Update! The finished work is over at Vindauga Gallery.
So Wah and I are working on another collaboration after our successful work on In Nineteen Thirty-Six a Young Man Walked into a Hotel Room in South Texas (Robt. Johnson).
I’m having a blast doing these—Wah crafts the images, and I alter it with the additions of text and stickers and ink. Our latest is a piece we intend to enter into the 14th Annual Mississippi HeARTS Against AIDS auction. HeARTS Against AIDS raises funds to assist Mississippians living with HIV and AIDS, and we wanted the piece to reflect that.
Wah’s initial image is complex: the skin-color of the multiple overlaid hands literally runs into the faded reds and blues of the flag in the background.
I wanted to add text that would draw the viewer into the image and, quite literally, tell a story. Initially I wanted to write about Ryan White, but that wasn’t personal enough to me. I had to go back until when AIDS first affected my life, and sketched out the following bit:
In January of 1995 part of the Names Project Memorial Quilt made its way to Mississippi State. I had never met someone with AIDS, never lost a friend to it. AIDS did not affect me.
I volunteered to walk the quilt and offer comfort to those affected with Kleenex and soft words. We were cautioned that people could become overwhelmed by the enormity of the losses. My other job was to keep any violence being done to the quilt.
There was no violence, only a pervading sense of profound respect. Although we were just in the student union, people acted as though they were in an ancient church, and no voices edged above a whisper. In a word, it was somber.
I met a couple, probably in their early sixties. They wore matching sweatsuits, with a photograph of their son screened onto the front. They followed his piece of the flag from state to state.
The flags were carefully laid out on the floor and on the walls. There were so many, and this was just a piece of a larger whole. After hours of walking, I saw one I hadn’t seen before: for Keith Haring.
I was nineteen, and I wanted to be an artist. I drew inspiration and energy from comic books and graffiti and I thought Keith Haring was an absolute genius. He was funny and smart and he made art where no one thought it could be, chalk on concrete, stick figures dancing on brick. He taught me that art could be fun and make you laugh. It didn’t have to be all accuracy and precision. I’d only learned of him through books and photographs, and I didn’t know that he’d died.
I couldn’t quite catch my breath, and by the time I made it to the bathroom around the corner, I couldn’t stop crying. The loss of all the babies lovers wives mothers sons and daughters priests athletes artists, men and women, white and black, young and old. It was all too much.
We sew the names of our lost ones onto three by six pieces of cloth and we write songs and books and poems and we take photos and we shoot movies and no matter the pictures, no matter the words we use, no matter the language, we say the same things over and over again:
I do this for you because I love you and I miss you and you will not be forgotten, you will not fade away, you are a piece of me and you will always be. I will never forget.
This all tumbled out of me being drunk one night and digging out old records and then mangling the lyrics to U2’s “Bad.” At its climax, Bono sings “To let it go/And so to fade away/To let it go/And so fade away/I’m wide awake.” It’s a fantastic early example of Bono exercising his ability to revitalize and update American rock and roll for a more adult audience through subtle twists and reversals. While a Buddy Holly bragged about a young love that would “Not Fade Away,” U2 sing about a bittersweet “isolation/desperation . . . .”
Still, I always sing “Bad” with the Buddy Holly twist, and when I stumbled around singing “not fade away!” I knew I had a title. The rest of the essay wrote itself to that ending. The whole thing wasn’t going to fit onto the photograph, but I knew I just needed the last two paragraphs. I sketched up a big outline on tracing paper; there’s 445 characters, counting spaces, which takes a bit of planning. I taped the draft over the image and used another piece of tracing paper as a lettering guide.
I like distorting the text to say something beyond what is plainly said, and so I hand-lettered in the opening “We,” which I also hoped echoed the Declaration of Independence, bringing the flag back into the piece as a symbol for all people living with the disease or caring for somebody that has it.
I also felt there was a part of Maya Lin’s stunning Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In her design submission, she focuses on the experience of physical interaction with the space itself. She didn’t talk about the (possibly unintended) effect the thousands of all-caps names have on the reader. There’s a calm, a peace, after a while—not a numbness—as the visitor walks back to level ground. I wanted the cadence of the text to have that same sort of effect. There is only one period, and it’s to set off a last repetition of the promise to the lost one; the other punctuation only serves to buoy the reader along.
I was pretty unhappy when I finished. It looks janky, unfinished; I just don’t have the technical skill to get my ideas out on paper. I started bringing in some fingerprints and stamps to flesh out the dark spots, and immediately regretted it. It just got too much. I did make myself laugh by drawing in several panels from one of Keith Haring’s flipbooks, “Men with Holes.” I felt compelled to have them yell at each other a bit for poking hands and feet through each other, and have them apologize to each other at the end of it.
I’ll take it over to Wah’s today and let him photograph it, and let you folks be the judge. It was fun working with it and thinking about it and talking about that process to you, at the very least. Although we are a million miles apart in terms of style and technical ability, Wah always encourages me and brings me into the process and makes me work. He makes me a better artist because he challenges me.