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  Eric Avery - "Political Prints and Paper Making"
Text by Eric Avery with illustrations Hand Papermaking, Summer 2004

“The artist who laughs has simply not yet heard the terrible news.” Bertoldt Brecht (1)

I have always made prints. I became a physician. During the Vietnam War, with the encouragement of my printmaking professor at the University of Arizona, I applied and got into a medical school. He said that since I would always be making art and since art comes from life, I should make my life interesting. This was a terrible time in the United States. Besides antiwar protests, there were race riots and major cities were burning. A lot of men my age had to make hard decisions. I would have been drafted if I had not continued my education.

Deciding to apply for medical school with a degree in fine art seemed radical at the time. In retrospect, it was not. We need more creative artists in health care helping to figure out how to make the world better. After I completed my medical training in 1978, specializing in psychiatry, I worked as a physician with Vietnamese refugees in Indonesia and then as medical director in a large refugee camp in Somalia. Cutting relief blocks and hand printing them helped me turn anger and sadness into indignant and beautiful works of art.

From 1981 until 1991, instead of practicing medicine, I lived in a small Texas/Mexico border town and worked as a printmaker and papermaker and as a refugee activist within Amnesty International USA. This was another terrible time in the United States. Our government, under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, were supporting a terrible war in Central America and thousands of refugees were fleeing north for sanctuary. I made a lot of prints about this.

In 1987, in a shop in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, I bought a small wooden basin with a washboard. It reminded me of the ribs of a starving Somalia child. I drew a starving child on the inside of the basin and then cut it as a woodcut. To print it, I had to figure out how to work with paper pulp. Papermaker and printmaker Susan Mackin-Dolan was working then at the Southwest Craft Center. She came to my studio in San Ygnacio and we figured out how to make molded paper woodcuts.


(Image 1)
Starving African Child
Molded paper woodcut

(Image 2 and 3)
The Face Project
1997 – 2003
Molded paper woodcuts

Working with paper pulp expanded my printmaking because it freed me from the flat print surface. I could use any wooden object as a print template. My prints became objects that moved off the flat wall and into low relief space. Seeing Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s deeply gouged expressionistic woodblocks in the Brucke Museum in Berlin gave me the idea of simultaneously combining relief printing and intaglio printing of the cut marks. I began to cut my relief blocks with the intention of printing both the relief surface and the cut marks using paper pulp.

In 1992, as my friends began to die of AIDS, I returned to medicine and combined both my medical and art practices in my current positions at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston where I am an Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine and Associate Member in UTMB’s Institute for Medical Humanities. Part of my time as a physician is reserved for me to work in my studio. My art practice is to make paper and prints and do art/medicine actions in public spaces. In my medical practice, I am a psychiatrist who has specialized in working with patients with HIV and Hepatitis C.

For the past twelve years, my artwork has changed; it has become a documentation of the changing nature of the HIV pandemic. My ongoing series of HIV patient portraits (Image 2 and 3) has shifted from lamentations on the dying to reflections of survivor’s common stories of childhood sexual, emotional, verbal and physical abuse. These abuses often lead to chronic depression, drug abuse, compulsive sexual behavior and revictimization. All of these characteristics are associated with recognized modes of HIV transmission (through unprotected sexual intercourse and the sharing of unclean injection drug use equipment).


(Image 4)
Studio Installation of 3" x 6' sheets of linocut blood wallpaper and round 8½" HIV woodcut spheres, installed in the Mary Ryan Gallery

(Image 5)
Blood drawing Sue Coe Phil Muskin
Healing Before Art: Public HIV Blood Testing
Mary Ryan Gallery
New York City, New York
May 11, 1994

(Image 6)
Clinical art space
Art as Medicine/Medicine as Art
Straus Gallery, Fogg Art Museum
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

