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Art exhibit features works by long-term survivors

by Tony Taylor

"Age, Survive and Thrive" participants Harry Breaux, left, Gregg Cassin, Diane Sciarretta, Marcus Oliphant, and publicist Laura Davis look forward to the opening reception. Photo: Tony Taylor
"Age, Survive and Thrive" participants Harry Breaux, left, Gregg Cassin, Diane Sciarretta, Marcus Oliphant, and publicist Laura Davis look forward to the opening reception. Photo: Tony Taylor  

What began as a self-care practice for Diane Sciarretta to describe the feelings of her illness to doctors and family has transformed into a partnership of survival. Bodyscapes, the artistic healing program Sciarretta created, will host an art exhibit showcasing a recent collaboration with longtime survivors of HIV/AIDS.

During an opening reception at Art Saves Lives Gallery Sunday, May 6, the remarkable exhibition, "Age, Survive and Thrive," will unveil drawings and poems created by long-term HIV/AIDS survivors.

When the Bay Area Reporter interviewed Sciarretta and a few workshop participants at Castro's Cafe Mystique, she described the alignment between Bodyscapes and the survivors as "serendipitous."

After bonding with publicist Laura Davis on a BART train two years ago, the two kept in touch. Sciarretta was looking for a new population to share her Bodyscapes project with and soon after their meeting, Davis went to the screening of "Last Men Standing," a documentary about HIV/AIDS survivors.

At the screening, Davis met Gregg Cassin of Honoring Our Experience, a retreat for people impacted by HIV. Davis then told Sciarretta, "I think this might be your group."

And so began the love story, as Sciarretta called it, between her and Cassin. Through his connections with Honoring Our Experience, Sciarretta had new participants for her workshop.

"If he wants my project, this is the group I want to give it to," Sciarretta recalled thinking. "[The connection] was beyond my expectation."

Bodyscapes workshops began partnering with HIV/AIDS survivors in late 2016, and the program continued for a year. Sciarretta, an art educator, soon realized that many of the participant's health issues were around aging with AIDS.

"Bodyscapes was born out of my illness and trauma," she explained, beginning to tear up. "What's important for me after 25 years of depression is to let Bodyscapes be of use. [I wondered] why my life as a schoolteacher ended. It's to give this project to people with illness and about the importance of their stories being told."

Cassin said that many people who have lived with HIV/AIDS for decades are now concerned with aging issues.

Participant Marcus Oliphant's art and poem, "Inside Me," are featured on the cover of the "Age, Survive and Thrive" catalogue. Oliphant, 44, described the upcoming exhibit as "an artistic voice in our journey of dealing with this virus."

"Most of us [with HIV/AIDS] are isolated. My culture doesn't talk about it at all," said Oliphant, who is African-American. "This platform that Diane introduced to honor our experience was a perfect match. Community is what's important in this battle of HIV and AIDS and the stigma behind it."

Harry Breaux, 73, who is an artist involved with "Age, Survive and Thrive," was one of eight men featured in "Last Men Standing." He arrived to the Castro in the 1970s, before the AIDS epidemic began.

"My long-term AIDS process started in the 1970s during the extreme gay revolution. That's when the virus was being passed around," Breaux said. "The action in the 1970s was fighting for our rights. When the 1980s [and epidemic] came around, we changed that slogan to 'fighting for our lives.'"

In response to participating in Bodyscapes, Breaux said he was resistant at first, but he did the workshops and found himself getting into it more than he expected. His poem, "My AIDS," channels his feelings of betrayal.

In his youth, Breaux had gone to military school, and when it was learned that he was homosexual, he said, "that all went away."

"To me, the betrayal was having really become a patriotic American, expecting to go that route [in life]," Breaux added. "But what I saw during the epidemic was this country turn its back on a cure or helping us get through it."

Nearly 40 years after the epidemic began, a revolutionary, long-acting injectable prevention formula, Cabotegravir, is being investigated. According to http://www.AIDSmap.com, the injection, given every eight weeks, produces high enough drug levels to offer protection against HIV.

Cabotegravir, which is being studied on HIV-negative participants at low risk for HIV infection, began tests in 2017 in Brazil, Malawi, South Africa, and the United States. Most U.S. participants were men, while the women were distributed across the three countries. According to AIDSmap.com, six trans men and one trans woman were included. Just over 40 percent were black, 27 percent were white, and 24 percent were Latino or Hispanic.

Currently, the most effective drug for preventing HIV, PrEP, is a once-daily pill.

"This is a miracle," said Cassin of PrEP. "We've gotten to a place where we aren't relying on condoms. It's what we've hoped and prayed for; what we've all wanted."

He added that the way Sciarretta designed the Bodyscapes workshop is a powerful way of facing and challenging illness.

"It's profound," Cassin said. "So much of the challenges we faced for decades was the power of stigma and shame that drove this epidemic. People are afraid to get tested or afraid to speak out for treatment."

Breaux described his art as a visceral response to the disease.

"Art can [express feelings] in a way that just talking about them at the town hall meeting doesn't," Breaux said. "[With Bodyscapes], for people living an extremely altered life for years, we're still able to find beauty and joy in our experience rather than being depressed by what it means to be a survivor of AIDS."

"It's so dark and alone living with this disease," Oliphant added. "This gave me a voice to tell the story of my journey. Hopefully, others will connect with it and get something out of it for their journey."

The opening reception for "Age, Survive and Thrive," is May 6 from 1 to 5 p.m. at Art Saves Lives Gallery, 518 Castro Street. The event is free, though donations are welcome. For more information, visit http://www.redandorangehouse.com.

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