Out of the Fire
Anointed, Inspired, Delivered & Saved, Artist Joyce McDonald Rewrites Longterm Survival
by Chael Needle
Photos by Alina Oswald
HIV is not the end. Having no hope is,” Brooklyn-based artist Joyce McDonald explains deep into our conversation. Also an AIDS advocate and an ordained, licensed reverend, McDonald shapes clay as deftly as she she shapes words. It’s no wonder her message has an impact no matter what form her expression takes, whether she is creating sculptures and paintings or conducting her AIDS and other outreach ministries around New York City.
Hope has surely been a companion as much as her Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, on her journey, which might be encapsulated by one of the titles of her pieces: From Bondage to Freedom.
The sculpture of a woman shows two faces, one side distraught, one side serene. Asked about her inspiration for the piece, she relates that she had been in constant “personal bondage” for over thirty years before her release. “That’s why I have it spinning—on a podium that spins. Because, finally, things came around,” she shares. “This woman is completely free of her past personal demons—past hurts, tragedies, drug addiction, all enmeshed together.”
McDonald was diagnosed positive in 1995. Knowing of her past injection drug use, the Rev. Dr. Mark V. C. Taylor, her pastor at her place of worship, The Church of the Open Door, urged her to test and even offered to accompany her to the appointment to test alongside her. It was a moment she will never forget, and she still admires his approach. “You can’t just walk into a church and say, ‘You have to have an HIV test.’ It has to be done in a Godly, loving way,” she notes. Later she learned she had contracted HIV in 1985.
In late 1993, while waiting for the drug dealer to come, never intending to stop getting high, so deep in addiction that she told people with whom she did drugs that if she died she wanted them to bury the heroin in the casket with her, she heard God’s voice, went to church, and accepted Christ into her heart. “I just started telling it on the mountain. He set me totally free.”
Twenty-two years sober, she has found peace. “Now I’m really grateful for everything I lived through….I was not happy that I was molested, not happy that I was raped, not happy that I was tricked into prostitution, not happy that I was abused, battered, kidnapped…all of that, but it was a blessing in disguise. God gets all the glory, but when I tell my story [the message is that] you can make it. You can get your mind back. I had doctors telling me I was going to be in the psych unit forever….My mind would never register right,” she says about a psychiatric diagnosis whose textbook outcome never came to pass.
“I have a very strong relationship with the Lord Christ Jesus, who I believe in. And He has never failed me. Even at the times like when I went from HIV to AIDS he had me in everything.” When at Sloan-Kettering, when complications from thyroid surgery arose, doctors suddenly needed to make an incision in her neck while she was awake. She informed them she was positive. The doctors left and returned in “space suits.” Her daughter was bawling, but McDonald found herself thanking Jesus and smiling. “I had the strongest relevation for why I believe in what I do now for God because I felt Him holding me.” A little later, after she was all stitched up, her neck bled again. A Code Blue was called. Her close relations were phoned because the doctors did not think she was going to make it. But she did.
Afterward, she created paintings in response. Your Faith Has Made You Well (20001) shows a despearate plea to Jesus. Says Joyce: “As I lay bleeding, doctors left the room. Mark 5:25 came up like a movie and the story ministered to me.” Another painting, Healing Power, shows figures more loosely rendered. Created when McDonald was homebound after the Code Blue incident, it is part of series where she closed her eyes and her hand moved as if directed by God.
The healing power of the Lord is a theme she returns to time and again. Another one of her sculptures, Standing in the Time of Adversities, which shows a woman’s face and neck, pockmarked with holes, bears witness to the scars that remain after the storm, that are part of her now, as the artist explains.
“I can feel peace in her face. If you can look past the scars and all those dots, she has peace. Every hole in there was a moment of her pain, despair, all the things she went through and is going through even now. Every hole is something she survived or went through in her life [whether physical or mnetal].”
McDonald goes on to point out her strong neck, her solid foundation. “She stands in her day of adversities,” she says, mentioning that it also echoes her God-given ability to stand after a period of immobility. “She’s fixed on not losing her peace in the midst of all those things….And [that peace] was from God, because that peace that you see in her face can only come from God.”
Her spirituality and creative expression see her through her struggles with physical pain, she says, referring to neuropathy and shingles, among other condtions, over the years. Her art, as she describes it, is often created in the midst of pain. She refers to Praise the Lord, which shows a woman in an awkward turn and produced while she suffered from nerve damage and shingles. It represents freedom, she says. From March 2009 to September or October, she would scream as “fireballs” rolled through her legs. Her mother would run to her and pour ice on her to try to relieve the unbearable pain, “Between the screams, when I wasn’t screaming, I would run and do art….[W]hen everything would stop I would go and find some clay and do some art. For that period of time it stopped….all I could do is just pray to God, just pray, pray, pray, for I knew I had gotten past that horrific time.” Those times when pain is relieved often happen when she is in the creative zone, she says.
While her neuropathy still flares up, sometimes twenty-four hours a day, she can produce at any time, though she has slowed. She recently found the strength to participate in Love Positive Women at Visual AIDS, however.
McDonald has worked hard to recover her Victorious self. (For her, the V in HIV stands for spiritual Victory, she says.) And she has developed a deep well of resilience for struggling through any kind of pain. She recently mourned the death of her sister, Janet McDonald, an international attorney and writer (Project Girl) who had lived in Paris for twenty years, and the death of filmmaker Miriam Perez, who drowned before she could finish the documentary, Holler, that she was making of Joyce’s life.
