It is difficult to ignore or dismiss the current COVID-19 pandemic, although there are those who do. Much easier for many people was to avoid the reality of the AIDS plague that began in this country in the early 1980s. Since those who fell ill first were primarily gay men, it was easy to blame a marginalized and oppressed population. Most political leaders in the United States did little or nothing for years. The then President Reagan never mentioned AIDS until several years into the epidemic. As the disease spread, the demographics shifted. Soon it was infecting men and women of all races, heterosexual as well as gay. Slowly attention was paid and research into the illness and possible cures began. Meanwhile . . .
Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts is a residency located in Maine’s Mid-Coast that is international in scope. Founded in 1986–87 by a group of artists who began by working for a summer in a former brick factory, it has first and always been about community: let’s see what happens when a group of people come together to live and work and exchange ideas.
In 1991, Alexandra Trub, then president of Watershed’s board of trustees, coordinated a workshop there with Gustavo Gonzales, an art therapist from New York City who had been working with AIDS patients at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). That summer, a group “of eight individuals came to Watershed not knowing what to expect, risking their health to experience a week of emotional healing” (1).
I happened to visit during the workshop. I can’t say exactly what affected me, but something did, enough so that I encouraged Watershed’s Director Holly Walker and the board of trustees to see how this experiment might continue. Thus from 1992 until 2004, when we ended the workshop (2), I had the profound experience and great gift of living and working with people with HIV/AIDS.
So how can community and creativity help in healing? That is the question psychotherapist Dr. Mackenzie Harris and I tried to answer as we formulated the structure of the workshop. In this instance, the community was those of us in the workshop and the staff and resident artists at Watershed. The energy flowed back and forth between the groups.
The workshop was open to anyone who had some creative background, very loosely defined. Of the 145 participants who came to Watershed over the years, only a few had any prior experience with clay. There were visual artists, theater set designers, clothing designers, cooks, and gardeners. Terry was a floral designer who spent his last two days at Watershed collecting materials for our final banquet, which you can see in the image with workshop participants and staff.
It’s hard to express the richness and depth of the experience of living and working with people who, in a very real way, were looking at the end of their lives. Despite that, they had the courage to leave home and try something new. Initially Mackenzie and I envisioned the workshop as process-oriented, but we quickly realized how important it was for the participants to finish things. They wanted markers of their time on the planet. Don’s Vegetable Medley teapot is a great example of this, something he wanted to give to his great aunt who had been his caretaker.
I have many memories of the first workshop which literally moved me to tears, especially after saying goodbye to everyone on the last day. One incredibly powerful memory is of David, who came to the workshop with a fever. You can see it in the red lines of a drawing he made. He came to the workshop with sleeping pills, having been unable to sleep since being diagnosed. After leaving Watershed and the workshop he never took sleeping pills again. He died not long afterwards.
We of course used clay in the workshop, but not exclusively. We made life-sized body drawings that evolved over the week into really powerful personal images. Here is what Mackenzie says about that part of our process:
“Early in each workshop week we collaboratively made life-size body outline drawings. The workshop participants walked past these drawings tacked to the factory studio walls for most of the week. They would glance at them on occasion, sometimes adding an image, then quickly return to their clay projects. Around day six of the eight-day workshop, the participants began to fill in their body drawings. Perhaps by this time, after grounding themselves by working with clay, they were ready to express more of themselves. One morning I watched Greg as he slowly drew huge, exquisitely detailed angel wings on his body drawing. As he quietly focused on his work, each wing became vibrant with beautiful color within a complicated and delicate design. He smiled while filling his wings with a balance of light and dark, color and texture. He infused both wings with colors that seemed to sing and vibrate when set into place. It looked as though he was letting the colors choose him as he slowly worked. Deep and solid colors: indigo, purple, green, red, yellow, turquoise, gold and silver. Working with patience, focus, and care, sweat ran down the skin on his bare back, running over and around the dappling of reddish purple marks of Kaposi’s sarcoma. After Greg put the final touch of color, a small red heart, within each wing he stepped back and looked at himself as the luminous angel which he had become. He sank to his knees and wept. The clay project which had consumed all of his time sat on the workbench just behind him. He had made an urn for his ashes.” (3)
A few years after we began, I got a telephone call from Ellen Hirshberg, a mixed media artist from Kittery, who had heard about the workshop. She called to say she wanted to help. We said YES!
Ellen came to the latter part of each session with tubs of amazing and abundant materials. She led us through the making of masks and dolls for each of us, a very collaborative process. We greased our faces with Vaseline—and sometimes other body parts—so they could be covered with gauze soaked in plaster. We then embellished and added to the masks, or not: whatever each person wanted to do.
The dolls were started by each of us in the workshop, then added to by all the others, creating figures of how we all experienced each other. In this and all other aspects of the workshop, Mackenzie, Ellen, and I participated along with the others. I still have my dolls!
The closing evening of each session was a powerful time, in which the workshop participants, Watershed staff, and resident artists gathered in a large circle. We passed around a big yellow star. As each person held the star, the group reflected on how their light shone. It was an encompassing circle, one that held each and every one of us. I still feel its presence.
A reflection from workshop participant Sam:
“Wow! Such indelible memories of my week at Watershed. First was the bucolic environment, shortly followed by a warm welcome by the young and enthusiastic staff and then the steady stream of workshop activities, facilitated by Lynn and Mary-Rae with assistance from Paul Heroux and others. It was filled with enchantments and therapeutic sessions—from my very first sighting of the Milky Way and the fireflies in the fields, to the many shared intense expressions of love, loss, and grief. And of course there was ample humor too, some of it driven by the pesky mosquitoes! Somehow, like the alchemy of the Raku firing at the end of the week, I believe we all came away with a sense that we had undergone a healing process and were also better equipped to handle life itself. Not all of the attendees of our workshop are still around today but I’m certain that we would have looked back at that week with fondness and profound gratitude.” (4)
This is what I wrote for the Watershed newsletter when we ended the workshop in 2004: “As we end this chapter of Watershed’s history, I know that the workshop doesn’t really end. It lives in the present and in our memories, in the connections and friendships that were made, in the pots and drawings and masks, and in the continuing creativity of so many people who have participated.” (5)
- Alexandra B. Trub, “Love, Loss and Courage,” in The Watershed Workshop for People with HIV/AIDS (1991–2004), compiled and edited by Lynn Duryea and Franklin Brooks, Edgecomb, ME, 2002, 14.
- See Lynn Duryea, “A Bittersweet Ending,” in The Watershed Workshop, 10.
- D. Mackenzie Harris, “Watershed Workshop for People with HIV/AIDS,” in The Watershed Workshop, 19.
- Sam T., quoted in “The 2021 Perspective from Past Participants,” in The Watershed Workshop, 39.
- Lynn Duryea, “A Bittersweet Ending,” in The Watershed Workshop, 10.
Photos courtesy of Tom Antonik, Lynn Duryea, and Martha Mickles.
A PDF of the book The Watershed Workshop for People with HIV/AIDS (1991–2004), compiled and edited by Lynn Duryea and Franklin Brooks can be found here. You can order a physical copy of the book here.
A link to the OUT Cast interview with Franklin Brooks and Lynn Duryea that aired on Maine’s community radio stations WMPG and WERU on 11 October 2021 can be found on Watershed’s Sound Cloud.
Image at top: D. Mackenzie Harris, psychotherapist (photo: Lynn Duryea).