Healing Handbags

Story by Jeannie Stone

Lynell Withers is not the first person to be diagnosed with cancer, nor is she the first to discover the therapeutic benefits of art. She may be the first person to create one-of-a- kind purses because of her battles.

Withers, a California native who bought a Russellville home sight unseen, moved to the RiverValleyin2004aftersufferingalayoff in Oceanside, Calif. The affordable housing market and beauty of the area appealed to her. For the first time, she was able to own a home made of brick and mortar.

With no family or friends here, the first diagnosis of colon cancer in 2005 could have sent her packing, but folks in the medical community in Russellville endeared themselves to Withers. She now calls many of the nurses “friends” insisting she’s never met “so many wonderful people.”

The normally upbeat Withers has a weakness for animals and, knowing she had no family here, the local veterinarian made house calls during Withers’ illness.

“That would never happen in California,” she said. “Russellville became my family through the hospital and the vet.”

The unexpected news of breast cancer in June of 2008, set Withers on a whirlwind resulting in the loss of her breast, but not her joy of life. Not surprisingly, the owner of the mastectomy shop in town became another member of her family.

“Moving to Russellville seemed to free me,” Withers said. “Surviving cancer inspired me.” She began constructing handbags and

paintings surrounding her fascination with mysterious and fantastical women. Withers’ paintings feature bold and powerful women.

They each took on a unique personality,” she said. “That is why I started naming each painting and handbag. I call this one Lola. It just looked like a Lola.”

“Surviving cancer has given me courage where before I thought I couldn’t do something, now I know I can, and I do,” she said and smiled. Withers is now cancer free.

An interest in preserving linens, postcards and letters from loved ones further influenced her. She is open to inspiration and has transferred her paintings as well as the photos and cards onto fabric to embellish the purses.

True to her passion for animals, she encourages customers who are pet owners to personalize their bags, adding animal fabrics and different textures.

Inside each bag, Withers attachs a letter of authenticity along with an itemized list of each item and, of course, the name. One bag made from a vintage burgundy tapestry is named “Lady of the Flame,” and she sparkles with crystals.

“I only use Swarovski crystals,” she said, “because they catch the light best.”

Withers is particular when choosing her supplies, adding that the old photographs purchased online are mostly from France, Germany or England. The tapestries come from around the world, and some are quite expensive. Like a quilt, she pieces together her creation.

“Make do,” she said and laughed. “Like my mother always told me.” She will use a snippet of perfectly dyed ribbon along the groove of an antique lace, cut up a vintage dishtowel to make pockets for the interior of a bag, and pin an heirloom brooch which professionally sets off the design.

Withers rented a booth at The Collectors Gallery in Russellville and started receiving positive feedback immediately. She also sells on ETSY, an online store for artisans.

“I would love to be able to sell enough to support myself,” she said. “My pet passion is animal welfare and for the past 16 years I have supported a sanctuary in Utah. I’d love to be able to continue that.”

Sam McAlister, a customer who was combing her booth for new designs, related his experience in purchasing a handbag to give as a birthday gift to his sister.

“I couldn’t wait for her to blow out her candles,” he said. “She loved it so much, she put it in a shadowbox. She doesn’t want to risk getting it dirty. There is just nothing else like these purses.”

Wither credits her creative juices on her newfound family and renewed life.

Although the economy brought Withers to our town, relationships keep her rooted here. “There is something very special about

the people here. You couldn’t pay me to go back to California,” she said and smiled.

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Category: Community Commerce

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