to anybody."

HUGHES

00:05:57
I remember, too, like, it was like this beautiful, sunny, perfect day in August. It was not humid at all. And when I left her office at Georgetown, I decided to walk home, which is not a short distance. And I was like bawling my eyes out the whole way. And I remember thinking, "All these people are walking by me and nobody's paying attention." I just kept thinking, like, "Would I have done something if I had seen a girl walking down the street crying?" I probably wouldn't have. And yet, I just got like basically the worst news of my life.

SHEIR

00:06:33
Philippa did eventually tell her friends -- starting, in fact, with a gal pal who happened to text her during that walk.

HUGHES

00:06:40
She immediately left her work and we met at Bar Dupont and sat at this couch outside on Dupont Circle, crying our eyes out. But it was so perfect. I mean, I was devastated, but it was just like this awesome reminder that it was the beginning, actually, of people showing me so much love.

SHEIR

00:07:03
And that love took so many forms. Philippa was diagnosed early, but she needed a double mastectomy, and would undergo six months of breast reconstruction. In October, several weeks before the surgery, her friend, Holly Bass, gave Philippa an art baptism as part of D.C.'s (e) merge art fair.

HUGHES

00:07:21
I mean, it was like this beautiful sunny October day and I'm telling you, like, it was not performance. I just literally started to feel this spirit moving inside of me -- and I am not a religious person, at all. And before we even got into the water I was bawling my eyes out. We were in the water, I was bawling, after, like, I was just bawling my eyes out the whole time because I started to realize like, "This is really happening. I'm really becoming a writer right now."

SHEIR

00:07:47
And these feelings of transformation continued a week later, when Philippa celebrated her birthday.

HUGHES

00:07:53
So my birthday, October 13th, I wanted to have just my few close friends together. This is before I had sort of made it public that this was happening to me. I was really still trying to keep it close. And so I wanted to do something fun, but acknowledge that a horrible thing was happening. So another friend happened to see a little poster or something that said that October 13th was Set Your Tatas Free Day. And it was in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which happens to be October. And so I decided that we would burn our bras in a bonfire for my birthday.

HUGHES

00:08:37
And there's something really cleansing about fire. You know, I think you see it in a lot of cultures. You burn things to set them free, and then you renew yourself. So I literally burned every single one of my bras. But I was really trying to encourage my friends to throw things into the bonfire too and to really think about the fact that you don't have to get cancer to renew yourself, or to make a change. And in fact, don't wait until you get cancer to do these things. You might not get as lucky as me and have a second chance.

SHEIR

00:09:19
After the surgery, the recovery was tough, but Philippa took heart in the fact that she was writing again. And then, on a December trip to London, she was luxuriating in this gorgeous hotel suite -- the gift of yet another loving friend -- when she came upon an article in the Washington City Paper. The headline, "The Pink Line Takes a Detour." To quote for just a moment, "This year, Pink Line wound it down -- perhaps for good. In August, Hughes was diagnosed with Stage Zero breast cancer, a discovery that would cause her to question her line of work."

HUGHES

00:09:51
When I read this article, I was like, "What the heck is this?" Like, they're basically telling everybody I'm dead, you know. I was still feeling very raw about having just had, you know, a major surgery seven weeks before that. Like, I just wasn't ready to read that I was done with, basically.

SHEIR

00:10:12
Especially when Philippa Hughes knows she isn't done with. She's writing, writing up a storm, actually. And as for Pink Line Project, she's determined to re-establish it as a simple calendar. She's done planning events. She still wants to support other people's creativity, but now it's finally time -- finally -- to focus on her own.

HUGHES

00:10:33
It is funny to be talking about like a fresh start when I realize, I'm still in the middle of it. In fact, you know, I do have to have another surgery, so, you know, to my point earlier, it's like your fresh starts take a while. They don't just start one day.

SHEIR

00:10:50
And for now, Philippa Hughes is taking it day by day, with her hair on fire, all the while.
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