Donna Sheehan, the artist and activist who fought in countless ways for world peace, gender equality and environmental health, died on April 17 at 85 years old.
Donna lived a life full of passion. She spent her young adult years traveling the world, working for the army and then a travel agency for which she took people searching for semi-precious stones across the globe. Not long after a life-changing experience at Synanon, the drug rehabilitation center-turned-cult, she moved to Marshall and started a new life as an artist and activist, speaking out against pesticide use, war and a host of other environmental and social issues.
She seemed to know everyone in West Marin, and her love of conversation was insatiable. She couldn’t walk into a bar, restaurant or clinic waiting room without meeting everyone inside, whether locals or tourists, young or old. She was known to hold gatherings during holidays for those with no family to see or place to go—or perhaps no place they wished to go. (One attendee of her regular Christmas party recalled walking into her home. The first thing he heard Donna say—“Fuck Christmas!”—seemed the perfect tonic to cut through the emotional baggage of the holiday season.)
Donna held strong opinions about everything from seduction to Fukushima to you. Though her friends might not always have agreed with her, Donna wouldn’t hesitate to invite them over for cheese and wine after a debate; she once threw a party for Caltrans employees during her campaign to stop them from spraying herbicide. She saw the humanity in everyone, compelling her to understand what made each person tick.
“She was alive. She was a powerful force… She felt connected to everyone,” said Paul Reffell, her partner and devoted caretaker of 21 years.
Donna was born in Oakland on April Fools Day, 1930, the daughter of a police officer and a homemaker. She grew up with her brother in the East Bay, and often went horseback riding in the hills and down the streets of Walnut Creek.
She and her cousin Marian Paynter sometimes woke up at 3 a.m. to walk to a stables near Donna’s home. “We would shovel manure, water the horses, do everything until late morning,” Marian said. “And then the [owner of] the stable would let us ride for the rest of day.”
Donna rode a palomino that she referred to as “her” horse. When Donna’s family moved to Sonora, Marian said, the owner gave Donna the steed.
The two also put on short plays together for their parents, who often played poker together in the evenings. “Donna was always the instigator,” Marian recalled.
Donna graduated from high school in Sonora and attended the University of the Pacific in Stockton for a few years. Marian recalled a college party for which Donna couldn’t find a date. She enlisted a friend to accompany her, but Donna dressed as a man and her male company as a woman. They were a hit at the shindig.
But she grew restless in college, and moved to San Francisco to kick off a more adventurous life.
Wanting to travel the globe, she worked for the army as a civilian in the Counterintelligence Corps, during the Korean War, in the 1950s. She was stationed for a time in Tokyo, where she worked in a group that wrote American propaganda to drop on North Korea, Paul said. Donna later claimed she had danced with the crown prince of Japan, who was taken with her tall stature and blonde locks. After working in West Berlin during the Cold War for a time, she traveled around Africa and Asia before returning to the United States.
In San Francisco, she worked for an advertising agency, then a travel agency. She arranged trips for bands like Jefferson Airplane and led tours around the country and, eventually, the world. She and her friend, Carol Rubin, worked for a small agency that took people to Brazil, Australia and Spain to dig for semi-precious stones, known as “rockhound” tours. Carol recalled that the first time Donna led a tour to Brazil, she had never been there, nor did she speak Portuguese, “but that didn’t make any difference.”
Throughout her life, Donna was always “searching for clues to the human experience,” Paul said. She also battled insecurities about her height and her first marriage, an unhealthy relationship. She claimed to have tried every religion to help overcome those insecurities and better understand others. But she said it was Synanon, the infamous drug rehabilitation center that turned into a frightening cult in the 1970s, that marked a turning point.
In the ’50s and ’60s, Synanon was based in San Francisco, and while it ostensibly served drug addicts, a key part of its program, termed “The Game,” was open to anyone. The Game was a form of group “attack therapy” in which people, and their faults, were ruthlessly criticized by others.
For Donna, it was revelatory; she credited it with making her stronger and better attuned to the human condition. “She always said that’s where she finally understood that everyone has some kind of damage,” Paul said. “All these diverse people were the same; there was something they didn’t feel good about, or something happened in their lives that they were trying to hide or cope with.”
