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Sarasota artist with cancer makes paper flower garden

Sandy Payson has embraced life while battler cancer by crafting flowers with scissors and her own imagination.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. June 23, 2022
Many of the flowers are made from pages from a colorful flower book. (Photo by Harry Sayer)
Many of the flowers are made from pages from a colorful flower book. (Photo by Harry Sayer)
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Sandy Payson has always been drawn to flowers. 

They’re a symbol for all parts of life — celebrations, weddings, births and deaths. There’s something she enjoys about that.

It’s hard for her not to compare them to her own situation. Payson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer six years ago, and in the time since has undergone a series of operations and chemotherapy procedures to keep it at bay. 

She’s found something that’s made 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 into a vast garden of art that reaches the top of her ceiling. 

The flowers are one of a kind, and they’re hers. They’re also, she hopes, something by which she can be remembered.

“Flowers follow us through life,” Payson said. “They’ll come up through a crack in ice or through hot sand. You can always find a little bit of beauty pushing up. Even if it’s coming out of desolation.”

The flowers have several variations and colors depending on what Payson feels like making. (Photo by Harry Sayer)
The flowers have several variations and colors depending on what Payson feels like making. (Photo by Harry Sayer)

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 divorcing and starting a new chapter. Ten years ago she met her partner, Robert Merrill — they were both recently divorced — and hit it off. 

They moved in together and tended to a varied and far-reaching collection of plants, flowers and other horticultural elements on their property. Payson also bought other properties and flipped 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 was good for me. I enjoyed seeing something become something beautiful.”

She knew something was wrong around six years ago when she started developing stomach issues. She eventually turned to a doctor who gave her the cancer diagnosis — and estimated she’d likely have three to five years left to live.

“It was completely devastating news,” Payson said. “(I was) zombielike.”

Payson has been many things by trade but has always been an artist by passion. She typically created abstract constructs out of clay, spending countless hours in the workshop in her back yard creating the ideas in her mind’s eye.

It became harder to do when she developed cancer. Clay and pottery can be heavy and Payson soon found herself too tired to mold shapes or stay in the heat when working. 

It was a dire loss during a hard time, and Payson started thinking about other avenues to express herself.

“I’ve always done some kind of crafting,” Payson said. “I can’t help myself, I’m always cutting paper or doing something.”

She soon found her answer in a picture book of vibrant, vivid flowers that she discovered thrifting at a shop. What’s more is that the book had good, solid paper stock — perfect for crafting.

Payson ordered paper and copies of the book to tear out the pages and create her flowers. It started as something in the middle of the room but has spread outwards to have become a veritable garden in and of itself. The paper artist figures she can make 20 flowers out of one book.

There’s no pattern to the art, Payson mostly looks at flowers she likes and tries to re-create them with paper.

Chemo treatments left her sluggish and tired, without energy to do much. But she could still cut, craft and form the flowers for her garden and would do just from her chair as the hours passed. 

“Cutting is meditative,” Payson said. “I feel this wash of feeling like I’m a little girl with my dolls. That feeling never happened before (the garden) but I’d realize how happy I felt.”

For Rob Merrill’s part, he’s been a constant figure by Payson’s side. He’s helped her during her treatments and makes sure to cook and clean for the both of them. 

“He treats my artwork like I’m Picasso,” Payson said. “We made an agreement (early in the diagnosis) that we would try to save the unhappy stuff for the very end. We want to focus on the happy stuff.”

They decided to live, and they’ve lived well. In between operations and chemo, they’ve traveled to Europe for months and made memories living the best they can. And through all of it, the garden has slowly grown.

Payson recently hit six years since her diagnosis — she’s outlived her doctor’s estimate — and has since ceased chemo treatment. 

She’s been told by her doctors that future treatments wouldn’t be curative and she’s decided instead to be put into hospice care.

“I’m not going to live longer and I want to be happy,” Payson said. “I’ve fought and made it past the five years.” 

When she dies, she wants the flowers to adorn her casket at her ceremony of life celebration.

Payson admits people sometimes find the idea morbid, but she finds a beauty to it.

“I showed someone (the garden) and she gasped and cried,” Payson said. “Her mother had passed away months before and she was grieving. She walked in and had a moment of happiness that wasn’t tangled up with the grief. It gave her this feeling she should be happy again.”


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