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Lewiston studio owner takes artistic approach to fighting cancer

LEWISTON – A furry, blue half-shell of a woman’s torso awaits final artistic touches and hangs next to one with wild, psychedelic swirls in Shawn’s Gate Art Studio. It competes for attention with another torso shell with a zany Pac-Man motif and a regal black number with a haunting, moonlit tree silhouette.

Shop owner Barbara Gray is collecting these creative contributions for a “Breast Fest” auction planned for 2 to 6 p.m. Oct. 7 in the small plaza area she shares with a handful of other village shops at 402 Center St.

Proceeds from the silent auction will go to the Breast Cancer Network of WNY, a cause she chose, she said, “Because the organization is local and the money stays in Western New York.”

The Breast Cancer Network of WNY, based in Depew, was founded in 1988 by a group of breast cancer survivors. The 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization offers programming, education and support to those impacted by cancer.

Gray’s inspiration was both personal and universal.

“I have a good friend who has made this personal for me,” the Albion resident said. “And someone who stopped in here during the Lewiston Art Festival said, ‘Breast cancer touches everyone.’ That’s true. If we don’t have it ourselves, we have a loved one who has it now or has had it.”

Gray, an artist and art educator, participated in a similar event a few years ago in Buffalo and felt it was a worthy project. She scoured the internet for the plain, white polycarbonate half-shells of a female torso, purchased 50, and has been distributing them for a $20 donation.

She’s happy to assign the last 10 she has left for people to embellish, and can be reached at 385-7599, and she’s even more eager for a nice turnout for her Oct. 7 event.

“Hopefully, this will be the first of many annual Breast Fests,” she said.

The day also will feature: a 50/50 split; a performance by composer/pianist Christian Burt; guest male and female speakers who will share their stories of survival; a chili bar provided by Scott Struzik of Scott’s Corner Bistro for a donation that will go to the cause; a balloon release; and a few surprises.

Struzik, who designed the Pac-Man torso shell, said, “I definitely wanted to get involved in this. My mom is doing one, too, and is still working on it.”

Participants will donate their creations for the event and bids for their works will open at $20 for the general public.

“I want people to bid high and love what they’re getting,” Gray said.

“I want to create a sense of hope with this, a sense of the excitement of life,” she added. “I want to say that life can go on and you can lead a very full life.”

And if any finished creations aren’t scooped up at this auction, Gray said Susan and Ciara Morreale, of Her Sanctuary shop at 1438 Hertel Ave., Buffalo, will use them at their upcoming event, called “Celebrate Her: She is Amazing,” Oct. 18-20.

Gray retired after a lengthy career working with people with developmental disabilities. She witnessed pain and suffering as an emergency medical technician with the American Red Cross called to ground zero just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. The exposure caused a residual lung condition, she said, which she fights every day.

“But I’m 62 and I’m still here,” she said with a smile, bright blue eyes shining.

She recently took some time to meet in her shop and talk about her passions and plans.

Q: How long have you been an artist and art educator?
A: I don’t call myself an artist, but I am an art teacher. I’ve been teaching for 35 years. I teach oil and acrylic, mixed media, fiber art and metal. I work in precious metals and in resin. I also hold events in conjunction with Scott’s Bistro next door. I’ll do a wine and painting night or a meal and painting night.

Q: The name of your shop is Shawn’s Gate. Who is ‘Shawn’?
A: This is the third Shawn’s Gate. The first was in Lockport, the second in Medina and I’ve been here in Lewiston since April. Shawn was a student of mine who had autism. He was a wonderful artist. One of his paintings was of a meadow with a fence and the gate was open. Three days after he finished it, he passed away. He was a better artist than I’ll ever be.

Q: How did you decide to open a teaching studio in Lewiston?
A: Lewiston really embraces art. I’ve gotten good support from the Lewiston Council on the Arts. They came right down and visited me when I opened and they are supporting this event, as well.

Q: What are some of the other ideas people are using to embellish these forms?
A: I have a jeweler who registered and took a form – I’m stoked about that! Art lives in everyone, I believe. As a teacher, it’s up to me to find the medium to make a student go, ‘I’ve got to do this!’

I saw one done in moss and it’s gorgeous! One of my students is using the blue fur. It can be humorous and lighthearted. It can tell a story. It can be heartfelt. A story can be written on them. It can be about the caregivers, the loved ones who watch what the men and women go through this.

Q: What other plans do you have?
A: I’m in the process of developing a prototype for a silicone prosthetic for women who have lost a breast to cancer. My friends tell me the current ones are very expensive and you put them in your undergarments, but they don’t stay in place. The one I’m working on will adhere to the skin, using an adhesive – I’d suggest spirit gum – which can be easily removed. It will attach to the body, not be placed in the undergarment, and I’ll paint it to match the person’s skin tone.

I’m working on the initial ‘capture’ [cast] for the first prototype. A woman walked in during the Lewiston Art Festival and we started talking.

This is a very personal thing. But when I told her I couldn’t find a model for a ‘capture’ of a torso, she said she would help me.

There is still a lot of work to be done, but this is nothing short of art.

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