Justice Cafe: An Interview with Donna Wayt, Recovery Artist

Josh Gingras interviews Donna Wayt, Recovery Artist. This is part of an ongoing series meant to keep the Justice Cafe connected to its participants and prospects during the duration of the pandemic. 

*Content Warning: alcohol abuse, mental health, and sexual violence


Hello. My name is Joshua Gingras, and I’m a writer and organizer with the Newark Think Tank on Poverty. I’ll be organizing this Justice Cafe column. I’m not quite sure what it will contain, but it’s a pleasure to write to you.

For those unfamiliar, the Justice Cafe was an event hosted by us, the Newark Think Tank on Poverty. In more accurate terms, it was a safe, social nighttime space for people in recovery on a Saturday night. We took the brick walls and cold floors of 50 South 2nd and decked them out real nice with propaganda and bean bag chairs. We had an open mic for whatever people wanted to share, ate City BBQ, drank copious coffee, had those wonderful spontaneous political conversations you run into once in a blue moon ... ah, it was rad, you’ll have to be at the next one. 

Unfortunately, we don’t know when there’ll be a next one. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a pause on planning another in-person event. We’re working on a virtual Zoom event, which will be good and fun and you should join.

In the meantime, we, the organizers of the Cafe, want to stay in contact, through this virtual event and column. A few of us (myself included) have first-hand experiences with addiction, and we’re worried about you in this isolation, hence, People, Pandemic, & Poverty. All the other organizers are working on parts of our newsletter you’ve perhaps already read, so the duties of maintaining this art-centric correspondence have fallen on me.

For this introductory entry, I wanted to talk to Donna Wayt, a recovery artist based in Newark, Ohio. She does a great job of sharing her story in this interview, but I do want to share why I decided to interview her. First, I think she’s a good human being. She’s a dedicated teacher, involved in the Newark Think Tank on Poverty as a supporter, and was a participant in our first Justice Cafe event. Second, I like her art.

A big shame with this article: I was unable to take pictures of her work in-person due to social distancing. A bigger shame is my inarticulateness when it comes to matters of art analysis and criticism, but I’ll try to capture some observations.

What first comes to mind when I look at her work are attempts to display a spiritual view of nature and ritual. These are not pieces that reference science. For example, when I asked her for shots of recent stuff, two of them included a naturally full and lit night sky. In the first, we see a snow white owl flying as if she or he were bursting upon the priest from the moonlight; in the other, a naked person dancing before the moon on a hill. Both human actors in both pieces are dressed in ritualized attire, androgynous, and guided by the satellite in their rituals.

As Donna mentions, she’s a recovering alcoholic. Knowing her story and having that context gives me an idea of why she would labor on art of rituals in nature. Let me know if I’m bringing too much of my own personal experience to the work, but, as a recovering alcoholic myself, one of the losses I experienced in my rituals of drinking was my connection to nature. I wish I made these connections before the interview and had a chance to ask her about it.

So, here’s Donna in her own words. If you want to reach out to her, check out Compeer Circle of Friends, her group dedicated to “support[ing] one another as we heal from mental illness, trauma, and addiction.”

Josh: What’s your obligation as an artist?

Donna: Right, so, I'm teaching an Art of Recovery class. I usually teach it at the Main Place [“a consumer-operated mental health recovery center that promotes recovery through peer support, socialization, education, and training”] every Thursday at noon. But because the Main Place is closed, I'm teaching people in recovery live on Facebook. I shouldn’t say teaching because I don’t have a degree in it. I teach people what I do, a tutorial, step-by-step.

Part of my obligation as an artist and as an instructor is to try and get people to make things personal. Not just, purple here, pink there, but try and take this form and use it to speak to the world about how you feel, how you're recovering, and what's happening to you on the inside. They're not being influenced by somebody else's money or politics. This is their life experience.

I deal with so many people who are in recovery, and there are so many people, right now, whose structure has gone away. People who were attending day reporting, who were in eight hours of structured classes, that’s gone away for a little while. But thank goodness they figured out how to do it on Zoom, which gives them a little more structure. But still, people who are struggling need a tool. They need some way to not get high and not hurt themselves. And when things are not fun, people won't do it. If people are not enjoying the process of recovery, they won't do it.

