As an employee of the state House of Representatives, she had passed by the pink Capitol fountain each day in October. Little did she know that she would have her own story to tell about the disease.
To cope with her diagnosis and treatment, which included surgery and chemotherapy, Echeverria turned to creating art. (She started painting at an early age and earned her fine arts degree in painting and minored in printmaking.)
“I paint because I must,” she said. “Making art brings me peace. I can lose myself for hours while I am painting. It’s what my soul was created to do.”
Her painting, “The Diagnosis,” reflects the new anxiety that a cancer diagnosis can bring. Raw questions like: “Will I die?” “What should I ask my doctor?” and “How will I pay for this?” are grouped onto an abstract body with a bleeding heart.
This piece is just one in Echeverria’s series, “So, they say I have Breast Cancer,” which was exhibited for the first time at witf in May. It paints a picture of the physical, emotional and spiritual struggles she endured and overcame while facing breast cancer.
An aggressive blue, red, black and white splatter-painted piece titled “Adriamycin: The Red Devil,” represents the anguish of the fierce battle going on within her body: chemo vs. cancer.
But, when it got tough, she leaned heavily on her faith to keep her looking forward. In “Temporary Spaces,” a dove transcends darkness — just like Echeverria facing the dark disease. “Difficult places are temporary spaces for us to grow in our faith and become more dependent on him,” she said. (pictured at top)
Her hair fell out during treatment. And, she struggled with the emotions of having a body-altering surgery. “What does it really mean to be beautiful?” she asked herself. She found her answer while painting a bald self-portrait: “Pretty on the inside makes the outside beautiful.”
“I wanted to be open and vulnerable for other people to see ‘It’s OK,’” she said.
She also wanted her two young daughters to see that beauty comes from within. Her 8-year-old, Crystal, understood that. She painted a portrait of her mom — a vibrant, smiling version complete with a hot pink headscarf and gold star.
“Although treatment and the disease have been hard on my body, the experience has been a blessing to my soul,” Echeverria said.
She said her hope is her story will help someone who is also facing cancer. She encourages cancer patients to find something that they’re passionate about. “Each of us has something that we are good at,” she said. “Find something you love — write, sing, listen to music. That can help to bring comfort. Find something that brings you pleasure and it will get you through.”
At a wine-and-cheese artist reception for Echeverria at witf, friends and family — who lovingly call her “Survivor Shel” — and members of the community gathered to celebrate her art, spirit and courage.
“I was happy to share my outward reflection of my cancer journey,” she said, looking back on the night. “Many folks that have been supporting me were there that evening. I did get to meet some other survivors that I did not know before.”
But what touched her most was when viewers silently wiped tears from their face as they walked through the exhibit.
Her last painting that completes the series is of an elegant pink swirling ribbon — appropriately titled “Hope.” For that is what Echeverria is offering to those who experience her story through her art.
In the guest book, scribbled among thoughtful comments and praises of her work, someone simply wrote: “You’re my inspiration.”
Published in Central PA Magazine: 2012 Arts & Entertainment Issue
Click here to watch a video of Shelly's story.