River Guide: Michael Winger?s sculpture is short-lived.
River Guide: Michael Winger?s sculpture is short-lived. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

After early-morning sessions of meditative qigong, Silver Spring sculptor Michael Winger finds form in the banks of the Anacostia River. In Winger’s hands, sticks become nests and brooms; rocks balance to create temples; a discarded Starbucks cup is plucked for trash. Winger calls the resulting structures “altars to nature” or “site-specific driftwood,” depending.

To some, though, they’re piles of sticks and rocks on the side of the river. Winger’s works last a couple days before succumbing to a breeze, an errant wave, or, likely, a local kid looking for something to knock down. “That was initially depressing,” Winger admits.

But later structures have gained as many collaborators as detractors. When Winger leaves, strangers come, adding improvised stone circles and thatched roofs to his river works. “I find myself in constant collaboration with people I have never seen,” Winger says. “We create this unspoken dialogue among the rocks.”

Recently, Winger’s become a bit of an expert in unspoken dialogue.In normal conversation, Winger’s voice sounds permanently strained, as if suffering from a night of screaming or extreme age. For Winger, 47, the voice represents “a visit to the precipice of death.” If his doctor had had his way, Winger wouldn’t be able to say anything at all.

He first lost his voice in 2003, after scaling South Dakota’s Harney Peak. Annually, Winger makes a solo sojourn to the summit, the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and the place where Sioux Holy Man Black Elk beheld the destiny of his people through a vision of the universal spirit. Winger grew up there: He learned to sculpt under the shadow of Mount Rushmore, carving abstract doves from alabaster and female torsos from sandstone. As a teen, he’d weave willow saplings into structures that replicated Sioux wigwams along the Missouri River.

By the time Winger hit the summit, his voice already felt unnatural. “When I reached the top of the peak, I performed a prayer ceremony just to the universe, to the energy—not to Jesus, not to Buddha—that my voice be taken care of,” he says. When he descended the mountain, he had lost his voice completely. He wouldn’t regain it for six months. On Sept. 11, 2003, he was diagnosed with Stage III vocal chord cancer. “One of my vocal chords was frozen, and the other was barely moving,” says Winger. “The doctor wanted to surgically remove my voice box. I told him it couldn’t happen. I’m a teacher. I need my voice.”

The Pathways School in Hyattsville, a place for “emotionally at-risk youth,” is loud. On a Monday, Winger teaches an art class. He wears a T-shirt with two earth-rooted swans wound around a feathered sundial, an Ojibwa Indian representation of the Circle of Life. Today, he teaches only three students, all boys; the others didn’t want to show up or are currently suspended. On a good day, they will fall to the ground laughing about Monday Night Raw and Flavor Flav between colored pencil work. On a bad day, they will curse at Winger and, like strangers in the river, tear down his bulletin boards. “This is the alternative school, you know that, right?” explains one boy. “You know we’re not retarded, right? We’re just bad.”

Despite the noise, Winger rarely speaks above his inside voice. “I’ve had students who’d come to school and curse at me every day, tell me they hate school, they hate art, they hate me,” says Winger. “Now, when they say nobody listens to me, I understand, because I felt that way. I’ve got a disability too. I’m on board with them now.”

Winger had been working at the seven local Pathways as a “migrating art teacher” for only a year when he received his diagnosis. His low-rent farmhouse in Boonsboro, Md., where he “lived hand to mouth as an artist,” had been sold; he was forced to rent a small apartment closer to the city and the working world. At the age of 43, he had health insurance for the first time in his life. “I spent my whole life in self-imposed exile, avoiding all those things that Western society held dear,” Winger says. This time, they came in handy.

“Getting diagnosed with cancer is like being dropped in the middle of a war zone with no supplies and no direction,” Winger says. His medical insurance helped cover 40 radiation treatments and three sessions of chemotherapy, along with steroids and “God knows how many drugs,” he says. The therapy, taken over the course of three months, cooked the thin skin of his throat and gave him the raised white indicators of thrush on his mouth. He managed to eat only one tablespoon of Cream of Wheat and a part of a cup of soup every day. A swallow could take minutes. For half a year, Winger communicated in whispers and handwritten notes.

After a treatment, he would return home and paint a self-­portrait—a “psychological excavation,” he calls it—documenting his physical and mental change since the last one. Over the course of the illness, he made about two dozen of them; most he’s sold off to friends and supporters. The most extreme shows Winger, neck bloated, face swollen, bald (he shaved his head, though never lost his hair), mouth white. “It was a very productive time, creatively,” Winger says.

Winger is healthy now—a strained voice and constant ringing in his ears remain as relics of his illness. “I don’t need to hear half of that shit anyway,” he says of the chattering white noise he hears at school or when ordering a half-caf at Starbucks. He insists that his recovery has had as much to do with reflection as radiation. Winger was introduced to Zen mindfulness years ago, while helping a Vietnamese painter named Mai Vo Dinh move his paintings from Maryland to Florida. “I was carrying the paintings to the van with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth,” says Winger. Vo Dinh stopped him and told him to put down the paintings and sit. “He said, ‘When you smoke, smoke,’” recalls Winger. That’s the key to life, Winger insists: When you eat, eat. When you sleep, sleep. When you smoke, smoke.

For most of his life, Winger smoked—half a pack a day on average until the cancer hit. In a roundabout way, that contributed to the cancer. “To the Chinese, yin is cooling, and yang is warming,” explains Winger. “I had an excess amount of yang in my throat and upper chest, and that was the cause of the cancer.” Winger accumulated the heat from various sources. He was born on the equator, in Belém, Brazil. He consumed hot, spicy foods. And he smoked cigarettes.

It is cool down by the river. “Early mornings near the water are very powerful,” says Winger. When Winger finally gave up smoking—even mindful smoking—with his 2003 diagnosis, he picked up the Chinese practice of qigong, “essentially, moving qi, or vital energy, from your surroundings and through your body,” he explains. Last year, after five years of producing very little, Winger emerged from a riverside meditation and began to build.

There, outside his apartment and out of view of the Starbucks, Winger can silence the ringing in his ears and hear the water. Now, when his structures are destroyed, a more argumentative form of conversation, “it doesn’t bother me anymore,” Winger says. “If someone doesn’t knock them down, the rain will. It’s the creation that’s important.”

Still, he plans to transplant the structures indoor next fall, at an exhibit for New York’s Ch’i Contemporary Fine Art. He still has one Western institution to master. “I’m not sure how to sell them,” he says.

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