I also think my obligation as an artist is to interpret this for my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. I want generation after generation to know what happened to us and to know what our life experiences were.

J: Why is art your passion?

D: Because I'm bipolar. I mean, I can't get any more blunt than that. I don't have the option to break down and end up in the homeless shelter again, which is what happened last time. So I use this as my medication.

This keeps me calm, lowers my blood pressure. Literally. It is a part of a ritual of behaviors that start from the moment I get out of bed until I lay down which keeps me in balance. If I'm manic I have things I do. If I'm depressed, I have things I do. It's usually one end of the spectrum or the other. It's very rare that I have some time to float in between.

Yeah, it's me afloat. It really is. It feels like when I'm painting, I'm floating between mania and depression. Does that make sense?

J: Yeah, yeah, I mean, what you're talking about is … My diagnosis is something like Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, and that anxiety that just lies to you and tells you all these horrible things are going to happen to you.

D: Yeah, totally understand that.

J: Yeah. When I get to sit down for, you know, art stuff, here's this pen and paper that I'm just obsessed about and, you know, I get to create, get to control everything. When you're an anxious person, writing is like, oh, that's just great shit, like, when you want to control everything in your environment, you can do that with creativity. But anyways, I'm talking about myself and my art too much. I'm curious about your medium. Most of your work seems to be paintings and so I'm curious, why did you go with painting specifically, and how did you come to painting?

D: So my mother was an artist. My mother married a pedophile when I was two. It's just one of those things, you know, my mother married somebody who is a sex offender and she’s still married to 

him. He paid for her to go to art school.

She went to Columbus College of Art and Design and she's an amazing artist, and my really early childhood memories are saturated with a lot of her art. But she 

didn't become famous. She was discouraged from art because she didn't become, in her brain, what famous was, so, she couldn't be an artist full time. She had to have a job. So she just quit painting.

My mother and I haven't spoken since 1984. I really wanted her ... I don't know. I just didn't ... I always wanted her to love me, which was never a thing. She and I have a long painful relationship. I was always afraid to be an artist, always afraid to try, because I didn't want to become her and … you know, I look like her and people would say that. Oh, you look just like your mom! So I didn't touch painting until I stopped drinking.

I was going to Columbus State and a woman gave a talk on “reformative art,” and how she was using art to help reform. Her name was Jeanie. She was helping people in Lubbock, Texas use art with children that had behavioral problems. She had a big farm and they would come take these art classes with her. I was so fascinated that I started writing her letters and then I just became obsessed with Lubbock, Texas. I moved to Lubbock. You know, when I left for Texas, to be honest with you, I had been drinking for breakfast for about four years, and I was really struggling with that alcoholism more than I have any other -isms, and I have a lot of them, but that was the worst one.

So Texas had given me some significant clean time. I hit a couple of meetings and it wasn't really my thing. I was scared of them. This art program kept me busy and the more I kept talking to Jeanie, the more she kept saying things like, Well, you know, look how much you're changing because you're learning. I was learning little things.

When I got back to Ohio, I had developed a big block. I really didn't think that I could paint unless I was a little bit high or, you know, have a little wine. A huge block, and I would have these elaborate art setups and buy all this equipment which, you know, for a poor person, for a single mother, for a person in poverty, was my idea of a lot of stuff. I couldn't do anything with it until I met 

Sherry Johnston.

She teaches the class that I teach now, this recovery art class at the Main Place, and she was doing art journaling and telling me, Try these journals: you're going to be able to flip back and see your mood swings and you'll be able to regulate what you are going through, figure out your triggers, figure out if they were 

chemical or if there was something in the environment that was a trigger associated to other things. And it really did give me a power tool. I could figure out so much, I could dump all these weird thoughts in my head, that anxiety, I could dump it out and look at it and pull it apart and see it for what it is, and see it as a lie. The most powerful thing that art ever taught me.

She was the first one to be like, Try that, do this, or, I’d give her an idea. I wanted to paint Elvis. I wanted to paint Elvis like Vishnu with multiple arms and a sandwich. And she was like, You should do that. Had I brought that up to anybody else on the planet, they would have been like, That's really weird. Nobody's ever going to buy that. But it doesn't matter if anybody buys it, what mattered was I took this weird image I thought of. Elvis was a God in a way to my grandma. Just dump it out on a piece of paper and talk about it and think about it. Why do you worship these things? Why do we look at famous people who are so obviously flawed and give them all these qualities of a deity that they obviously do not have? Why do we do that? She helped me tremendously.

