The Women of Visual AIDS
|Harvey OR HARLEY,|
acrylic on canvas,
32" x 26"
|All images are the property of the artist and may not be copied or reproduced without the express written permission of the artist and Visual AIDS.|
When her freshman year at Missouri State University began in 1988, Becky Trotter had her life perfectly planned out: She would attend a state school for four years, get her bachelor's degree in art, move on to graduate school and then strike out on a career in art therapy. Herself a sexual abuse survivor -- she was abused by the friend of a relative when she was 14 -- Becky wanted to reach out, helping other women and children who had been through the same ordeal.
But the man who had abused her was also HIV positive -- as Becky would discover late in her freshman year when she, too, was diagnosed.
"When I tested positive it shifted everything," Becky says. "I really struggled in my art, because the art I was doing [sculptures, drawings and prints heavily based on landscapes and realism] became meaningless to me."
Becky stayed in college and earned her bachelor's in art, but instead of following her original plan to head to graduate school, she became an AIDS activist. A native of Joplin, Mo., she remained in the Midwest after graduation, working for two years as North America's key contact for the International Community of Women Living With HIV/AIDS, and became a board member for the Global Network of People With HIV/AIDS. She also began to paint; in 1992 she created the aptly named "First Painting," which represents her attempts to cope with the issues she has dealt with as a sexual-abuse survivor. One year later -- the man who infected her long since buried -- Becky was diagnosed with AIDS.
Seemingly always both an activist and an artist, Becky struggled to balance both passions. While dealing with a string of failed anti-HIV drug regimens, she involved herself more deeply in AIDS activism and became a motivational speaker. She also occasionally created artworks that reflected who she was and what she was going through.
"A lot of my friends criticize me because they want to be known as an artist, not as an artist with AIDS," Becky said. "But AIDS is such an integral part of who people are, and I think people do artwork about their experiences and their lives. Whether people think they're doing artwork about AIDS or not, somehow it comes through subconsciously."
From 1995 until 1999, Becky lived in New York, editing PWAC Newsline, a national newsletter for HIV-positive prisoners. In 1999, Becky created her latest series of artworks. Entitled "Pull Up a Chair," each painting features an empty seat -- a stiff-backed wooden chair, comfortable-looking love seat -- that represents someone Becky has known over the past 14 years who has since died of AIDS. Next to each painting is a quote by the person to whom Becky has dedicated the picture.
Perhaps without realizing it would develop into a theme, Becky created her first empty-chair work in 1997, "I'm Not Comfortable." She painted it shortly after leaving the New York hospital where she received treatment for severe Viracept-related side effects.
"I was sitting in the hospital alone," Becky says, "and I was looking at this empty chair, thinking about people who'd come in and sat there and visited me and didn't know what to say. Then I remembered a friend of mine, Richard, who had been sitting in his chair [in his apartment]. He was talking about dying, and how he didn't want to get dementia, and if he got dementia he would kill himself. And he's like, 'Where is all my stuff gonna go?' And he started pounding on the arms of this chair and said, 'Where's this chair gonna go?'
"So I started thinking about empty chairs," Becky continues. "How chairs -- that was his favorite chair -- how your favorite chair is an extension of who you are." Becky created "I'm Not Comfortable," she says, "because it's about me searching for comfort as a woman living with AIDS and as an artist living with AIDS," a role that has never fit her quite as well as a favorite chair would.
Becky still seeks that elusive comfort today. "There's this unspoken judgement that artists living with AIDS are not good artists, and they're not to be taken seriously," she says. She mentions the work of one of her favorite artists, Kathe Kollwitz, a late-19th and early-20th century artist who believed that art should reflect the social conditions of the time in which one lived. "She did art about war," Becky explains. "What's wrong with doing art about social issues?"
Within the span of a few months in late 1999, Becky's life again changed dramatically. In August, she left her job with PWAC Newsline and moved to Las Vegas to be with her partner Vivian, who Becky met in 1998 when Vivian was the Spanish interpreter for a motivational speech Becky gave in the area. In November, Becky completed "Pull Up a Chair"; in December, she developed severe pancreatitis from the Ziagen (abacavir) she had been taking.
For two years Becky was in and out of the hospital -- suffering, alternately, from pneumonia, kidney failure, septic shock and periodic flare-ups of her weakened pancreas. During those two difficult years she nearly died three times. This past July, doctors scrambled to bring her back after she stopped breathing during a routine procedure to strengthen her pancreas.
As 2001 closes, however, Becky is back out of the hospital and feeling better than ever. Though her pancreas is always a concern, her current drug combination -- the latest regimen of so many that she's lost count -- has her CD4 count over 300 and her viral load undetectable for the first time since her diagnosis almost 16 years ago.
Though she's less than thrilled with the lack of AIDS support in the Las Vegas area, Becky takes refuge in and cherishes the warmth of her partner and their two daughters, ages eight and 16. She writes frequently and is considering publishing a book about her life, but says she hasn't yet mustered up the guts to do so.
Whether one is an artist or not, Becky believes that art can play a vital role in helping someone HIV positive come to terms with his or her status and past. "There are different projects that you can do with grade-school students that you could do with adults who don't say they're artists," Becky said, offering face casts, collages or simply listening to music as some ideas. "Of course the art world would turn their nose up at that... but I think it's really important."
When it comes to dealing with the kind of hardships she's had to face, Becky says, "The only way to really get through it is to do it a minute, or sometimes a day, at a time. ...The circumstances of your life don't have to dictate the outcome of your life."
She recently met with a friend who has been HIV positive for ten years and has never been on medication, yet has a CD4 count around 1,200 and has never been ill. "It's possible to survive and to live," Becky asserts. "It's important to get involved, and it's important to reach out to other people."