One of Joyce's early sculptures, "Prayer of Hope" was selected by Visual AIDS for inclusion in its 2001 Positively Art Calendar. Created using clay, fabric, and acrylic paint, the 11-inch-tall figure is of a woman, her red-turbaned head bowed, eyes closed and arms crossing her chest as she clutches a red cloth against her body. "The red is the blood of Jesus," Joyce explains. "She's covered by his blood, its protection. She has a sense of, 'I would worry, but I'm strong.'" Joyce created the sculpture shortly after participating in an art show for Balm in Gilead's Black Church Week of Prayer in 1999. "I was in a real prayerful state," she said, "and I just fully really understood how much prayer can change things." [Photo by Augustus C. Temple III]
Joyce frequently participates in shows throughout New York City, in which she displays her artworks, speaks and sometimes even sings her life story. Above, Joyce testifying for the first time, in 1998, at The Church of the Open Door. Some of Joyce's sculptures are on the table in front of her; in the background is her pastor, Rev. Dr. Mark V. C. Taylor, who himself has a strong background in HIV prevention education. [Photo courtesy the McDonald family]
"At the end of nine days I started looking through this art book," Joyce continues, sounding as though she were still amazed at what she found scribbled on those sheets of paper. "It was the deepest, darkest secrets of my life. Every scene that I had been through; some scenes you just wouldn't believe. That's how God had to work with me: Once I drew these deep, dark secrets that I didn't tell anybody, and once I showed somebody, I was bringing it out of the darkness into light, and I was getting freer and freer."
One morning toward the end of her time at Cornerstone, Joyce stood at the window, bathed in sunlight but consumed by sadness and regret. It was her father's birthday. All of a sudden, Joyce recalls, "it was like the light was coming through, and I said, 'Oh, wait a minute! I still have a father -- he's in heaven!'
"That was my moment," Joyce says. "That was the moment I saw it. I was so happy; my mother was all like, 'Did they give you brain surgery?' I was just so happy when I came out of there, I never looked back."
In 1995, less than a year later and still in recovery, Joyce's journey took another sharp turn: She was diagnosed with HIV. Despite the extremely high-risk lifestyle she led since she first ran away from home in 1969, Joyce never even considered the possibility that she may have been infected.
"In spite of a person's lifestyle, a lot of people are in denial; they believe they didn't even need to get tested," Joyce says. "Now, in my case, I should've been the first one saying, 'Please test me!'" she laughs, raising her hand. "But I went back to church and was getting counseling from [Rev. Taylor], and he said, 'Um, excuse me, Sister McDonald, but have you gotten tested?' And I'm like, 'Huh?' with a shocked look on my face.
"I almost felt insulted. I said, 'I'm not going into no health station' -- I didn't want anybody to see me go to a [public health clinic near her home]; it'd make me feel ashamed -- so he told me that he would take me to his private doctor. And he said, 'If it'll make you feel better, I'll get tested, too.' So I said, 'Well, if I ever think about doing it, I'll let you know,' but I still wasn't interested."
Shortly after Christmas two months later -- the 17th anniversary of her father's death -- Joyce woke up and heard his voice. "I heard, 'Joyce, go get tested. Go pay homage to life,'" Joyce recalls -- and she did. "They used to tell you that you don't go by yourself to [get tested], but I knew I had the Lord inside me, I could feel it. Ever since that moment I've never felt alone."
Joyce remembers the day exactly -- Jan. 13, 1995 -- when she went to the clinic alone to hear the results. The scene is crystal clear in Joyce's mind; as if remembering a dream from last night, Joyce begins to describes it: "[The counselor at the clinic where Joyce was tested] said, 'We have some not-so-good news for you.' She was like this" -- Joyce leans forward, her eyes intent, hands reaching out, voice dropping to a near-whisper before continuing -- "'You have tested positive for the virus that can cause AIDS.' I was like this." Joyce silently mouths "thank you." "I was really thanking God, because I know had I not received Christ, I know for a fact I wouldn't have been able to deal with it -- I would have killed myself."
Actually, Joyce considers herself doubly blessed, since through all of the trials of her past life, her family -- especially her mother, who Joyce says prayed for her every day -- never gave up on her. They embraced her without a second thought when she told them she was HIV positive. "My family is known for love," Joyce says. "[During the '80s and early '90s] I went in and out of detox, and each time I'd come out they'd have signs up -- 'Welcome Home!'"
"The Removing," by Joyce McDonald, 1998; watercolor, 18" x 24". To see more of Joyce's works, visit her page in our tribute to The Women of Visual AIDS.
Her daughters, raised largely by Joyce's mother, didn't learn of Joyce's drug addiction until they were in their mid-teens -- and, perhaps because Joyce's mother always believed Joyce would eventually come around, they feel only pride that she has finally pulled through. "Both my daughters, Makeeba and Taheesha, have college educations and they're both married. I have two wonderful sons-in-law. I also have six grandchildren now! My grandchildren are the lights of my life," Joyce beams.
Joyce's daughters appear to have grown up remarkably well-adjusted considering what their mother has been through. "They laugh and say, 'Mom, you scared us straight,'" Joyce says, breaking into a smile.
"We wouldn't ask for any other mother in the world," Taheesha says in a video taken of a recent art show, entitled "Chillin' Fields." "If we had to choose, we would take the same mom, with the same former addiction and current diagnosis."
After her HIV diagnosis -- as well as her AIDS diagnosis, which came a year later when her CD4+ count briefly dropped below 200 -- Joyce became an activist in her community. She insists, however, that her activism is more something that happened to her rather than something she strived to do. In 1998 she began working with Robert Morrison, an art therapist at the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, a social-service organization that provides AIDS case management to thousands of individuals throughout New York City. It was through the Jewish Board that she first began to work in clay and paint, under Morrison's guidance. "God had him disguised as an art therapist, but he was an art mentor," Joyce said. She already had the wings: a natural talent for working in clay and paint. It was Morrison, she says, who helped her to fly.
Shortly after her art therapy began, Joyce started feverishly creating small sculptures. They represent some of the more haunting moments that defined her past life, as well as the bonds of family and love that have guided her current one. "I did my first art pieces," Joyce says, "but then I couldn't stop." She becomes a conduit when she sculpts, she says -- her spirit guides her hands. "Most of the time I don't plan any work. ...I don't have control over what I do." Not long after, Joyce joined the Visual AIDS archive, and began exhibiting her work at churches, hospitals and private shows throughout New York City; and her new life was born.
Joyce, who lives on a fixed income, has also received small yearly grants from Visual AIDS, which have allowed her to purchase her art supplies and support the volunteer work she performs on a daily basis. Though she no longer receives the grant, she remains largely unwilling to sell her artworks. They "are from so deep," she says, "when people say they want to buy them, I feel like they'd be taking away a part of me." Besides, many of them serve a greater good simply by existing as a part of her shows: Some people see them and simply begin to cry, Joyce says, because they see themselves and their own suffering in her creations. They serve, in effect, as a sort of passageway: Made of the earth, they connect these once-lost souls to one another -- and, it seems, to God as well.