Donna moved to a six-shack community on Millerton Point in the early ’60s with her then-husband, Allen Greg, abandoning the travel agency to pursue art, for which she had an innate gift. She had a studio in Point Reyes Station, where the post office now stands. She didn’t make much money; one series, inspired by the Coast Miwok, sold well, but she stopped pursuing that creative vein when she decided she was taking advantage of an indigenous people for profit. She later had a studio in Marshall, where Art by the Bay is now stationed.
Donna had no extensive art training. She studied design in college, Paul said, and she attended a printmaking school in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico. (Paul said she had traveled by sea to Mexico with her second husband, but she didn’t enjoy sailing, so she got off and ended up hitching a ride to San Miguel.)
In the bayside home she shared with Paul in the last decade of her life, just a few doors down from Hog Island Oyster Company, a vast collection of her paintings, prints and drawings speaks to her creative energies over the years. She drew a series, called “Wrapped,” with faceless figures in various poses loosely wrapped up, mummy-like. She drew traditional charcoal figures and a series of colorful paintings of Miwok-inspired masks; in one, a yellow band running vertically through the center of the piece appears to glow like an incandescent light. On one wall is a large-scale painting of a woman—herself—in stop-sign red, sitting in a bathtub with birds.
Many of the works portray how pained she was by environmental degradation. One painting, of a ghostly woman’s face surrounded by dozens of trees and stick figures, suggests her concern for overpopulation. A friend helped with a series of photographs of her body covered in black bean sauce, like an animal caught in an oil spill.
Still, Donna had a sense of humor. One time, she and Paul put up an installation, called “Pro-Degradation,” on the face of the Grandi Building. The idea was that if, instead of half-heartedly conserving, humanity consumed the earth’s resources as fast as possible, it could go extinct in three or four generations and thereby save the earth. In one section, cartoon figures shouted slogans like “Flush twice!” “Consume more!” “Outlaw birth control!” “Make love and war!” The installation caused a stir.
“It felt funny to her, instead of all this doom and gloom that we’d been talking about for a long time,” Paul said.
Her environmental activism, however, went well beyond the canvas, as many in West Marin know. Donna’s first major act of environmental protest came in 1983, when she saw a Caltrans truck spraying weeds and blackberry bushes on the side of the road.
Horrified, she stood in front of the truck and demanded it cease immediately. The workers left, but she later heard that the next year, they would return.
She rounded up a dozen friends to stop them again. But it wasn’t an angry confrontation; the event not only revealed her passion and optimism for fighting systematic degradation, but also her drive to see people as people. “It was like a big party,” recalled Bert Crews, a longtime friend who participated in the protest. “We were on a first-name basis [with the Caltrans workers]…They showed up and said, ‘Oh Donna, please just let us by.’ It was a real friendly occasion.”
In 1986, Donna started a nonprofit called MOW, for Mow Our Weeds, to raise awareness and pressure Caltrans to stop spraying permanently. (That year, the Light ran a cartoon titled “Donna and Goliath” about the dispute.) With pro bono help from Bolinas lawyer Jack Siedman, her group ultimately sued Caltrans, which ultimately undertook a statewide environmental review of its herbicide program.
MOW eventually turned into MOW + SOW, to include a campaign to plant native grasses along roadsides.
Though Caltrans never explicitly said it would stop spraying West Marin, Donna claimed victory in the mid-90s, “just so they wouldn’t come back and do it again,” Paul explained.
In those days, lacking widespread Internet access, Donna felt stymied by what she perceived as a dearth of environmental coverage in the Light. She bought a small transmitter, toying with the idea of starting a radio broadcast. Soon two locals, James Stark and John Gouldthorpe, who had heard about her idea, showed up at her door, and the three started to brainstorm what would ultimately become KWMR.
But as the radio station got off the ground, Donna and Paul moved for a couple years to Modoc County, a sparsely populated county on the Oregon border, where they would run a bed and breakfast.
Paul had been lured to West Marin from Hawaii, after the end of a marriage, by friends Sally and Mike Gale. He met Donna at an open mic in Marshall in 1994; he was 21 years her junior. Later, he went to a party at her home, and stayed late to do the dishes. “And that was that,” Paul said—although he will add that he was hesitant to get involved so soon after his divorce. But she was determined. “Oh boy, she persisted. It was pretty amazing,” he said.
Part of Donna’s persistence was rooted in her belief that evolutionary psychology pointed to women, not men, as the pursuers and selectors of mates, a topic that would turn into a book the couple would co-write, called “Seduction Redefined.”
