Art Educator Diane Sciarretta Offers Healing Workshops to Those Living with HIV and Other Illnesses & Traumas
by Chael Needle
On a blustery April evening in San Francisco, in the quiet sanctuary that is the Episcopal Church of Saint John the Evangelist, long-term survivors and their allies were celebrated at Revival: A Dance Party, organized by Honoring Our Experience, an initiative founded by Gregg Cassin to offer support to these wayfarers of the epidemic through community-building retreats and events.
Before the heart circle and welcoming words, before DJ Lamont packed the dance floor by spinning disco hits, before a buffet of Indian cuisine had been laid out for dinner, a handwritten timeline of the HIV epidemic, with a special emphasis on the Bay Area, had been unfurled along the back wall. The timeline left room for others to add events with Post-It notes, such as the dates that HIV-positive women gave birth to HIV-negative babies. All were invited to reflect on the journey so far, the maps many of us created as we navigated the trauma and triumphs, and the horizon ahead of us. Individual timelines merged into the flow of life that the evening offered: we danced, we mourned, we cheered each other on, we nurtured our bodies with food, we rested, we smiled at old friends, introduced ourselves to new faces, tended to the positive energy, we parted, a little bit stronger, a little less lonely.
The timeline was created by Cassin, enriched by Harry Breaux and Guy Vandendberg, and
executed by artist and art educator Diane Sciarretta, who has worked with Honoring Our Experience before, facilitating for its members Bodyscapes Healing Art Workshops. These workshops, which she created to help others learn how to use words and images to transform trauma and illness into a healing force, were borne out of her own experiences, and she shared with me a little bit of her own timeline.
“When I was twenty-five, a dramatic event brought me into panic attacks and reignited the depression I lived [through] as a teenager. My lifelong spiritual journey, rituals and prayers taught by my grandparents were enormously tested. My longtime yoga practice—I started practicing yoga in high school as a way to slow down my high-speed thoughts and my extreme discomfort, confusion and hate living in my body—and deep meditation could not calm my mind or settle my body; the sensations and emotions would not stop unfolding.”
Although doctor-prescribed anti-psychotic medications seemed to help Diane, they caused severe damage to her liver. Her mental and physical health negatively impacted, she had to quit teaching high school art.
She continues: “At the lowest point of my anger and rage, my lover at the time was invited to San Francisco to run a yoga school. Shortly thereafter I visited him, and one of his friends suggested I consult a Chinese medical doctor that he knew.” She knew instantly she had found in Dr. Raymond Pang someone who could help, and, after a cross-continental move to San Francisco, she began a tailored regimen of prescribed Chinese herbs and thrice-weekly acupuncture treatment, while carefully reducing her Western meds. One winter evening, while lying on her doctor’s acupuncture table, the anti-psychotic meds all but gone from her system, after needles had been inserted, one into the middle cartilage of her ear, the Home of Wonderment, Dr. Pang named the point, the restful state transported her to another dimension and a voice articulated a vision: “‘You have now been driven home—to the home of the wonderful one. It is a red and orange house with 14 karat gold trim sitting on a rough rock. Lily of the valley grow high to touch the bottom of the windows on the first floor. Purple lilacs grow up to the second floor windows. The house is surrounded at the top by yellow forsythia like a crown. Instantly, I recall the saccharine sweet lily of the valley and lilac fragrance from my childhood.
“I saw myself climbing up a great, rough rock to get to the red and orange house atop its summit.”
The homecoming brought her out into the world to share what she had discovered. “About one year into my healing journey, I became aware of a crucial insight: I did not really know what my internal organs looked like,” she shares. “I consulted a medical anatomy book. From the moment I saw a photo of an actual liver, my relationship to my body changed. I saw my liver as a part of myself which had done nothing wrong yet got all the blame. My liver had no words written on it indicating my perceived failures as an artist, a student or a daughter. It was innocent, and I simply could not be mad at it any longer. I began to create medical illustration-style pastel drawings of my sick liver. Art making soothed my soul and connected me to my personal source of healing power. When my family would visit, we often took out my drawings. Now that my pain and illness had texture and color, my family had a language to talk about my health. I felt less alienated and alone.”
She began to offer workshops that allowed participants to create a “bodyscape,” a figurative way to detail and dialogue with one’s illness or trauma. The artmaking-as-medicine workshops now help to fulfill the mission of the nonprofit she founded and named after her spiritual ascension, The Red & Orange House Foundation: “to acknowledge the deep need in each of us to communicate the unique wisdom coming from our exquisite bodies surviving trauma and illness.” Sciarretta has led workshops for other HIV long-term survivors at the San Franciscos AIDS Foundation’s Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, as well as teens going through dialysis and women who are living with cancer, among others.
She explains the workshops’ three components: “We start creating poems, engaging the intellect in seeking new words to talk about living with an illness and trauma. This process explores the realm of meaning and metaphor. Then, we shift out of our minds and into our bodies. Tapping into the exquisite wisdom our bodies offers. We create simple line drawings of the parts of our bodies most congested with illness and trauma. We rub pastel chalk onto these images of parts of our wounded bodies, a symbolic massaging of our physical and emotional selves. We add vibrant hues to express how we feel to live with suffering and conditions which diminish our spirit. Bodyscapes Healing Art Workshops give voice to the unique and sacred healing traditions living inside each one of us.”
