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Fresh Coast Creatives: Embroidering through treatment with Dana Falconberry

Photo Credit: Susan Tusa
Photo Credit: Susan Tusa

Artist and musician Dana Falconberry focused on creating visual art throughout her treatment and recovery from breast cancer. Leslie Hamp has her story this week on Fresh Coast Creatives.

“This is my machine. This is Dolly. She's a Singer chain stitching machine, I think from 1951 or so,” said Dana Falconberry. “And it looks like a sewing machine. But it only does chain stitch embroidery. So it doesn't have a bobbin. And you have this crank underneath that guides the needle, so I'm basically freehand drawing with thread. It's very fun.”

We met up with Dana Falconberry in her art studio in Cedar. It’s an open space with her Singer chain stitching embroidery machine set up at one end of the room and a large painting table at the other.

“When things are really flowing, I will be working on one or two paintings,” she said. “And then as those dry, I'm stitching something else over here. And it's just this really great workflow where one thing is informing the other.”

Dana was a musician and chain stitch embroidery artist in Austin, Texas for almost 20 years before moving back to her home state of Michigan in 2020.

During the pandemic, she’d hike the trails at Sleeping Bear Dunes and vividly remembers the day she stumbled upon an unusual white wildflower called Ghost Pipes.

“They look like fungus. But they are actually flowers that don't contain chlorophyll. So they're bright, bright white when they're in their prime. And they don't use energy from the sun,” she said. “They draw energy from both the mycelium and the roots underground. They’re known to be a very healing plant. They’re known to be an ally for times of transition, including mortality, which I have been faced with recently.”

Dana became obsessed with painting and embroidering Ghost Pipes after an out-of-the-blue breast cancer diagnosis in June of 2022.

“Stitching and painting them whenever I could in my treatment process really, really helped get me through it,” Dana said.

In the summer, Ghost Pipes stand white against everything that's dark in the forest. And in the winter, they become a spindly brown stalk surrounded by snow.

“Up until my diagnosis, I was really interested in this glowing white version of the Ghost Pipe in its prime coming out of the forest, like surrounded by the detritus down below, the dead leaves and everything it has to push through to get to become this glorious white glowing thing,” she said. “And the moment I was diagnosed, that completely changed for me, and I started becoming really interested in the dead version of the Ghost Pipe.”

Dana started painting and embroidering the living and dead Ghost Pipes together.

“You know, it was just me grappling with mortality,” she said. “I had something that was going to kill me inside of my body. And that's a hard thing to hear and a hard thing to deal with, but I had to face that. And I had to, I really had to grapple with that. And this was my way to do it.”

Her Ghost Pipe creations became a much-needed distraction from the physical and emotional turmoil and grueling treatment.

As she painted and stitched through fear and confusion, her artistry changed.

“This piece here, which was done after my diagnosis was, I mean, I had no idea what I was going to do when I started doing it, and it was much more organic,” she said. “I’m much more interested in just what happens in the process of it than the perfect end result. Perfection is not on the pedestal that it used to be for me. And it actually has helped me. I just feel a lot freer in my artistic process than I ever have been. I think it's 100% due to my diagnosis.”

At the Tiny Desk
Dana Falconberry's music was featured in an NPR Tiny Desk Concert in 2013. Watch and listen here.

Dana says she’s been surprised by her new direction.

“Well, I wasn't doing these paint stitches until I moved in here,” she said. “And I think that having the physical space to be able to paint over here and then stitch over here has totally informed the art that I make. And then recently, I've been songwriting in the gallery space.”

She says diving into her art and music has been transformative and healing.

“When you're faced with something like cancer, you take stock of your life and what's important to you,” she said. “Then you have to go through this really intense period of rearranging your life to fit those new priorities. And I am deeply mired in that right now. None of it has been easy, but I do think that it can be illuminating.”

Dana showed a series of her Ghost Pipes at an art opening last spring at the Cedar North Gallery.

Two dozen painted and stitched pieces on paper and linen lined the walls. Five embroidered fabric pieces, each about 5 feet tall, swayed in a semi-circle in the middle of the gallery space. The swaying fabric pieces created a performance space where Dana performed new and old song lyrics.

“And that was really magical. That felt really, really good,” she said.

Support for Fresh Coast Creatives comes from the Northwest Michigan Arts & Culture Network, inviting you to warm up with the arts this winter, and through an award from Michigan Arts & Culture Council.