On a Journey of Self-Acceptance, Artist Ronnie Queenan Uses Paint & Brush to Create Healing Art & Talk About HIV/AIDS
by Alina Oswald
Ever since he was a kid, Ronnie Queenan has admired other people’s art. At the age of fifteen, he became interested in abstract—then called modern—art. Yet, he never desired to be an artist himself. Not until he took an art healing class and picked up the brush for the first time.
“Let me just say that before,” Queenan tells me on the phone, explaining his becoming an artist, “I was an accountant for twenty years. I was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994 [and] went through a five-year depression. I was in a really dark place. Someone had suggested this art class for [people living with HIV/AIDS], and I took [it]. That’s when I realized what I was supposed to do, ’cause I was making money [as an accountant] but I was miserable.” Today he calls his HIV “a blessing in disguise,” because had it not been for the diagnosis and, in turn, that art healing class, he’d probably still be doing accounting and be miserable.
Today Ronnie Queenan continues to heal, while creating art. What he finds intriguing about his own artwork is that it is not perfect. In fact, a recurring theme in his artwork deals with imperfections—of people and nature. The artist recalls discovering nature’s imperfections while growing up in Lubbock, Texas, surrounded by a lot of openness and a lot of landscapes defined by flat lines. “If you look at a landscape, it seems perfect [from afar],” he explains. “But get closer to it and you [start noticing its] imperfections. I think it’s the same for people. I used to look at [people] and see them as being perfect, because I wanted to be perfect. But everybody has flaws. It’s like God meant us to be imperfect,” he adds. “I embrace imperfection because nothing is perfect.”
He also found inspiration in the works of abstract expressionist painters like Mark Rothko and Hans Hofmann. When he moved to Houston, Texas, he discovered Rothko’s color field paintings and was drawn to their simplicity. And he started experimenting with bright colors in his own work, only to realize that bright colors were working in harmony, as if they matched together, “like begging to be with each other,” he says.
For Queenan, colors have personalities and meanings—white is for purity, black for strength. He uses rich orange tones in Fragments of Consciousness to recreate the desolated, imperfect landscapes of his childhood place, and vibrant red tones in Discord, to paint rusty, discarded beer bottle caps.
Art is like music, he says, possessing the healing, spiritual power to take him to a place where he can be creative. He listens to all kinds of music, especially classical and jazz, while creating art that evokes a full palette of feelings and emotions, familiar to the artist, and also to the audience.
Solitude captures the artist at work, when he wants to be alone with his work. He points out that solitude is not to be confused with loneliness, which is the feeling one has when longing for someone or something.
This brings up the subject of loneliness as related to an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, especially in the years preceding the advent of lifesaving medications, and also as related to schisms between people of different serostatuses, and even disconnects among those living with HIV/AIDS who were experiencing different stages of the disease.
“I think there is still a stigma even today, with people [living] with HIV, with dating or even being friends with people,” Queenan comments about loneliness. “When getting older, that’s when loneliness comes in, because you feel isolated from other people. In the African-American community people still have that stigma. We still really don’t talk about this among each other.” He pauses, and then reiterates, “Stigma is still there. I kinda think that [it] goes back to educating people about HIV.”
The artist wholeheartedly believes that the more people come out about their status, the more information about HIV/AIDS is posted on-line, in books and magazines, the easier it is for others to come out. “That’s what happened to me,” he confesses. “I always felt so alone in this, because the friends I had weren’t positive. I’ve seen people embracing it, and now I’m able to do it, [too] because, honestly, I kinda stayed in the background. It’s a matter of being able to dialogue about it,” he adds, “but it’s still rough, because nobody wants to be the elephant in the room.”
The process of coming full-circle and accepting himself for who he really is has been a long one. Painting made it possible.
Queenan’s art subtly reveals the artist’s story. Each piece tells a chapter of the story in a striking visual language that makes viewers pause and take a closer look.
Walking in Faith captures the first (scary) steps one takes in faith, and, with that, toward healing and self-acceptance. Forgive is about the ability to forgive unconditionally. Life’s Challenges offers a look at the challenges a lot of people, and particularly men, go through, related to health, depression, self-esteem, addiction, or money. Revelation is inspired by an “a-ha” moment in Queenan’s life, when he realized he couldn’t wait for someone else to tell him how to live his life. And I’m OK talks about hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that were placed in the artist’s life. Created in response to his diagnosis with Stage IV cancer in 2010, I’m OK captures his attitude that, despite the HIV, AIDS and cancer, he is still ok. My Story inspired him to start writing a memoir, which he says, is going to be “his truth.”
One of his most remarkable bodies of work is his mask series of self-portraits. Maybe because self-portraits are themselves windows into the artist’s soul, like chapters of a memoir written in paint. As I find out, the mask series of self-portraits is also Queenan’s favorite body of work. “Everybody wears masks,” he comments, talking more in-depth about it. “For years I wore different masks, because for years I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t.”
Then there are pieces inspired by HIV/AIDS. The artist created Social Consciousness III: We All Have AIDS, because, he explains, “everybody on the planet knows somebody infected or affected by AIDS.”
Election ’08: Yes We Can was inspired by Obama’s first Presidential election. “In that piece I was hoping that people in power could do more for people living with HIV.” Election ’08: Yes We Can takes our conversation to the subject of an AIDS-free generation, to Obama’s initiative to end AIDS. I have to wonder what the artist thinks about the idea that we may find ourselves at the beginning of the end of AIDS.
“I hate to be pessimistic,” Queenan answers, “but I don’t think it will be happening in my lifetime.” While he agrees that we’ve come a long way and made strides in finding new treatments and medications, he also mentions the staggering numbers of HIV infections in the African-American community. “I think that more people are getting infected with HIV, especially the younger generation, part of it because [they] never saw people dropping dead like flies. I think they say ‘I’ll get some medicine and I’ll be ok.’” He pauses for a moment, as if reflecting on that last sentence. “I think young African-American men don’t really see [HIV/AIDS] as a [possible] death sentence, and are not educated what the downfall of it is,” he adds. “They don’t take preventive measures. So I don’t think that we need to get comfortable that AIDS is over.”
When I inquire about what he thinks we should do to open their eyes, Queenan sighs. “Boy, that’s a hard question,” he finally says. “I mean, they got all kinds of materials [available]. With PIs people know that they would live long, pretty normal lives. We need something to get people’s attention.”
How to get young people’s attention and change the way they perceive the thirty-something-year-old pandemic is another question, one that Queenan doesn’t think he can answer. And yet, if we look closely, we may find that he has been answering this question all along using his brush to tell the story of AIDS as seen through his own eyes, using his paintings to connect with people and help them understand, and also educate them about the disease.
There is no one particular painting through which he teaches about HIV/AIDS; rather, his entire body of work accomplishes this. There is no one piece he considers his favorite. “If I have to pick a favorite,” he finally says, “it’s Awaken. That’s when I awoke to life. I came to full self-acceptance on every level. It took me up to now to totally be where I am now. But I’m comfortable with who I am now.”
Painting has allowed Ronnie Queenan to go within himself and do the inner work that had to be done in order to become comfortable with his own person. The process has helped him come full circle and accept himself for who he is. “I think no matter how old you are,” he comments, “it’s good to really find out what you enjoy in life, and express yourself with it. That would be good advice for everybody, to find what you like in life and explore it more.”
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.