"Punk Rock Mommy" exhibition casts cancer journey in a unique light

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

"Your first tattoo should always say 'Mom,'" Andrea Collins Smith advises. 

An image of Andrea Collins Smith, from the "Punk Rock Mommy" project.
Jonathan Olshefski

Andrea Collins Smith was as much punk rocker as she was a mother. With tattoos and piercings covering much of her body, along with a brood of six, it was the values of being both punk and parent that she channeled into her outlook when she was diagnosed in 2007 with what would become terminal inflammatory breast cancer.

Punk Rock Mommy, the photographic and written story following Smith on her everyday life after her diagnosis, will be on display at F&N Gallery in Fishtown, 2009 Frankford Ave., for the entire month of May, with official gallery hours on Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. 

When Smith expressed wanting to keep family and friends updated about her illness, family friend and local photographer and filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski suggested she create a digital blog — and so the "Punk Rock Mommy" project was born.

While the phrase "punk rock" may evoke vivid images — and outwardly, Smith embodied the scene — she defined it by her own set of values. In one of her blog entries from August of 2007, Smith shares her "punk" ideals:

I am happy to impart punk rock wisdom to my children. Think for yourself. Think outside the box. Do not let others dictate to you what is normal. Challenge people’s ideas about what it means to be a Christian. Be yourself. Do not fear new things. Love The Clash. Love independent music, movies, skateboards and politicians. Kill your television it, will rot your brain. Love the thrift store. Enjoy art ... all kinds of art. Your first tattoo should always say “Mom.” Don’t worry about what other people think. Forge your own path. And have fun.


Ranging from ages 1 to 18 at the time of her death, Smith's children were her top priority. Many of Olshefski's photos capture the moments of motherhood, despite Smith waging an often physically and mentally daunting war with breast cancer.

Being a mom is what I have been doing for more than 17 years. Sometimes I worked. Sometimes I was a student. Mostly I was a mom. I am still a mom ... Being sick from chemo is a huge inconvenience to me. It cuts into my mom time. I lay in bed after treatment and hope and pray that it will be a short break ... I feel like if my time is limited I need to be the best mom every day. I pray for that. I want to be super mom. Instead I am punk rock mom. I scream. I sweat. I love them. I am a mess. I am human, hear me cry. No strength. No bravery. Parenting its a dirty job …good thing I like dirt ...Thank you all for giving me the best job I ever had.


Over the next year and a half as Smith blogged, Olshefski, also a professor at Rowan University, was documenting the physical experience, taking more than 1,200 images until the time of her death in July 2008.

“In the beginning we didn’t know how severe it was,” Olshefski said. “I went with her to her first chemotherapy appointment and that’s when we got the news her cancer had spread and it was terminal — I was at that doctor’s appointment and I shot it — I wasn’t sure at first going forward [about the project], but our agreement was to tell her story.”

Smith also realized the project as her legacy, and one of her final requests of Olshefski was to publish the blog and photos together as a book.

The gallery will feature different forms of media including twelve of Olshefski’s photos paired from Smith’s blog writings, page layouts already created for the book, and a video installation showcasing audio interviews with Smith. Visitors are encouraged to leave feedback via post-its.

Limited edition zines of the artwork completed for the book will also be available for purchase, and all proceeds from the sale of the displayed art will go towards funding publication of the book.

Olshefski has been working with designers and an editor for the past 6 months and a Kickstarter campaign will follow the gallery in June. The tentative title for the book is Punk Rock Mommy: Andrea Collins Smith and the Great Cancer Swindle.

Although the gallery is a way to fund the book, Olshefski sees it as a metaphor for Andrea.

“She was a very physical person. She would touch you, she would hug you, and she would kiss you,” Olshefski said. “The gallery is really the transition from digital [the blog] to analogue and a way to celebrate Andrea’s life and legacy.”

You can read the Punk Rock Mommy blog in its entirety at punkrockmommy.org/.

Through May 31-Sundays 2 to 4 p.m., free admission, F&N Gallery, 2007 Frankford Ave. https://www.facebook.com/punkrockmommy .

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