J: You brought up being a creative type active in use, stuck in that cycle of, Well, I want to be a great artist, I want to sit down and I want to create something really great. Oh, yeah, but the problem is, I can't do that, because I'm not a good enough artist. So I need to use booze to get that energy. It's a real difficult cycle and it's something that was in my head for like the longest time.

D: That's painful, especially if you've gotten really wasted and made something fabulous because your brain will always go, Look how wasted you were and look how fabulous that turned out!

J: At some point, we broke the cycle, and I want to know how you did it. How do you get that confidence as a creative person to see the worth in your work, like you’re doing here? How did you start calling yourself an artist?

D: You know, people were constantly laughing. They thought it was a joke when I would introduce myself as a recovery artist, teaching this recovery class for Mental Health America [“the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting the overall mental health of all Americans”] in the Main Place. I’m trying to get people in my class to understand that, if we can identify … I'm getting ahead of myself.

So, as a woman in recovery, I've learned that a big chunk of my addiction had to do with my identity, that I was identifying as a person who was an alcoholic, and as a person who had a lot of addictions. A big part of me was wrapped up in that fun girl. I was very popular in high school. Until I got arrested.

But, to come to terms with re-identifying who I am, I said, I'm going to get some cards made up and I'm going to tell people I'm a recovery artist and I want people to understand that I'm an artist and you don't like what I do? That's okay. It was kind of like a saving grace for myself. So, I didn't like the art I made, but I could just feel like … it doesn't matter if it's beautiful. What matters is I didn't get drunk for breakfast and I didn't hurt myself or anybody else then.

J: What’s the intersection in your work between community, creativity, and sobriety?

D: I mean, I don't want to get religious on you or anything, but I had what the 12-step program calls my spiritual enlightenment. I had that in North Dakota, a profound spiritual experience in North Dakota that changed my life, and when I came back I embraced who I am as a woman, I embraced who I am as an artist, I've embraced things about myself like trauma and the ugliest, most disgusting, gross part of me is probably the most interesting part of me, something that I can pull from whenever I need something, need to relate to, something disgusting and gross because it's right there inside of me. I can feel it. I can have empathy and compassion because of it. So my ambition is not to be anything fabulous. Anyway, they work together hand-in-hand.

J: It sounds like what you're trying to do is awake in people that kind of divine power that's inherent in every human being, which is creativity?

D: Absolutely. Self-healing. How do you trigger that? I think there's like a switch or something in your subconscious. You can start looking at things differently and start seeing yourself differently and it makes such a huge difference. It was such a profound shift for me. I don't know any other word for it. Suddenly, I'm stopping and thinking about what I'm going to do because I'm an artist, because I have this identity to hold onto that says I'm more than my diagnosis and more than all those -isms. I'm more than all this trauma, there’s a human in here and I need to figure out who she is.

J: So what we're talking about here is consciousness building, right?

D: Yes. Absolutely. Yeah. I want people to be conscious of what's going on. I want them to not live under this illusion, I want to rip the veil back. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of that veil. I'm sick and tired of this.

J: Last words?

D: If you don't want to hurt yourself or anybody else, and you don't feel like getting high today, maybe you can come with me today. Grab some art supplies. Grab some crayons. Grab some whatever you have. Whatever. Let's do something with it.




Showing 4 reactions

  • Joshua Gingras
    commented 2020-05-12 01:18:55 -0400
    Thanks Matt for your kind words. It was a pleasure talking to you at the first Justice Cafe. We’ll get you into our Zoom art chats here soon.
  • Mat Wheeler
    commented 2020-05-11 19:39:50 -0400
    I love this interview. Well done to both of you. I believe that when I started selfidentifyng as an artist rather than just an addict is when I first began to accept and love myself. It gave me worth. I’m grateful your interview reinforced that concept.
  • Sarah O'Donnell
    published this page in People, Pandemic, & Poverty 2020-04-29 16:04:21 -0400
  • Sarah O'Donnell
    published this page in People, Pandemic, & Poverty 2020-04-29 13:23:48 -0400