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Photo courtesy of The Empty Space

The title work of Christina Sweet's exhibit, "Curiouser and Curiouser," which has an opening reception at The Empty Space's gallery Feb. 9.

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"Mad For You" by Christina Sweet, part of her exhibit,"Curiouser and Curiouser," which has an opening reception at The Empty Space's gallery Feb. 9.

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"Mastectomies" by Christine McBride. Her exhibit," Deliverance," opens Feb. 8 at the nXcaffe Art House.

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Slug: Art openings Credit: Photo courtesy of Christine McBride Caption: "Sisters" by Christine McBride. Her exhibit,"Deliverance," opens Friday at the nXcaffe Art House.

Although the city is just coming off a particularly strong First Friday, two shows opening this weekend prove that Bakersfield has enough talent to celebrate art more than once a month.

On Friday, artist Christine McBride opens her show, "Deliverance," a moving collection highlighting her battle with breast cancer, at nXCaffe CoffeeClub & ArtHouse, while Christina Sweet revisits her past in "Curiouser and Curiouser," opening Saturday at The Empty Space Gallery.

Although McBride said her collection isn't entirely focused on her health, she said her journey -- marked by a milestone checkup -- has greatly influenced her work.

"I met with my oncologist and my tests are clean. I'm a true survivor because I'm at the five-year mark. ... (But) you're always looking behind you. You get the diagnosis, but you always have this monkey on your back."

Even before being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, McBride suffered a number of maladies, including autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and interstitial cystitis. After being hit by a cyclist while leaving a salon, she went on disability.

Undergoing cancer treatments, including a bilateral mastectomy, the artist lived in a "chronic state of pain of stress."

But coming out the other side has allowed her to revisit her art, which has been a lifelong passion.

"The experience of painting came from a different place (as a youth) than it does now. It's a cathartic process. ... What is coming out on my canvas is my life story."

That story can be boldly depicted, such as in the piece "Chemo Bytes," which juxtaposes the organic (a woman sprouting vines) and inorganic (the connecting tubes of a chemotherapy machine).

"It's a depiction of me from the chest up, and I'm bald, but I have flames coming out of my head. (With chemo), you feel like you're burning from the inside out."

McBride welcomes strong reactions to her work, positive or negative.

"I definitely want it to be an emotional experience with every painting. Whether it is delight or despair, I want to touch them (viewers) in some way."

Her collection of 25 works ranges from 5-by-7 ink and watercolors to some large-scale work, which she did more of before being limited by arthritis. Her physical journey shaped many of the pieces depicting the female form.

"I just love the body, especially the female body. I think it's beautiful. Going through this (cancer), having the changes go through my body, my definition of beauty has changed. At 48, I've had everything that defines me as a woman surgically removed from my body, but I've never felt more like a woman. That feeling of femininity has to do with where you are at spiritually."

The theme of deliverance is one that McBride embraces as she focuses on moving her career forward.

"I've been cocooning. ... What I've gone through has been what the caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly."

'Curiouser and Curiouser'

Speaking of caterpillars, Christina Sweet brings one to life along with a menagerie straight out of Wonderland for her show opening Saturday at the newly renovated Empty Space Gallery.

A series of nine paintings, "Curiouser and Curiouser" explores the characters from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

Sweet connected with the book as a teenager when she lived in Roundup, Mont., for a summer.

"I had a lot of time to myself away from all I was used to here growing up in Bakersfield. It was a whole new world. Roundup had a population of approximately 1,000 people at the time. It was as if my normal world (here in Bakersfield) was turned upside down. Not in a bad way, but just totally different."

Sweet plays with her past and her present by introducing some familiar faces to the classic characters.

"I used my likeness for the Queen of Hearts because of my serious and sometimes volatile side. (Gallery curator and friend) Jesus (Fidel) for the Mad Hatter because of his witty and spontaneous nature. Emily, my 10-year-old daughter, as Alice because she is my most curious child. And, yes, Charlie, my cat, as the Cheshire cat."

Fidel said he was touched by his inclusion as the Mad Hatter, noting that, as a server, "He even looks like me. He's getting plates thrown at him."

Sweet's favorite in the show is the titular piece, depicting her daughter as the heroine:

"It nails my daughter, Emily's, expression. It tells a private personal story of mine. As I painted this piece, I learned a lot about myself, my role as a mother and I found a few deep scars as well as pleasant memories tucked far within me."

The artist was excited to have the first show in the remodeled gallery, with a new textured paint job, crown molding and track lights.

"The Empty Space looks amazing. The crew all worked so hard on revamping the space. I'm honored to be the first solo show in the newly remodeled space. I hope this will be the first of many successful shows."

The reception will embrace the theme with tea party treats, from the beverage to cucumber sandwiches and tea cakes, Fidel said.