PROFILE | Kerri Anne Besse: Talent for design served her in fight against breast cancer

A textile designer for LA-based rug company Tumble found her life profoundly changed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of the covid pandemic. To keep her hands and mind busy,

Textile arts Kerri Besse in studio Thursday January 26, 2023.(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)
Textile arts Kerri Besse in studio Thursday January 26, 2023.(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)

Two of the hardest days of a cancer diagnosis are the day you get the call confirming it's definitely cancer and the day you find out you're going to need chemotherapy, says Bentonville-based textile artist Kerri Besse.

For her, the news that she had breast cancer came sandwiched between two other extremely difficult circumstances -- the news of her mother's death following a two-year struggle and decline with ALS and the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic in the U.S.

"I was really convinced that this was the end, but then I learned more ... I learned I had the most common type (of breast cancer) and my tumor was relatively small ... in some ways I ended up being lucky," Besse says. "Two weeks after that I sorted everything (out) in my brain and realized 'I have to start creating something.'"

The result was the Cancer Calendar, which helps patients track what they're eating and drinking, how they're feeling and gives them a bit of company through Besse's own experience, as well as something to focus on during the arduous process of fighting cancer.

A portion of proceeds are donated to Living Beyond Breast Cancer, a nonprofit organization that helps provide relevant, science-based information for all stages of cancer to patients as well as the friends and family members of those diagnosed. It serves more than 600,000 people each year.

"She overcame cancer while other things in her life were also falling apart and covid was happening," says friend Paola Gehrmann. "She is such a strong person for not giving up. I could tell it was a really tough time, and (she) used that experience to help others by writing her book."

While grieving the loss of her mother and undergoing surgery and months of treatments herself, Kerri Besse developed the calendar as a way to keep her hands and mind busy. Using a poster board and a sharpie for the original, she wrote down the date of each of her infusions and made space to track what was happening for a couple days beforehand and six to eight days afterward.

The longer Kerri kept track with her personal cancer calendar, the more it helped combat the fogginess of "chemo brain," and it revealed trends that were helpful to her recovery.

At the time, she only wanted ice cream, waffles and other comfort foods, but tracking her eating habits and how she felt led her to realize that those things weren't worth it in that phase of her treatment. Instead, anything that made her feel the least bit better was the way to go.

In the Cancer Calendar, stickers help remind users to get their daily intake of water, eat healthfully or move their body. A recommended product section has items that made that period of Besse's life better. One section leaves room for journal entries where she opens up about her cancer journey and gives a prompt for others to answer.

Blacking out the dates of her chemo gave Besse the biggest mental boost. Seeing how inconsequential 60 days looked on paper made the task automatically feel more feasible.

"Immediately I felt relief," she says. "Seeing this visual aid, I want someone to feel the same way -- like 'I can do this.'"

As Kerri joined the Living Beyond Breast Cancer organization, she was inspired by the "talented, smart, beautiful" women she was surrounded by to come up with a contribution of her own to help other patients.

"I thought 'I'm not a scientist, not a mathematician, I'm not into the legislative side (of medicine), that doesn't resonate with me, but what does is creating art," Besse says. "When you get diagnosed, you think a lot about legacy, what you're going to leave behind.

"I thought this could be my living legacy."

The concept for the cover art of the Cancer Calendar is where art meets science because, Besse says, she felt like these geometric shapes that were blown to smithereens and wondered how she would ever go back to being whole again.

"Even 20 years ago, Kerri was an individualist," says friend Sophia Macris, who first met Besse in high school. "She should be proud that she's kept that independent spirit and made it into a meaningful career that brings joy to others."


As a child, Kerri Besse and her younger brother Kyle moved a lot since her dad was a lieutenant in the Navy. Through the years they lived generally on the East Coast, mainly in Florida and Maine, but finally settled in Mystic, Conn., when her father retired.

Growing up on the Navy base in New Jersey was where Besse began to come into her own. She found a dear friend in Kristin Space. When they weren't dancing to MTV, they would set up gymnastic shows for their Barbies to perform, swinging from strings attached to the ceiling tiles.

Besse loved English and history but gravitated toward art most of all, though she didn't start creating things until high school, she says, when she discovered the dark room and the potter's wheel.

