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South End artist heads collaborative embroidery project by cancer survivors

Posted by Johanna Kaiser  September 27, 2012 10:29 AM

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(Photo courtesy Boston Medical Center)

South End artist Gisela Griffith poses in front of embroideries made by fellow cancer survivors at Boston Medical Center. Griffith led a collaborative art project to embroider plants used in cancer treatments.

When South End artist Gisela Griffith was being treated for breast cancer in 2007, she decided to do some research on the plants her medications were derived from.

Her curiosity soon led her to painting plants with anti-cancer compounds and from there sprouted a communal art project that brought together patients, survivors, and others affected by cancer.

“I just became so interested in really the study called ethnobotany. I just kept going further and deeper and deeper. It got me hooked,” Griffith said before speaking at the opening of the Secrets of Nature art exhibit featuring embroideries of the plants in the Lobby of the Shapiro Ambulatory Care Center at Boston Medical Center.

The exhibit is a group show that features embroideries of plants used in chemotherapy from survivors, patients, and family members of all sewing abilities.

The project started after Griffith painted about eight plants before hitting a creative block and switched to embroidery to help relax during her illness.

That’s when the idea struck her: “Why don’t I share this with other people as a way to relax and meditate on their journey,” she recalled at the opening.

Griffith assembled kits, each with a unique plant design and all the materials needed to complete a needlework, and distributed them to interested patients at BMC.

She also provided individual lessons to those who had never done needlework while they received their treatment.

“I liked her spirit. Working with Gisela, she kept going 'I don't care if you do it badly the first time or you've never done it before. Just give it a try’,” said Midge Vreeland, an embroidery beginner who stitched Curcuma longa, that is used to produce the drug curcumin.

Vreeland, who lives in Maine, made sure to schedule her doctor’s appointment on the same day as the exhibit opening. She said she liked a positive project to focus on during treatment that also taught her more about her treatment.

“We keep hearing do everything natural, exercise, take organic--it's kind of nice to know these actual plants were the start of chemotherapy drugs,” she said.

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(Photo courtesy Boston Medical Center)

The opening, where doctors, nurses, and patients mingled and admired the works, was also a celebration of the community of patients and their families.

“It's inspiring. For others to come and celebrate anything that’s working is a wonderful thing,” said Bob David, BMC’s coordinator of cancer support services. “Anything we can do that is celebratory or joyous here is worth putting a lot of work into.”

The hospital hosts an annual luncheon for cancer survives, recipe swaps, potlucks, holiday parties and other events for its patients. This is the first art show they have hosted, but maybe not the last.

“This is a start of something," said Ryan, who credited Griffith with making it all happen.

Griffith said she’d like to take the project to another hospital or work with new patients.

"When I got [the finished embroideries] back I just can’t tell you what I was just joy and I felt so much more that,” Griffith told the crowd. “It really has been a wonderful experience. I gave and they have given back."
Twitter: @Your_SouthEnd

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