Stephanie Burgess was almost ready to give up on her dream. In 2010, she was trying to find her niche full time in the world of wood art, but mounting medical bills from a breast cancer diagnosis had her considering a return to her old nursing career.
Then, at a cafe in her hometown of Bellingham, she noticed a painted wooden pole with the stenciled words "May peace prevail on Earth" in four languages, along with art and prose about family, Earth and community. Burgess was drawn to it.
"I'm a hippie at heart," Burgess said. "I thought, 'That's cool. And I could do it.;"
Burgess learned peace poles have been around since the middle of the 20th century, when people created them in response to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in World War II.
She started making the 6-foot poles the following year, at first as garden decorations. Before long, she was getting custom orders to design poles to serve as memorials, address markers and even "story poles" about people's lives.
Depending on the size of the pole and complexity of the design, one pole can take Burgess three weeks to complete. She starts with Alaskan yellow cedar, draws in pencil on each side and then uses a heated blade to burn the precise design into the wood. She uses acrylic paints and often burns the design again atop the paint, giving it a three-dimensional edge.
In December 2011, Burgess was showing her poles at Allied Arts, a gallery in Bellingham. An art licensing agent saw them, brought her portfolio to a trade show in Atlanta and things just snowballed from there.
"I was immediately signing contracts with numerous companies who are now making all types of products with my art on them," she said.
Burgess' designs are on tote bags and iPad cases, and she just completed a line of dinnerware that launches in January.
But her biggest hit is still the peace poles. She now has a graphic designer scan each side of her original poles and digitally stitch them into one large flat image. The peace poles, now distributed nationwide, are mass-produced by wrapping the flat image around a blank pole.
Those flat images, along with more of Burgess' art, are now on display at Earthenworks Gallery in La Conner.
"Some pieces are literally the size of doors," she said.
Meanwhile, the poles are so popular that Burgess is working 60 to 70 hours a week to fill a log of orders that runs through 2015. The St. Louis company that manufactures the re-creations had to lease more factory space to meet demand, Burgess said.
"I am one of those very lucky artists whose work was seen at the right time and right place by the right person," she said.
Burgess' big break allowed her to focus on her art full time, a welcome distraction from the effects of chemotherapy, she said.
"That kind of helped me get through it, because I didn't focus on the cancer, I focused on, 'I'm a rock star! I'm a bald rock star, but I can rock a bandanna pretty well,' " she said.
Besides being able to support herself, her daughter and her two Boston terriers, the mass-production of Burgess' artwork has spread the word more widely about peace poles and what they represent.
"The art is simple, almost childlike," she said. "But it carries a very deep message."