“I rallied through the surgery and the six weeks of radiation therapy with vigor. However, as soon as my treatment ended, so did my strength, both physically and emotionally. I struggled, and then had to begin to fight back in an attempt to regain energy and purpose.”
Read on below for the full guest blog post by local artist Nancy Stalnaker.
Nancy Stalnaker is a watercolor artist working out of her studio in the South End of Burlington. She and her husband live in Colchester and have two adult sons. Although she grew up painting alongside her mom and was surrounded by art throughout her life, she has only been painting full-time since leaving her research compliance position at UVM in 2016. Nancy has since made it a priority to give back to the community through artwork donations and fundraising efforts for local charitable organizations and causes for which she is passionate. Breast cancer research and support is a high priority, as she is a ten year survivor.
Her favorite subjects to paint are landscapes and waterscapes, both impressionistic and abstract, inspired by her life here in Vermont and from her travels. You can learn more about Nancy’s artwork at her website: http://nancystalnaker.com/ or on her Facebook business page: https://www.facebook.com/nancystalnakerwatercolors/
The following is a Maggie’s Brightside guest post. Members of the Maggie’s Brightside community hold a variety of view points and experiences. The views expressed below are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Maggie’s Brightside.
While recently chatting with Jane Bensimhon, I told her about a short talk I gave last month at the Sisters at Heart Celebration at the Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival (LCDBF). It was the first time I publicly shared my personal experience – it was incredible and powerful! Jane asked if I would be willing to do a guest blog that would incorporate my message from that talk. So this is scary – I am not a writer! Here are some of my thoughts from that day and some additional reflections. I hope they will be relevant and/or meaningful to you.
Each year, Dragonheart Vermont selects an artist to commemorate the dragon boat festival, and I was honored to be the artist selected for this year. For those unfamiliar, the LCDBF is a charity dragon boat race event that encourages team effort and community giving to benefit cancer support in the Vermont community. The Sisters at Heart event takes place in conjunction with the festival, and is a weekend of celebration, learning and fun with other breast cancer survivors and their supporters. The watercolor painting I created is of the soulful flower ceremony at the festival, titled “Sisters at Heart.”
Putting together my words to share with the remarkable group of over 200 cancer survivors and supporters provided me with an opportunity to reflect back on my own journey and to consider what I, as an artist, might have to say to this group.
Ten years ago, as I was cruising through life dealing with all the usual family and work stuff, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I was working at UVM and UVMMC as the Director of Research Protections – doing oversight work in biomedical research. I was so fortunate to have worked with all of the physicians on my care team, to have a special friendship with the Director of the Cancer Center, and to be so well-connected to the local cancer treatment community. I also had the most incredible work support system ever, two amazing colleagues, Penni Cross and Nancy Heller, who were with me every step of the way, both of whom were there with me at the SAH luncheon. My diagnosis of breast cancer came right around the time we were getting ready to celebrate the 5-year “Cancerversary” of Penni Cross, who later went on to become the Executive Director of Dragonheart Vermont for many years. We supported each other as we went through these two separate cancer treatments. So my connection to Dragonheart Vermont and the festival goes way back. In my personal life, I had the most amazing support from my family and network of friends that demonstrated the true meaning of love.
Although the specific details differ, my story is a collective story. Cancer changes lives. Cancer changed my life.
It was not an easy time. My mother-in-law had also recently been diagnosed with breast cancer just months before me, and I had been dealing with many other significant life challenges at that time. However, I soon learned that I was one of the lucky ones – my tumor, a very aggressive cancer, was detected very early and had not yet spread to my nodes. My mother-in-law was not so fortunate.
I rallied through the surgery and the six weeks of radiation therapy with vigor. However, as soon as my treatment ended, so did my strength, both physically and emotionally. I struggled, and then had to begin to fight back in an attempt to regain energy and purpose.
It was a rocky time. I decided I needed some space to sort things out and actually lived alone for a few months. It was during that time that I found watercolor painting again after a hiatus of many, many years. During those months, my vision for the future became clearer, I grew stronger, and I began to re-order my life. I made many changes.
One of the things I knew for certain from my time living alone was that I needed to find a way to continue to paint in my everyday life at home. As I wrestled with how to balance my personal and family life with the intensity of a very stressful job, I decided to rent a small studio space in Burlington. When I entered that space to paint, I left the world behind. I turned off my phone and didn’t even meet anyone in my building. Gradually, it became clear to me that I wanted to spend more and more time in my studio, so I began to plan for an earlier retirement from UVM. I achieved that goal three years ago.
As I went down this path, I was humbled and somewhat surprised that my artwork was well-received by many, since I’m self-taught and definitely do not follow any of the classical rules. Slowly, over time, I began to donate paintings and prints to causes that were near and dear to my heart – it was very fulfilling. Two years ago, I decided to create a new painting specifically to benefit a couple of local organizations that were doing great work in our community, Maggie’s Brightside and KidSafe Collaborative. The idea was to ask for donations of prints from my local printing vendors and give all of the proceeds to these groups. This was very successful and I repeated this again this year. The first painting was entitled “Hope” and this year’s is “Promise.” Raising funds this way for causes that I am passionate about has been an unexpected and gratifying part of this journey.
My connection to Maggie’s Brightside and Kidsafe Collaborative was significant to me. Maggie was a social worker when I met her through my husband, who is a child protection lawyer. They were working together on a wonderful musical revue to raise funds for KidSafe Collaborative and she was a force of nature! Their dedication to the protection of children was intense and the rehearsals and performances were joyous.
Maggie and I shared the same “Cancerversary.” Sadly, her diagnosis/prognosis was so, so much worse. We spoke of this several times and she just had a way of using humor and reality to actually help others deal with all that sadness. She became a true inspiration to me, as well as to so many others. We lost Maggie this past year to cancer, as well as another dear friend and former Board Chair of KidSafe Collaborative, Howard Verman. This year’s painting, “Promise,” was dedicated to the memory and great work of Maggie Van Duyn and Howard Verman.
It was also especially poignant to be selected as the artist for this particular year’s dragon boat festival, as this month will be my 10th Cancerversary. Each and every year is a priceless gift.
Finding my way back to watercolor painting did for me what paddling has done for many of those who participated in the Sisters at Heart Celebration. It has strengthened and empowered me. It brought me together with many people who have become important in my life.
I am grateful to all three of these amazing organizations, Dragonheart Vermont, KidSafe Collaborative, and Maggie’s Brightside. They embody the spirit of support, the power of working together, and the importance of giving back to our community.
My work with each of them has given me the means to share my personal story and my art with so many people, and to continue finding creative ways to use art to raise funds to help others. It has been personally rewarding beyond any words.