The Positive Side

Fall 2016 

Art Posi+ive: An Enchanted Life with AIDS

The creativity of Margarite Sanchez knows no bounds.

By Darien Taylor

Once upon a time, on a green and mountainous island where eagles soar among rainbows, there lived a fierce warrior woman. Threatened from all sides by a dreaded plague, she battled for her life by conjuring up from her soul a series of wondrous works of art. So fierce was the battle between life and death, and so fertile her imagination, that the creative process consumed her, and rather than the gloom of death, she lived…

"El Pescador" (The Fisherman), 2016

Art gave and restored life to Salt Spring Islander Margarite Sanchez. As a child, she recalls that she was “always good with her hands” and she dabbled in drawing, painting and ceramics. Her early attempt at batik, a wax-resist technique for dyeing fabric, was hung in front of the principal’s office at school—as she says, “the first recognition of her potential” as an artist.

Mostly self-taught, Margarite has experimented in a wide variety of art forms and media throughout her life. Now in her 50s, she has come to believe that her art is all-encompassing, that it is present not only in her drawings, photos and paintings, but in all the tasks of her daily life on this rugged West Coast island. There is no division between her art and her life, they are one and the same. They together constitute a harmonious, even spiritual, whole.

As a young single mom with two children in the late 1980s, Margarite rented a small house on the bay at the southern end of Salt Spring Island, one of the picturesque Gulf Islands tucked between mainland BC and Vancouver Island. Tugboats bobbed in the water, seals and otters played on the beach, and the inhabitants saw themselves as custodians of the land, clearing the beaches of debris, watching over the terrain and the wildlife. “I thought I would live here till I died,” recalls Margarite with a rueful laugh. “I didn’t realize how close to the truth that would be.” But the area was owned by a logging company and in the late 1990s, though not without a fierce struggle by the islanders, the families that lived here were evicted from this Garden of Eden and had to establish new homes elsewhere on the island.

A few years earlier, in the early ’90s, Margarite had begun dancing with a modern dance company. While rehearsing for a performance, she began to notice how easily she became fatigued. She was losing weight and had recurrent candida infections.

Doctors’ appointments and various tests turned up no explanation for this change in her health. Eventually she requested an HIV test, “to put my mind at ease.” No one expected that her test would come back positive, least of all Margarite. But it did. She had 50 CD4 cells. AIDS.

Her journey with dance came to an abrupt end, and four years of illness and hospitalization followed. Margarite battled waves of opportunistic infections—Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP), cryptococcal meningitis and two bouts of cytomegalovirus (CMV), one in her retina. Initially reluctant to start antiretroviral therapy, Margarite began taking HIV meds in 1997.

Slowly, as her immune system rebounded and her vitality returned, Margarite found she was even more driven to express herself through her art. First she tackled life drawing in pencil and charcoal with a small group of artists who hired a model each week for a couple of hours. The focus and meditative quality of drawing created a healing refuge for Margarite, “a time for myself.”

As her health improved, she moved into landscape painting, returning to the site of her first home, to sketch en plein air, reconnecting with the life force of nature that nourishes her spirit. When speaking of this wild part of the island, Margarite refers to it as her “muse,” her “little piece of heaven.”

Detail from "Our Journey through AIDS," mixed media, 1997

The collective of artists, known as the Mardi Mob, with whom she has become associated, introduced her to portraiture. Her first portrait was so successful in capturing the mood of the model that Margarite was hooked. “Portrait painting has all the elements of composition, planes and angles, tonal values and colours, plus personality,” she says. “If you don’t capture the personality, you don’t get a sense of the person. More than a resemblance, a portrait needs to be interesting.”

While much of her drawing and painting is done as “playtime” and “for self-care,” Margarite also creates political art and activist statements related to her experiences of living with HIV. She characterizes these works as “catalysts for change” and “an education for the viewer.”

When Margarite and Kath Webster, another West Coast woman with HIV, both achieved undetectable viral loads at the same time, they marked this milestone by creating a large collage they call “Our Journey through AIDS,” which was exhibited at Vancouver’s Roundhouse and Grunt Galleries in late 1997. “It had IV poles with drips, pill mandalas, a tiny Buddha, marijuana leaves…everything on it!” Margarite laughs.

Another work, an installation piece composed of Margarite’s empty HIV pill bottles and articles about HIV, entitled “No Longer Naïve” (a reference to the term treatment-naïve to denote someone who hasn’t yet taken HIV meds), was presented at the AIDS Vancouver Island annual art auction. A collage created with other local HIV-positive women exploring the issue of HIV criminalization was shown in 2013 at the Canadian Association for HIV Research (CAHR) conference and at the Positive Gathering, Positive Living BC’s conference by and for people living with HIV.

On a 2013 trip to Buenos Aires with her husband of 25 years, Margarite shot photos that captured the city “from the back seat of whatever public transportation we happened to be taking.” They were staying in the blue-collar neighbourhood, where her husband lived as a child and she wanted to show the gritty side of the city that most tourists don’t see. She also shot video of Las Abuelas (the Grandmothers) of the Plaza de Mayo, who since 1977 have been demanding that the Argentinian government return children who were kidnapped by the military junta during Argentina’s “Dirty War” to their families.

She plans to have a show of her photographs along with video footage of the demonstrations in the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the government buildings, with Las Abuelas holding banners and photos of their loved ones who “disappeared.” The opening event will bring together local tango dancers and live music performed by her husband. “I have more ideas than energy, unfortunately,” she chuckles.

Margarite’s artistic life knows no bounds; it extends to her kitchen and beyond. Living in a micro-climate where it is possible to grow food all year round, she sees the cyclical work of gardening, preserving, canning, freezing, drying and fermenting as part of her artistic life. “Particularly as the harvest builds up over the summer, parts of our house become like a still life, full of colours and textures. In addition to the beauty of the harvest, I think about food security, and the fact that so many people with HIV lack food security.”

Photo of street art, with the names of the "disappeared" from La Boca neighbourhood, 2013

“As the years pass, I have come to see my whole life as a real-time, interactive art installation,” she continues. “I live openly with HIV now that my two children are grown up. I run a home-based business with my husband who is a silversmith. I’m politically involved with the Green Party and helped to create the petition that our MP Elizabeth May presented in Parliament for a national AIDS strategy. I’m one of the founders of ViVA, an online advocacy and peer support network for women living with HIV in BC. I’ve been involved in several peer support initiatives that have touched the lives of hundreds of positive women over the years.”

When asked what sustains her, Margarite answers without hesitation: “I enjoy eating homegrown food and drinking Argentinian wine. I love the planet. I have an optimistic view of life. That doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen. I’ve experienced very difficult things in my life, but I honestly feel I am living an enchanted life with AIDS.”

Darien Taylor is CATIE’s former Director of Program Delivery. She co-founded Voices of Positive Women and is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. Darien has been living with HIV for more than 20 years.