A few weeks ago, Alex Priest contacted me via email about the Benevolent Media Festival in DC. As described on their site: “The Benevolent Media Festival is a celebration of storytelling and design for good. This first-of-its-kind, all-volunteer initiative focuses on people, organizations and projects that compel audiences to care about a cause, take action on an issue, or promote a point of view through strategic and inspiring multimedia.”
Alex introduced me to Erica Schlaikjer, one of the event organizers. She, in turn, introduced my work to Scott Thompson. Scott works at an NGO focusing on AIDS outreach and he thought it would be great if we could do some art to spread HIV awareness and benefit the Whitman-Walker Clinic at Logan Circle. I mentioned my street art advocacy, I suggested I set up my easel and paint about HIV in the District. At first we considered painting by Whitman-Walker. But as this is a citywide problem, I realized I could paint anywhere. But what physical location could represent the pervasive presence of HIV in DC?
Don’t get me wrong; as my friend Ted Eytan can tell you, I love Starbucks. But as we often note in our pop-culture from Shrek 2 to the new song by John Wesley Harding, Starbucks seems to be everywhere. I could think of no better analogy than painting a Starbucks to represent the HIV Rate in DC.
And I painted this Starbucks.
It is my neighborhood Starbucks. I have walked by this location for the past 17 years. I have ordered many Grande Lattes there. I have often depended on the clock above to urge me on my way to work.
So, yesterday I set up my easel and painted this painting: “3.2%.”
In this painting, I depicted a version of the Starbucks I saw before me. There are no faces or people in this work. If you have seen my work before, you will understand how atypical this is. You see I paint people. Buildings are just props and symbols to support the patient story. But what person wants to tell this story? Who wants their name and face attached to the story of a possibly fatal communicable disease?
Painting this was a very eye-opening experience for me. I paint about disease constantly. I paint about suffering patients everyday. This became my life mission after my husband died of kidney cancer. I painted on this very street for three months in 2009 about our tragic family journey in the world of medicine. The people, who stopped to talk with me during that time, embraced the subject and talked wholeheartedly about their own life experience as patients. Most of them related very personally to a diagnosis of cancer.
Talking about HIV and AIDS in relation to art was very different. People were less open. Often taking a step back, literally, when I began to discuss the genus of the painting. I was astounded. What did they think they could catch from standing close? Was this response a manifestation of the fear of HIV or of activism itself?
I paint because I care. I want to change things. I want to help patients lead happier and healthier lives. The folks at the Benevolent Media Festival think the same. Hence they promote and create great media in its many novel forms to address tough subjects in DC.
Perhaps that is why I angered a few folks. I was supposed to be safe. I was supposed to only be an artist painting a pretty picture. And instead I represented a conversation about a very dangerous disease. As one man stated after seeing my work, “That is not art, that is propaganda.” Really? If he was referring to a definition of art as influencing an audience. Well, then yes I guess it is propaganda. For that matter so is every piece of art in existence accept a few neural choices that adorn hotel rooms. But if he is suggesting I am lying by omission or presenting biased facts, I think he must be wrong.
Last night I presented this work to a group assembled at Artfully Chocolate at 1529 14th Street NW. I brought my little son Isaac with me. We had chocolate to drink and were surrounded by loving strangers: loving strangers who came to talk about HIV. That was a very different a reception than my actively painting on site in ward 3.
You see the people who talked pleasantly to me whilst painting knew me. They knew me as a pre-k art teacher, they knew me as a store clerk and they knew me as a mom. And because of that they were willing to listen to hard facts and scary data.
This painting has a marquee that states: “Las Vegas may have the most Starbucks in the US, but DC has the highest rate of HIV.” Above that statement is the clock I have depended on for 17 years. That clock now says something more important than time or temp. It says 3.2% because 3.2% of District residents over the age of 12 have HIV. Washington DC’s HIV rate is higher than most of West Africa.
To the left of the painting is a Twitter hashtag: #occupyhealthcare. And that is what I am asking all of you to do. Stand up, paint, write or speak, but do it publically. Tell the patient story, be it about cancer or HIV. Occupy places or occupy art forms.
We might frighten a few folks in the attempt, but those who know us could be changed forever by a contagion called compassion.