State Of The Artist: What's In A Name?

Jan 15, 2020

State of the Artist continues with a Rockford woman who makes decoupage. Decoupage involves gluing and arranging paper cutouts on a variety of surfaces. It's a form of expression that has special meaning for artist Valerie Gibbons. 

I met Valerie Gibbons at the Rockford White House that sits high on the hill at Spring Creek and Alpine in Rockford. It used to be someone's home, but now it's a professional office space, and it's where Valerie founded the nonprofit FootsieStools Ltd.

FootsieStools is a traveling exhibit of whimsical footstools that are decorated with decoupage and adorned with shoes. Each one is vibrant, unique, and intelligent -- much like the bibliophilic artist herself. 

Valerie Gibbons sits on a bench outside the White House in Rockford.
Credit Connie Kuntz

"If you want to know me, you need to know what I'm reading. The books here are about healing, healing with humor, healing through narrative writing, and healing through art."

These books are important to Valerie because she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia 13 years ago.

Valerie said, "I lost my vision. I lost all my teeth. I lost 50% of my lung capacity and developed, from steroids, full blown diabetes."

She also developed osteoporosis, cataracts, and was constantly at a high risk for infection.

"Every bug out there got me and I'm still in fear of getting taken out of the game because of some pathogen."

Valerie and some of her books.
Credit Connie Kuntz

Within one month of her diagnosis, Valerie was prescribed nearly three dozen medications. She called her new reality a "toxic shock" to her system because the drugs were so intense. Prior to her diagnosis, Valerie took no medications, enjoyed an organic vegetarian diet, and swam three times a week. She said the medications did save her physical life, but she also spoke candidly. "There are days when I wish that leukemia had just taken me, because it's just too hard."

But Valerie, whose name means "strong and valiant," has never given up.  Though she's had so much taken from her, she gives back to others in spades and is forward thinking. She said, "I still see myself as doing something else that will restore that 'sense of self' to me. It's just one step at a time. That's what the footsie stools tell me."

So what exactly are "footsie stools?"

A few years after her diagnosis, Valerie was convalescing at home. By that time, she had regained her vision through the fitting of sclera lenses. She said, "I was sitting in my 'sick chair' at home. I was alone and somebody left me a magazine." She said she thumbed through it, read an article on decoupage, and thought, "I can do that." 

One thing led to another.

Later, Valerie found a four-legged stool in her basement. "I decided to do decoupage on it because my sister said her lower back was hurting her when she gardened."

Mod Podge, a brush, and a pair of scissors are the tools you need for decoupage. If you don't have scissors, just tear.
Credit Connie Kuntz

Using Mod Podge and a brush, Valerie covered the footstool with pictures from a garden magazine. Some days later she looked at it and thought, "Wouldn't that be cute if it wore garden boots?" Her caregiver took her to a Dollar Store and Valerie found a pair of baby boots with flowers on them. Valerie bought the boots, went home, and put them on the legs of the stool. What happened next changed Valerie even more than her diagnosis: she laughed. It was the first time in years. An artist was born.

Not long after that, Valerie's friends and family took an interest in her footsie stool and asked her to make more.

Valerie brought "You Quack Me Up" to a woman who struggles with Alzheimer's. The bright colors and iconic decorations jostled early motherhood memories in the woman.
Credit Connie Kuntz

Now Valerie has created more than 25 footsie stools and travels with them to people who are experiencing their own difficult life circumstances. She says the reason she can minister so well to others is because of her own deep grief and loss.

One such ministry took place in Caledonia at the home of Donna Spurlock, who recently lost her husband Dale Spurlock. Valerie and Donna talked at the kitchen table. The footsie stool named "Veteran Grace" was on the table. It seemed to anchor the conversation in a serious, loving way. 

Donna Spurlock (left) and Valerie Gibbons hold "Veteran Grace."
Credit Connie Kuntz

Later, Valerie spoke about other places she's visited. She said, "I've gone to churches. I've gone to a homeless shelter. I've worked with the National Alliance for Mental Illness. I've been to assisted living, and, of course, cancer patients, which is how this all started." 

Valerie doesn't identify as a fine artist. She calls herself a "fun artist." She is fun, but she also has some serious credentials. Her education includes a Masters of Science in Education, a Bachelor of Arts in in Journalism and Spanish, and a variety of continuing education classes related to grant writing, nonprofits, and the healing arts. She's also a member of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor and says she has learned a lot from taking classes at Womanspace and online. And she credits the FootsieStools board of directors for education and insight. 

She continued, "Artists go to school to study art. They have innate talent. They can paint, draw, sculpt." She continued, "What I do is expressive art. It's expressing my spirit. It is entirely for my own emotional process, and that's what I bring to other people through the workshops."

Her mission is to inspire hope and encourage personal growth through education and art, and she insists that anyone can do collage.

"If you can hold a glue stick; if you can hold a pair of scissors or even if you don't use scissors, you can tear, then you can do collage," she said.

"Snow Queen" lights up and depicts the struggle between good and evil in an icy world.
Credit Connie Kuntz

Valerie says collage is the assembling of fragments of disparate images into a cohesive whole. "Think about that and you think about a life that has been fragmented by trauma. When we get to piece together a collage around something as solid as a shoe that holds us, we're rebuilding our life."

Valerie does credit modern medicine with saving her life, but also said in no uncertain terms, "Art saved me. Art saved me."

To learn more about the FootsieStools workshops, speaker programs, and outreach, please visit the website