DeWayne Sessions was way depressed. Before open-heart surgery in 1998, he learned he was in late-stage AIDS, with extensive liver and kidney damage. “I was brought to Utah from Arizona, to my sister’s house in Murray, to die and ... I just didn’t,” he said simply.
“Christmas Day I will be 45. I’m the sole survivor of a group of 12 [people with AIDS],” he said. “I don’t approve of suicide, but I was beginning to understand it. I was looking to speed up the process. It got real heavy for me and I knew I had to do something.”
Sessions liked to draw, and thought art might give purpose to the time he has left. “I opened up the white pages under ‘Art’ and started calling down the list,” he said.
Jean Irwin, the Utah Arts Council’s ultimate can-do person, set up a meeting with Sessions and Ruth Lubbers, executive director of Art Access Gallery/VSA Utah, which provides teachers, mentors and opportunities in the arts for people with disabilities. Together they came up with “Art Positive!”—free workshops in a variety of genres for those who are HIV-positive or living with AIDS, culminating in an art show in December in observance of Day Without Art/World AIDS Day.
The third annual Art Positive! exhibit features acrylic portraits, mosaics and personal writings from artists who participated in the 2003 workshops directed by professional artists Ruby Chacón, Linda Nowlin and Valerie Parker-Price. The Utah State Health Department is an exhibition partner.
Carlos Adame has been a regular participant in the program despite a stroke that left him partially paralyzed, frequent seizures and the twice-a-week chemotherapy that leaves him dizzy and nauseated. Lymphoma has invaded much of his body and allowed toxoplasmosis, a grave opportunistic infection, to gain a foothold.
Making art matters deeply to Adame, who turned 38 this month. “It keeps me from thinking about dying,” he said. He is the featured artist in the current Art Access newsletter.
Raised by grandparents in Mexico, Adame spent every penny he possessed for a trip across the border. He found work in bridal shops, designing wedding gowns, cutting patterns and sewing. His skill and creativity are evident in a photo of half a dozen divas wearing feathers and scant beaded bikinis, costumes he designed and stitched for Utah’s Pride Day 2000 Parade. Adame takes personal pride in the trophy he won for best entry.
Sessions has a trophy of his own—from Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson—for his work in founding Art Positive!, a program Sessions says saved his life by allowing him to tap into his emotions. “I gotta face certain facts in my scenario,” Sessions said. “I’m not looking to next week. But I’m staring today right in the face.”
Mortality issues are ever-present with this group. When a participant committed suicide, each artist made a side of the container that held his ashes. Adame later made an intricately painted, small ceramic Egyptian sarcophagus for himself. “I want to be in there after I die,” he said. It is in the show, but not for sale.
Amanda Finlayson, Art Access programming coordinator, believes the socialization process is as important as the creative one. “So anyone can bring a support person, a family member, spouse, or friend,” she said. Sessions takes Letha Wilson, “a little ol’ black lady,” he said, as Wilson laughed in the background. She is the mother of Sessions’ late best friend.
Kim Love’s support comes from her 10-year-old niece, Hannah. Hannah’s work is in the exhibit, and a portrait of her by her aunt is the image on the exhibition announcement.
Day Without Art/World AIDS Day, observed Dec. 1, will be recognized again by participating galleries during the Dec. 5 Gallery Stroll, with educational material and free AIDS testing information available.
ART POSITVE! EXHIBIT, Artisan Frameworks & Gallery, 351 Pierpont Ave., 328-0703, Dec. 2-31 (Closed Dec. 24 and 25), Artists reception: Dec. 5, 6-9pm