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Photo: Alicia Solsman

The Healing Birds
By Melissa Mansfield

Grieving over the loss of her mother to cancer, Emily Rawitsch turned to sewing—and what began as catharsis took flight as an art installation


Sara Rawitsch had been in remission for eight years when her ovarian cancer came back in the summer of 2004. When her health began to deteriorate, the family moved “Christmas” to Nov. 17, so she could enjoy the holiday gathering of family and friends. Her Saratoga community decorated their houses early, and the mayor had snow delivered to give the full effect. Rawitsch succumbed to the disease on Dec. 24.

“People are left so helpless when they lose someone to cancer,” says Emily Rawitsch, her youngest daughter. Before losing her mother at age 21, all Rawitsch knew about death was from movies and books. “You don’t die beautifully,” she says. “People don’t talk about it.”

To help her grieving process, Rawitsch started sewing birds out of bras donated in honor of someone touched by cancer. She says the sewing, which she learned from her mother as a child, is meditative. “This helps. . . . I wanted to force myself to grieve.”

Last fall, Rawitsch, who had just earned a BFA in graphic design from the College of Saint Rose, was asked to create cancer-related art for a downtown Albany project by friends in the local art scene who knew she had lost her mother to the disease. She jumped at the chance. The project ultimately was scrapped, but not before she had already begun her creations.

Because the focus of the original project was breast cancer, Rawitsch immediately thought of bras. The concept, she says, just came to her one day. She ran into her closet, got a bra and started turning it into a bird. Sewing it, cutting it, filling it with stuffing. The first weren’t quite the graceful creatures that will be featured in an installation, called Transcend, which opens at Pi Naturals in Troy tomorrow (Friday). But she said once she got the tuck right for the bird’s neck, she felt like the bras were the perfect medium. “It was like bras were meant to be birds,” she says. Resembling stuffed versions of origami paper cranes, the bras vary in colors (from white to leopard) and sizes (A-cups and beyond).

To get her project rolling, Rawitsch sent out a simple e-mail asking people to send her a bra in honor or memory of someone affected by cancer. Now she has created 625 birds out of those bras for her installation. In her effort to raise awareness about the reality of the disease, Rawitsch has found a way to use her love of sewing into a living tribute to those fighting cancer.

“Each bra represents a whole family, a whole group of friends affected by this [disease],” she says.

She became inundated with donated bras, and quickly figured out she couldn’t do all the sewing on her own. Soon a few friends gathered to help her, starting a small sewing circle. They shared stories and experiences while creating the birds of various shapes and colors.

Besides being a convenient match physically for her idea, Rawitsch believes the intimacy of bras mimics one’s relationship with the disease. “Healing and memorials are intimate private experiences,” the 22-year-old says. “I sew to heal. I sew to help others heal.”

Photo: Alicia Solsman

In her artist statement, she explains, “I transform each bra into a bird to symbolize rising above and being set free. . . . To go beyond the pain and celebrate life, you have to transcend.”

To make each bird a personal, though anonymous, memorial, the name of the honoree and any notes or letters she received with the bra are sewn into the bird’s stuffing. Though she cherished all of the words and sentiments, some of the letters stand out in her mind.

One woman wrote to her saying she had just been diagnosed, and wasn’t optimistic about living long enough to see the opening. Another bra had a note attached that just said, “My wife.”

Others included poems, or sealed envelopes not to be opened. One woman wrote that since her father passed away, she has been seeing heart-shaped rocks often, and sent one to be put into a bird in his memory.

Using art to help with grief is not a new concept.

“The process of creating meaning as a way of coping with loss is helpful,” says Sharon Danoff-Burg, associate professor of psychology at the University at Albany. “Creating art could be one way to find meaning, but there are many ways that people find meaning when coping with loss.”

While her mother was sick, Rawitsch started making paper origami cranes and hanging them in mobiles to give to her loved ones for comfort. One hangs in her apartment. A Japanese legend says if you make 1,000 paper cranes, the gods will be so pleased they will grant a favor. Rawitsch’s sister Elizabeth noticed a similarity between the Transcend project and the paper cranes; the birds will be hung from a treelike structure, with thin metal, so they, too, will fly in the breeze.

Elizabeth Rawitsch has made 1,000 white and dark pink paper cranes for visitors to take with them at the Friday night opening.

As Rawitsch’s vision of the bra birds grew, she started searching for an alternative venue for her creation. She was approached by the owners of Pi Naturals, a floral boutique in Troy just shy of its one-year anniversary. One of the owners, Ty Austin, knew of Rawitsch’s canceled Albany project. Since their shop had hosted two art shows and wanted to do something more charitable, he and his partner, Jerry Ellis, invited Rawitsch to show her work there.

“She had this great idea,” Austin explains. “I knew she was doing it for a therapeutic way of dealing with the loss of her mom.”

When the three met, Austin and Ellis gave her the idea to make it more than just an art opening, and she ran with it. Once they thought of inviting the mammography mobile, which will be offering free mammograms from 10 AM to 2 AM Friday (April 7) in front of the shop, they decided to make a “festival” out of it.

“This is not about the statistics, it’s about the quality of life,” says Rawitsch. “I’m focused on the healing.”

More than 750 people are expected Friday night at the unveiling. Since the flower shop cannot hold that many at a time, a tent will be set up on the closed portion of the street, and different cancer-related groups will set up tables inside to provide information.

In part because she isn’t afraid to ask people for help, Rawitsch has gotten lots of community of support for the project. McCadam Cheese donated cheese for the event, and both and Barefoot Wine donated cases of wine. “The worst someone could say was no,” she says, though she hasn’t gotten many negative responses during the process.

“The reason everyone is willing, is that they’ve been affected [by cancer],” Rawitsch theorizes on why she’s received such a positive response. “Everyone can relate to this. It’s an emotional project.”

She connected with welders Josh McIntosh and Jack Howard-Potter through friends of friends, and the team welded the base structure over the weekend, Rawitsch using the implements for the first time.

“Every skill I’ve ever learned in my whole life I’m using for this event,” she says. As a full-time graphic artist with Spiral Design Studio, a graphics and marketing firm in Albany, Rawitsch says her professional life has helped her immensely, from problem solving to visually designing and branding an event. Her employers have also been very supportive of her during the process.

As of this writing, Rawitsch has received bras from England, Germany, Italy, Canada and 22 states. She stopped making birds for the installation after No. 625, but has continued to collect bras for future installations. Rawitsch doesn’t have a definitive location for a future event yet, but she wants the installation to grow for each new location, reminiscent of the AIDS quilt.

“Life is too short. I have to run with this,” she says. Ideally, if she got funding, she would like to live with a community for a few months, getting local cancer patients to make birds while undergoing chemotherapy.

Funds donated at the event, some of which will be matched by local lawyer E. Stewart Jones, will be given to Gilda’s Club, a support community open to anyone who has been affected by cancer.

All elements of the project have come together so naturally, Rawitsch credits more than just her hard work and the help of others. She smiles: “I feel like my mom has something to do with it.”

Transcend opens at Pi Naturals, 2217 Fifth Ave., Troy, tomorrow (Friday, April 7) at 5:30 PM. It continues through April 29. For more information, go to www.bra

Transcend opens at Pi Naturals, 2217 Fifth Ave., Troy, tomorrow (Friday, April 7) at 5:30 PM. It continues through April 29. For more information, go to www.bra

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