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Monday, October 25, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 45

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Blaffer talk examines link between tragedy, creativity

By Erin Pattison
News Reporter 

The relationship between death and creativity is not a new one, panelists at a Blaffer Gallery discussion agreed. Rather, creativity helps people deal with suffering.

The discussion, "End of Life: Coping Through Creativity," focused on five people's experiences with death in their own lives and the lives of people around them. It was given in conjunction with the Blaffer's current exhibit, Hospice: A Photographic Inquiry.


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The Blaffer Gallery's Lisa Hernandez, along with local hospice workers and their families, constructed an ofrenda, or altear -- the most visible symbol of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations -- on Sunday to honor volunteers.

Maya Winkler, an associate professor in the Institute of Medical Humanities, began the discussion by talking about a few of history's tortured artists and how their work not only was inspired by their suffering, but helped them cope with it.

Winkler used as examples composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who was deaf; Charlotte Brontë, a writer who experienced the death of nearly all her family members before she was 30; and Christy Brown, a painter and poet with cerebral palsy.

But renowned painters, writers and composers aren't the only people who benefit from expressing grief through art, said Robbie Wallace, a working artist and volunteer at Omega House.

Wallace showed a drawing by Lucas, an Omega House resident, that depicted his perception of the AIDS virus -- an octopus-like figure with four eyes and a horrible grin whose arms grasp several terrified people, squeezing the life from them.

"Art helps people to put a face on the unknown," Wallace said.

Jesse Mancha would agree. Mancha is an outreach worker at Amigos Volunteers in Education in Services who lost his brother and partner to AIDS and was himself diagnosed with HIV. He described how, through music and poetry, he helps patients deal with their pain.

Mancha performed two of his songs, "Where Has All the Music Gone?" and "Wherever You Go," which he sang at both his brother's and his partner's funerals. He used the songs to say goodbye to loved ones, and now he uses them to help others do the same.

For Sandra York, the coping came through making retablos, small pieces of tin on which she created works of art inspired by her mother's last days.

York's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and was given between two days and two weeks to live. York checked her mother into a hospice and helped care for her for two years.

York was a working artist at the time, but her mother's illness caused a block in her creativity. Believing she might never paint on a canvas again, York began making the hand-held retablos as a way to sort through her emotions.

The works explored different aspects of her mother's illness and death, including such routine things as turning her from side to side in the bed: "7 a.m. Turn left side. 9 a.m. Turn right side. 11 a.m. Turn left side, water, juice, bathe. 1 p.m. Turn right side. 3 p.m. Turn left side ..."

Sarah Cortez, a police officer and poet, has to deal with death and suffering nearly every day. Writing about it helps her deal with the tragedy, she said.

One of the poems Cortez read Thursday perhaps best expresses the emotions artists have when dealing with tragedy:

"That night I still remember the photos," the poem reads. "The 14-year-old girl before he killed her. Sitting naked wearing a silver choke collar. Hair shorn to display her. Full breasts bruised. Will I ever see my own body without seeing her, beaten up, staring bleak-eyed into his Polaroid camera?"
 

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