(Image 7)
HIV Condom Filled Piñata
Molded paper woodcut

Beginning in 1993, I took my medical practice into the protected aesthetic space of art galleries and museums in a series of art/medicine actions that educated viewers about HIV/AIDS. Paper was an important element in each of them. Toilet paper was printed with information on how to use the new female condom. Large Japanese Okawara paper was printed with linoleum prints of a peripheral blood smear and the life cycle of HIV. These were used as wallpaper for clinical art spaces. (Image 4, 5 and 6) Round molded paper woodcuts representing HIV were hung in several of these spaces. When these print spheres are filled with condoms, they become HIV Condom Filled Piñatas. (Image 7)
(Image 8)
Cover Hurry Up Help Me Africa is Dying
Single Section Book
Letterpress on handmade paper
Printed by Mark Attwood, The Artists’ Press, White River, South Africa
Edition: 100

(Image 9)
Two-page spread of opened book (showing projected death rates of South Africans ages 15-34)

(Image 10)
Photo of clothes from Amazing Grace Children’s Home (clothes are organized by sizes baby to preteen).

Besides getting publicity and educating the public about HIV, these art/medicine actions raised conceptual questions about medicine as a healing art and about the function of art spaces. Jerry Cohn, Print Curator of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University asked readers of her Print Fan Newsletter: “What happens when medicine, usually confined to hermetic spaces such as clinics and hospitals, is reintroduced as a healing art in the unexpected context of beauty and human creativity? What happens when the protected shield constructed by art museums against the existence of the transitory, debilitating facts of human life is ruptured by medical practice?”(2)

In August 2003, I returned to Africa to attend the Impact Print Conference in Cape Town, South Africa. Five million South Africans - one in five adults - are living with HIV/AIDS. Six hundred people there are dying from AIDS each day. Bill Lagatutta (Tamarind’s Master Printer), Mark Attwood (a Tamarind graduate working in South Africa) and I proposed a two-part print action for the conference. It would focus attention on the egregious lack of access to life saving medications in South Africa and on the resulting orphan crisis. Hurry Up Help Me Africa is Dying (Image 8 and 9) was letterpress printed on paper I made from the clothes of HIV orphans at the Amazing Grace Children’s Home in Melelane, South Africa. (Image 10) New clothes were exchanged for the old ones. At the Conference, this single-section booklet, telling the devastating story of HIV in South Africa, was sewn together by HIV+ women from a craft collective outside Cape Town. Sales of this booklet raise money for the Amazing Grace Children’s Home.

If you believe that information can lead to change, then bearing witness is the narrative function of art and serves a social purpose. If one person, after seeing one of my art actions, were motivated to change an HIV risk behavior and did not get HIV, then this would be my evidence that art can save lives. Art can also give hope. I use my prints in my clinic to do this every week.

When there has been no cure in trauma situations I have encountered at work, all I could do was listen to my patients’ stories. Sue Coe says that witnessing without being able to change is the beginning of empathy.(3) Empathic listening is a form of therapy. When we tell our stories with our art, metaphorically processing our experience, then we have an opportunity to be healed, especially if someone is listening. Indignant and trauma-filled prints and paper works are hard to sell and art spaces generally do not like to exhibit them. The art business is different from the healing business. Practicing medicine in art spaces reminds us that art and healing were only sundered in this past century and in our culture.

We image-makers have a unique way of turning despair and pain into hope and beauty. Because of this our art making can sustain us when others despair.

Beyond the story, the physical parts of print and papermaking can be used to process and express a lot of emotion. Boiling fibers, cutting up rags and beating them, cutting a woodblock, printing with a press: through all of these actions the artist can psychologically sublimate aggressive and hurt emotions.

I always encourage artists to consider becoming health professionals and to work in areas where you can become witnesses and helpers. When we get out of our heads and our studios and make our lives interesting, the artwork will follow. The art world may laugh but you will not, when you discover that your art can save lives.


1. Mat Schwarzman, “Arts and Social Change” Course Description, San Francisco State University, Fall 1992

2. Marjorie Cohn, Print Fan Newsletter, Harvard University Art Museums, August 15, 1997

3. Sue Coe “Art and Activism” Course Description, Parsons School of Art and Design, Spring Semester 2003