The artistic process is one that draws on the whole person, rummaging through the depths of emotion and memory, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes painful, emerging in a thing of beauty. For central Pennsylvania friends Maureen Joyce and Carrie Breschi, the cathartic value of working with clay has become a life mission. Through heartbreak and the circumstances of life, these women have come together to offer healing workshops to people seeking emotional wholeness amid life’s inevitable challenges. I’m fine. uses the creation of human masks to explore the self.
I’m fine. began with a personal tragedy in Maureen Joyce’s life. In 2018, Joyce lost her 30-year-old son Patrick. “Patrick,” she explains, “chose to complete his life. I watched his disease take over who he was, and I knew he was not his illness. For months, I could not do anything.” Joyce saw her usual happy and talkative persona disappear and felt afraid to tell people what had happened. She couldn’t function in her roles as artist, teacher, community member, friend, and wife. “Finally, one day,” she recalls, “I went out to my studio and began to pound on clay. I started to think about how we present ourselves through the mask of our faces and about what that often hides. The clay eventually allowed me to talk confidently about Pat.”
Maureen Joyce and Carrie Breschi met in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, at the Carlisle Arts Learning Center. Carrie is a Worcester, Massachusetts native who studied Studio Art and English at Denison University in Ohio. Her first job brought her to Pennsylvania, where she worked as the Assistant to the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cultural Advisor, Sondra Myers. She lived in nearby Carlisle. “At the time,” she recalls, “there was talk of closing the Carlisle Arts Learning Center. I knew I could not live in a community without an arts center, so I took it over!” Within ten years, under her leadership, the organization had moved to new facilities in an old Fire House, was debt-free and thriving.
Maureen grew up in Pittsburgh’s Crafton neighborhood. She attended the Carnegie Museum's Tam O'Shanter Program, taking Saturday morning art classes, from the age of eight, through her teens. After studying art at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, she established a studio in Black Mountain, North Carolina, where she focused on functional clay pieces and sculpture. She eventually ended up in Carlisle and it was during a show at the art center that she met Carrie Breschi. The two women quickly became close friends.
Over the years, Carrie returned to school, at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, studying Social Engagement in the Arts. She oversaw several large public exhibitions with social themes. “I had reached a point,” she says, “where I wanted to use my voice. I was focused on community engaged art, of art for a purpose, not for a sale.” When her friend Maureen was slowly reemerging after her son’s suicide and was putting together a workshop at the local YWCA, Maureen asked Carried to help. The two women created a curriculum that used stories and mask-making to address mental health.
The first I’m fine. workshop was held in 2019 at the YWCA of Carlisle. That one gathering has led to over fifty workshops, which have been supported in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. The women stress that they are not mental health professionals or certified art therapists, and that the masks are not their artwork. “We don’t pretend to know the communities we are serving,” Carrie says. “They tell us what they want.” The workshops are run by Maureen and Carrie, and they describe their roles as “curating” the masks and breaking down the barriers of mental health conversations. The workshops begin with a short introductory talk, with Carrie explaining community engaged art and Maureen talking about the healing properties of clay and the process of making the masks. They find that the participants tend to share their stories as they work. Many focus on the face they present to the world. Other focus on what they hide behind that façade. The process itself is the focus. They often raku fire and talk about the unpredictability of that method, reflective of the twists and turns of life. When the masks are completed, they are hung at a public exhibition.
I’m fine. serves a wide range of communities, including veterans, seniors, BIPOC, and teens. “We try to provide a safe environment for people to express themselves in community,” Carrie says. The youngest age group has been 13, with many teens having difficulties with the changes the pandemic has caused, in addition to the usual struggles of such a transitional phase of life. Some participants have recorded their thoughts about the process and their masks. These can be viewed on the I’m fine. website, at https://imfineproject.com/storiesandaudio.
Since 2019, I'm fine. has initiated and curated over 600 masks in numerous workshops and 10 residencies. Beginning this October, I’m fine. will come to Pittsburgh. Standard Ceramic will host a workshop on October 26. In addition, over a several-months period, I’m fine. will provide workshops for communities at Carnegie Mellon University’s Student Affairs Wellness Initiative, University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Creativity, Contemporary Craft Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media, Eberle Studios, and many other organizations. There will be three residencies with Artists in Schools & Communities for underserved students. The Pittsburgh masks will be featured in exhibitions in the area in May of 2023 and will be a part of a unified Pennsylvania exhibit in Harrisburg in 2024.
One of Maureen’s persistent memories of her son is his love of hiking and his habit of picking up mementos along the trail. “I was always emptying his pockets,” she says, “and finding things, especially ginkgo leaves. It was a tree that fascinated him. We researched it and learned about its amazing resiliency.” She and Carrie decided to use the ginkgo leaf in the I’m fine. logo. “I think we made the right decision,” Maureen says, “because it keeps coming back to us in spiritual ways.” When she and Carrie visited Pittsburgh potter Ed Eberle’s new studio to talk about a workshop, Ed’s son Jonathan told them he had coincidentally just decided to call his new studio Ginkgo Studio, a sign that Pittsburgh certainly warmly welcomes Maureen, Carrie, and Patrick’s spirit to do their good work in our city.
For more information about I’m fine., its work, and its upcoming workshops in the Pittsburgh area, visit https://imfineproject.com
For information about the October 26 workshop, from 5:30 – 7:30 at Standard Ceramic, call 828.450.5439 or sign up at imfineproject.com/clayworkshop
I’m fine. workshops are open to community members aged 13 and older and are free and open to the public. No artistic background is necessary. Beverages and snacks are provided.