Whether it was a major setback in her desired career, a move to a town where she barely knew anyone or even an unexpected and horrifying cancer diagnosis, Rachel DiAndrea has never let anything or anyone stand in the way of dreams or her art.
That conviction, and the energy she puts into instilling the same resolve in others through service, have earned DiAndrea this year's Arts & Letters award from the WISE Women for Blair County.
DiAndrea moved to Altoona in 2000 from her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y, after she and her husband, J.R., took over his parents' advertising agency. She runs her successful PetArtStudios from home, and is also a full-time account manager for printing specialists Colortech, Inc.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
WISE?Women of Blair County 2012 Arts &?Letters Award winner Rachel DiAndrea poses in her Altoona studio.
With this dual career in both fine arts and communications design, it's hard to believe that a Syracuse University professor once told DiAndrea that she didn't have the commercial talent to make it in the illustration business.
"My whole world fell apart for a very long time," DiAndrea said. "I became very self conscious about my art work. It's a very personal thing."
Fast forward nearly 20 years, and DiAndrea had a husband, a toddler, a house and a full-time job, but was only drawing one or two times a year. When she realized something was missing in her life, she made a New Year's resolution to create a piece of art a week for a year. She tapped into her love of animals, and out of that resolution came PetArtStudios and a new-found belief in her abilities.
"I use it as my compass," DiAndrea said of art's effect on her life today. "Everything I do on a daily basis involves art somehow."
When DiAndrea was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008, art was not only her compass, but her saving grace.
"I used my studio as this healing place," she said. "I couldn't go outside and I couldn't walk, but I could sit and I could work at my art. It was so healing for me to know that I could be normal for a little bit of time. It was a god-send."
Flo Shuss, the secretary for WISE Women and DiAndrea's next door neighbor, nominated DiAndrea for the award because of her positive attitude throughout the course of her illness.
"She didn't let it get her down," Shuss, 56, said. "She was going to beat it."
And DiAndrea did just that. Now she tries to help others by doing one-on-one counseling for fellow cancer patients, providing arts therapy lessons and speaking on the radio about the healing effects of using art as therapy.
She also volunteers at the Dreams Go On equine therapeutic riding facility in Hollidaysburg. Shuss said DiAndrea is an "unsung hero" who is very generous of her time and talent.
"She takes the gift of art and her infectious spirit and shares a lot with other people and doesn't expect a lot in return," she said.
DiAndrea continues to accomplish a lot, both professionally and through her volunteerism. She appears in various art shows, exhibits and festivals locally and nationally, and for four consecutive years has been a winner at the prestigious "Art Show at The Dog Show" in Kansas.
She also was involved in a competition in New York when she noticed a piece of her artwork was hanging right next to that Syracuse professor who doubted her talents. After seeing this, DiAndrea said she had just one thought.
"It was just, like, 'Thank God I didn't give up,'" she said.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.