4 Responses to Remembrances

  • Ed Fraga Remembers:

    When I first met Mary Ann we were both in our early 20’s. We were studio neighbors in the Cary building in downtown Detroit from 1982-1986. Mary Ann was shy and amazingly secretive about her paintings. I vividly remember knocking on her paint stained door once to see if she would show me her work. She always made an excuse why she needed more time and would apologize how her small closet size studio was such a mess. I have this searing image of her to this day standing in the doorway. She wore this cream colored robe that was just covered in paint. Emanating from the room was the sweet perfume smell of wet oil paint. As we spoke I would sneak a peak through the crack of the door and what I saw was so beautiful. There were paintings everywhere casually propped against the wall. She would spend months layering canvasses with paint. She was like a modern day alchemist, painting at times on anything she could get her hands on; a piece of floor tile, a plank of discarded wood from a door, even shards of broken glass would find its way into the paintings. They were like relics from a lost ancient civilization, but they were of our time. She was recording her place in the world by these personally moving icons.

    She loved the Cass Corridor movement that was going on in Detroit at the time. Her humility kept her from thinking she too could be a part of this. The good news is that soon many will see the breadth of her place in this movement she so cherished. Finally, she too will be added as a member of this elite community. In fact, while she was still alive she got to she her painting, “Figure in a Red Room” hanging in a place of distinct honor in the office of the President of Wayne State University. Her painting share the walls with her heroes in the art world of Detroit, like Gordon Newton, John Egner, Bob Sestok, and Jim Chatelain. I am pleased she got to see her painting in this permanent home during her lifetime.

    Mary Ann leaves behind a legacy of a grace, tenacity, and an indomitable spirit. I have never seen such strength and willingness to fight to live as Mary Ann showed all of us who knew her. She never complained. I never heard “why me.” She seemed to gain spiritual strength as her body weakened. The suffering she had to endure is unimaginable – to not eat solid foods for months. In fact, when I came over to the Aitkens’ in December 2011 for Christmas, as I have for the past several years, I was struck how Mary Ann seemed to be directing the events of the evening – when to open the gifts – when we would eat. As we ate, she sat in her chair next to the fireplace warming her frail body and drank water from a straw. When I left that night I couldn’t help but think of the image of her sitting in this lofty chair. It was more like a throne. She sat opposite the Christmas tree (which at the Aitkens is never a modest size tree). It always dominates the living room. Not this Christmas. It was Mary Ann who was the central focus. The image of her sitting on a throne seemed a haunting one I couldn’t get out of my mind as I left that evening. I knew it would be the last time I would see her. She would leave this world as she lived – directing her life as she wanted it to be. As I looked into her piercing blue eyes for the last time, which seemed bluer then I ever remember them being, I saw the soul of a beautiful woman and friend. Her eyes weren’t pitiful or sad but they resonated joy and a peace of mind. She was tired. She did everything humanly possible to fight for her life and she knew it was time to give in and rest. We live with the memories of her tenacious life. Her art, the token reminder of who she was, show us all the vision of a woman who saw beauty in everything. Her subjects varied from nature, to the figure, to the mundane. It is her gift to us.

  • Francis Fawundu, Director of The Creative Arts Therapy Department at Woodhull Hospital Remembers:

    Mary Ann Aitken worked at Woodhull Hospital from December 1989 to February 2011. A beloved therapist, she was an outstanding clinician dedicated to creatively assisting her patients in their recovery process.

    Mary Ann worked with some of the most challenging patients. These are the men and women that society often condemns, and writes off as useless, hopeless and helpless. She worked with the alcoholics and drugs addicts. Many of these men and women came into treatment in their worst conditions. Some of them didn’t even want to be in treatment and were very angry because they were mandated to obtain service. Others no longer had the desire to live and drugs and alcohol seemed to be the solution.

    Mary Ann, in her own unique way, was able to look beyond their addictions and focus on the human being, she saw suffering and in pain. Thus, she partnered with her patients by assisting them to identify their strength. Yes, she focused on the strengths that these patients never knew they had. Through her creativity and therapeutic interventions, Mary Ann instilled hope in our patients, especially those who felt most hopeless. Thus, they began to see the process of recovery was possible. They realized that there was still hope for them. She emphasized the importance of them taking responsibility for their lives and working towards their individualized recovery process.

