By MaryKate Wust

As she cut out petal after petal, Michele Tremblay felt like she’d fallen in love. It was 2013, and the Philadelphia artist had discovered a new outlet for her creativity: paper flower sculptures. She constructed four-foot wide sunflowers, pinned delicate dogwood blooms to foam to create floating gardens, and composed intricate patterns with quilled paper strips. Her eagerness to test new designs and color combinations often kept her up at night, and though she didn’t know where this new artistic venture would go, she was infatuated with the process.

Upon seeing Tremblay’s work exhibited at the Philadelphia International Airport, an art consultant called her to propose a direction. The woman explained that she was in the business of curating art pieces for hospitals to promote healing and boost the patient experience. The consultant suggested that Tremblay’s floral pieces, which radiate both energy and tranquility, would fit perfectly in a health care environment. Tremblay politely declined. Her parents and younger brother worked in medicine, and her older brother was a medical writer, but she had no interest in venturing into that territory. After all, wouldn’t her natural work feel a bit incongruous in a sterile place?

Four years later and 28 days into chemotherapy, Tremblay reconsidered.

“Leukemia is not for the faint of heart,” she said. “But being sick really focused me and helped me define where I wanted to go with my art. I wanted to pour my experiences into things and place those things in environments where they could help other people. I recognized that had an opportunity to demonstrate the power of art and the good it can do.”

Artist Michele Tremblay smiles at the camera as she holds up a very large white paper sculpture resembling an oversized rose.Long before she found joy and inspiration through her paper sculptures, flowers played a significant role in Tremblay’s life—from the rhododendrons she tended as a child, to the arrangements she created for decades as a floral designer. In February 2017, newly diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and undergoing four weeks of intensive treatment, she found herself in a place where bouquets were banned (fresh flowers pose a bacterial risk to immunocompromised patients on oncology units) and in a state of exhaustion that prevented her from raising her head off her pillow, let alone gluing together gigantic rose petals. While staring out her third-floor hospital window at a dingy concrete wall across the street, she was desperate for something to take her mind off of cancer, even for just five seconds.

“I asked to not be told any percentages,” she said. “My sons spoke with the doctors and asked great questions, but I knew that knowing those numbers wouldn’t help me. I needed good, healing thoughts.” But even with the support of her family, friends, and care team, those thoughts were hard to come by as she got sicker: “I felt like I was going to die.”

A flat white paper surface is covered in raised curved paper pieces designed to portray flowers and stems in multiple colors.She needed light, color, and beauty—and if she needed these things, surely others in her situation did, too. As her condition slowly improved, the phone call she received years prior replayed in her head. She resolved that if she recovered and regained her strength, she would find a way to share her art with the patients who came after her, as well as the staff who not only kept her alive, but gave her hope.

Tremblay has since transitioned her care to Penn Medicine after her initial diagnosis and treatment at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. A mutual acquaintance connected her with David L. Porter, MD, the Jodi Fisher Horowitz Professor in Leukemia Care Excellence, and she left her first appointment knowing she was in good hands. In the summer of 2017, she underwent a bone marrow transplant at Penn; because she did not have a well-matched donor, Porter’s team opted to use two umbilical cord blood units. The path continued to be winding and bumpy—with several “unpleasant and not easily resolved” side effects and a relapse in 2019—but Tremblay persevered. In the summer of 2020, Porter told Tremblay that she was in remission. She celebrated by sending him a postcard with a floral collage.

For Porter, Tremblay embodies the word resilience. “Like many patients, Michele experienced complications that required prolonged hospitalizations and rehabilitation,” he said. “But even though this wasn’t what she was expecting or hoping for, she was able to tap into the tremendous energy and motivation she gets from her art. Having something she was so passionate about was really critical for her recovery.”

A round white flower made out of cut and assembled paper resembles a large dahlia.“I feel very lucky and grateful to be where I am,” Tremblay said, “I wish I could say that six months from now, I’ll be finished with leukemia, and then I’ll just check in with Dr. Porter every couple of years. I know that’s not the case, though, so I’ve learned to be satisfied with today. I can’t do everything I could do before, but I can do a lot.”

A quick glance at her studio—covered with paper flowers, Mandala paintings, and “10,000 notebooks” detailing her thoughts on color theory—proves this. Some days, she finds sufficient delight in folding half a dozen origami cranes, while other days provide enough time and energy to work on larger commissioned pieces. “Immersing myself in the process of creating art gives my mind a place to rest,” she said, “but viewing it also takes you somewhere else and gives you the chance to feel something outside of the everyday—something intriguing and engaging.”

It was this belief that encouraged her to take on her most ambitious project to date. Shortly after she was discharged from her month-long stay at Jefferson four years ago, Tremblay reached out to fellow Tyler School of Art and Architecture alumna Polly Apfelbaum. Together, and in partnership with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Organization, they designed a mural to cover the desolate wall across from her hospital room. A few months after Tremblay learned she was in remission, the duo finally saw their vision come to fruition in January 2021 when the mural was installed over the offending facade, bringing natural beauty to an unnatural place. Combining Tremblay’s floating gardens with Apfelbaum’s colorful circles, the 82-foot-long mural, titled Floating Dogwood, serves as a bright spot for the community, a cheerful thank-you for the Jefferson staff, and a source of resilience and hope for other patients and passers-by.

“Throughout this difficult journey, I saw that Michele loved working on this project,” Porter said. “I always admired that the reason she gave was that she was doing it to provide a little bit of joy for the people who came after her… for people who are going through what she has been going through.”

“This life-changing experience totally shifted my relationship with art, nature, and flowers, but I still feel pulled to create,” Tremblay said. “Everyone struggles, and everyone feels pain, but I believe with all my heart that art can play a real role in helping people—even if they’re working their way through the twists and turns of a serious illness. Art can touch people in ways they could never imagine. That’s what I’m focusing on going forward.”

Watch Inspiration Behind the Art: Michele Tremblay and Polly Apfelbaum.

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