“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.” -Toni Morrison, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear”
For weeks, we’ve talked and talked about Donald Trump. For more than a year, really, this one person has occupied our thoughts, our language, and even our bodies as many of us struggle under the weight of a crushing sense of anxiety over what a Trump presidency means for LGBTQ people, for Muslims and immigrants, for women and people who are disabled, for low income families, people of color, and so many more.
At Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN, we’re creating space to listen.
We’ve held intentional listening sessions where we read and absorbed Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and had uncomfortable conversations about police violence. We disrupted homophobic protestors at MidSouth Pride. We wrote “Black Lives Matter” and “Trans Rights Are Human Rights” across our church’s storefront windows. As a community, we are talking, and we are listening. We’re making space, strategizing, and organizing.
And this Sunday, just two days after the inauguration, I preached about what two gay artists taught me about the power of art to resist oppression. I didn’t say our new President’s name, and I didn’t talk about the inauguration.
In our new reality, a world where down is up and up is down, there don’t seem to be signposts anywhere—just a steep drop into the unknown. But, there are signposts all around. Signposts from not so long ago.
For me, I look to artwork created in defiance of another American president who oppressed LGBTQ people.
I was twenty years old when I saw the artwork of John Dugdale for the first time. Dugdale began his career as a commercial photographer working for clients like Bergdorf Goodman and Martha Stewart. That part of his career ended in 1993 when, at the age of 33, he went blind as a result of CMV retinitis, an HIV-related illness that causes inflammation of the retina. He became completely blind in his right eye and lost 80% of his vision in his left eye.
In spite of this near total loss of vision, he continued to create visual art. With the help of family members and assistants he began to experiment with photographic techniques from the 19th century. Using a large format camera he could use what vision he had left to create ethereal scenes which he printed using an early printing process called the cyanotype—because the process creates deep blue prints. Many of Dugdale’s photographs are photographs he composed to illustrate bits of poetry. He has two large bodies of works illustrating the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
I was a photography student at NYU when I met John Dugdale. I myself had begun experimenting with nineteenth century photographic processes and the cyanotype in particular, and a professor recommended that I attend an upcoming lecture Dugdale was giving at the School of Visual Arts.
I was transported by his work. It was ethereal and intimate.
Listening to Dugdale describe how he composes his images in his mind’s eye while relying on the eyes of his assistants, I began to understand the capacity of art to heal culture. Here was someone who had lost their sight but was in possession of powerful vision.
The lecture I attended was hosted by an organization called Visual AIDS, a non-profit organization founded by artists living with HIV/AIDS and dedicated to using art in the fight against AIDS. Even if you haven’t heard the organization’s name, I’m willing to bet every reader here is familiar with one of their most enduring contributions to AIDS awareness—the red ribbon.
I emailed Visual AIDS my resume the next day and worked as an intern for them for two year after that, between 2004 and 2006. During that time, one of the core projects of Visual AIDS was the Frank Moore Archive Project, a digitized library of thousands of artworks created by HIV+ positive artists, many of whom had died in the very earliest years of the crisis.
Studying the work HIV+ positive artists and archiving it for posterity became holy work for me.
Frank Moore, the artist after whom the archive was named, quickly became one of my favorite artists. He was a surrealist who incorporated signs and symbols of his illness into his paintings. My very favorite paintings of his are the ones of hospital beds. In one, he painted his bed in the style of monumental landscapes. In another, snowflakes fall and wild buffalo roam. In another, an IV bag hangs loose and seemingly transforms the bed into a winter lake scene. His paintings—like the photographs of John Dugdale—evoke a sense of intimacy, which in turns creates a shared vulnerability.
The power of art to heal, in my mind, lies in its ability to invite the viewer into deep relationship. For me, the experience of art, whether it’s a painting, a poem, or a child’s chalk drawings on a sidewalk, always expands the circle of compassion and mercy.
Not all artists are outsiders, but most are and no group of artists have been more on the outside of culture than those creating work in response to an epidemic that was being callously ignored by the United States government. As a young art student the time I spent working at Visual AIDS was transformative, the circle of mercy and compassion I began to create for my life expanded in ways and directions I never knew possible.
This artwork became a force for healing in my life and the life of my friends.
That’s why, in these anxious times, I look again to artists who have lived on the margins of our world. I look to those who resisted a culture that rejected them through the healing power of art. I look to the ones who move me, again and again, to redraw the boundaries of my own compassion.
I look to art to find a vision for how beauty and healing can transform the world.
Photo provided by Mary Button