Houlton native creating cancer mural

8 years ago
SHOKAN, N.Y. — Some people raise awareness for causes by going on missions trips, while others endure grueling road races.

Houlton native Susan York, an award winning artist and author, has decided the best way for her to raise awareness for a cause that affects her personally would be to put paint to paper. York, who now resides in Shokan, N.Y., is currently working on a 108-piece mural using images, stories and song lyrics as a shield to cancer and other world ills.

“I was at Kripalu to see my childhood friend Maria McManus give a talk on positive psychology entitled ‘Why Mattering Matters,’” York said. “I was really impressed. She challenged me to do something similar around my cancer experience because she thought it was unique. That was two years ago. I struggled with the idea of asking people to support my idea. She coached me that I was giving people an opportunity to participate in something special. It is much easier for me to give than to receive though through cancer I have had to learn accept help.”

Her project, “Gathering Goodness Mosaic,” is based on submissions from supporters and seemed like the best way for York to represent all the positive feelings she received from others around the world during her own battle with cancer.

“By asking people to contribute their pictures, stories and music that represent peace, love and joy to them, it recreates the feeling that I had post-surgery of being held in a gentle hand made of love, positive thoughts and prayers,” she explained.

Contributors may submit a photograph to York for her to recreate in artform on a canvas. She decided to create an online fundraising campaign through the website Kickstarter. With five days remaining on the fundraiser, York has already reached her goal of collecting $20,000 in pledges through the generosity of 154 individuals.

The campaign will continue to accept donations up until 10 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. Additional money collected will go to covering fees and the creation of a website where all of the submissions can be posted.

Her original idea for the “Gathering Goodness Mosaic” was born from an experience she had three years ago when she was diagnosed with Stage 3C Ovarian Cancer.

“I had wanted a child forever but hadn’t found the right person to share such an experience with until I was 46,” York said. “I would have said I was the strongest and healthiest I’d ever been when I was in New Jersey doing a mural and went to Planned Parenthood because I thought I was pregnant and was experiencing urinary issues. Planned Parenthood were the ones who told me I wasn’t pregnant and that they had some concerns with swelling they felt so I should see my regular physician. That lead me on the path to a CT scan and a gynecologic oncology consult to see that I had a tumor that was the size of a magnum of champagne, 30cm in diameter in the left side of my abdomen. Even though I was doing yoga, eating healthily, tai chi. I was stunned, but cancer can strike anyone, anytime.

“I sat in a doctor’s office and he told me I had to have surgery in 8-10 days to remove a huge tumor or prepare to die,” she said. “I was terrified so I asked everyone I knew to pray and send good thoughts to me.”

Doctors successfully removed the tumor and York was told she needed six rounds of chemotherapy and given four recommended options.

“I chose dose-dense chemotherapy, which meant lower doses but weekly infusions with no break for recovery as opposed to full dose and two weeks off,” she explained. “For me it took 20 weeks in total due to poor blood results. Due to a heart episode, it was not recommended that I get a port, so we judged the success of my weekly experience by the number of sticks it took to give blood for analysis and get chemo. My best weeks were two sticks; my worst week was eight. But everyone’s journey is different.”

For the last year, she has been working with a memoir writing group and has about 140 pages written so far.

“Some day soon I’ll finish and be ready to share the whole story,” she said.

After the surgery and during her treatments, York said she had an epiphany.

“After my surgery with the tumor removed, I had a prolonged miraculous sensation,” she said. “I was able to physically feel all those prayers and good thoughts coming to me from around the world. I was overwhelmed by the peace, joy and love I felt. I really wanted to find some way to give back to those who had shared their energy and kindness with me in my time of need.”

After much consideration, she decided to do a mosaic of paintings that would be a physical manifestation of that peace, joy and love she felt right after her surgery.

“I decided to make the 108 paintings to form a ‘mala,’ a string of beads used to count during prayer and meditation, of positive feelings in the world,” she explained.

Unlike many other painting-in-a-day projects mine will have paintings of varying sizes from 8” x 8” and 8” x 24” through 20” x 20”. I need the flexibility of a true mosaic in which the pieces will be carefully woven together for the needs of the individual paintings and the combined impact of the whole. I am committed to give this project my best work.”

Trying to fit 108 submissions on to a single mural will be a challenge, she said.

“I will have to do some planning to make the mosaic fit together to hopefully make a larger picture,” York said. “To represent the stories that people share with me, and backers have until Feb. 20 for submissions. Because most backers get to submit up to three things… and with that many offerings it will take careful editing and planning to make the mosaic have the most impact and feel like everyone can find their story amongst the individual paintings.”

Now a resident of Shokan, N.Y., York grew up in Houlton, graduating from Houlton High School in 1984.

“I’ve been painting and making art in one form or another since I was three years old,” she said. “My favorite type of work is making paintings that tell stories celebrating life, preferably in a series, a book or murals.”

Now that she has met her fundraising goal, York will begin working on the paintings March 1. The finished project though will be unveiled in Houlton over the July 4 weekend and will be shown in other galleries throughout the northeast.

“I plan on displaying the work so the maximum number of people will have the opportunity to connect to the goodness I will have gathered from people,” she said. “Our world is confronted daily with some new sadness. With help I will create an artwork to battle not just cancer’s struggles but also the daily reports focused on fear, anger and distrust.”

Her goal is to raise awareness, primarily for ovarian, which is the fifth highest death by cancer in the United States. According to American Cancer Society over 22,000 women will be diagnosed with the disease and over 14,000 will die this year alone.

“I don’t want to scare people,but educate people because I didn’t know enough about the signs and symptoms of the disease that is not generally found until Stage 3C which was my diagnosis,” she said. “I might have still dismissed many of the symptoms. Like many women I learned to ignore my body and put others needs first. So I want women to listen to their bodies and advocate with their doctors to run the tests that may help find the disease earlier.”

York said she was amazed with the support she has received for her online project.

“I’m overwhelmed daily by the generosity of friends and strangers,” York said. “The process of doing a Kickstarter campaign forces you to publicize yourself, which is hard for me. I’m guessing most people are like me, scrolling through Facebook glad to see the wonderful things their friends are up to, clicking ‘Like’ and occasionally making a comment, but because of this project I set aside time to reach out and have had a wonderful time reconnecting with my friends from all the different times and places of my life who are scattered about the globe.”

For more information, visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1908430676/gathering-goodness-mosaic.