Needlework repair

Mar 20, 2016, 11:39 IST | Fiona Fernandez

A Canadian textile artist picks up needle and thread to weave the story of her husband’s battle with prostate cancer

Come to bed with me?”

“Huh? No, I’d rather read this book about cancer...”

When 67-year-old textile artist Sima Elizabeth Shefrin’s husband, Bob Bossin was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer in 2011, the couple would crack ‘cancer jokes’ to blunt the edge off a serious health condition. “I don’t know if I would call us fun-loving,” says Shefrin in an email interview from Gabriola Island, British Columbia. “But we do share a peculiar sense of humour. The book is about what really happened.”

Sima Elizabeth Shefrin at workSima Elizabeth Shefrin at work

Shefrin is referring to an unusual retelling of the couple’s struggle with a disease that is the second most common cause of cancer and the sixth leading cause of cancer death among men worldwide. She decided to take needle and thread to create a comic that would document the jibes and jokes the two shared. Soon enough, The Embroidered Cancer Comic took shape. “We all need to laugh and see the humour in life,” she says, “And I’m always happier when I'm creating artwork.|
Edited excerpts from an interview.

Q. When did you realize that you would wanted to create a comic inspired by your husband’s cancer?
A. Bob’s cancer was aggressive. But humour has been central to our relationship. Soon, he began making jokes about it, and I followed. Every time we made a joke, we’d say, “That goes in the comic”. Back then, it was imaginary, but one day I decided to create it. I’m a visual artist, textile designer and a children’s book illustrator, so I took up needle and thread to embroider comic strips.

Q. Did you create it at one go?
A.I thought I’d do a few pictures and see where they went. The original pieces were much smaller than the 18-inch square pieces I now have. The general wisdom about writing comics and graphic novels is that you should write your script first, then go back and do the illustrations. I didn’t. I started somewhere in the middle and worked forward and backward until I had a complete story. A number of pieces didn’t work, but I don’t mind re-doing panels until I get it right.

Close-up of the artist working at her storyboard

Q. Why choose embroidery?
A. I’ve been a textile artist all my life and have often included embroidery in my work. First, I thought it would be a body of work for an exhibition that would go with a small printed catalogue perhaps. When I landed the contract with Singing Dragon Publishers, creating illustrations for the book became the main focus of the project. Now that that part is complete, I am going back to finishing off the pieces themselves as quilts.

Q. How did Bob react to the decision?
A. He has been open about the cancer all along. Some men like to be more private about prostate cancer, possibly because they are embarrassed by some of the side effects. In fact, he started a little newsletter that he sent to friends that would keep them updated with regular reports o his condition. He is probably as excited as I am about it [the comic]. Most of the incidents [in it] are true — in some ways, it was easy to write them because I didn’t have to make up a lot of the lines —they’re taken straight from life.

Q. What was going through your mind when you had reached the end of the comic?
A. It’s always exciting to send my creations into the world. It’s great to know that the book will reach so many people. With luck, they’ll laugh (everyone who’s seen it so far has) and it may help them deal better.

Shefrin’s work is available on

Graphic art to heal
In the middle of the project, Shefrin discovered the Graphic Medicine Community, a group of those who are either creators of comics on medical issues or health practitioners who use comics as aid in their work. Started in 2007 by physician Dr Ian Williams, it is a project that looks at graphic art as tool to offer help to patients and caregivers.

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