Little did Keri Pickett know when she took a photo assignment in 1993 that it would take her down a path she’s still following, two decades later.
Pickett, who was working for Mpls-St. Paul magazine at the time, was told to follow a man with AIDS final days at a place called “Kawashaway,” a north woods community of “radical faeries” — a subculture of gay culture.
“It was a fabulous opportunity for me to see what I thought could be an amazing model for everyone for aging — where we take care of one another at the time of our passing,” reflected Pickett during a recent phone interview. “It was my first experience of community hospice care.”
Pickett was struck by what she found.
“First of all there’s the gender play,” she said. “It’s not quite drag, but a sort of ‘gender theater’ in the woods. It’s fun and uninhibited. Plus they created rituals to remember those who have passed, and rituals to transform and change their lives.”
Her assignment led to a book featuring her photos along with excerpts of interviews with the residents of Kawashaway over the course of six summers.
“It was back in the old days when there was such a thing as a ‘long term assignment,'” Pickett said with a laugh.
After the book was published, she kept coming back, taking more pictures and enjoying the sense of peace she found in the north woods. Then, years later, she had her own experience caring for a loved one who was dying.
“All of a sudden I really wanted my pictures to help people,” Pickett said. “I decided I wanted to put my pictures in to places that provided shelter for people with HIV and Aids. I know how important environment is. I hope the pictures make people stop and think about the north woods and puts a smile on their face.”
“I wanted one night where it would be public, and anyone could come, to talk about the intent of the pictures before they go into Clare Housing,” explained Pickett.
Pickett warns that the show — which takes place tonight at 7 p.m. — includes nudity, so it’s not appropriate for minors.
“It will be a unique evening for me,” she said. “I’m not sure I’ll ever do anything like this again.”