CARIBOU, Maine — Before Emily Knowles lost her first husband, Michael Swartz, to pancreatic cancer in 2014, she asked him about the one message he’d want to give to the world before he died.
“He hoped that people could find joy in the things they do,” Knowles said. “[Find Your Joy] became my family’s motto after that. We didn’t want to just live life to the fullest and be happy. We also wanted to experience joy.”
In the years that followed, Knowles carried her late husband’s words within her as she attended grief support groups and connected with people who had experienced similar profound losses. When she began dating her future husband, Ralph Knowles, the two of them bonded in part due to their shared experiences with grief. Ralph’s son, Matthew, had died soon after being born prematurely.
“Both of us knew we wanted to start a project or foundation to help people through their grief and find joy in their life,” Knowles said.
Knowles, who is originally from the Waterville area, has lived in Caribou for the past three years, since marrying Ralph and moving her family to the region. A former English teacher and now a full-time artist and writer, she has begun a project to share people’s stories of grief and raise awareness of the struggles they face.
Find Your Joy combines two things that Knowles has always loved: painting and connecting with people. This past spring Knowles began designing and painting ocean-inspired imagery on Vans shoes. She sells the shoes to people who request that she design and paint the images with their stories in mind.
Starting this summer, Knowles plans to interview those people and share their stories on her Facebook and Instagram pages. In each profile, she will encourage people to donate to a charitable grief support group or similar organization.
Thus far Knowles has painted shoes for 20 people, most of whom are from Maine, and currently has a three-month waiting list for interviews. She said that many of the shoe designs involve ocean waves, which she views as a metaphor for the grieving process.
“When I’ve gone to support groups, one phrase that comes up is ‘The work of grief is learning to ride the waves,'” Knowles said. “You don’t fight your grief, you let it wash over you as it comes.”
Knowles chose Vans shoes in part because of their popularity among surfers and skateboarders she has met near her family’s rental home in Florida. The large shoe allows her to paint images that are bright and colorful and are meant to inspire joy, especially for people who are in real need of positivity.
“I hope that if people see the shoes, maybe it’ll make them smile,” Knowles said.