Standing at the end of Lake Road in Lacombe, Luana Kathleen “Kathy” Perez braved the chilly winds to photograph pelicans perched on the pilings. Her images of bluebirds, pelicans and landscapes depict nature’s glory and have become her salvation.
It all began nearly 10 years ago when Perez, a self-taught photographer, spied a bluebird on a sunflower in her backyard. There was an instant connection, she says, and she went out the same day and bought a camera.
As she gained confidence, her portfolio grew from birds to butterflies to landscapes and swamp scenes.
“I photograph what I love, the things that inspire feelings from the depths of my soul and bring joy,” she notes on her website. “Photography and an artistic spirit allow me to share many moods.”
In 2012 her world came crashing down when she felt a lump on her breast. They immediately did a mammogram and biopsy.
“The doctor called me the day after Christmas and told me I had metastatic breast cancer,” Perez explained. The day after New Year’s, her surgeon did a lumpectomy. “It came back a few months later, around Easter, and the surgeon did a mastectomy.”
The 19 months of chemotherapy that followed were a traumatic and grueling time in her life. “It seemed the chemo days always fell on my birthdays or special occasions,” said Perez.
But her photography career gave her more focus, what she called a springboard to a better life, learning to move forward without fear and better understand her inner self.
“I want to lead a life of fewer regrets, to be more grateful every day,” she said running her hands through her wind-blown hair. “It’s all about creating a positive soul and mind, to count my blessings, enjoy a good cup of coffee watching my bluebirds or photographing sunsets.”
With every click of the shutter, the camera brought new meaning to her life.
“Just going to the cemeteries and taking pictures of the graves on All Saints’ Day brought me closer to life and death,” Perez explained looking out over Lake Pontchartrain. “I realized how close I could be to death if my cancer wasn’t defeated.”
The end of January brought reconstructive surgery, and at press time, she was gaining strength, looking forward to more photography shows. She gets plenty of support from her brother, Wayne, who lives in Mandeville, and her son, Danny, who lives in New Orleans.
Perez has lived on the north shore for 25 years, moving here to raise her son. She bought a warehouse in Slidell, where she once had a flower-arrangement business. Her favorite part of the north shore is the natural surroundings, including the marshes in Lacombe and Lake Road in Madisonville.
Her pictures are on display permanently on the second floor of the Ochsner Medical Center in Slidell, as well as in the hospital gift shop. They are also on display during a monthlong annual show at the main Ochsner Medical Center on Jefferson Highway.
“The photos are healing and beautiful,” Perez said. “I received emails from patients who took their wheelchairs down to view at night; they said it lifted their spirits.”
Various doctors in Covington, Chalmette and Slidell have her pictures hanging in their offices and hallways. And a photo of her favorite backyard bluebird taken during an episode of sleeting snow was chosen for a calendar.
“Looking back at my pictures over the last two years, I knew I had a lot of chemo fog,” Perez said. “Looking at them now, I see they are maybe even prettier, but in a different way.”
At 63, Perez ponders her past and her future behind the lens.
“I realized I was thinking more about life taking those pictures while in chemo,” she murmured, watching a pelican fly across the marsh. “Appreciating God’s strength in his creations looking through my lens.”
Perez will have her pictures on display and for sale at the Northshore Garden Show and Plant Sale March 20-21 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the St. Tammany Fairgrounds, 1304 Columbia St., Covington. She will also be at the City Park Spring Garden show at the New Orleans Botanical Garden on April 11-12, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. For information on the City Park show, visit neworleanscitypark.com/events/spring-garden-show.