I was moved by my interview with Ken Wampler, founder of Alpha Workshops, a not-for-profit organization that trains and employs people living with HIV/AIDS in the decorative arts. In 1995, after stints as a costume designer, artist, interior decorator and a job at Bailey House, Wampler was faced with the death of dozens of friends as the HIV/AIDS virus epidemic intensified. He decided he couldn’t just stand by and “pick out pillow fabric” any longer and it was time to form a refuge for the seriously ill where they could learn skills and find a focus. What resulted was a viable business that now serves to supply the trade with a range of products and services, from furniture to painted finishes.
His own personal creative outlet is his painting. Tucked in a corner of the Chelsea loft that he shares with his partner of almost three decades, psychotherapist Gordon Powell and dog Venus, he creates vibrant canvases filled with dolls and imaginary figures. There is probably precious little time for it given the pressures of running, and fundraising for, the Alpha Workshops but there is no trace of resentment: “I do it for a living but I also do it for a life.” (This year’s Alpha Annual Awards benefit is being held on May 14th at The Prince George Hotel ballroom. To purchase tickets call 212-594-7320 or click here)
Do you want to just clarify what Alpha Workshops does?
Last year we adopted a tag line: “Creating beauty. Saving lives.” So we’re a school and a series of studios. We’re established to work with creative people living with HIV. They come to the school and there’s a basic training of 10 weeks. That’s like a college course 101, so you have a week of color theory, a week of casting, a week of gilding, a week of faux marble and so on. It’s fast and furious, three days a week. The ones who exceed or excel in that have the opportunity to go into a 26-week advanced training. We’re training for the outside world but we’re also really training for our own studios.
Are these people that have come from creative backgrounds to begin with?
I don’t have a figure on that. We certainly don’t screen out people who don’t have a creative background. And I would venture to say that most people do not come from a creative background.
That’s quite a leap for them.
Yes. But you know, I don’t think we’re great at encouraging children to go into creative fields and there are a lot of people out there who are creative or who have felt they’re creative but never really had an opportunity to do that. And I would say a life-threatening illness really helps you get priorities in order.
Standing atop a Shaker country cupboard is a Senufo sculpture, a bust of an American Indian Chief and a pair of cupie dolls from Coney Island.
Custom bookcases line the living room wall.
Looking across the living room, the pair of chairs were purchased at the 26th Street flea market.
A Thebes stool stands near a coffee table from Sage Street Antiques in Sag Harbor. The carpet is from Alpha Workshops' collection for Edward Fields.
Looking across the coffee table toward the L-shaped sofa by Gus* Modern. The pillows are by the Alpha Workshops. The ceramic vessel is by Ted Keller.
A detail of the Thebes stool found at the now defunct Twenty-six street flea market, with a Robert Kuo cloisonné table.
A view across the living room towards the kitchen. The wall finish is trowelled cement installed by the Alpha Workshops.
I want to ask you about creativity and getting better. Because I agree with you, when you do have a life-threatening illness, you try to think about what is important to you. How does creativity get someone through life in a more meaningful way?
I think that if you’re a creative person and you are threatened, I guess in this case by the illness, then it’s healthy to not focus on the illness, to not see your identity as a person with an illness. Nothing focuses me like drawing or making something. It takes all of your energy. And when your energy is flowing, you just feel better.
A server by Eva Zeisel, a pair of cut crystal glasses from Czechoslovakia and decorated box by Alpha Workshops are arranged atop a bookcase shelf in the living room.
Vintage dog bookends, now reproduced by A.W.
African American sister dolls, hand made over ketchup bottles.
A ceramic compote by Frances Palmer stands near a cup of pencils and the TV remote.
Do you believe in the possibility that positive energy could physically make someone better?
I don’t have anything to back that up. I certainly feel that it plays a great role. I also feel, creativity aside, having a job focuses me, focuses you. It focuses people. It’s the norm in society. When you get back to work, it begins to structure your life. There was just a survey done and it said that people’s risk behaviors, people’s alcohol and drug use, people’s well being was very much affected by having a job.
So when everybody is in the workshop, do they all talk to each other about being sick? Is it like a therapy session?
[Laughs] No. You have such great questions … man! I would say it’s the most naturally occurring support group I’ve ever seen. Because there’s really very little conversation [about illness].
A papier maché sculpture by Guy Nouri stands across from an Early American dry sink. The wallpaper behind the dry sink is the first wall paper produced by the A.W. It changes design top to bottom.
Bikes hang from the bedroom ceiling.
A Japanese Kimono, a birthday gift from Ken's partner Gordon, hangs on a bedroom wall.
A group of paintings by Ken hangs on a wall above a curly maple bureau from the 26th Street flea market.
A group of boxes were a gift from a close friend who passed away from HIV.
Steps for Venus are covered in a rag rug that is a prototype for Alpha Workshops.
Looking past shelves filled with CDs toward the sleeping area.
One’s natural inclination though, when you’re sick is not to say, “Oh, I’m going to get better.” It’s very scary to be really sick. It’s more like, “Oh my God, I’m going to die.”
…and nobody wants to be around me. Everybody is afraid I’m going to start crying. There’s a lot of isolation.
I guess with this group, they’re not hiding anything from each other.
Exactly. And they can joke about it. And they can have good days and bad days.
The head of the wallpaper department has really been through hell in the last two years but he always knew he had somewhere to come back to. And not only did he have a job, he had an extremely responsible job. In that period of time, we also doubled wallpaper sales and he had to keep that going. It is this place that allows that to happen.
A vintage Sputnik ceiling fixture hangs above the dining area of Ken and Gordon's loft.
Venus, peeking out from under herring-bone horn side table.
