Hot Guys and Heroes: HIV-Positive Artist George Towne

Contributing Editor
"Mike With Skull," oil on canvas
George Towne

George Towne is an artist living with HIV. And he likes to paint hot guys.

"I've always known that I'd like to paint and represent gay men that I knew and who inspired me or who I thought were sexy," he said.

I first saw George's work a few years ago at an art show featuring erotic images of gay men, and I became an instant fan. His work is not only sexy, but beautiful and full of life. More than just painting, George Towne captures emotion and soul in his work, giving you a glimpse into the private life of his subjects.

George grew up in the small town of Port Jervis, New York, about a two-hour drive from New York City. He moved to Manhattan in 1990 to attend the School of Visual Arts when he was just 18.

Related: Imprisoned HIV Activist Creates Beauty Behind Bars

George Towne, 'Roly and Chase, First Pose'
"Roly and Chase, First Pose," oil on canvas
George Towne

"Coming out of the closet was something I did immediately upon coming to New York, " George said, "but, you know, that was still a long time ago. People weren't really that out, there were no role models at the time. It was tougher then."

It was also the middle of the AIDS crisis, and a challenging time to be exploring sexuality.

George Towne, 'Dave St. Sebastian'
"Eric, Seated, Chair," oil on canvas
George Towne) "Dave St. Sebastian," oil on canvas (Courtesy of George Towne

"When I first got to the city, my first one-night stand showed me how to use a condom, so I was very lucky in that regard. He put the condom on me and said, 'always use this.' It was actually a miracle, because at the time, I know people who came here [to New York] and seroconverted, and that was a really terrible time, because people were dying left and right," George said. "I consider myself lucky that what he said to me stuck."

As a struggling young artist, he took work in bookstores and galleries to pay the rent, while still pursuing art.

"I was always taught to paint what you know," George said, "and I know a lot about gay men. And I like to work figuratively, meaning I like to represent a person or a tree, or a landscape. I like to draw from the figure or from photography."

In his early 20s George became active in the AIDS movement and joined ACT UP. "It really helped me learn about political things," George said. "I was so young, I didn't quite understand the difference between a Republican and a Democrat!"

Across years, as the HIV terrain changed with the introduction of medications that worked, George found himself not being as diligent with his safe sex habit.

"I got, like, condom fatigue." George explained. "It's like that after so many years, after my whole sexual blossoming, having been forced to use this ... to have this barrier between me and another person, I think I started to slip up here and there."

George tested HIV positive in 2005. He's been on medications since 2009, and feels very fortunate that he's been able to benefit from the advances in HIV science. "I've not had any real side effects, which is great."

After finding out he was living with HIV, he decided to take the news as an opportunity.

"As soon as I turned HIV positive, I knew that I should consider coming out about that, because as an artist, a visual artist ... you know, there are professions of people who frankly aren't able to come out about their HIV status," George explained. "I knew that a visual artist has a little bit more of a luxury, that there wouldn't be as much stigma."

George found support through groups like Visual AIDS, helping his work gain exposure and proving that someone living with HIV can create beautiful things. His work has been featured in numerous art shows, including exhibits sponsored by GMHC and Visual AIDS.

George has also created works of people he considers heroic. Some of his subjects include gay former Rep. Barney Frank; James Dale, the activist who challenged the Boy Scouts of America's stance on gay scout leaders all the way to the Supreme Court; and AIDS Activist, playwright and author Larry Kramer.

George Towne and Larry Kramer at the Leslie-Lohman Museum
George Towne and Larry Kramer at the Leslie-Lohman Museum
GMHC

In the last 10 years or so, George has expanded his subjects of heroes and hot guys to include landscapes. Many of these new paintings are devoid of people, showing the beauty of the specific place, and containing subtle comments on the past.

"The Meat Rack on Fire Island ... if you paint the Meat Rack with no people in it," George explains, "if you know that back before there was an internet and before people used to just go on Grindr, people would just go to the Meat Rack [between Cherry Grove and the Pines]. It would be filled with guys cruising or even having sex right out in the open, because it wasn't patrolled. It was kind of our land." His painting of the Meat Rack with no people almost alludes to the ghosts of men who are no longer with us, men who were victims of the AIDS crisis.

George Towne, 'Meat Rack Swamp'
"Meat Rack Swamp," oil on canvas
George Towne

He also has a piece showing the ocean at Fire Island. "It's just the ocean, but it's kind of receding, so you see, what's left over from the ocean. It's kind of like the loss or the loneliness."

George Towne, 'Fire Island Morning, Ocean'
"Fire Island Morning, Ocean," oil on canvas
George Towne

George Towne's work celebrates the complexities of human life, something he knows is precious. "Having to be regular with it -- taking HIV medications -- is a pain, but I think I've got it down," he said. "I'm just one of those people that never goes without taking my meds every day. Because I take it every day, I'm undetectable, and so the amount of virus is so low in my blood or my semen, that I can't transmit the virus."

George has been creating work that reflects his passions and interests ever since he moved to New York in 1990. Some of his art is courageous and political, but I'm partial to his more intimate depictions.

"Frankly," George said, "a lot of my work has nothing to do with HIV, and it's more about sexy guys!"

George Towne's work was recently featured at New York's Leslie-Lohman Museum in PROUD PACKAGES: Gay Erotic Art Fair VII, and is currently on display there in the show ART and AIDS: 35 Years of Survival, through Dec. 30. His work will also be included in the upcoming 20th Annual Postcards from the Edge show, hosted by Visual AIDS at Gallery 524 in New York, Jan. 19-21, 2018.

To see more of George Towne's work, visit his website, www.georgetowneart.com.