In 1992, I was invited by the Boston Center for the Arts to create an installation in observance of "A Day Without Art" (later to become World AIDS Day). I brought a truckload of stones into the vast brick-floored space of the BCA Cyclorama Building and invited the public to come in and move a stone in remembrance of someone affected by AIDS. At one point during the day I noticed two women struggling with a heavy stone. When I offered to help, one of them replied, "No. My nephew, her son, just died of AIDS. This is our weight."
I knew I was onto something. As an artist, I had provided a context, a vision, a metaphor, evoking the pain of the AIDS epidemic, and invited people to come with me to create something together. The essential element that completed the work turned out to be the experience of the people who participated in it.
That first event at the BCA evolved into "Medicine Wheel", an annual 24-hour vigil within a major sculptural art installation. People from every walk of life and every social class in the Boston area return year after year, for solace, to bring offerings, and to stand on common ground to commemorate the tragedy of this epidemic, or any loss, in their own communities and worldwide.
All my work since that time has been a response to a demonstrated need in a community that also excites my own creative passions. One of the larger projects, No Man's Land, centers on the reclamation of an abandoned lot in my own neighborhood, and has evolved into a year-round youth program that, through the art process, addresses racial tensions, poverty, and addiction. Smaller projects have focused on things like the specific needs of a church community in transition, or a memorial to a beloved community leader.
My process in all these projects is this: I create a dream, and I invite people to help me give it form. These dreams are not idealizations. The art acknowledges pain, loss and conflict, and also joy, beauty, and hope. It invites people to participate directly in an experience that bears witness to their real life experiences, gives them a format to walk in each other's shoes, and suggests the possibility of redemption.
I like to work with natural materials, especially stone, slate, copper, handmade paper, silver gilding and water. Taking my cues from the site where I am working, I create a compelling physical environment that inspires awe and opens people's hearts. Then I invite them to participate in a ritual that engages them emotionally and makes them feel part of something larger. Their experiences become part of the work of art.
At last year's Medicine Wheel, participants carried water during the 24-hour vigil, until the whole floor was covered with thousands of filled buckets. Just as the doors were about to close, a woman came in. She went into the installation, saw the pails, and said, "All those souls." She filled two more buckets and placed them with the others. She told me that her two sons had died of AIDS 15 years ago, and that she had come to the first Medicine Wheel. "I come every year," she said. "It brings it right back like it was yesterday."
People often ask me where the inspiration for my work comes from. Recently, talking with a group of students, I had a revelation about the Paper Project. One of the women, Jeanne, had invited me to do a sacred art piece at her church two years ago. I turned to her and said I don't think I have ever told you why I did that project. When first approached I was hesitant. The timing was wrong; I didn't know her church; Medicine Wheel was coming up; any excuse I could make. I however found myself unwillingly saying to her I would do it for you Jeanne. It was to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the congregation. When I found out it was a competition, I said to Jeanne let someone else do it.
But alas all I could say was I would do it for you Jeanne. The committee had narrowed the choice down to two artists. I arrived at the church on for my interview intending to tell the committee, let the other artist do it. I was determined to be either silent and sullen. Instead I opened my mouth and responded to the invitation. I was asked during the interview what my proposal was and I told them that I did not know and that I was hoping to bear witness to the congregation for awhile and that I would facilitate the work of art. The next day I received a phone call telling me that they wanted me to do the project.
I began attending the two services at the church each Sunday, church coffee hours, teen groups, worship committee, facility committee, Sacred art committee, and Sunday school committee meetings, I met with the Minister emeritus , who was dying, his temporary replacement who was leaving and two more intentional interim ministers. What I heard during all these meetings was, how was the congregation going to hold together during this transitional period. I decided that the piece I did would have to reflect that Journey. I named the piece , Elements, Our Pilgrim Journey and worked with the ministers and sacred arts' committee to pose 4 questions to the congregation. One week the question would be asked and the following week people would answer it with an element.
I hand engraved the 4 questions onto 4' x 4' pieces of slate. The first question was; What is sacred ground? the second; Whose stones are these?, the third; Are we the branches? and the fourth; What is my legacy The first Sunday I was standing in front of the church greeting people as they came in offering them cupfuls of dirt. To my surprise most people passed on the idea. The Sacred arts committee all brought dirt along with a couple of others. My first reaction was get me out of there. I managed to take my seat in church however just in time to witness an older woman rushing in with a zip-lock bag of earth. She blurted out that she had just driven form her parents grave in Maine with Sacred Earth. At coffee folks who had been shy about the project asked if it was too late to bring earth. One man told me of canoe trips with his son to a special island and could they bring some dirt from there.
Each week the slate in the church would be taken outside placed along the walkway and the next one would take it's place in the sanctuary. The second week about 100 stones showed up. Each one carefully placed not to touch the one next to it as if saying that one is mine. On the third week the most beautiful pile of entwined branches showed up and I thought WOW! The last week was also a the feast of all souls. I invited people to bring leaves with names of loved ones or prayers of remembrance etc. thousands of leaves arrived that morning filled with the prayers of a people. As I gave the children's sermon that day, we sat on the floor and shredded the leaves mixed them with shredded paper from the church put them in a blender and made paper pulp. We then went into the Sunday school classes and made sheets of handmade paper that would be bound into a book of the prayers of this congregation. On the night we carried the book into the church the dying minister sewed the last stitch into the alabaster cover. The minister held up two books that night. The bible and the book of elements, declaring them the books of this congregation.
In March of 1998 I had a show, Freshwater, at the Danforth Museum in Framingham. It was met with a lot of critical excitement and people were flocking to see it. Six days after the opening my partner was killed in a car accident. The walls of the exhibit where lined with newspaper death notices. I took his obit out to add to the wall. When I got there Jeanne was sitting in a circle of several women praying Eight years later I would repay her with a book of the prayers of her community. Ten years later I would tell her this story and how that moment had stayed with me and had inspired this year's Medicine Wheel, the Paper Project a collection of thousand of significant moments, memories and prayers to honor A Day without Art/World AIDS Day