Painted Peace

The healing power of art



WHAT: “Painted Peace” by Stephanie Burgess
WHEN: Reception from 4:30-7pm Sat., Dec. 7
WHERE: EarthenWorks Gallery, 713 S. First St., La Conner

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Does art heal?

Stephanie Burgess isn’t sure about that, but after she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, a surprisingly welcome twist of fate soon found her so busy with her creative endeavors that she didn’t have much time to focus on the negative aspects of the disease.

The path to Burgess’ success story was paved before her diagnosis. In 2010, the former labor and delivery nurse had been selling her wood art at a booth at the Bellingham Farmers Market, and had been looking for something new to work on.

Inspired by a simple peace pole she’d seen by the people behind the World Peace & Prayer Society, she thought she’d carry the idea further, and began to put various messages on wood poles that she first burned and carved before painting on the colorful, vibrant and sometimes whimsical statements focusing on peace.

By the time she was diagnosed in 2011, Burgess had committed to selling her peace poles at the Allied Arts Holiday Festival of the Arts. Although the chemotherapy she was undergoing made her too sick to be onsite, that didn’t stop licensing agent Alicia Dauber from dropping by her booth and taking interest in her work. Dauber—who acts as a liaison between artists and manufacturers—contacted Burgess, and it wasn’t long before various manufacturing reps were flying to Bellingham to meet with her.

“The response was over the top,” Burgess says. “I was diagnosed with breast cancer on my 50th birthday. Two months later, I signed a contract to make the peace poles. In a period of crisis, this gift came to me. I was celebrating this incredible gift—the gift of being lucky enough to be discovered as an artist—during this time of challenge.”

Although Burgess still paints the original poles and other artworks at her home studio in Bellingham, the pieces are now also digitally recreated—first by a local graphic designer, who then sends high-resolution facsimiles to the manufacturers, who are putting the images on carefully re-created peace poles, and also on everything from iPad covers to canvases to tote bags, music boxes, garden flags, birdhouses and more.

“I was a very lucky artist who got seen at the right time,” Burgess says. “It’s like being an actor or a musician; you could be the most talented person in the world, but if the right person doesn’t see you, you’re only seen by your local followers. I don’t think I’m the best artist in the world, but I think my art has a message people are really craving right now.”

For those who’d like to see the peace poles up close, Burgess will be showing and selling the original works—some of which are as tall as front doors—starting Dec. 7 at La Conner’s EarthenWorks Gallery.

If you go, you’ll likely notice that Burgess is looking good. She’s done with chemo, and is now healthy and cancer-free. Did art help save her life? She thinks it did.

“It made me feel like I was leaving a mark; touching other people’s lives,” she says. “It made me more comfortable with my own ambiguity about where I was going. I didn’t have time to think about cancer. It was instrumental in making me not focus on the negative. I was focusing on the rush and high of doing something. Even if it’s not successful, I did it.”

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