Button Up

Junior's art creation raises $25,000 to fight breast cancer

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

It began as a whim, born of a fondness for knick-knack-covered furniture and a desire to raise money for breast cancer research.

So when the unique objet d'art Brooke Kolconay '00 fashioned - a wooden chair pasted with buttons donated by breast cancer survivors - fetched $25,000 at a recent charity auction in North Carolina, no one was more surprised than the artist herself.

"Oh my gosh, no way," said Kolconay, a communications major from Raleigh, NC, when asked if she'd thought her "Button Chair" project would strike such a chord. "At most I thought it would be a hunk of junk sitting in our garage."

Completed last year as a tribute to all women from North Carolina who have battled breast cancer, the Button Chair was donated for auction at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Breast Cancer Golf Festival. Kolconay's creation was bought by host Blue Cross, which intends to display it across the state as part of an breast cancer awareness-raising campaign.

Yesterday, the chair - originally bought for $10 at a flea market - was unveiled at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh at an event formally launching Blue Cross' statewide Breast Health Project. Joining Kolconay at the reception were North Carolina first lady Carolyn Hunt, Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, North Carolina State University Women's Basketball Coach Kay Yow, and many of the women who contributed buttons to the chair.

Junior Brooke Kolconay with a photgraph of her "Button Chair."
The project seemed to touch "a huge need to be active" in the cancer survivors who responded, Kolconay said. "They've done all the walks and raised money for charities," she said. "This was something more personal. It's not going to cure anybody. It's just something for them."

Kolconay became active in cancer research fund raising through her mother, Dianne, owner of a Raleigh boutique that caters to women who have had mastectomies or are undergoing chemotherapy. Inspired by an ornamented foot stool she had seen in a New York City shop window, the younger Kolconay decided to make a decorative chair to auction for charity.

Kolconay sent request letters to 2,000 women on the mailing list of her mother's boutique, where a jar was set up on the counter to collect buttons for the project. The response was immediate and heartfelt.

"One woman who was visiting the store drove 45 minutes home and 45 minutes back to drop off one red button," she recalled. "They would send buttons in letters. Some women would send along a note."

She estimates she spent hundreds of hours on the project during school breaks and summer vacations over the course of two years.

"I am not fashion-conscious at all," said Kolconay. "I thought I would squirt glue on it and attach the buttons. I found that doing an area the size of my fist would take a good two hours."

How many buttons are glued to the chair? "I don't know," she said. "But every button has a story.

"I received buttons from World War II nurses' uniforms. One woman brought a lucky rabbit's foot that she had carried in to her mastectomy surgery. It's on the underside of the seat.

"The coach of the North Carolina State women's basketball team donated a button from her Olympic jacket," Kolconay continued. "Another woman donated a diamond pendant trimmed in gold, to represent all the women who didn't have a voice in this."

Kolconay, who plans to spend this summer building homes for the poor in Mexico and South Carolina and is considering a career in community relations, said she has yet to decide on a followup to the Button Chair.

"I love doing projects like this," she said. "I have a passion for it. But I don't know what I'll do next."

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