Missaukee Co. Woman Battling Cancer Joins Others Wearing ‘Crowns Of Courage’ At ArtPrize

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“I look at one of these pictures and everything just floats away.”

The art of photography meets empowerment.

For the women and artists behind these photos, it’s much more than a finalist exhibit at ArtPrize.

Two artists and a photographer are re-defining the battle against cancer.

A woman in Lake City is among 21 other women, forming what’s called the “Crowns of Courage.”

It’s not only in the finals in its category, but making a real statement at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids and beyond.

“When you go through chemo, your hair is taken from you, your eyelashes, your eyebrows,” says Alexandria Yonkman, who lives in Missaukee County. “You lose weight. Everything changes.”

“Change” became commonplace for Alexandria Yonkman starting five years ago.

“My cancer started back in 2012. We just diagnosed with it in 2016,” Yonkman says. “The actual way I found out I had cancer was I was having physical therapy and having muscle manipulations to fix my leg that was stuck at a 45-degree angle and the surgeon snapped my femur.”

Alexandria, a mother of three, had to have her leg amputated.

“I was kind of low and out,” Yonkman says. “I’ve stayed pretty strong but it seemed that every time it was time for something good to happen, and I’d go down for test results, scan results, anything, it was another shot in the leg. Every time something good comes, something bad is following it right after.”

Then came an opportunity, in the form of a project by Steven Stone and Amanda Gilbert.

“The project came to me over Facebook,” Yonkman says. “I had a couple of friends who had tagged me in this Crowns of Courage, and it was just cancer patients who had lost their hair from chemo could come and get crowned with henna.”

“They got a hold of me three days after I put an application in. From the time I sat down in the chair to the end of my henna, I had not seen anything. It was a big reveal.”

Twenty-two women of all ages, including Alexandria, were beautifully crowned with henna.

“This project showed us that cancer’s taken everything in our eyes,” Yonkman says. “I couldn’t pick up my four-month-old child and walk across the room. I couldn’t walk. This kind of changed all of that and it gave me power back.”

The artists behind the work, along with the work of Grand Rapids photographer Dave Burgess, say it didn’t start as an exhibit for ArtPrize.

“Just to see the smiles on their face again, to see that they feel like these goddess, beautiful warrior princesses when they look in the mirror and in the photos,” says Amanda Gilbert, who spoke to Northern Michigan’s News Leader from Grand Rapids. “It was life-changing for us and I think it was life-changing for them.”

“We started this project out to give back as much as we could, through art and love,” Steven Stone says. “The irony is how much has been given back to us.”

Amanda and Steven now hope to turn the movement into a national nonprofit.

“It’s changing the conversation from being all about cancer and identifying as a patient cancer, some as a victim,” Stone says. “In reality, that mindset is a negative.”

“Henna has been very healing for me. It’s a 5,000-year-old art form that goes back to Northern Africa and India,” Gilbert says. “To have something that they can look forward to and find joy in, in the midst of darkness, that’s what it’s all about.”

As for Alexandria, it’s already changed her life forever.

“Even if this cancer takes a different turn than I have planned, then at least I did something to help other people that my story was able to show other women that it doesn’t have to be your definition,” Yonkman says. “It’s a big project to shed light on something that is much bigger and, hopefully, will become this non-profit that they can get out and have other henna artists join them so that women all over the United States or even farther can have this out-of-body  experience that cancer isn’t going to win. It’s just something that’s in your life and you have to look past it and beat it.”

If you have already visited ArtPrize and registered to vote for exhibits, you can vote for “Crowns of Courage” on their page.

The deadline for votes is at 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 5.