The Aphrodite Project was a voyage into uncharted territory that demanded courage, tapped into hidden creativity and unleashed the energy that develops from meaningful relationships. Ultimately, it proved to be an experience that redefined lives in unanticipated ways.
Aphrodite, the goddess who was a force for change through her passionate creativity, was the spirit behind the unique project that Jo-Anne Blatter, MSW, LCSW proposed to a group of people diagnosed with cancer. Not knowing the impact of her proposal but hoping to change lives, she imagined something different from traditional individual, group or art therapy. Most of all, she wanted to help her clients move in ways that they had been unable to thus far.
Blatter had been moved herself by a process of creating “collaborative art.” Inspired by the work of Bolen (Bolen, 1984) and Estes (Estes, 1992), she attempted to resolve some mid-life issues by articulating meaningful visual images that were then painted for her by an artist. She called this writing and collaborative art experience “The Aphrodite Project.”
After hanging up her collaborative art in her office, she discovered that the paintings stirred her clients to share the lost stories of their lives. She decided to develop an Aphrodite Project for her clients with cancer, hoping to give them the opportunity to explore their life and make meaning of it through the experience of creating art with an artist.
People diagnosed with cancer enter a frightening world of unknowns. For the participants of the Aphrodite Project, the world of the creative process was also an alien one. Venturing into this foreign realm, however, provided them with an opportunity to learn important life lessons: how to overcome chaos in their lives and find joy. It was an inner discovery that along with developing valued relationships produced a new lease on life and its meaning. The art they created served as a container for their grief and isolation, for their hopes and dreams and in so doing transformed them in ways unimagined. The experience would come to be viewed as a gift for which they continue to be grateful.
The Aphrodite Project Process
Through the Aphrodite Project, Blatter sought to support clients who were in varying stages of experiencing cancer. She was particularly interested in those clients that did not participate in the traditional support groups or for whom the services of crisis care had ended. She astutely recognized that these were the people that needed help moving on with their lives. Indeed, her clients felt that since their treatment was over that life was supposed to be back to normal—but it wasn’t. They were open to doing something different with their lives: The specter of losing their life from cancer had spawned a desire to live their lives more fully, to be adventurous, to push the limits. They had been primed for this moment by Blatter, who approaches her work with people with cancer as a potential opportunity to learn about who they are, what their needs are, where they have left aspects of themselves behind and where their lives aren’t working. “When something like cancer happens, it requires us to look at our lives.”
The Aphrodite Project required Blatter to be an architect of the relationships that everyone would find meaning from. Each cancer client, “a creator,” was paired with an artist. Each artist volunteered to be part of the project, but was selected and paired with each creator with intentionality. Dr. Marina Walker, who participated in the project as an artist but is also a psychologist, believes that Blatter’s pairings were a critical element in the success of the project.
Blatter saw her role as a “navigator” of an adventure that everyone—creators and artists alike—had embarked on. They would go through this together with “a sense of the mystery” of not knowing what the outcome would be and with an appreciation that the journey itself was what was important. As a therapist, it was a challenge to not have an end in mind, yet still provide the guidance that each pair needed. Blatter visited every creator-artist pair throughout the six-months they co-created art. She facilitated the process, kept the momentum going, especially when people felt stuck or blocked or when they ran into obstacles. In addition, she met with the creators and the artists in support groups.
Eight creator-artist pairs co-created a diversity of art: paintings, collages, masks, sculpture, photography, and a CD of a song. In addition, the entire group made a quilt together. At the conclusion of the project the art was unveiled at a gallery opening attended by family and friends. That event was an opportunity for everyone to share how the Aphrodite Project had impacted their lives, to explain the meaning of the art they had created and to celebrate their life discovery together. It was also documented in an award winning film.
The Aphrodite Project Experience: A Creator’s Perspective
For Randi, it was her “implicit trust” in Blatter that gave her the courage to participate in the Aphrodite Project. Blatter, who openly said she did not know where this adventure might lead, was a role model for her. As a creator, the challenge for Randi was to take her experience with breast cancer and translate her emotions into something concrete–that you can see and touch. She had an idea for a painting, but after she was paired with a Mexican folk artist, the painting was abandoned. They agreed to make masks together: one mask of Randi before the cancer and one after.
In an odyssey of intimacy, Randi made her masks and began a process of refeeling and recasting those feelings with another person. Never having given herself permission to talk about what she experienced, telling her story proved to be very powerful for her.