(This week, many of Donna’s friends grew wistful about her and Paul’s two-decade relationship, describing both their romantic devotion and fruitful partnership in activism. “It was such a beautiful relationship. He was so devoted to her,” said longtime friend Cynthia Clarkson.)
Not long after the beginning of their relationship, Donna and Paul spent time in Baja California, living in what he called a “concrete igloo” on the beach while they wrote their first book together, “BrainLines.” A friend, Michael Sykes, came to visit, and invited them to his home in Modoc. So they did—and stayed for two years.
Donna remained true to her outspoken spirit, protesting the construction of a privately run prison planned for the area. But, spurred by allergies to forests of juniper trees, the couple returned to West Marin in the late ‘90s.
Donna’s ensuing activism reflected her escalating concerns about war in the Middle East. The project that drew worldwide attention, called “Baring Witness,” started with a dream she had of swirls of paint that turned into bodies spelling out the word “peace.”
Within days, she had enlisted about four-dozen women to strip down and use their bodies to spell out the word on Love Field, in November 2002, The idea was to promote a message of peace as the United States readied for war in Iraq. (The accompanying photo, taken by Art Rogers, was the centerspread of the Light that week.) But the project was also meant to empower women to speak out.
The photo went viral, the story was picked up by national newswires and Donna was interviewed on Fox News by the conservative host Sean Hannity.
“Baring Witness” spurred women, and sometimes men, around the country and the world to do what the women in Love Field had done. Naked women in Illinois spelled “peace” in the snow, women in Argentina spelled “paz,” women in South Africa formed a peace sign.
Donna and Paul also put up a new installation on the Grandi Building: “Wargasm,” a protest of then-President George W. Bush and the war in the Middle East. Pens were left at the site so people could write down their opinions on the installation and the war. (The first thing to be vandalized, Paul noted, was the Constitution.)
Most recently, the couple spearheaded their project, Cultural Potholes, which included short articles in The West Marin Citizen and community discussions encompassing many of the issues they had focused on over the years. Panels touched on women’s issues like domestic abuse and cervical cancer, but they also covered environmental issues and noise pollution.
In the past few years, Donna grew physically frail; she was diagnosed with dysautonomia, which causes automatic systems of the body like digestion to malfunction, and painful spinal arthritis.
But her bond with everyone and everything around her never weakened. She kept meeting new friends and maintained regular appearances at local’s night at Tony’s. “Donna would get up and sit down at every table in the room. She would talk with anyone,” said Katie Eberle, a 28-year-old KWMR employee who moved to Marshall a couple years ago. She met Donna at a local party. “She got my life story in about five minutes,” Katie recalled.
In the past few months, however, a case of shingles on the side of her face that turned into an extremely painful condition called post-herpetic neuralgia became too much to bear, with medication after medication failing to remedy the constant pain. On April 17, she took her own life.
Roughly two decades ago, Donna was scheduled to have heart surgery, and she was told she had a 50 percent chance of living. She did not want to miss out on her own funeral, so she held a faux wake.
Donna laid in a wooden coffin while her friends extolled her virtues and told stories—some true, some perhaps exaggerated, according to Bert, who was the wake’s M.C. Local girls of Italian descent came and wailed beside her coffin, and people left objects at a shrine. Near the end, Paul, who played God and wore a sign naming him the “Resurrectionist,” brought her back to life, unable to bear to see her die. Then everyone partied.
This time, Donna will not spring up from a coffin, ready to dance in the crowd or sit down at your table or gather your life story. But in the note she left behind, she didn’t consider her connection to every living thing severed. Her body, and what she called her “Velcro soul,” would live on through its incorporation into the “aelioan zone,” an aerial community of intentional and unintentional organisms.
“Byproducts (compost) from my cremated or buried body rise into the aeolian zone,” she wrote. “This new form of visualization has given me a holistic feeling of death—feeding the planet—a comforting, beautiful integration of my body… Although probably not an original concept, I also believe in the ‘Velcro soul.’ A simple, pragmatic concept that our souls are bits and pieces which ‘stick’ to everything and every person that we encounter in life. So simple and a very good reason for believing that The Giving is the Getting.”
A celebration of Donna’s life starts at 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 31 at the Dance Palace Community Center. Bring finger foods, beverages and memories to share.