‘The Story Isn’t Over’: Mother’s Grief Grows into Inspiring Art Project

by | May 2020

A patch of grass shaped like a heart.

Photos: Sara Shuster

At the center of Stand with Heart is a specialized collection of photographs taken by Sara Shuster … and also a very difficult story.

Stand with Heart sells a catalog of fine art, greeting cards and gifts. Owned by Edina artist Sara Shuster, it is a small, growing business. At the center of Stand with Heart is a specialized collection of photographs taken by Shuster … and also a very difficult story.

Shuster’s son Elliot died by suicide four years ago at the age of 18. Not long after Elliot’s death, his mother started to notice heart shapes … in puddles, in piles of leaves, in snow … hearts appeared to her in the most unlikely places and, often, they took her by surprise. She started to photograph them so that she could hold on to them and share them with her family and friends.

“In the first picture I took of a heart, I stood with my feet in the frame,” Shuster says. “That just became the way I documented the moment.”

Patch of snow shaped like a heart.

The hearts are anywhere and everywhere, but she says they are all naturally occurring. “I don’t leave the house everyday looking for them,” she says. “Sometimes I do think that I could use a heart today … but more often I just see them when I’m not thinking about it.”

The hearts—both the finding of them and the sharing—were especially important in the days when, she says, her family didn’t know how they would go on.

“It became such a practice. And in turn, these hearts have really carried us … and not just carried us, but allowed us to connect with other people,” she explains.

She does feel that the hearts are, on some level, a message from her son. Shuster is a spiritually open person who talks about her family’s journey through not only her son’s death, but all the other things that have happened to them both before and after. She talks with a certainty that there is a purpose to what happens and some good can come from even the darkest and most terrible things.

“We didn’t ask for the tragedy,” she says. “We didn’t ask for the gifts either. Stand with Heart is a story I didn’t know I was going to tell. But I am a storyteller through design and I believe that the stories can be healing.”

Hearts are a symbol that she says have always resonated with her. So, when she started noticing them and feeling comforted by them, she saw them as the beginning of a story.

Heart shaped rock at Lake Pepin.

“It’s a universal sign,” she says. “Every time I would share them it felt like a way of uplifting other people. The only thing we can do is try to stay connected.” She says she didn’t start Stand with Heart to solve a problem. “There wasn’t a clear path for my family, we allowed ourselves to just be. We knew we could honor Elliot by just showing up for others and choosing kindness,” she says.

Shuster has been in business as an artist for many years. She has created and sold greeting cards and fine gifts for 30 years. Taking the photographs and then turning them into salable art was a natural progression. In fact, it was so natural that when she first talked to her husband about a vague notion of something called Stand with Heart—before she was even really sure what that would look like—he secured the web domain name, just to be sure it would be there if she wanted it.

“I knew I needed to put this out into the world,” she says. “We have a big community of people who have supported us, so at first I decided to share it with that community.” She had a show for invited friends and family two years ago. She felt good about the reaction, so last year she had another show and invited more people and shared more of her story, or what she calls, “the words behind Stand with Heart.”

At that show one gentleman in particular reacted strongly to a phrase in some of the works she’d created: “Find, stand, thank and share your heart.” That encouraged her to start making small items that could include that phrase, which has become a mantra of sorts for the company. She offers a wide range of things for sale on the website like calendars, bookmarks and journals.

Standing with your heart where you find it at any given moment is the center of all of Shuster’s feelings about life. “Just acknowledge what it is,” she says. “Feeling angry? Feeling light and happy? Name that.” She’s learned, too, that she can be happy and grieving at the same time. “At first I thought ‘how can I ever be happy again?’ But I have other children and a husband and a family and friends … and I’ve come to understand that I can be in the world with them and happy and in another place with Elliot at the same time,” she explains.

Stand with Heart may change and evolve as a company. Shuster and her husband are at work identifying a charity or nonprofit to partner with and she may have more gallery shows or even a permanent gallery space. Her work can also be found in a few local retail shops around town.

“The story isn’t over,” she says. “Who knows where it will go, but if I can encourage or lift up someone else, that feels like honoring my son.”

Stand with Heart
Instagram: @standwithheart


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