    Overall, patients consistently praised and thanked her for all she did in assisting them to heal and restore their lives.

  • Holly Feen Remembers:

    I met Mary Ann in the late 1980s when I became a new adjunct faculty member in the Art Therapy Program at Wayne State University. The Art Therapy Program is a graduate program that consistently enrolls impressive students; some are just out of college, but a large number are older, many seeking second masters’ degrees, and many have had outstanding art or clinical careers prior to their admission. MaryAnn was one of the younger students, but she was as reflective and thoughtful as older students with more life experiences; I felt she was mature and wise. A rather quiet person, when Mary Ann had something to say it was thought provoking and considerate. I had the sense that she was a disciplined artist as well as being committed to helping others. Everyone liked her. I remember being impressed with her master’s project that was submitted in the form of a 3-inch notebook filled with hundreds of 35 mm slides of the art of children with whom she had worked. One case study would have been sufficient, but Mary Ann completed seven case studies of children from her art therapy internship at the Children’s Center of Wayne County. The studies presented together showed how Mary Ann saw children as individuals with various strengths, and each study seemed to represent some different aspect of art therapy with children.

    Mary Ann graduated in 1989, and within months had landed a job as an art therapist at Woodhull Hospital in New York City. Whereas Michigan has one graduate program in art therapy and about 100 art therapists across the state, New York has several graduate training programs and a large concentration of art therapists. It is a strong testimony to Mary Ann’s skills and her personal dispositions that she was awarded the job in a city of such steep competition. I enjoyed reading the memory of her supervisor at the Woodhull Hospital.

    Mary Ann and I kept in contact periodically over the years. We had in common work an interest in adult psychiatric and substance abuse patients.

    In 2009, Mary Ann presented a video she made: The Story of Cordula: With Time Short, A Passion to Paint at the conference of the American Art Therapy Association held in Dallas. The presentation was about her friend and colleague, New York artist Cordula Volkening. At the time Mary Ann created the presentation the two had hoped that Cordula could accompany Mary Ann to the conference, however Cordula died of brain cancer before that happened. The first part of the slide presentation shows Cordula’s paintings while describing how Cordula quit her job following her diagnosis, to devote her time to her art. The second part is entitled “Coping with Cancer,” and contains excerpts from Elisabeth Kubler Ross, Viktor Frankl, as well as the literature of Jungian psychology, existential psychology and mindfulness based stress reduction. Set to background music of slow, deep Buddhist chants, the presentation was very moving; several members of the audience were in tears.

    Several months later, I asked Mary Ann to come present the video to art therapy classes at Wayne State, and she graciously did that. I wanted to take her to dinner to show my appreciation but she declined. She was planning to spend the rest of her time with her parents.

    Shortly thereafter I was invited to give a presentation to an interdisciplinary WSU class called End of Life Stories. I asked Mary Ann if I could show her video to that class, and she consented. The students in that class reacted in a similar way, responding to the poignant beauty and sadness of the film.

    When I review the video now I wonder if it is autobiographical; if Mary Ann is telling viewers not only about Cordula, but how she herself was coping with cancer. “Live your life as if it really matter[s],” she quotes Jon Kabat-Zinn. From art therapist Bruce Moon, she quotes, “creative work…offers the opportunity to make sense of what often seems senseless or meaningless.” In listening to her friends and family members at her funeral one year ago, and having the privilege to view some of her art, and to look through her books, which were a generous gift to our department, I sense that Mary Ann found much meaning in her family and friends, in her faith, in her art therapy work and her art. I feel privileged to have known Mary Ann. I think of her often when I look at five of her paintings that hang in our seminar room, and I know her books will allow for her to share with other students the subjects that were important to her.

