Sandy Payson has always been attracted to flowers.
They are a symbol of all areas of life – celebrations, marriages, births and deaths. There’s something she likes about it.
It is difficult for her not to compare them with her own situation. Payson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer six years ago and has since undergone a series of surgeries and chemotherapy procedures to keep it in check.
She found something that makes it better. Piece by piece, page by page, Payson has created a paper garden in the comfort of her home.
The Sarasota resident orders colored paper, cuts them into patterns, and organizes them into a huge art garden that reaches to the ceiling.
The flowers are unique and they belong to her. They are also, she hopes, something to be remembered for.
“Flowers follow us through life,” Payson said. “They come through an ice crevice or through hot sand. You can always find a bit of beauty pushing to the top. Even if it comes from the desolation.”
Payson is from Philadelphia, having moved to Sarasota in the 1970s to attend New College.
She spent years running restaurants and delicatessens with her husband before divorcing and starting a new chapter. She met her partner Robert Merrill ten years ago – they were both recently divorced – and hit it off.
They moved in together and cultivated a diverse and extensive collection of plants, flowers and other horticultural elements on their property. Payson also bought and flipped other properties. She says it’s 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 grow into something beautiful.”
She knew something was wrong about six years ago when she started having stomach problems. She eventually went to a doctor who gave her the cancer diagnosis – and estimated that she probably had three to five years to live.
“This was absolutely devastating news,” Payson said. “(I was) zombie-like.”
Payson was many things by trade, but has always been an artist by passion. Typically creating abstract constructs out of clay, she would spend countless hours in her backyard workshop creating the ideas in her mind’s eye.
When she got cancer, things got harder. Clay and pottery can be heavy and Payson soon became too tired to sculpt molds or stay in the heat at work.
It was a difficult loss at a difficult time, and Payson began to think of other ways to express himself.
“I’ve always been into crafts,” Payson said. “I can’t help it, I’m always cutting paper or making something.”
She soon found her answer in a picture book of vibrant, vibrant flowers she spotted in a shop. The book also had a good, solid supply of paper – perfect for crafting.
Payson ordered paper and copies of the book to rip out the pages and create her flowers. It started as something in the middle of the room but has spread outwards to become a veritable garden in and of itself. The paper artist discovers that she can make 20 flowers out of a book.
Art has no pattern, Payson mainly looks at flowers she likes and tries to recreate them with paper.
Chemo treatments left her sluggish and tired, with no energy to do much. But she could still cut, craft and sculpt the flowers for her garden and would do it just from her chair as the hours passed.
“Cutting is meditative,” Payson said. “I feel like a little girl with my dolls. I’ve never had that feeling (in the garden) but I realized how happy I felt.”
For Rob Merrill’s side, he was a constant figure at Payson’s side. He has helped her during her treatments and takes care of cooking and cleaning for both of them.
“He treats my artwork like I’m Picasso,” Payson said. “We made an agreement (early on in diagnosis) that we would try to save the unfortunate stuff for last. We want to focus on the happy things.”
They chose to live and they lived well. Between surgeries and chemo, they traveled to Europe for months and lived their memories as best they could. And through it all, the garden has slowly grown.
Payson has been six years old since her recent diagnosis – she survived her doctor’s estimate – and has since stopped chemotherapy.
Her doctors have told her that future treatments would not cure her and she has instead chosen to be placed in a hospice.
“I’m not going to live any longer and I want to be happy,” Payson said. “I fought and survived the five years.”
When she dies, she wants the flowers to decorate her coffin at her life celebration.
Payson admits that people sometimes find the idea morbid, but she finds a beauty in it.
“I was showing someone (the garden) and she gasped and cried,” Payson said. “Her mother had died months ago and she was grieving. She walked in and had a moment of happiness that wasn’t intertwined with sadness. It made her feel like she should be happy again.”
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