Art Heals

"Looking for Etsy artists recovering from a serious illness" - I posted this shout-out for artists with illnesses in the forums on Etsy and within 24 hours there were over sixty-five messages from artists all over the world. Stories and emotions were shared ranging from broken legs to brain surgery to multiple sclerosis.


Art-making takes courage and it can change the world. In the process of looking for artists to interview I discovered a fierce battalion of fighters determined to stay alive and fight the good fight, but with art, not weapons.

The first artist I interviewed was Colleen Stevenson and this is her story.

After sixty years of not knowing or caring if something was hand made, Colleen Stevenson is now passionately playing with beads and making jewelry all day long. At this stage in her life after facing death several times, “it’s not about work, it’s about being happy.”

In her previous life as a bookkeeper and mother to three children Colleen had no time for creativity. In 1999 at age fifty-four, Colleen was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer and given a 50/50 chance of surviving, but survive she did through multiple chemotherapy treatments, and surgeries up until 2006. That was when Colleen lost her bookkeeping job, and she thought her world was over, "It was like a death sentence,” she told me. She had worked all her life up until now and at age 60 she felt she couldn’t compete anymore, she was unmarketable. It was time for her to stop, and think, and smell the coffee.


During her many days in the hospital Colleen started noticing the cool and ‘different’ earrings worn by some of the nurses. "I could do that," she thought and she started buying supplies like wildfire; learning about jewelry making from books, magazines and online tutorials. In 2008 she joined Etsy, the largest online marketplace for handmade arts and crafts, and opened her online store called Designs by Colleen. The first time she made a sale to a non family/friend and they wrote back to say they liked it, well, she explained, “There is nothing quite like that feeling.”


Colleen is usually the oldest member in the online chat rooms of Etsy but she feels right at home. She’s made real friends here, one of whom she calls regularly on the phone. Colleen had previously tried Ebay, Flickr and MySpace, but felt that she was spending too much time keeping up and not enough time creating jewelry. Colleen is constantly learning new things and ideas come to her from all over; in dreams, from magazines, catalogs, and on television. She spots a piece of jewelry she likes and figures out a way to make it look better, and then put her own twist on it.
In her newfound home of San Francisco where, there are no misfits and difference is accepted, Colleen has become a jeweler, and she will not allow cancer to define her. Colleen has learned not only to accept imperfections, but to love them with a passion.

You can visit Colleen's Etsy shop here: Designs by Colleen

This interview with Colleen Stevenson was originally published on The Maude Blog, July 19, 2008.

To read more stories and interviews with artists who are coping with serious illness please click here.