Rare disease doesn't stand in way of artist's work

Updated 1/15/2011 7:53 PM
  • Tessa Koller

    Tessa Koller

The oil paintings and ink drawings on display from artist Tessa Koller may catch your eye at the St. Charles Public Library, but the story behind the work will also grab your attention.

Koller, a 26-year-old artist and fashion designer who splits her time between Milwaukee and St. Charles, always had a love for drawing. She turned to painting as a way to help her cope with her discovery two years ago that a lifetime of health issues has been endured because she is afflicted with the rare 22q11 (DiGeorge) Syndrome, a congenital heart disease.

"There is a long list of disorders involving this disease," said Koller, a 2008 graduate of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. "I have more than one heart defect, and had all sorts of mental and cognitive delays growing up. People born with this condition normally die within the first year of birth, but I was very, very lucky."

But not so lucky as to avoid open heart surgery as a baby, and facing another during the summer of 2009 in which doctors were considering replacing her coronary artery.

"I was just dealing with a massive amount of turmoil, and I dove into oil painting," Koller said of the anxiety in awaiting a second surgery.

When it turned out that doctors decided to hold off on that surgery because of improvements from an initial diagnosis, Koller still had the oil painting and, more recently, fashion design to turn to.

She has had several successful art and fashion showings, and also just finished writing a book, "Branches," that tells the story of her emotional and physical struggles, but more importantly, brings more awareness of the 22q11 Syndrome.

"It's a congenital disorder that is hard to describe, but it's a pretty serious thing and most doctors don't know about it," Koller said. "I saw 30 doctors and only one was familiar with it.

"I have enjoyed writing the book, but it took a long time to put together, and I tried to keep it as simple as possible," she added.

She is busy in preparing a fashion show fundraiser for the Adult Congenital Heart Association, saying, "I want to use my abilities and skills to help others cope with these illnesses."

Koller's work will be on display at the St. Charles Public Library through Feb. 2, and it came about after a summer of spending a lot of time there.

"The people at the library saw a story I had written about my challenges, and they asked if I would be interested in having my art on display there," Koller said. "I like a display like this because it can bring more attention to my work and the disease.

"People think it is all doom and gloom, and that's the way I was about it, but now I am more intense on educating people about it, while also getting more offers for work with my art and fashion design."

A gallery's challenges

You almost need a GPS system to keep track of where Ginger Lewis has operated her Ginger's Gift Gallery for the past 20 years in St. Charles.

The gallery was in three different locations of The Market sector of St. Charles for seven years, then was the gift store of the Hotel Baker for five years, before moving to Charlestowne Mall for another five years. For the past three years, it has been located at 1980 W. Main St. in West Towne Market.

But Lewis is facing a challenging economy, making it tough to satisfy her lease terms and forcing her to close her gallery.

"I am not ruling out the possibility of relocating, and I have some options I am thinking about, but regardless, I still need to reduce inventory," Lewis said.

Numerous local artists will lose a gallery to showcase their work if Lewis can't stay in business, and she mentioned that many of her loyal customers are upset about the closing.

There is no denying that Lewis' gallery has a beautiful assortment of kaleidoscope, glass and jewelry items.

Here's hoping Lewis can land on her feet in the next couple of months and keep her gallery alive.

Less salty roads

My car is cringing at the sight of all of the salt on parking lots and our streets.

It's all the more reason I like the latest trend of cities using beet juice in their brine mixtures, thus lowering the salt levels. That beet juice won't rust your car, plus it is doesn't kill plants or pollute the river.

For example, St. Charles reports that its mixture is now less than 24 percent salt.

Better yet, it would be nice if winter just decided to go away early.

Excitement about prize

Organizers of the St. Charles Heritage Center gala ball on Jan. 29 are showing plenty of enthusiasm regarding the 50/50 raffle ticket sales that are now showing the winner will take home more than $3,000.

They were selling tickets at Blue Goose yesterday, but those interested in a shot at the prize can still buy raffle tickets by calling the history museum at (630) 584-6967.

Crumbling concrete

It's a bridge that for sure needs some fixing up, as you can see it crumbling when you walk over it.

That's why it was good news for the Geneva Park District when it received $729,000 in grant funding through an Illinois Transportation Enhancement Grant to replace the north bridge in Island Park.

When taking our summer walks through Island Park, my wife and I have often commented that it would be nice if they could somehow replicate the State Street bridge design on the Island Park bridge.