I offer that she does not believe in suppressing the negative, but McDonald corrects me, enriches the chronology. “Oh no, I was like that. That’s what kept me on heroin for so long. Because when I would come off it those [choices] would be staring me in my face. I’d be embarrassed, I’d be ashamed of all the things that happened, beyond my control and the things that I chose to happen because of my drug use. But I came to understand, way back in ’85, that not telling anybody all those things were those little dots, they all added up,” she says, explaining that’s partly how she came to empathy, a love-thy-neighbor approach to others who may be abusing their bodies.
“Now I’m a little older, now I know that everything is connected—it was because of this then that happened and it grew and grew and grew. [They were all] things that I was hiding. I did suppress.”
Now, McDonald uses her voice, her experiences, and her perspective to pay tribute to those who have died before us and to help others in need.
“My heart is burdened for a lot of people because there’s still a whole population of people who, before they made those new medicines, crossed that unspoken, invisible line,” says McDonald, who only started taking HIV meds in 2009. “You know in the early eighties we would see people. We saw the ravages of AIDS. We don’t see any of that now. We see Magic Johnson on the poster. We see posters of people smiling with the pills. People have a whole different understanding of what HIV and AIDS is about,” she says.
Communities still need education about HIV/AIDS; the level of empathy is just not there yet, she
decries. She has noticed that testifying about HIV in churches has declined of late. She mourns the closure of local day programs and residential treatment facilities for individuals living with HIV/AIDS, such as Rivington House and the Robert Mapplethorpe Residential Treatment Facility. (People were scattered—and devastated, she says, including her brother who is living with HIV/AIDS.) And she bemoans the fact that AIDS has become marginalized, even though people are still dying. She has noticed changes in the World AIDS Day event she has spoken at for the past ten years. This last year, she was shuttled to the end of the program and told to hurry up. The event itself morphed into more of a catch-all health fair. She sees this “disappearing” of AIDS happening in other public-health sites, too, where the disease is inadvertently occluded.
“Of all the illnesses in the world, especially in the United States, AIDS should always be singled out until there is a cure. Why should it be singled out? Because people are still being stigmatized and discriminated against. It’s here in 2016.”
Last year, she went to a prestigious Manhattan spa for a facial. She had just become mobile again and, on that day, she had been ministering to a close relation with cancer—all she wanted was some relaxation. She happened to mention that she was positive and suddenly the technician disappeared, only to return after a long while to inform her that she could not be provided the service. “Is it because I said I was HIV?” she had asked. He said, “Exactly.”
Joyce was shocked. She had been twice on missions to the Dominican Republic (where giving your HIV testimony is not always a safe thing to do, she says); and she had testified on the streets of Brooklyn, on TV, in church, showing people that living with HIV/AIDS is not a source of shame, so she found it hard to believe that professionals were discriminating against her to her face. “I was in tears, because now I feel what other people feel. I understood why people live in fear; I told reception, ‘That’s your policy?’ She said ‘Yep.’ [I wondered] ‘Am I in the United States?’ That’s the wrong thing to do to the right person.” She considered filing a suit, but has yet to do so.
She explains: “I was not hurt for myself because I can handle it….But I was hurting for the people who are hiding right now. Because I know many people do not tell people their status. They only go to their doctor. They go to the program. And then for the thousands who are living in nursing homes and the hospitals that have already crossed that line. I know people right now in 2016 that will not tell their families, anyone….I’m talking about the people—the people who are living in our buildings, the people who are next door, the people who are in families who hear what other people say,” she says, thankful for her own supportive church and family, which, besides her brother, includes her mother, two daughters, eleven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
She states that it is important for people to see that people like her are not ashamed, to see that you can survive. They need to hear the message from someone who is not hiding, she affirms. “HIV is not the end. Having no hope is. You have to see it with a new eye,” she says, sharing her relabelling of the viral acronyms. For “AIDS,” for example, she reassigns the meaning thusly: A: Anointed, blessed by God; I: Inspired, by the Holy Spirit; D: Delivered, by the word of God; S: Saved. “I have to see those words different.”
Her activism is closely tied to her faith. She has been licensed through and is a member of the New York State Chaplain Task Force, which helps faciliate ministering, whether it’s a bedside visit or raising awareness about systemic needs like housing. She was the coordinator of an AIDS ministry from 2000 to 2014. At nursing homes, she has set up spa and beauty days, blessed barber shops, and other thinking-outside-of-the-box efforts. She started an initiative called Keep Your Pearls Girls, which teaches universal precautions and HIV-specific empathy to girls ages five to twelve at her church and at P.S. 287. She also conducts a clothes ministry and a ministry where people correspond to individuals, of all serostatuses, who are incarcerated. And she always has time to take a phone call for testing advice.
Her Seemingly Forgotten ministy tends to those who have fallen through the cracks. Her own neuropathy alerted her to the fact that individuals may be in need of cushioned shoes. This past December, she gathered fellow Good Samaritans and collected over 180 pairs of house shoes in a little under a month. They went to an HIV care facility to deliver them, hoping to impress upon the residents that they are still remembered. It was a joyous visit, full of prayers, song, crying, and hugs. “People had hug deprivation, my brothers and sisters, all nationalities, all ages. They hugged us. We all were crying. Five of us—we hugged 156 people on December 22, and then a few of us went back on Christmas Day.
“Some had been there for years. Even in that situation there’s still hope,” she reflects. Their condition might change, she says. They might pick up a pen and begin to write. They might create.
Locate an archive of Joyce McDonald’s work at: www.visualaids.org. Find her on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/Joyce-McDonald-From-the-Shooting-Gallery-to-the-Art-Gallery-148166952524.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.