When her hands are in clay, Shawna Mayo forgets about everything else. The trauma of war, the mysterious neurological problems plaguing the lower half of her body, the stresses of daily life.
For the past year, Mayo has been creating an array of ceramic mugs, plates, home decor items, ornamental sculptures and jewelry from her studio, JSB Arts, in the Aroostook County town of Wallagrass. It’s not just a business venture for her — it’s therapy.
“It all just melts away,” said Mayo, 29, a disabled Iraq War veteran and a Monmouth native. “I feel able-bodied again. The demons go away. I feel calm.”
Mayo grew up in a military family, moving around the country for much of her childhood before her parents settled in Monmouth. She wanted to join the Army straight out of high school, but at 18, she was pregnant with her son, Caden, and put off her plans to enlist until 2007, when at age 23 she entered basic training. In 2009, she went to Iraq for her first tour of duty as an Army medic.
A few months into her deployment, things began to go downhill.
“I began having blackout seizures,” said Mayo. “They thought it was epilepsy, but they were never really sure. At the seven-month mark they sent me home.”
The seizures were only the beginning — in the ensuing three years, Mayo has experienced debilitating leg pain and weakness in her limbs, which have required her to use a wheelchair and obtain a service dog, Kane. Mayo and her doctors still aren’t sure what’s wrong with her, though she has a suspicion that her exposure to open-air burn pits, particularly at Camp Kalsu, near Baghdad, have something to do with it.
“There are all kinds of reports and data out there that neurological issues have been found to be a result of exposure to the pits,” said Mayo. “They threw everything in there. Batteries, hazardous waste, medical waste. Who knows what it did to us?”
In 2011, Mayo met her now fiance, Justin Barnes, and began taking pottery classes from Asha Fenn at the Pottery, Art and Writing Studio in Stockton Springs.
As her physical problems began to worsen, her passion for pottery continued to grow. When her legs took a turn for the worse, requiring the use of a wheelchair, she and Barnes decided to move north, to Wallagrass, to a one-story home and a quieter lifestyle. A year ago, she began building her studio.
“I’ve always had a creative streak, and my doctor said that pottery would be good occupational therapy for me, but it’s turned out to be something I’ve totally fallen in love with,” said Mayo. “I’ve always envisioned having a hobby like this, but I never thought it would become my life.”
Over the past few years, she has purchased some of the items needed for her studio, including a potter’s wheel, a kiln and a slab roller. But the tools needed to make her studio fully functional and allow her to be self-reliant aren’t yet in her financial grasp. That’s why she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the purchase of a pugmill, a machine that mixes scraps of clay and prepares it for use. As of Tuesday after, she was just $267 shy of her $5,000 goal. If she raises any money in excess of her base amount she plans to buy a stand for the pugmill, a larger clay extruder and a bulk amount of clay.
“What takes other people a half-hour to do takes me about a week,” said Mayo. “Mixing old clay is really hard on me, so having a machine to do it for me will make things so much more efficient, and it won’t hurt as much.”
If she’s successful in her Kickstarter campaign, Mayo hopes to be able to live more independently and support herself as a potter.
Mayo’s handmade ceramics are available at her Etsy store and she regularly networks with other Maine artisans and crafters to get the word out about her wares. She also stays in touch with other disabled veterans who are using art as a means of therapy, and in November she will travel to New York to give a talk at a studio and gallery that showcases artists who are veterans.
“There are a lot of people out there in the disabled veteran community who use art to cope,” said Mayo. “Focusing on something creative is really freeing, really healthy. I don’t know what I’d be doing without it.”
Follow Shawna Mayo’s progress on her blog at http://jsbmaine.com/index.html.