A&U recently had a chance to discuss with Diane the Bodyscapes Healing Art Workshops, and how they help individuals living with HIV/AIDS or other serious illnesses and traumas.
Chael Needle: Why did you start the foundation instead of continuing along as you had been with Bodyscapes?
Diane Sciarretta: For years, I managed a boutique jewelry shoppe and at night I gave Bodyscapes sessions for free only for individuals. When the shoppe suddenly closed, it was time to bring my dream, Bodyscapes, out to the community. From the beginning, I did not feel that it was right for me to conduct Bodyscapes sessions on a profit-making basis. Previous to my illness, I had been a high school art teacher dedicated to serving others rather than chasing fortune. My goal was to bring my work to hospitals and co-create Bodyscapes projects with other nonprofits. My values and spirit were aligned with the commitment of other dedicated Bay Area nonprofits. I was very fortunate. My community of friends and family supported me to go through the process for The Red & Orange House Foundation to come into existence.
What can someone living with HIV or AIDS expect if they attend a Bodyscapes workshop? What is the process and what is the desired outcome?
A Bodyscapes experience includes a workshop where we create the art followed by an exhibition where we share our work and insights with the community for self and community healing.
When you take that crucial first step to break the isolation that is the lived reality of so many people living with HIV, you come into a safe and loving Bodyscapes space. With others (a dozen at most) who have taken the chance to overcome their fears, of making art (“I don’t know how to draw!”) and of unearthing the emotional landscape of HIV/AIDS, the struggles, fragilities and resiliency, we embark on an intimate, artistic healing journey.
Gently, we enter into the state of the artist. Using a dictionary and a thesaurus, we uncover, as the poet does, new words and phrases to tell your story—and perhaps not the story you already know so well. Then we focus inward on the parts of the body that hurt—both physical and emotional pain. Where does your body hold shame, stigma, isolation? Has it ever seemed like you could feel the virus surging through your body? If you tried to illustrate that, how would it look? What colors are your pain, anger? How would you show the inner turmoil beneath an outwardly normal appearance? There is only one rule. Sometimes drawings are abstract and sometimes they are literally organs on a page. But illness itself is always the subject matter of Bodyscapes poems and drawings.
One Bodyscapes artist put it this way: “Something so simple like writing a poem and using colors became gazing into my soul!”
[Participant] Marcus Oliphant, said, “HIV tried to take away my creativity. Bodyscapes workshop was so intricate and detailed, we went deep, deep. Diane guided us through the process to make our own masterpiece to express my emotions in a POZitive way. Now, my Bodyscapes drawing can impact someone else’s life.”
Our completed work is presented at an exhibition where our artists step out of the role of victim of disease and into the role of interpreter/communicator of what it means to live with illness and trauma. Artists read their poems while standing before their visual art and share their experience for the benefit of others.
Self-definition is essential for empowerment, but what if we can only see the struggle and not the resiliency?
Bodyscapes is about being truthful about where you are in that day. It is about both the joy and the pain, the rage and the successes of dealing with serious illness and trauma. It is about spending time with even our uncomfortable feelings. You explore what is unique about your personal struggle, not just the struggle of the generic, nameless, HIV-positive victim/patient/sufferer. You focus on how you cope and overcome, or about the depths of your pain and struggle, and you dive deeper into your own reality. And then you tell the story, and what the story means to you. The process can bring new insight and understanding. And then in the telling, you go beyond the anonymous status of just another victim. You tell your own story for the benefit of others, and it brings new meaning to it.
Larry Pettit wrote a Bodyscapes poem about depression, “A road to nowhere, unsupervised and unproductive in any way.” And yet his poem concluded, “at the bottom of the pit, the angel of the pit.” He was known for his untiring service to the LGBTQIA community in San Francisco, attending art events frequently, and for always appearing in jeans and a shirt in some shade of pink/purple. For the Bodyscapes art opening that included his art, he arrived in black jeans, cowboy boots and a black leather sports coat. When I questioned him about it, he replied, “For some important events I dress up.” Six months later he died of a heart attack at seventy-three. Along with Program Director Vince Crisostomo, he helped to found The Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network.
When you talk about the “benefit of others,” how do you see the role of the
viewer and is this part of why works are exhibited?
The Red & Orange House Foundation produces Bodyscapes Healing Art Engagement events for self and community healing. It’s an opportunity for the community to be part of a bigger intervention—a dynamic healing interaction. The audience is asked to engage with the Bodyscapes artists, to hear the words of their poems which are specifically about living with HIV/AIDS, take those words in, and then send positive energy and thoughts of healing directly to the artist’s body. While each poet is reciting their poem, I project the image of the poets Bodyscapes drawing on the wall behind them. The drawings typically show images of the human body. A Bodyscapes Healing Arts Engagement event creates a space for people to tap into their potential for healing—not just the artists, but the self and our communities that are desperately in need of healing from their wounds.
Any upcoming projects or plans to take Bodyscapes elsewhere?
Red & Orange House is building out a sustainable funding model that includes growing a base of private clients and continuing to secure grant funding through actively building community relationships and partnerships, reaching out to women, both long-term survivors and young women who have recently acquired HIV. We plan to expand this work beyond illness to gender expression, transgender adults and youth. In 2014, we ran an extremely successful Bodyscapes experience for teens drawing while on dialysis. The project brought me back to my commitment to give teens a space to creatively show their rage, growth, and intensity, as I needed when I was a teenager.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.