A pair of driftwood lamps from The Garage flanks a drawing of Sicily by Ken.
The rubbed purple wall pivots to access Gordon's office. The painting is by Ken.
Dining chairs from the 26th Street flea market with seats covered in an Alpha Workshops/ Pollack fabric surround a Saarinen Tulip table.
Looking across the dining area towards a wall covered in vintage wallpaper of an outdoor scene by George Hunker. The dado paper is a custom paper from the A.W. The curtains were made by Ken's mother out of Schumacher fabric.
Orange glass vessels were a yard sale find.
I want to ask you about AIDS. Since the height of the epidemic, which was when you started this, there have been a lot of new [drug] cocktails out and new advances. What is the state of things right now?
Let me back up a little. We just turned 17 and we were having a big board meeting and I thought, we’re here after the recession (hopefully), we’re here after two horrible wars, we were [here] before 9/11 and before the drug cocktail. So things have changed a lot in that period of time. I started in 1985 when people were really dropping and there’s been nothing like that. The state of HIV right now, purely anecdotal because I don’t have a medical background, is that people [still] go through many serious illnesses. It’s the same episodic illness it’s always been but it’s not as frequent because of the drug cocktail. We lost two very dear staff members at Alpha, I think because they went off the drug cocktail. People are on medications for their lives and there are side effects. We’ve seen quite a bit of thyroid illness, for example.
A painting by Ken hangs behind a papier maché sculpture by Guy Nouri.
The studio worktable.
A group of handmade dolls and animals are posed for Ken's current painting.
Stacked canvas and a comfortable chair.
A view of the Empire State building from Ken's studio.
You’re managing a deadly illness and that in and of itself is just emotionally draining.
One of things I find hardest about Alpha Workshops is like, how much of a boss should I be?
How tough can you be with people who really don’t feel well?
It’s trying to understand the difference between people who aren’t feeling well and people, who, just like all people, have some bad work behavior. You’ll find that in any group of people. You know, “You’re late. Are you late because you weren’t feeling well or because you’re chronically late?
It does muddle things a bit …
Looking across the kitchen counter. The pottery tea set is by Alice Goldsmith.
A vintage poster hangs near the bright red Ikea kitchen cabinets. The honey is from Gordon's hives in the Catskills.
Kitchen utensils are easy to reach.
A photograph of Ken with Venus by Andy French hangs front and center in the kitchen.
How do you raise your funds?
There’s public, private and sales. The private comes in to support the school and earned income is a combination of sales and that money. Private dollars come in from foundations, corporations and individuals and that goes into supporting employment [and the school].
Your background is in social work, did you say?
I came here to be an actor. It lasted four minutes. But it got me to New York from Pennsylvania. Very rural western Pennsylvania.
Where in western Pennsylannia?
On Wampler Lane. [Laughs] It’s about 40 minutes south-east of Pittsburgh. My dad was born in a log cabin. My grandparents lived in a log cabin.
Looking down the airshaft in Alpha Workshops Studio School building. Everyone comments.
Ken's office at the A.W. The wallpaper is "Skyscraper, in mother of pearl" The A. W. curtain tie-back is macramé and crochet; the console is custom from the A.W. Surface collection at Profiles.
The Eden Roc standing lamp is made of aluminum and 23K gold leaf. The chair seat and curtain from the first A.W. collection for Pollack and the curtain is by Mary Bright.
Finishes displayed in A.W. showroom.
Fabrics, lamps, hand-painted papers and verre eglomisé in the showroom.
Fabrics from Alpha's second collection with Pollack.
Samples wall in the showroom.
Logo paperweights are training tools.
Prototypes for new lamp bases.
Alpha's award in recognition of their work on the Prince George Hotel Ballroom.
Product development ideas displayed on a table from the original Cooper Union and donated by the Cooper Hewitt.
A classroom in the Alpha Workshops Studio School.
A student project in casting class.
How did you support yourself when you got here?
I started working in costume shops. Through a clown teacher friend of mine I met someone who painted fabric for Mary McFadden and I did a couple of collections for her, painting fabric. And through [that] I met a designer called Alan Campbell who introduced me to this world of interior design. I hated fashion but I loved interior design, the people, the pace … I liked everything about it. For about ten years I had my own freelance business working with interior designers. But when HIV hit, it hit with such force and painting cushions just did not seem to be enough.
Did you have a lot of close friends who were dying?
I had a lot of close friends who died. You know I was raised in an evangelical family and it was always really clear to me that we’re supposed to help each other.
The wall-paper studios.
Wallpaper studio A.
Wallpaper studio B.
Paint and stamp storage.
A selection of hand-carved stamps.
The Design/Build studio with a completed Eden Roc standing lamp in custom finish.
The 3-D and painting studio.
Display stands in Negoro Nuri finish for Neiman-Marcus.
The Introduction to Decorative Arts Techniques classroom.
A faux parchment sample wall.
The casting studio.
Flowers created for a temporary display.
The Alpha Workshops brand.
It does take a different type of person to say, okay this is not acceptable to live in this world and not help other people. Does that come from your family background?
I don’t know. Whether it comes from the evangelical part or just that my mother and father are both lovely people. I think I was encouraged to volunteer but if I wasn’t I did it anyway. It was always just a piece of my life. My work at Alpha Workshops, I do it for a living but I also do it for a life.
So I saw this picture of you dressed as a “Turn-of-the-Century Lepidopterist” [for the Alpha Workshops annual benefit, a masquerade ball] … what is that again?
It’s a butterfly collector. I had a pith helmet from my dad and some plus fours and I pinned butterflies all over me.
Is there anything or anyone else you’d like to dress up as?