The process of mask-making entailed layering strips saturated with plaster of paris on her face to make the form that would be used to make a papier mache mask. When the form was pulled off her face, it was “like a weight had been lifted.” Her skin felt like new skin, “like a babies skin.” She felt reborn.
The almost-meditational process of layering strips of papier mache on the form required a patience that was satisfying; for Randi, she was symbolically rebuilding her life. In painting the two masks, she was able to represent the more up-tight, fearful, conservative person she had become in one and the freer, playful, adventurous person she wanted to be in the other. The masks gave meaning to her past and future life along with a sense of joy in her present life. She found resolution to her cancer experience along with the resolve to change her life. Realizing that all we have for sure is today, and that it can be fun and joyous, Randi committed to making the most out of every day.
The Aphrodite Project Experience: An Artist’s Perspective
Marina Walker, PhD has come to believe that the act of making art has the capacity to transmute pain and trauma; “it takes the trauma from us at a cellular level and works the story for us so that we can see it at a new level.” She was paired with Mike and together they painted panels that represented the life cycle of his experience with cancer. They went to the art store together and picked out colors of paint; they would sit together and talk. For Mike, “a non-word person,” he was able to express what had happened to him. He was able to tell his story through art, where words had failed him in the past.
In Walker’s view, the Aphrodite Project was a magical alchemy that brought people together and created a context for them to experience life in a new way, producing new understandings, while having fun. Walker accompanied her creator in co-creating art, but she did not lead him, as she would in a therapeutic role. She says the experience “brought out deeply human feelings for one another.”
Walker believes that the way the Aphrodite Project was set up mirrors the creative process and that that explains why it has so much life to it. Drawing on the work of Rollo May (May, 1995), she says, “When you face the blank canvas or the blank page, you face yourself and the unknown; to resolve that, you have to go inside. When one sits down to make something that represents what they have been through it is a profound experience of struggle yet at the same time hopeful. There is almost a rebirth of self; it is an assertion of life over death and for this reason the creative process is innately life-orienting.” Walker believes that the potency of the Aphrodite Project is that no one is alone during the creative experience. She explains: “The experience of going to that dark place and having somebody there with them while they make something beautiful and then bring it back is like a rebirth for people as human beings. It is as if they peered into the abyss of death and came back. It is dancing around those edges that is regenerative.”
As an artist, Walker was profoundly moved by the joy Mike felt by the art they co-created. She says, “I was witness to something almost sacred that occurred. It feels like trying to capture a butterfly– this beautiful thing that moved through my life and everyone’s life and then it went on its way.” For her, just getting to be part of that is one of life’s rare moments and has proved to be inspirational for her in life and in her own art.
The Aphrodite Project Impact
When Blatter conceived of the Aphrodite Project she had no idea how far-reaching the impact of it would be. A year later artists and creators still feel moved and enriched by the experience. They speak passionately about the fun they had, about the excitement of experiencing their own creative potential and future, and about how they found renewed vitality—a new vision of their life.
Aaron, an environmental scientist and a college professor who has kidney cancer becomes animated when he speaks of his experience. For him the Aphrodite Project is still alive. He realizes the value of it even more now that he has some distance on it a year later. He describes the Aphrodite Project as “a touchstone in his life” that has made it easier to handle everything that has come along in life since.
Randi learned that if you close people out because you want to spare them or don’t want to deal with them, you miss giving the other person the opportunity to help. She realized that life is richer when you are more open to people and experience. Not only has this changed her personal life but she feels it also changed how she functions at work.
Everyone had the experience that by taking a risk something even better happens. This inspired creativity in the artists and several of them subsequently started using new art modalities in their work. Most of the creators have started doing new things in their life, too. Mike started playing the harmonica. Ann, who wrote a song and created a CD, is taking piano lessons. Beverly, an artist who stopped painting when she was stricken with cancer, has started painting again.
Life has been profoundly altered through the Aphrodite Project. The paralyzing fear of having cancer or being with someone who has cancer has been quieted. Hope and joy have replaced the desperation and devastation that challenges those with cancer and reverberates through their lives. The impact is incalculable, builds on itself exponentially and affects almost every experience. The prospect that it may even change the course of their illness does not seem to be beyond possibility. At the outset they were involved in the Aphrodite Project to create a legacy before they died, but in the end what they discovered was a new way of living.
Bolen, Jean Shinoda, Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psycholgoy of Women. London, England: Harper Collins, 1984.
Estes, Clarissa Pinkola, Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1992.
May, Rollo, The Creative Process. Peter Smith Publishers, 1995
Author: Dr. Lynn K. Jones
Certified Personal and Executive Coach