Artist and cancer survivor Sarah Delson
Artist and cancer survivor Sarah Delson

Taking her ‘Chance’ with a heart that says thank you

To San Francisco artist Sarah Delson, luck is not always a lady. Sometimes it is a harridan bearing down hard on your formerly happy life.

In her early 50s, the dynamic, yoga-practicing artist, wife and mother was diagnosed with two simultaneous forms of cancer. Now, eight years later, she has celebrated her survival with a heart-shaped sculpture covered with hundreds of red lucite dice. She has named it “Chance.”

“Going to the doctor, for me, was a crapshoot,” she explains with characteristic directness.

“I’ve always had the sense that in regards to health, you’re always just rolling the dice.”

Delson’s sculpture is one of 22 new heart sculptures created by Bay Area artists last year to benefit the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation. The annual fundraiser — Hearts in San Francisco — is a globally recognized, public art project. Since its inception in 2004 it has raised $32 million for hospital programs and initiatives, while dotting parks, lobbies and other public spaces around the  Bay Area with colorful 3D heart art.

Hearts created the previous year normally are auctioned off at a ticketed gala, but this year’s event will be virtual, free and open to all. It’s set for 6 to 7 p.m. Feb. 11 and will honor those on the front lines of public health care.

Each of the 480 hearts created over the past 17 years is one-of-a kind. Delson’s concept was in response to her life experience: the dice represent luck and the gambles we take in life.

Born in New York City, the great-granddaughter of Jewish Hungarians, Delson was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A self-taught artist, she worked on graphics projects and became an award-winning art director at St Martin’s Press, where she designed book jackets.

“Chance” by Sarah Delson (Photo/Courtesy Hearts in SF)
“Chance” by Sarah Delson (Photo/Courtesy Hearts in SF)

In 2004, her husband, Larry Kramer, became the dean of the Stanford Law School, and the family moved to Palo Alto. Delson then focused on her fine art career and on raising their daughter, Kiki — and for the first time she fully realized that to be Jewish was to be a minority in American life.

“Feeling a little outside of mainstream culture has given my work a humorous, ironic bent,” she says. “My cultural, or religious, heritage has led to what I hope is a healthy ambivalence. I question sincerity in all things, while still being obsessed with the idea of the good.”

But Delson’s fortunes changed in 2013, when the diagnosis of a melanoma on her body led to the discovery that she also had breast cancer.

“I can’t imagine anyone handling cancer more horribly than I did, at first,” she recalls. “I railed. I raged. I thought my life was over. It was like the blanket got pulled out from under my picnic.”

She credits her brother for helping her through the worst of her despair with his “huge stores of optimism and faith” (which he attributed to his Jewish day school education).

But as surgical procedures went forward, Delson’s spirit was not so easily healed.

So she decided to commit to a global art concept called The 100 Day Project, which challenges people to make something creative daily for 100 consecutive days. Chiefly she sketched — anything, her coffee cup, whatever was in front of her — and didn’t try to impose any meaning. By the end of the project, “I was back. I prayed for something else to happen: Art happened.”

Then, in 2014, she and her husband moved to San Francisco, and with that came her return to yoga. Delson credits the move for contributing to her sense of healing. “I love San Francisco. I kiss the ground of San Francisco,” she says.

Delson joined three other women artists to form Electric Snail Studio, where she plunged into a new period of productivity and optimism. One of her paintings,“Dialing Sisyphus,” recently was accepted into the de Young Open exhibition. And as the pandemic shut down most cultural life in 2020, she was able to continue her creative work and build her heart sculpture.

She’s grateful, now, for the people and institutions that provided the services she needed in the dark moments of her fight against cancer.

Her art heart, she says, is reflective of that gratitude.

Hearts in San Francisco: On display Feb. 1-14 in windows of Flood Building, 870 Market St., S.F. Pictures on the website. Various large hearts in Union Square from February through October. Virtual event 6-7 p.m. Feb. 11. Free, with registration. Info about event, advance bidding and live auction at sfghf.org/hearts-in-sf-2021.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.