From mother to son, mugs fund a future

Published 7:31 pm Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The instructions are written on the side: breathe.

That’s what Carolyn Sleeper wants for her son, Joe — the ability to breathe freely. Now the artist is putting her hands to work, making countless ceramic mugs to help fund his future recovery from a lifesaving surgery.

Joe Sleeper has cystic fibrosis, a progressive, genetic disease causing lung infections and limiting a person’s ability to breathe over time. More than 30,000 people are living with CF worldwide; approximately 1,000 new cases are diagnosed a year, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation website. When Joe and his sister Cheryl were diagnosed with the disease, there was very little information to be had about it.

“At the time, they couldn’t tell us anything at the hospital. We had to go to the library and look it up,” Sleeper said. “Ours were the first (cases) diagnosed on either side of the family.”

Then, the median lifespan of a CF patient was 12 years old. Diagnosed at age 2 1/2, Cheryl died when she was 14. These days, the median age a CF patient lives is 37, and having recently turned 38 years old, Joe Sleeper has beaten the odds, his mother said. Now he’s on a double-lung transplant list at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Fairfax, Virginia — a surgery that could come at any time.

“It could be anywhere from today to up to a year from now,” Sleeper said.

Once the time comes, Joe Sleeper and his wife, Jennifer, will have to spend three months in northern Virginia, hours away from their Norfolk home, for the recovery. Both will have to take leaves of absence from their jobs, yet pay for out-of-pocket insurance costs, maintain two households and more. He’s estimated those expenses will be approximately $40,000, Sleeper said.

As an artist, Sleeper said there wasn’t much she could do to help financially. However, there is plenty she can create, including hundreds of ceramic mugs in muted blues, greens and browns, each decorated with spirals and the entreaty to breathe.

“I was just thinking about what I could do as his mama,” Sleeper said, regarding how she came up with the idea. “It’s my contribution. The labor and expense of making them — that’s just from mama to Joe and Jen, his wife, because they’re in it together.”

She took her first batch of 24 mugs to the Stockley Gardens Art Show in Norfolk. They sold out. At this point, she’s losing count of how many she’s made, and she’s welcoming the help of friends.

“This production thing is more than what I usually do, so I’m taking help,” she laughed.

“Breathe” mugs can be found at River Walk Gallery and Arts Center, where Sleeper is a member. The gallery will not collect a consignment fee for sales of the mugs — all of the money will go to Joe Sleeper’s recovery fund. Gallery members are also planning an indoor yard sale at the Turnage Theatre on June 17, as well as a show and sale of work by Sleeper’s pottery students and a silent auction, both in July. The gestures of support are appreciated by the entire Sleeper family, but one family member in particular, Sleeper said.

“Joe is just amazed how our little town has stepped up to help,” Sleeper said. “People who don’t even know him. … It’s just amazing.”

Sleeper is requesting a minimum donation of $30 for each mug. She’s also taking orders at Slatestone Studio, where the list of purchases from across the U.S. is steadily growing.

To her, and Joe, each hand-thrown mug is special because of what it represents — a future of breathing freely.

“Every time I make one, it’s a prayer. Every time someone uses one, it’s a prayer,” Sleeper said. “It’s all good prayer.”

River Walk Gallery and Arts Center is located at 139 W. Main St. in Washington. More information about Slatestone Studio can be found on Facebook. Donations can also be made through