There are messages written deep within the folds of the paper butterflies brightening the lobby of Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

“I hope I live long enough to see another fall.”

“I don’t know how to say goodbye.”

“I will conquer!!!”

Those messages—written in black marker by cancer patients and their families, friends, nurses and doctors—are the heart of the ArtPrize exhibit. For months, people from the Spectrum Health Cancer Center and beyond have made the colorful butterflies, now numbering 6,000.

“People make the butterflies for so many reasons,” said Zahrah Resh, the artist behind the butterfly garden. “They write wishes. They thank their caregivers. It’s a way to express themselves.”

Resh, with the help of friends, hand-painted and cut the paper squares needed to make the butterflies in her East Lansing art studio, then instructed others how to accordion-fold the paper and zip-tie two pieces together to create a butterfly. The butterflies range in width from 3 inches to 3 feet.

She delivered the supplies to various medical offices throughout the Spectrum Health Cancer Center, as well as a few other medical facilities in West Michigan, for patients to create their masterpieces. She asked people to write a message on the paper before they began.

The exhibit, called “Hope, Heal, Soar” has the vote code 65359 for ArtPrize—the international art competition that will transform the streets and buildings of Grand Rapids, Michigan, from Sept. 20-Oct. 8, 2017.

“I wanted to bring color and something whimsical, so people can look at it and it may make them smile,” she said. “I just want people to walk into the butterfly garden and feel it’s a healing garden, a whimsical garden, whatever it is to them.”

Judy Smith, MD, chief of the Spectrum Health Cancer Center, is pleased to give patients the opportunity to contribute to something so positive.

“I think what this has done has galvanized our cancer survivors and allowed them to recognize they are not alone,” Dr. Smith said. “This exhibit is an expression of hope, joy and healing for patients and those that care for them. We are all unified in this fight against cancer. We will not let it defeat us.”

Mark Campbell, MD, an oncologist at Cancer and Hematology Centers of West Michigan, helped organize the exhibit. He said the project has brought meaning to patients, as well as all the people who are affected by a cancer diagnosis.

“When cancer strikes a person, it doesn’t just strike a person. It strikes a family, a neighborhood, a church …” he said. “There’s a ripple effect that goes through all of society.”

The butterflies represent that.

“How did one butterfly become 6,000?” Dr. Campbell said. “There are 6,000 ways that different lives have become intertwined. At times you weep with each other, and at other times, you rejoice with each other.”

Resh, a cancer survivor herself, said the process of creating the butterflies has brought hope to many.

“I know how isolating cancer can be,” she said. She describes being in the resource library of Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion as cancer patients arrived for a class. They all sat in corners of the room, nobody talking to anyone else.

“We needed people to make butterflies, so I approached them and asked, ‘Would you like to make a butterfly?’” Resh said. “Soon, they were talking, and smiling and sharing their stories.”

Resh understands better than most. Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2004 after finding a lump in her neck, she underwent surgery to remove her thyroid. She also had radiation and thyroid hormone replacement therapy.

“I felt really terrible. The world moved in slow motion. Everything felt like lead or cement. My brain was slow,” she said. “I couldn’t paint. I couldn’t feel color. I could see red, but red was not red to me. I couldn’t mix the colors I wanted. It was a horrible feeling. I thought I would never paint again.”

Her physician urged her to continue going to her studio and just look at her materials.

“He said, ‘You have to get up and do it.’ I finally did, months and month later,” she said. “You do come through. You go through at the other side and you say, ‘Who was that person who was all crazy?’”

Resh hopes the exhibit continues to bring people together throughout ArtPrize.

“I want people to come and share and look at what we accomplished,” Resh said.

Cancer patient Leilani Schullo made two butterflies for the exhibit—one after an appointment with her oncologist in May as she sat across a desk from Chris Ackerman, a scheduler at Cancer and Hematology Centers of West Michigan. Ackerman, who calls the project her baby, has led many patients through the butterfly-making process.

Schullo made her second butterfly on a September afternoon as she received chemotherapy for her stage 4 breast cancer.

On this butterfly, she wrote, “I will conquer!!!” along with her grandchildren’s names.

“It’s a sign of hope,” Schullo said. “And butterflies go through their own little journey.”

Schullo first battled breast cancer in 2009, only to have it return earlier this year.

While Ackerman folded with her, she said, “As I am folding my paper, I am putting in energy of healing and hope.”

Ackerman shared that when patients come to her desk, some have just received very bad news. As she makes phone calls to coordinate their treatment, she also asks patients if they would like to make a butterfly. She then helps them put the two pieces together, opening the folds to create the wings.

“Almost every time I get goosebumps when I open one up,” she said. “I am hoping this will create a cathedral of hope and survivorship.”