Up until that point she hadn't considered her skills with fiber -- learned from her grandmother -- as art exactly, but she loved that too. Kerri loved setting up the loom and the various combinations that gave way to different patterns and she adored the final product.

"I'm not good at math, it's one of those things I've always struggled with," Besse says. "However when it's applied math, then I get it."

When she applied equations to her weaving and experimented with overlapping yarn for particular grids, she was hooked.

As a shy teenager, Besse felt like a bit of an outsider, but still she sang in choir, played varsity field hockey throughout high school and was a member of the National Arts Honors Society.

Back then, she thought she might go into interior design because she spent a lot of time drawing floor plans for homes much more elaborate than the ones she spent time in. After watching "Ghost," Kerri wanted all glass blocks and loft apartments.

Given that math wasn't her strong suit, she was discouraged from pursuing interior design. It was Kerri's dream to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. But it remained just that, a dream. Her family pointed her toward a more practical direction, urging her toward a business background until she chose to study fashion merchandising at University of Rhode Island, where she could get in-state tuition.

"I figured that was close enough," Besse says. "It has fashion in it, so it's got to be creative in some way and ... my dad was right, the business side has served me well."

In 2004, Kerri pursued her lifelong dream of moving to New York City.

With her fashion degree in tow, she knew she'd be able to find work, and she was right. She landed her first job by faxing her resume to a designer whose open gig was advertised in Women's Wear Daily. Soon she was carrying mannequins dressed in fancy gowns down Fifth Avenue to Fashion Week. What she found out quickly was that working in fashion required all your time.

"You have to dedicate your life to it, it's 90-hour work weeks," Besse says. She hit the ground running and often held down three jobs at a time to make it work.

But after years of that practice, Kerri couldn't hide from the fact that she wanted more of a personal life. She wanted time to spend with friends, to meet someone and settle down. By then, she had lived in New York long enough to be a resident, which made the Fashion Institute more affordable. Besse enrolled in a year-long program for textile and design and found her calling in home goods design with soft items -- rugs, pillows, stockings, tree skirts and more.

Following graduation in 2011, Kerri still wasn't getting the sorts of design gigs she wanted, so she sought advice from her design teacher. "What about rugs?" she asked. "What about them?" Kerri answered.

It led her to Loloi, a company in Dallas that designer and home goods icon Joanna Gaines contracts with for rugs, pillows and throws. The work would take her off the East Coast, and the thought of leaving was terrifying, Besse says. Ultimately, though, she fell in love with rugs as a concept of artwork for your floor.

"They're this small, little piece of artwork that has to repeat nicely," she says. "There's a less technical side of it that you can just go crazy and be an artist and sort of be more free ... the beauty of rugs is that it starts from hand drawn artwork. There's uneven lines and things of different sizes. That's appealing to customers more than something generated from the computer."

Kerri headed to the South to play with the many different textures she could get by weaving different yarns together.


Besse arrived in Dallas with growing confidence in her abilities as a collaborating artist. A recent job designing hospitality fabrics gave her experience creating products and taking them through the full merchandising process into an assortment. And while her time at FIT was beneficial, she'd also grown to realize that skills in Photoshop and Illustrator were crucial to climbing the ladder, so she learned more about each.

When a project with Joanna Gaines came across her design desk for the first time, Besse stuck her neck out, volunteering for the gig even though she'd been with the company only a few months. It took proving she had the experience necessary for it, but she was given the opportunity.

Kerri had just returned from one of many two-week trips to India and had that overwhelming aftershock of having 80 vendors to follow up with on their products. She started to wrap her mind around creating seven collections by focusing on what yarn types and colors were going to work best.

"The first time I met (Joanna Gaines) was the first time I felt like 'Wow, I do have this sensibility that I can visualize what a full collection will look like,'" Besse says. "It was easy for me to weed out what wasn't going to work.

"That's when everything opened up for me."

She was beginning to earn the salaries that she had hoped for and was on an upward trajectory when her mom got sick. It felt like the ladder got kicked out from under her, Besse says.

She began commuting back and forth from Texas to New York to care for her. Watching her mother live with ALS was harrowing, but Besse found solace in her artwork. She kept up the Loloi work and the regular travel to India until shortly before the pandemic began, when LinkedIn helped her find a gig with Tumble, a Los Angeles-based rug company that she could do design work for remotely.

