Sandy Payson has always been attracted to flowers.
They are a symbol for all parts of life: celebrations, weddings, births and deaths. There is something she likes about it.
It’s hard for her not to compare them to her own situation. Payson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer six years ago and has since undergone a series of operations and chemotherapy procedures to keep it at bay.
She found something that made her better. Piece by piece, page after page, Payson has created a paper garden in the comfort of her home.
The Sarasota resident orders colored paper, cuts it into patterns, and arranges it in a vast art garden that reaches to the top of her ceiling.
The flowers are unique and hers. They are also, hopefully, something she can be remembered with.
“Flowers follow us for life,” Payson said. “They will climb through a crack in the ice or through hot sand. You can always find some beauty that pushes upward. Even if it comes out of desolation.
Payson hails from Philadelphia after moving to Sarasota in the 1970s to attend New College.
She spent years running restaurants and delis with her husband before getting divorced and starting a new chapter. Ten years ago she met her partner Robert Merrill – both of them had recently divorced – and they agreed.
They moved in together and tended to have a diverse and far-reaching collection of plants, flowers, and other horticultural items on their property. Payson also bought other properties and endorsed them, she says it was a good outlet for her need to be productive and get things done.
“Before I got sick, you’d be amazed,” Payson said. “The work has been good for me. I enjoyed seeing something become something beautiful ”.
He knew something was wrong about six years ago when he started developing stomach problems. She eventually went to a doctor who diagnosed her with cancer and estimated that she would likely have three to five years left to live.
“It was completely devastating news,” Payson said. “(I was) like a zombie.”
Payson was a lot of things by profession, but he was always an artist by passion. She typically made abstract constructs out of clay, spending countless hours in his backyard workshop creating the ideas in his mind.
It got harder to do as he developed cancer. Clay and pottery can be heavy, and Payson soon found herself too tired to shape shapes or stay warm when she worked.
It was a terrible loss during a difficult time, and Payson started thinking of other avenues to express himself.
“I’ve always done some sort of work,” Payson said. “I can’t help myself, I always cut paper or do something.”
He soon found his answer in an illustrated book of bright and vibrant flowers which he discovered while rummaging in a shop. Plus, the book had good solid cardstock, perfect for crafting.
Payson ordered paper and copies of the book to tear off the pages and create her flowers. It started out as something in the center of the room, but it spread outside to become a real garden in and of itself. The paper artist thinks he can make 20 flowers from a book.
There is no pattern in art, Payson mainly looks at the flowers she likes and tries to recreate them with paper.
The chemotherapy treatments have left her sluggish and tired, with no energy to do much. But she could still cut, create and shape the flowers for her garden and she just made it from her chair as the hours went by.
“The cut is meditative,” Payson said. “I feel this wave of feeling like I’m a little girl with my dolls. That feeling had never happened before (the garden), but I realized how happy I felt.
On Rob Merrill’s part, he has been a constant figure alongside Payson. He helped her with her treatments and made sure to cook and clean for both of them.
“Treat my artwork as if I were Picasso,” Payson said. “We made an agreement (at the beginning of the diagnosis) that we would try to save unhappy things until the end. We want to focus on happy things. “
They decided to live and they lived well. Between operations and chemo, they have been traveling around Europe for months and have created memories that they experience the best they can. And in all of this, the garden has slowly grown.
Payson recently reached six years of her diagnosis – she outlived the doctor’s estimate – and has since ceased chemo treatment.
Her doctors told her that future treatments would not be curative and she decided to be admitted to hospice instead.
“I won’t live any longer and I want to be happy,” Payson said. “I fought and I’m over five years old.”
When she dies, she wants flowers to adorn her coffin during her life celebration ceremony.
Payson admits that people sometimes find the idea morbid, but she finds beauty in it.
“I showed someone (the garden) and she was wincing and crying,” Payson said. “Her her mother had died months ago and was in mourning. She walked in and experienced a moment of happiness that wasn’t intertwined with pain. She gave her the feeling that she should be happy again. “
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