A few years ago, any stop into Sulfur Studios would have practically guaranteed that you’d see the work of Karen Abato and Corey Houlihan.
Abato, a multidisciplinary artist and art therapist, occupied the studio space across from the art space’s lounge area, while Houlihan, also known by her creative handle Ink and Bots, had numerous paintings of her beloved robots hanging in the nearby hallway.
About a year and a half ago, however, the couple decided to move to the small town of Frankford, Delaware to help out with Karen’s mom, who is in her eighties.
"We took a trip up here a couple years ago and on the way out of town both of us looked at each other and almost simultaneously said maybe it’s time to move here," Abato recalled. "So it just seemed like the right thing to do."
On the day before they were set to leave, however, Abato was diagnosed with cancer.
"We packed our truck, we entered a contract to sell our house, we scheduled everything, and I went to the doctor and he said you can’t go anywhere," recounted Abato.
"This is cancer, but we have to find out how bad it is. And so, there wasn’t anything in our house. And we had like another Corey and Karen adventure where we went and bought a blow up mattress and a lamp, and we squatted in our own house."
If you ever had the chance to meet Karen or Corey (or, if you were lucky, both) you’d know that it’s totally normal for the two of them to laugh in the face of the most serious of life’s challenges. Just a few years prior to the most recent diagnosis, Abato suffered a brain aneurysm. And the cancer was discovered during an appointment concerning an aortic aneurysm that had been discovered. And yet, you’d never have known that anything was wrong when speaking with them.
"It’s about pivoting," Houlihan explained of the couple’s positive outlook. "I mean, life is going to be whatever it’s going to be at any given second and changes just as fast. We don’t have a lot of control over literally anything. The darkest and scariest of moments we still have fun. We’ve just become unwilling professionals at all of the sudden bad news."
Karen’s cancer ended up being treatable, and the two soon completed the move up to Delaware. Abato had intended on restarting her art therapy business when they got to town, but her health issues meant she instead had to jump right into treatment, leaving Corey to do the hard work of financially supporting the family.
So between doctors appointments, Karen did what she had been counseling her clients to do for years: She used creativity to work through the emotional ups and downs.
"I just poured myself into political art," said Abato. "Using my anger, I think, and fear in a way that could sublimate it and I could make some crazy art."
"COVID and the uprising that continues for equality is way bigger than…my cancer, because it’s not fatal," she added. "So to be able to focus on that instead of self-pity. And making art about the work towards equality is about not feeling powerless when you feel powerless."
Today, Karen is cancer-free. She and Corey have recently moved into a new house, a gift that they both described as a "privilege," received with the same amount kind of humility as they have with the more difficult events that life has thrown at them over the past few years.
Finally pulling things out of storage, they’ve been opening the boxes from their home in Savannah, engaging in, as Houlihan joked, "a weird Christmas." Amongst the reclaimed pieces of their past are artworks by local favorites like a photograph by Emily Earl, an illustration by Jessica Smith, and a painting by Michael Mahaffey.
"We had this beautiful community in Savannah, and we felt very held by that community whenever anything good or bad happened," Corey reflected. "And then having these life things happen, and then to be so far away and to be without that community, it was a strange event to go through without that giant web of amazing love that’s Savannah. So it’s kind of sweet right now to have this new house and to unpack…all these pieces of Savannah that we’re putting into our home here."
"We left with nothing but fondness in our hearts," Karen agreed. "It’s great to bring those fond memories with us as we start a new life."
You can find Karen Abato on instagram @kabatoart and Corey Houlihan @inkandbots and @inkandbones. Listen to Karen and Corey’s entire story embedded here.
Next week I’ll be speaking with photographer Kyunnie Shuman.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.