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The Art of Positive Thinking Despite My Inclination Toward Doubt, Destruction and General Self-Annihilation

By River Huston

April 21, 2010

I recently watched the movie The Bucket List [in which Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, as two terminally ill guys, do all the things they wanted to do in life before they "kick the bucket"], and it made me laugh. Been there, done that. Okay mine was not as extreme but it was my "Bucket List". What I have found more challenging -- and have written about in the past -- is living after HIV treatment with the reality that I have as many years ahead of me as any healthy 50 year old woman.


So I don't know what to call it -- maybe my "Oh Shit I Maxed My Credit Cards, Now What List" or my "Hot Flash Fantasy List" -- but I needed to find things to make my life exciting and relevant. As many downfalls as there are to living with a terminal disease, there was rarely a dull moment -- whether it was the thrill of the emergency room (subdural brain bleed) or the freedom to not worry about what anyone thinks because I would be dead soon and no one would remember if I bombed on stage. So after some thought I came up with something to do with the rest of my life that I found exciting, scary and challenging.

I've always been creative. I think that when we are children, some of the first things we gravitate to are what we are meant to do in life. Often we are steered clear of these ideas by concerned parents, especially if they are in the creative realm. Whenever I expressed my delight in doing artwork my mother always said, "You will never make a living; you need to go to secretarial school and maybe someone will marry you".

Backwards thinking, but she also told me I should have never been born; and it is a good thing I was not really pretty because then I will not have the disappointment of watching my look fade like her. Don't worry, I have a good therapist. But as a child I didn't realize that Moms was not the font of wisdom I assumed all parents to be. I steered clear of the idea of ever thinking I could be an artist, even though it was something I loved more than anything else.


16 x 20 " acrylic/collage

I painted on and off for 35 years, usually with a critical eye. I rarely shared about this passion and didn't ever seriously pursue it as a career. There were a few local exhibits in the early nineties when I was sure I was going to die very shortly so no one would dare say anything unkind, and a collective show for artists with AIDS at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, but mostly my paintings filled the walls of my house or sat in stacks in a closet.

Then came the financial crisis of the last few years. The crashing economy had colleges and corporations crossing off luxuries like motivational speakers from their budget, so I found more time on my hands than usual and painted almost nonstop.

Since there was no one there to remind me I was no Picasso, I just let my creative self thrive. Several hundred paintings later, I moved my workspace out of the living room into a studio and continued zealously to create. I never thought too much of selling until I saw an email for something called Artexpo. I opened it up and it was about a tradeshow for artists. Hundreds of artists come to Pier 94 in NYC to sell art -- and for the solo artist, such as myself, make contact with the hundreds of gallery owners, interior decorators and other art industry folk who attend on the first two days of the event. I squeezed my eyes, plunked down the fee for a booth and went from there. I tried not to think about it too much or I would certainly cancel.

The most dangerous place for me is in my own head. It's a bad neighborhood filled with all the criminal thoughts implanted by Mom and the rest of the world about how I will never succeed. To keep them at bay I picked the art to bring to the show, matted, framed and arranged it on my wall, with the dimensions of the booth in mind. I ordered postcards, business cards, wrote an artist's statement and built a website. I had about 3 months to prepare and with an extremely tight budget found all kinds of easy affordable options. Thank you vistaprint, canvasplace and iweb!


16" x 20", combined media

Upon arrival at Pier 94 I was stunned to see the magnitude of the place and the amazing art hanging when I unloaded the night before the opening. There were international galleries representing renowned artist from around the world, as well as established fine artists, commercial artists and even a celebrity artist (Jane Seymour). Way in the back of the exhibit hall, there was a section for the solo artists.

As I walked to my area my heart sank as I passed all this incredible work. Before I could stop myself I was behind enemy lines up in my head telling myself false tales: "What the fuck do you think you are doing?" "You suck!" This is going to be so embarrassing".

I had made the mistake of not asking anyone to come with me, so hanging 38 paintings by myself was daunting. Oh the things I forgot: hanging material, good tape measure (I had a wooden ruler!), ladder! But at least for the next 4 hours I was immersed in problem solving. I managed to get it up in some semblance of coherence and went back to my friend's apartment and tried not to think. She was not there and alone the negative thoughts circled in for the kill.

Sleep was elusive; every hour I would wake up sick that I had chosen to do this. I tried prayer, mediation. I would have called someone but didn't know anyone in a time zone that would find a 3 am call that was not a lost limb type of emergency acceptable behavior from a sober person.

With about 15 minutes of solid sleep behind me it came time to go to the venue. Fortunately I had a volunteer assistant come with and she was very supportive. I tried to keep all the insecurities compartmentalized in one place. Saying out loud you suck is such bad luck and unattractive as well, so I kept the thoughts at bay and set up business. Within two hours I sold 21 paintings. Turns out more than almost anyone else at the event. I was flustered stunned, happy, crazy.

A Change Is Going To Come

A Change Is Going To Come
16" x 20", combined media

The point of this whole ramble is not to brag but to share with you the human condition of insecurity, self-doubt and believing false messages that we all have to deal with at some point; and how to find a way around it. That no matter where you are in life, if you have a dream, an idea, the only way to get there is to go. Sounds simple but just like the torrent of thoughts that stole my sleep the night before, that same thinking can steal your dreams.

So take the jump, plunge whatever, and make your life everything you want it to be; if it is moving to the place you always dreamed of, adopting a kid, writing a book, becoming a chef, whatever it is, don't wait for the time to be right.

For all of you living with HIV/AIDS who have been around forever, we survived; and all the people newly diagnosed, don't limit yourself. Don't let a disease, a mother or your own thinking stand in the way. Nothing changes if nothing changes. That is all I got.

Take a look at my new art website as well as Artexpo -- which in another turn of events decided to feature me on their website.

Who knew!

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See more of River's artwork -- and read about how she does it!

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See Also
More on Painting, Sculpture and HIV/AIDS


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A River Runs Through It

River Huston

River Huston

River Huston is an award-winning poet, journalist, performer and activist. She travels through the United States speaking on issues related to sexuality, communication, overcoming challenges and change. She has been featured on Good Morning America, Showtime, Nightline, CNN and ABC Up To The Minute. River has written three books of poetry as well as The Goddess: A Guide to Feminine Wisdom and A Positive Life: Portraits of Women Living With HIV. She wrote and performed a one-woman show, Sex, Cellulite and Large Farm Equipment: One Girls Guide to Living and Dying off off Broadway and is currently working on a second show, The Dominatrix Next Door. For more information about River you can go to

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Articles by River:

Sex, Cellulite and Large Farm Equipment: One Girl's Guide to Living and Dying (October 15, 2008)

I Feel Good! Attaining Survival Through Illness (March/April 2008)

Goddess in a Muumuu: AIDS Changes Sexual Self-Image (December 1999)

A Positive Life: Portraits of Women Living With HIV (October 1999)

Interviews With River:

White Women and HIV (April 1999)

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The opinions expressed by's bloggers are entirely their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of itself.