Photograph by Shu-Mei Chan

Kim Fernandez, right, chats with visitors at a Bloomington Clay Studio opening in March 2009. Fernandez died of breast cancer in May 2010 after a six-year battle.

She was righteous. She was positive. She was young at heart. Until the end.

Battling Stage IV breast cancer didn't change Kim Fernandez's energetic personality. She brought spontaneity and laughter to the Bloomington Clay Studio (BCS), according to co-owner Shu-Mei Chan. BCS is a community-based studio founded in 2008 by Chan and her husband, Daniel Evans.

Losing her nearly six-year fight to breast cancer, Fernandez died on May 18, 2010, at age 47.

"She was fearless in a lot of ways," Evans says.

Nothing seemed to stop her. She was raising her 14-year-old daughter, Tauley Montez, by herself, and she has a son, James Nitsos. She drove 45 minutes to get to BCS from her cabin across town because she loved working with clay. According to Chan, Fernandez always said clay kept her alive.

She made her own urn. Chan and Evans both agree it is the best piece she ever made.

She always got things done, she didn't deliberate. If you asked her to do something, she would have it for you the next day, Chan explains.

"At her memorial I called her a badass," Chan laughs and says. "She had so much energy, even through chemotherapy."



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Fernandez frequently brought friends to BCS. However, she was sensitive to others' feelings. She didn't come around the studio when she was feeling sick. She didn't want to bring anyone down.

Evans recalls a time, toward the end, when he was talking to her on the phone. He said she got upset while talking, and after they hung up, she called Chan to make sure she didn't freak Evans out. It wasn't about her dying; she didn't want him to be uncomfortable.

Fernandez was an overtly opinionated person, Evans says. She didn't censor herself. You would have to take it or leave it with her.

"She was really annoying," Evans says. "I butted heads with her all the time."


Photograph by Shu-Mei Chan

The owners of the Bloomington Clay Studio have created the Kim Fernandez Memorial Scholarship for Breast Cancer Survivors that includes a free, one-year membership and one free class.

"That's because she was stubborn, and so are you," Chan interrupts.

"She was not an angel," Evans says, "and she was hard to deal with at times, but I loved Kim."

"I think some people, when they get sick, really focus on how they got a raw deal," Chan says. "In a lot of ways she accepted it."

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Fernandez, originally from Indianapolis, received a degree in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and studied ceramics at IU-Bloomington and local community centers.

Chan met Fernandez in 2007. Fernandez signed up for the first ceramics class Chan taught as a graduate student at IU. The two lost touch when the class finished. Then Fernandez signed up for a class Evans was teaching at The Waldron. She figured out he was Chan's husband and got involved in classes at BCS.

In January 2009, Fernandez was practically an intern at BCS, frequently working and firing there. She helped in the studio and in exchange received access to the facilities and free classes.

"She previously had her own studio at home," explains Chan, "but she wanted the company of other artists. She donated a lot of equipment to us from that studio -- a wheel, glazes, shelving and kiln furniture. It really helped us get started."

Fernandez was sort of a media coordinator for BCS. She took time to reach magazines and newspapers to educate the public about the studio and its offerings. She even created a Facebook page.

"I'm just a silly artist, I don't pay attention to those things," Chan smiles and says. "But she said, 'You have to get word out there about BCS.'"

Chan and Evans gave her the title of assistant manager.

"She definitely kept us on track," Chan says.

***

There's no doubt, Fernandez was a fighter. When someone told her no, she would figure out an alternative route to solve her problems.

Chan remembers near the end when Fernandez needed a new drug that the health insurance company wouldn't pay for because it was a name brand. She found a different way to get it.


Photograph by Shu-Mei Chan

Fernandez often told people that clay kept her alive.

At that state with chemo, a drug only works for a short time, and then you have to move to the next one, Chan says. Since Fernandez's health insurance wouldn't pay for a new drug, she went through Facebook to get it.

She networked and got on the phone. Not long after, people from all over the country were sending her drugs that were still good, but no longer useful to them.

She received about six weeks worth of medicine.

"I believe it extended her life and worked for several months," Chan says.

After her death, Chan and Evans wanted to do something to honor her. The thought of a scholarship came to Chan after she first found out Fernandez wasn't doing well. Chan felt powerless -- you can't take a disease away from a person, she says.

The Kim Fernandez Memorial Scholarship for Breast Cancer Survivors provides a free, one-year membership and one free class to the recipient and is worth $1,000. Currently there is no funding, it comes out of Evans and Chan's pockets, but they have received a few donations.

Evans believes the scholarship is beneficial because it gives space for someone to work in. He hopes it will proliferate over the years, and they will be able to give it out more than once a year.

He noticed how Fernandez received obvious peace of mind with clay; through the scholarship he wants other artists to achieve the same serenity.

Chan knew Fernandez wouldn't want people to dwell on her death, but to turn it into an opportunity. She sees the scholarship as an opportunity. She says it helped her move beyond feeling sorry for Fernandez, her family and herself.

"I'm glad Kim didn't know about the scholarship," Chan says. "We just wanted to perpetuate her life."

Megan Erbacher can be reached at merbache@umail.iu.edu.