By then, Besse had reconnected with a cute guy she met at a party, Ryan Hobbs, and their friendship turned to relationship and marriage. He was holding down the fort in Dallas as she flew cross country again and again, until her mother died in early 2020.

Fifty-three days later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 11 at the age of 39. The world as she knew it shut down a week later.

Sitting through the ultrasound that revealed that the lump she found in yoga class was in fact cancer, Besse knew the answer before she asked.

"That year I asked myself, 'What did I do to deserve this? How is this possible that one human being can go through this much in a year?'" Besse says. "Initially I was really angry, thinking 'What did I do wrong?' You go through all of the things like 'What did I do?'"

As far as they could tell, it was stage one. And since the hospital was quickly becoming a covid ER, the doctor suggested booking her surgery for July. Kerri felt a lot of pressure to make big decisions instantly.

Sitting in her car after each appointment, she left more confused than when she went in. That's where her journaling, calendar and turning to LBBC came into play.

She wasn't ready to tell the whole world that she was diagnosed, but she confided in close friend Sophia Macris, whose cousin had recently gone through breast cancer and become a passionate advocate and fundraiser.

"I connected Kerri with her because they share the same positive, proactive attitude," Macris says. "Flora advised Kerri about questions to ask, taking charge of her treatment and pushing for access to doctors."

Luckily, Flora's doctor had gone to school with a surgeon in Dallas. Two weeks later, rather than the original plan of three months later, Kerri was able to get her surgery. It was a good thing she pressed for the operation to happen sooner, too, because her cancer was actually in stage two.

Besse continued to work through the eight months of chemo and radiation, the distraction of her art carrying her through difficulty once again. Husband Ryan Hobbs says essentially learning to accept help and put herself first must have been strange business since Besse is always other people's caretaker and encourager. Now in recovery, she's able to resume that post.

"The thing about her breast cancer is that with LBBC she gets to use her voice and help other people through this situation," Hobbs says. "And let them know it's not life-ending or life-defining, but what you (can) take from this to make yourself even better."

  photo  “I thought ‘I’m not a scientist, not a mathematician, I’m not into the legislative side (of medicine), that doesn’t resonate with me, but what does is creating art,” Besse says. “When you get diagnosed, you think a lot about legacy, what you’re going to leave behind. I thought this could be my living legacy.” (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)

Self portrait - Kerri Anne Besse

Date and place of birth: Dec. 23, 1980, Wareham, Mass.

Family: Husband Ryan Hobbs and cat Cubby

A typical Saturday night for me includes: My husband and I love to go to dinner with friends. Pizzeria Ruby in Springdale is amazing. And then a movie at the Skylight Cinemas.

The quote that resonates the most with me is: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

The best advice I’ve ever received: I worked at a sewing school in New York City for eight years teaching evening and weekend classes, and the owner was tough. She once said to me, “The cream will rise.” Meaning that the hard workers who are passionate and kind come out on top in due time. Pretty sure I’ve started every new job with this thought in mind.

One thing that would get us closer to a perfect world is: More accessible health care such as free mammograms with or without insurance coverage. And better health education in schools.

My favorite place in Northwest Arkansas: Two Friends Books in Bentonville. The best sandwiches and a book club for almost every genre of book; always a great conversation when visiting and great selection of books.

The thing that makes me laugh the most: Any and ALL cat videos. And just watching our cat in general doing everyday things like drinking from his water fountain.

The book/movie/art that had the biggest impact on me was: I’ve had so many amazing eye-opening moments at art museums around the world. As far as a book, it has to be “Radical Remission.” I started reading this about two months after my diagnosis. And I am a sucker for a good ’80s movie. If you’ve never seen “Better Off Dead” or “Gleaming the Cube,” add them to your list! John Cusack for President!

For me, yoga is: a very important part of my mental clarity. I always feel like I have a better grounded sensibility afterward. It’s my church.

To what do you owe your success? Hard work, perseverance, passion and kindness.

What’s next for your work? I would like to come up with a spring 2024 swimsuit line. And I’d love to get my (Cancer Calendar) book picked up by a major hospital or pharmaceutical company.


  photo  “That year I asked myself, ‘What did I do to deserve this? How is this possible that one human being can go through this much in a year?’” Besse says. “Initially I was really angry, thinking ‘What did I do wrong?’ You go through all of the things like ‘What did I do?’” (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)

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