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PHOTO BY RACHEL RICE  Lakeway artist Donna Overly’s breast cancer-themed works, such as ‘The Stairway,’ are on display in an ‘Overly Pink’ exhibit through March 7 in Austin.

Lakeway artist Donna Overly’s breast cancer-themed works, such as ‘The Stairway,’ are on display in an ‘Overly Pink’ exhibit through March 7 in Austin.

Whenever Lakeway resident Donna Overly was feeling angry or betrayed about her battle with breast cancer, she painted in pink.

“I would feel kind of lost and broken,” Overly said. “It was release; I felt more positive as I painted.”

Overly was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2010 on her 53rd birthday. An active tennis player who prided herself on her healthy lifestyle, Overly had a hard time accepting her diagnosis.

“One in eight women will get breast cancer in her lifetime,” she said, “and I’m not special.”

Her doctors told her the lump to be removed was almost miniscule. Going into her surgery, doctors were optimistic. But after the procedure was complete, it was evident they didn’t get all of the cancerous cells. Overly underwent a second surgery.

“The road turned out worse than anyone thought,” Overly said. “When the results of the second surgery weren’t clear, it was the worst day of my life. That’s when the rollercoaster started … I felt stuck. I couldn’t get the cancer out of me.”

Overly made the decision to undergo the procedure one more time, and if it didn’t work, she was resolved to undergo a mastectomy. On the third try, doctors were successful at removing the cancerous cells. As Overly began her radiation treatments, she said, she was still angry.

“You go through the whole guilt thing,” she said. “Maybe it was the birth control. Maybe I didn’t wash my fruits and vegetables enough. I got to the point where I thought it was the mosquito spray I used. I started going to a cancer support group, and one woman said to me, ‘It’s not your fault.’ I knew that, but I needed to be told.”

Ellen Roberts is a Lakeway resident and a friend of Overly’s who went through her own struggle with breast cancer years ago. Roberts said she has supported many friends through the same struggle.

“I sat in the waiting room through her surgery,” Roberts said. “I was really happy to be there for someone. Her husband was travelling a lot at that time, and she needed someone who knew what she was going through, and I have spent many a night in the hospital.”

Overly, a nurse for 20 years, went back to school at the University of Texas in 2003 to get an art degree. Before her diagnosis, she painted landscapes and did a couple gallery showings.

By the summer of 2012, Overly’s struggle with breast cancer was over, but she still had many bottled-up emotions about her ordeal. Finally, one day in July, she took out a canvas and painted it pink, her favorite color and also the color most closely associated with breast cancer awareness and support.

Her self-therapy paintings turned into a series, dubbed “Overly Pink,” which debuted at Austin Art Space in January. The paintings are filled with symbols of struggle and hope – a broken watch symbolizes time lost, a lighthouse represents faith, a blue dress represents sadness.

“I painted this one in two or three hours,” she said of her work titled “The Stairway.” “You have to go every step, you can’t skip a step. You have to keep going.”

Roberts said when she looked at the paintings, she could see Overly’s sorrow along her path.

“I looked at them as they related to me,” Roberts said. “For several, I was right on, but a number of them were quite different … Pictures are worth a thousand words, and not everybody hears them the same way.”

Debra Wilson, a fellow artist showing at Art Space, said she was drawn to Overly by her positive attitude, which was reflected in her art.

“My feeling in each piece is even though it has a lot of pain and tribulation and challenge, it also has a very strong underlying theme of hope and love,” Wilson said. “A lot of the pieces have hearts within them – hearts on sunglasses or hearts on the flowers … I love that about them. We all need hope, especially in places of dark uncertainty.”

Overly said she would like to see her collection in a hospital somewhere, and she gets satisfaction from making people smile or feel through her art.

“Women have come up to me with tears in their eyes, saying ‘This is exactly what it felt like,’” she said.

The Overly Pink collection will hang at from today to March 7 at Old Bakery and Emporium, 1006 Congress Ave., in Austin. Overly said the series is complete, and is almost linear – it starts with a depiction of the pink tiger lilies she received for her birthday on the day of her diagnosis, and ends with a painting of the sun sinking below the horizon, symbolizing her new appreciation of life.

“I have to move forward,” she said. “It’s time to find something new to paint. That’s the sunset; it’s time to move on.”

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  1. Sandi Pursley says:

    I just finished my treatments after having a complete mastectomy
    Last April then a second surgery to remove the reconstruction due to
    An infection that almost took my life
    Depression has now been what I am fighting
    But with my faith this has been the only way I have been able to
    Make it
    God bless you

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