ART OF LIBERATION ACUPUNCTURE – A Conversation with James Shelton
Did you know? For the remainder of November, you can visit the AS220 Project Space, take in some art, and receive an acupuncture treatment. James Shelton, artist and certified acupuncturist, has set up a drop-in acupuncture clinic to serve members of the community who may otherwise find such treatments inaccessible. His treatment space consists of two reclining chairs surrounded by hand-drawn portraits of influential acupuncture masters who have used their practice to serve the ailments of their communities, such as opioid addiction and chronic stress.
I was eager to meet James, having heard of his show and his practice. James has a quiet and friendly demeanor; I felt completely at ease and thus overshared when he gently asked if I had any pain or areas that needed focus. James listened attentively while sanitizing his hands, and motioned for me to sit down. Surrounded by portraits of notable acupuncturists, I reclined in a chair and James proceeded to tap needles into my arms, feet and ears.
The process was quick and painless; I tried to watch the needles enter my skin but gave up after the first few. I lost track of how many he used. After a minute or two, he was done. It was truly remarkable – I could not feel the needles, even though he had tapped one DIRECTLY into the center of my forehead (the unicorn meridian, I assume).
“So! What happens now?” I asked, reflexively reaching for my phone, only to remember that James had advised against movement as it can cause an uncomfortable shift in the needles.
“Now you sit for up to 45 minutes. Most people fall asleep.”
“Nah dude I’m on the clock, I’ll just sit here and ask you a few questions for my post…”
I woke up after 30 minutes. My limbs felt fluid and relaxed. The tension in the center of my forehead had melted away. My body felt like I was floating in the Dead Sea, or outer space. I felt…refreshed? Able to observe stress without succumbing to it? James removed the needles, and only then did I realize that he had put like, 5 in each ear – overall, way more than I had noticed him tapping in. Pure magic.
Airily, I glided from the gallery room to my desk, and downloaded all the information James had tapped into my brain.
Where did you study acupuncture?
I studied at POCA Tech. It’s the first school for community acupuncture in the United States, which was created by the POCA Co-op People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture, a multi stakeholder collective of acupuncturists, clinics and patients. POCA Tech is in Portland, Oregon.
Tell me more about your involvement with POCA
POCA is a great community of people who believe in finding ways to provide acupuncture inexpensively to as many people as possible, while providing living wage jobs to acupuncturists. It’s an amazing network of people who share information, insights and support as we find ways to carry out the mission.
What does Art of Liberation Acupuncture mean to you?
Liberation Acupuncture theory starts with assessing, what are the needs of the average person. I can look around and experience what it feels like to live in a society rife with inequality, injustice and oppression. I can recognize my own privileges while realizing that an injustice to another means that I live in an unjust society and in that there is no peace for anyone.
Most people are stressed out and under slept. There are a great number of people in real physical and emotional pain with few attractive remedies.
I have been trained in this ancient tradition of pain relief and holistic support. Acupuncture is people’s medicine. It can be administered inexpensively and takes much less one on one attention than other holistic tools such as massage therapy. (Although, of course, I’m a great fan of massage therapy.)
Acupuncture has been shown to be most effective with frequency of treatments. Most people can’t afford to get the frequency of treatments in a private room setting that they would most benefit from.
So, Liberation (Community) Acupuncture is a creative way to use the tools and skills I’ve been trained with to meet the needs of the people.
“Art of Liberation Acupuncture” takes its name from the project “Ancestors of Liberation Acupuncture” which is displayed in the show. Along with Portland acupuncturist, and fellow student at the time, Kate Kampmann, I did a series of 7 portraits of people who laid the groundwork for community acupuncture.
This project was used as a way to acknowledge and honor these ancestors while galvanizing the POCA Co-op. Art can be so effective in this realm as has been seen time and again throughout history, including the art of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, who were some of the first non-Asians to utilize acupuncture after their takeover of a Lincoln Hospital building in the Bronx. The recent AS220 show of Shepard Fairy’s work is another example, as when he depicts Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky or shows people of color with the American flag to galvanize a more inclusive America.
My show has the stories of these 7 ancestors, as well as illustrations we did for 2 books by Lisa Rohleder, founder of Working Class Acupuncture in Portland Oregon, the first community acupuncture clinic in the US and the director of POCA Tech.
What was your first experience with acupuncture? What drew you to the practice?
My first time trying acupuncture was at Providence Community Acupuncture shortly after it opened in 2006. My partner at that time was an artist named Jessica Gill. She had been diagnosed with cancer and was in the middle of a series of very painful and invasive treatments. The people at PCA were great, they offered to give her a weekly free treatment. It was the one solace she found in that terrible time. I went once with her then but didn’t start going regularly until after she’d passed in 2008.
I’d studied Tai Chi Chuan and Khemetic yoga starting in the mid 90’s in Los Angeles with Inpu Ka Mut. A little later, in 2003, I was studying Shaolin Kung Fu at Way of the Dragon in East Providence. One of the teachers under Master Wu was acupuncturist Sanford Lee. It wasn’t until about 2012, Cris Monteiro at Providence Community Acupuncture started to have info sessions about this new school being planned in Portland Oregon. The first class started in September 2014 and I was in it. I’d always identified as an artist (visual and performance) but was never able to make a living with it, or find a satisfying job otherwise. I’d done mostly restaurant and some teaching work.
What is community acupuncture?
Community acupuncture is acupuncture done in a group setting to minimize costs and improve benefit. I cover most of this above in my comments above on Liberation Acupuncture. I’d just like to add that in what I have heard of acupuncture practices in many parts of Asia, most clinics are more like community clinics than private room clinics.
I don’t cut my hair often, but the last time I did, I went to a Korean woman who told me acupuncture costs about $6 in Korea, $3 if you have insurance.
What do you hope to achieve with your community practice?
I hope to provide a service to many people. I love my job. It’s such a nice way to relate to people. To be able to listen to them, put in a few needles and to see them relax and many times feel better. Of course, I also hope to make a living and support myself and my continued art work.
Is there a cost for your services at AS220 Project Space? Is tipping appropriate?
At AS220, I’m not charging for acupuncture. I’d love for as many people as possible to come in, check out the art and if they’d like, get a treatment. I’m accepting donations toward creating my practice. If people want a suggested donation I’d say, along the POCA guideline of $15 – $45. Anything given will be used to get my practice going. No one turned away for lack of funds. Beyond that I don’t accept tips per se.
The Art of Liberation Acupuncture is on view at the AS220 Project Space until 30th of November 2019. James will be providing acupuncture services from 1PM – 6 PM Weds – Friday and 1PM – 5PM on Saturday for duration of the show. Artist talk on Saturday, 11/23 from 3PM – 5PM with James Shelton and Richard Goulis. Gallery closed on Thanksgiving Day and Buy Nothing Friday (11/28 & 11/29)