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

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Before Philippa Hughes’s double mastectomy, she was given an “Art Baptism” by Holly Bass; Hughes says she "felt the spirit and it moved me."
Tony Hitchcock
Before Philippa Hughes’s double mastectomy, she was given an “Art Baptism” by Holly Bass; Hughes says she "felt the spirit and it moved me."

Sometimes a fresh start can actually be a work in progress. And that's definitely the case for 45-year-old D.C. resident Philippa Hughes.

"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," she says. "And in fact [my] 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.'"

"But all these things were already in motion," she continues. "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.'"

Cherry Smash is among the many events Philippa Hughes had been planning as head of Pink Line Project; here she’s pictured at Cherry Smash, smashing a pink guitar.

The Old Philippa

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.

"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," she explains. "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."

So, she started to write. She began a blog, and as a longtime lover of the arts, she devoted some of her posts to reviewing the art events she saw around town.

"It was those blog posts about art picks each week that started getting the most traffic," she recalls. "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."

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 just for fun, at first.

"I was doing these little salons in my home," she says. "I was thinking I was like a modern-day Gertrude Stein or something."

And then the salons began to grow. Which led to Philippa hosting a giant art party in a raw space on 14th Street NW.

"We had video art, performance art, this cool band, and like hundreds of people came," she recalls. "The next time I did it, I charged $10, and I realized, 'I might be able to make some money doing this. I'm going to quit my job.' So I did."

Next thing she knew, she was hosting events all over the place, from the Super Nova performance art festival to Cherry Blast, part of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

But through it all, her writing was falling to the wayside. So in 2012, Philippa hired a business coach "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 b

ack 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."

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

Life throws a curveball

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.

"For a good two or three months it was in my head that something was wrong," she says. "I was having this little discharge from my breast, which was unexplained.

"But it's so weird because I actually had 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."

Eventually, Philippa went to see a doctor at Georgetown. It was Aug. 29, 2013 - a.k.a. "The worst day" of Philippa Hughes's life.

"When I was diagnosed with cancer, I didn't expect her to say what she said because in my head I was just like, "Oh, no problem!" Philippa recalls. "So I was sitting there, and she even said, 'Do you want to call anybody?' Or 'Do you need to talk to anybody?' And I said, 'No.'

"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 kind of wanted to process it alone. So I said 'No, I don't want to talk to anybody.'"

Philippa remembers that day as being beautiful and sunny. And when she left her doctor's office at Georgetown, she decided to walk home to 14th Street NW. She says she cried 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."

Philippa did eventually tell her friends — starting, in fact, with a gal pal who happened to text during that walk.

"She immediately left her work and we met at Bar Dupont and sat at this couch outside on Dupont Circle, crying our eyes out," she says. "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."

That love took 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.

"It was like this beautiful sunny October day and I'm telling you, like, it was not performance," Philippa says. "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, in the water I was bawling, after — 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!'"

And these feelings of transformation continued a week later, when Philippa celebrated her birthday, Oct. 13, with a few close friends.

Philippa Hughes says she burned every one of her bras at her pre-surgery birthday bonfire in October.

"This was before I had sort of made it public that [my cancer] was happening. I was still trying to keep it close," se says. "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 Oct. 13 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."

Philippa says she burned every single one of her bras in that fire.

"There's something really cleansing about fire," she says. "I think you see it in a lot of cultures: you burn things to set them free, and then renew yourself.

"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," she says. "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."

An art career that is far from over

After the surgery, the recovery was tough, but Philippa took heart in the fact that she was writing again. And then, on a trip to London, she was luxuriating in a 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."

Part of the article read: "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."

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

Especially when Philippa Hughes knows she isn't done with. She's writing up a storm, and as for Pink Line Project, she's determined to re-establish it as a simple calendar; she's done planning events.

And while she still wants to support other people's creativity, it's finally time to focus on her own.

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

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

[Music: "'This' Theme" by Eric Shimelonis ]

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