Imprisoned HIV Activist Creates Beauty Behind Bars

Brian Carmichael
Brian Carmichael

The only semi-formal arts training Brian Carmichael has ever had was in prison. In 1990, shortly after arriving at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, he and fellow inmate Laos Schuman created a children's video entitled The Legend of Labyrinth.

Unlike Carmichael, Schuman did have arts training before his arrest and incarceration: He studied acting with Lee Strasberg, acted in films and earned a degree in directing. In Vacaville, Schuman submitted a proposal to the William James Association, a Santa Cruz organization that contracts with professionals to teach arts to people inside the prison, to teach acting and filmmaking. The association accepted his proposal, hiring Schuman to teach others incarcerated at Vacaville. Carmichael came on as Schuman's assistant.

For over a year, the men painted background sets, created puppets, dubbed sound, inserted sound effects and edited videos. Carmichael recalled that, with Schuman's help, he learned all of these skills from scratch.

Then the two joined a newly created Pastoral Care Services program to provide support and companionship to people in Vacaville's segregated HIV unit, including those who were dying.

A More Urgent Calling

Over 25 years later, Carmichael still gets chills when he recalls visiting with one of the people he helped through Pastoral Care Services -- Derek "Ismael" Kelly, a black Muslim man -- as Kelly drew his last breaths.

While Carmichael sat beside him, Kelly's breathing became shorter and more labored as his lungs filled with fluid, a sound that Carmichael compared to a "faulty coffee percolator." When Kelly stopped breathing, Carmichael called the nurses, who shoved a tube through his nose and down his lungs to drain the fluids. "It was obviously painful for Derek, and difficult to witness," he recalled in a written interview with From the trainings he had received, Carmichael knew that this painful procedure was prolonging Kelly's life by only a few hours, and his lungs would again slowly begin to fill with fluid. "Derek must have known it too," Carmichael said, "because after he was brought back, and his eyes opened, glaring at me, he said, 'Don't let them do that to me again!'"

For the next half hour, Carmichael read Kelly poems by Longfellow and verses from the Koran until Kelly fell asleep. Ninety minutes later, Kelly's breathing became shorter and more labored. "I sat there at his bedside, holding his hand, talking and reading to him as he stopped breathing, and kept talking with him for a good five minutes more."

Then, Carmichael walked out of the room and through the prison's hospital ward, looking for German Maisonet, M.D., the prison's HIV specialist at the time, so he could pronounce Kelly dead. "I'd walked into one dorm after another, full of sick and dying inmates, looking for Maisonet," Carmichael said, "and [was] starting to freak out, near panic, when I found him at someone's bedside and pulled him aside."

The two returned to Kelly's room, where Maisonet pronounced him dead. Then, he turned to Carmichael and said: "He doesn't need us anymore. But how are you doing?" That question opened the floodgates for Carmichael. He remembered blurting out, "All those guys are sick too, and all I've done with my life is contribute to the suffering of the world!"

That day, Carmichael lost his passion for artistry. Looking back, he said it wasn't a conscious decision to stop creating, but the urgency of the work he did as part of Vacaville's Pastoral Care Services, and his subsequent advocacy for improved HIV care, took all of his time and energy.

The one exception was Carmichael's contribution to the AIDS Quilt. He recalled an early sketch for the Vacaville panel that depicted men holding hands -- and his sarcastic retort when the prison administrator, known for her homophobic comments, refused to approve it: "Oh, so you want it all to be butterflies and rainbows?" Not realizing the rainbow's significance, she approved the idea.

A Renaissance

Now incarcerated at the Elmira Correctional Facility in upstate New York, where he does not have to fight for basic care for himself or others, Carmichael has turned again to art, utilizing it the way that others might use a Hallmark card. Of course, going to the store to buy a card isn't an option for him. "Since I was in prison, I just used whatever material was available, or whatever I managed to salvage or scavenge," he explained.

Carmichael taught himself calligraphy and learned how to draw flowers, using these new abilities to send love and appreciation to friends and family members on the outside. "I think it comes from seeing so many people die in prison over the years, from HIV or violence or suicide," Carmichael said. "And from losing so many friends in the free world, to HIV mostly, ... I didn't want one more person to leave this earth without my having told them how much I loved and appreciated and respected them."

People incarcerated in New York State, including those in maximum-security prisons, are allowed to buy art supplies from certain vendors. The prison must approve these vendors, and the incarcerated artist (or their family) must have money to purchase the supplies, but getting paint and other materials isn't impossible. That said, Carmichael prefers to use materials that the prison discards, such as the cardboard leftover from prison forms or toilet paper tubes.

For Carmichael, the challenge of creating art in prison is more philosophical than practical. "You have to look for something beautiful in the ugliest place on earth," he said. He recalled that, when he was incarcerated in California's San Quentin or Folsom prisons in the 1980s, seeing a piece of metal would cause him to think, "Man, that would make a mean knife." But, after being in Vacaville, volunteering in the Pastoral Care Services program, watching people die and fighting to improve HIV treatment, he's changed -- and so has his way of seeing the world. "Now, I look at an old cardboard cone, from a spool of twine, and think, 'Man, I could make a really beautiful vase out of that.' Then," he added, "I had to learn to make flowers out of toilet paper."

Flowers by Brian Carmichael
Flower-making diagram

Carmichael has also created envelope-sized paintings depicting orange and golden sunsets, glowing cat eyes looming over brightly colored flowers and birds soaring high above a darkening landscape. Inspired by a recent announcement of new planets 40 light years away, he imagined the landscape of a distant planet. On the back of the artwork, he wrote, "I heard they found several 'new' planets around a star a few million light years away -- and I thought, I bet they don't have prisons on those planets."

planet painting by Brian Carmichael
'Kentucky Spring' by Brian Carmichael
"Kentucky Spring," May 2, 2015, Elmira Correctional Facility
'Garden With Eyes: Beautiful, Natural, Elecatn, So Is the Savage Garden' by Brian Carmichael
"Garden With Eyes: Beautiful, Natural, Elecatn, So Is the Savage Garden," 2016 Elmira Elmira Correctional Facility

Carmichael has also used his artistic ability to continue educating around HIV and AIDS. The prison's HIV education program has limited resources, he noted, so he uses discarded cardboard to create posters explaining aspects of the human body. "I'd draw representations of T cells, the immune system," he told "A lot of the guys have no idea that, OK, this is an ovary and this is a sperm."

Carmichael said, "I am motivated by the struggle I'm going through every day, living with HIV and living with a prison sentence. My struggle is to leave prison happier, healthier, smarter and better than when I came in -- and hopefully leave this place a little better than when I got here."

Creating art is the means by which Carmichael has chosen to achieve those goals. "Any kind of art is healing when you're creating stuff rather than tearing something down," he reflected. "It's good for the soul."