  • Maureen Aitken, Mary Ann’s sister Remembers:

    After Mary Ann was diagnosed with cancer, she spent most of her summers at the family cottage. I like to remember those last years of her life, painting outside, her pale skin framed by lake water, studying a canvas propped up on porch steps, her little feet in black, New Balance tennis shoes streaked with bright paints. In those days she used nature in her work: sand and shells. When she needed a break, Mary Ann tended her flower gardens inspired by Monet; the hyacinths, the roses, the black-eyed Susans, and wild blue phlox. In the afternoons we’d all sit on the beach, read books, and watch the gulls, ducks, and herons fly across the water. Sometimes she’d want to walk to the edge of the marsh. With the camera slung over her arm, we’d stop so she could take pictures of swans and strange, unknown animals swimming between the lily pads.

    She made a lot of art then and much of it in the deep colors of nature, as if she understood some new connection to the earth’s transitions. When she took pictures of Detroit or Canada, the colors intensified, the relationships between trees and buildings, birds and water integrated and revealed themselves. In one picture published in a magazine, a tree grew inside a collapsing building, but the way Mary Ann took the picture, I wonder if she was considering her own cancer, and what life grew amidst the rubble of her illness and treatment.

    Mary Ann had been an artist since grade school, but after the diagnosis she reduced her work hours and painted full time. She had great hope for a recovery. But something in her, something subtle and deep, shifted. She knew the odds weren’t in her favor. Some days she was understandably filled with fear. But she used that fear as a catalyst. With the chance of dwindling time, she embraced the life she had and painted with a fervor fortified by her talent and her love of life.

    With her family and friends, her spirit illuminated the smallest moments. She raced around New York with her friend Kernan and visited with Wilma. I imagine now how people might have noticed her vibrancy at a café in Brooklyn, laughing with her chin tilted up, her eyes closed, sometimes laughing so hard she cried; walking down 7th Avenue with Kathleen, visiting her friend Ed in Ferndale, or sitting at the Traffic Jam in Detroit, drinking her dark beer. She reminisced with friends of her youth, Michelle and Leslie. She loved Christmas in Detroit when our parents, our brother Joe, his wife Lori, and my husband Jeff would sit around the tree and invite friends and family over.

    She had paintings in at a gallery in Ann Arbor and we all showed up to support her, including Uncle Tim and Aunt Eileen. Her friend Ed helped organize the show, and she walked around the room, tilting on her feet in that way she had, her face lit up with pride and satisfaction. If family and friends couldn’t come to her, Mary Ann got on a plane. She saw Georgia in Oakland, and visited her native Detroit so much, it became a second home.

    She was shy around others, but in our family, Mary Ann played the role of eldest sibling and leader, instructing us in a fashion so humorous and creative that she inspired us to tag along. We went to the Salvation Army for “The bargains! The bargains!” and the DIA for the latest show, where she would give us the background of the artist. Mary Ann became our family organizer, coordinating our trips, our summers, our Christmas gifts, and our birthday presents. It was fun to get a call from her as Joe’s birthday neared or our parents’ anniversary loomed, and hear her say, “Well, I have some ideas.”

    A few years ago, Mary Ann took a flight to Dallas for an art therapy conference and to visit Joe and Lori. Mary Ann gave a presentation on Cordula’s life entitled, “The Story of Cordula: With Time Short, A Passion To Paint.” The slideshow detailed the painter’s terminal brain cancer, and how Cordula lived a thriving artist’s life of fortitude and grace.

    One of the most powerful sections of the slideshow quoted therapists and scholars working with cancer patients. In Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, for example, a therapist recognizes a critical awakening for a patient with a terminal illness:

    “What happens in that instant when we learn we may soon die, Tom Laughlin contends,
    is that the seat of our consciousness shifts … The world is entirely new, viewed from the Self.
    At once we discern what is really important. Superficial concerns fall away, replaced by a
    deeper, more profoundly grounded perspective.”

    And that is what happened to Mary Ann.

    For our friend, our daughter; our sister, Mary Ann achieved the highest goal recognized by one of her favorite books, Man’s Search for Meaning:

    “Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would have never achieved.”

    In embracing every part of her life, Mary Ann flourished as a person, a painter, a treasured friend, a beloved family member, and an amazing lover of life.

    Through the vibrancy of her final years, and in the legacy of her own art, Mary Ann encourages us to do the same.

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Remembrances contributed by:

Maureen Aitken
Mary Ann’s sister

Holly Feen

Francis Fawundu
Dir. Creative Arts Therapy
Woodhull Hospital

Ed Fraga

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