The Positive Side

Winter 2008 

Art Posi+ive: Migrations

Don Short embarks on a healing journey across the rugged landscape of Newfoundland.

As told to RonniLyn Pustil

Crash

“The unexpected: You don’t know what’s coming, and there it is — and you have to deal with it.”

Don Short, 44

Visual artist
Mount Pearl, Newfoundland
Diagnosed with HIV in 2006
Migrations series, 2006
Acrylic on canvas

MIGRATIONS OCCUR WHEN BIRDS relocate to avoid harsh conditions. What I wanted to do in the Migrations series was show that when you are diagnosed with HIV you become temporarily immobilized in your thinking, knowing it’s a long journey ahead. For me, the whole experience after diagnosis was about how the landscape around me kept shifting and changing while I learned to stabilize. My life had to adjust in so many ways to being HIV positive.

The five large-scale paintings in this series cover my experience during my first year post-diagnosis and identify distinct transitions in acknowledging and accepting being HIV positive. The order of the paintings is Crash, Red Cloak, The Turning, Stirring the Waters and Resolve. They were painted over one year at intervals when I was ready to explore each part of my personal recovery. Recovery, to me, has been the process of accepting the imposition of the virus and preparing myself emotionally, mentally and physically for each hurdle or setback that has presented itself along the journey.

When I first received my diagnosis, I was frozen by the shock of it and not feeling able to even deal with it. Over time, I realized I had to make the decision to get my head and my heart right. The paintings show the process of how I became grounded and overcame obstacles as I moved forward, while opening up to support from those around me.

When nature calls

There is a lot of symbolism in the work but it’s subtle. The paintings are a visual poem in which the landscape is very interpretive. Each one contains varied elements of coastline (rock, water, trees), and because I’m from the East Coast, I use seabirds. They represent the outside forces that you either embrace or resist. Though there is a bit of me in each of the paintings, the male form in each one is not necessarily my form.

The AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador (ACNL) housed the series for World AIDS Day 2007, and the paintings have remained in the lobby of our centre as an educational tool. They have opened the door for a lot of conversations here. Art has been an integral component of the activity of ACNL’s peer support project PIERS (PHAs Interacting and Engaging in Real Support). The Tommy Sexton Centre, which houses the offices of ACNL, also has on display three large murals painted by people with HIV (PHAs) and children of PHAs.

A family affair

As part of the Migrations series, my children and I painted five small paintings of birds that connected to the theme. As an artist, I’ve always included my children (ages 10, 12 and 13) in the creative process. They also participate with me in my HIV journey and recovery in every way. We’ve always had an open relationship, and they know about my peer support work at ACNL. They’re a great support and are right there for me. The reason I want to fight the virus is for them, to show them that you have to fight. My children are my biggest motivation because they are my heartbeat — I eat, sleep and breathe them. I can’t imagine keeping my personal experience with HIV from them, as they will benefit from the strength, strategies and skills I have acquired from it.

Disclosure to children is a big issue. A lot of people avoid it and wait too long to tell their children, which can cause conflicts and mistrust further along life’s journey. It’s a personal choice for any parent when to disclose, but I chose to reveal my HIV status a few months after my diagnosis, which opened the door for honesty and discussion. My happiest memory after hospitalization was my kids actively participating in cleaning my house. They heard about the importance of sterilizing surfaces so they had fun putting on rubber gloves and using spray bottles. This demonstrated their care and concern for me.

This column is part of art posi+ive, an initiative enabling HIV-positive artists to share their experiences of living with HIV through their artwork. The program was launched in 2005 by CATIE in partnership with Gilead Sciences Canada, Inc.

The Red Cloak

“Covering yourself to brace for the unexpected — using what you know or what you believe to protect who you are when it happens.”

The Turning

“When the feeling of being buried alive leaves you and a new outlook comes. That decision time where you say to yourself: Whatever it takes, I’m doing it.”

Stirring the Waters

“Contemplation. For me that means gaining confidence in who you are and what you use to stay focused. It’s everything — support, what you think about, what goals you’ve created to move to the next level. It’s a time alone for reflection.”

Resolve

“This is the ultimate goal of rest and recovery. By recovery, I mean the process that someone goes through to bounce back. The older man in the painting represents the time and lifespan that is given to people with HIV as a result of the medications and information that are available.”

 

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