The Prickliness of Life
Artist David Spiher Documents the Struggles and Triumphs of Love & Loss
by Hank Trout
David Spiher certainly knows the prickliness of life. It is indeed that prickliness of life that so clearly unites David’s art to his day-to-day existence. And like exquisitely fragrant flowers blooming on the prickliest thorned bush, the art he produces is deeply moving and beautiful, as if in defiance of those thorns.
Of his early days, growing up in one of the “sleeper burbs for the steel mills” in Northwestern Indiana, east of Chicago, south of Gary, David tells A&U, “I had no social skills. I was outed as a sissyboy at [age] six and became a vector for taunting, physical bullying, and humiliation and was socially ostracized through graduation from high school, taking refuge in the art rooms.” David believes that those years of hiding, escaping, led to his indecisiveness later, even in the art room. He worked as an assistant to several artists, designers, and craftspeople, helping them create their art. When it came time to make his own art, he had difficulty making artistic decisions and justifying those choices to himself. One way he found to deal with that difficulty was to create various personae, different noms des plumes as it were. Thus was born Virginia Trembles, whose specialty was hand-painted pornographic ceramic plates.
“Since seroconverting [David was diagnosed in 1985] I had made continuous recommitments to making artwork, to finding a way forward. I had been making abstract work in New York City, but [my] interest in figuration and implied narrative [kept] creeping in. I wanted a chance to test, to swim the waters on the down low. I had worked as a studio assistant, for four different ceramic artists, two hand weavers, and an interior designer in both Boston and New York City, at this point so I already understood the subordination of personality needed to be productive in those situations. I based Virginia’s studio demands partly on the interior designer and one of the ceramist. Virginia was great with porn images and the overly dramatic; she was a big hit on Fire Island.”
“Besides,” he continues, “it was really nice to have a name that people could say and spell correctly without my having to.”
David met Ralph Thurlow socially in December 2003 in New York City. By 2006, they were committed enough that they moved to the San Francisco Bay Area together when Ralph, a veterinary surgeon, was offered a job caring for animals in a research lab. They settled into the tranquility of their Hayward home. And then, one of those prickly thorns appeared.
In 2014, Ralph was diagnosed with HAND (HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder), which results when the virus gets into the brain. Many people have only mild symptoms, such as short-term memory loss or loss of other cognitive functions, but Ralph was diagnosed with a much more severe form of HAND that causes dementia, paralysis, and death. Initially given a prognosis of five to seven years, Ralph has a new prognosis. After extensive testing coordinated by his neuropsychologists at Kaiser and researchers at UCSF, Ralph’s diagnosis has been revised from HAND to Alzheimer Dementia. “The best thinking.” David tells A&U, “is that he likely had a genetic propensity for late onset, he has ALZ on both sides of his family (in their eighties), but that the HIV has progressed that propensity to an early onset.” At this point his diagnosis is a solid 5 on the ALZ 7-point scale of progressing diminished capacity.
Just ten days before the premiere of Last Men Standing, a film about long-term HIV survivors in San Francisco in which David and Ralph participated [A&U, May 2016], Ralph began having aural hallucinations, hearing disembodied voices in his head. (See the painting, Signal.) Through a lot of trial and error, Ralph’s hallucinations are currently under control with medications. However, he still requires almost constant care. And although David has maintained a full-time job (supervising other caregivers, serendipitously enough), he has assumed full responsibility for Ralph’s care.
“My days begin at 5:30 a.m. and I’m almost never in bed before midnight. Ralph is very diurnal now, up at sunrise, fading at sunset. Once I get him fed and in bed, I usually get an hour or two to work. I usually have two or three paintings going at any time. Since August I’ve been paying cash out of hand for additional caregiving to buy myself a weekend morning in the print studio.”
Ralph has been the dominant subject of David’s artwork since his initial HAND diagnosis. In recent years, however, he has become much more of a participant in the creation of the art than just a subject. For instance, David says, a painting like Signal is a straightforward portrait of Ralph. But David wanted Ralph to be more active, more involved in the paintings. “I offer up all of the paintings for ongoing criticism from Ralph. He may no longer be able to dress himself, but he certainly still has opinions, strong ones.” Take a look, for instance, at Sidewinder. David says, “Ralph and I took turns adding elements at the beginning—the shower curtain from a David Hockney, Ralph’s clock.”
Much more personal, because they deal directly with Ralph’s growing disability, and because they involve Ralph’s direct participation, are paintings like I don’t understand what’s happening to me. Of that painting, David says, “As part of Ralph’s ongoing diagnosis at the time, he was having to draw the clock face. It’s a standard neuropsych test that speaks volumes about brain damage….This is one of the first images where I had Ralph draw a clock face before I started the painting.” Inserting the ring of eyes was a later intuitive inspiration. “I’m big on, when the intuition comes, get in the car and go with it. Months later, I [realized that] surely the ring of eyes, the Caregiver, was a self-portrait, green with life but slightly metallic, watchful but relentlessly witnessing, a lifesaver but constraining. The caregiving situation distorts everyone involved.”
With Meditation, David reversed the process, asking Ralph to draw the clock in the painting after David had finished everything else and was ready to varnish the painting. “I had Ralph draw his clock in charcoal.… I was willing to accept whatever he drew. I couldn’t have asked for a better response. Look closely at the clock face as Ralph drew it. Most of his damage is on the right side of the brain—thus, the left side of the clock is empty.”
Working in such an interactive way with Ralph has been “thrilling” for David and “has really pushed me to trusting to my own intuition. I make stronger paintings.” With Meditation again, when it came time to let Ralph contribute to the painting, “I had steeled myself to accept whatever marks he made wherever he made them. While he was drawing the charcoal clock, I wussed out and couldn’t watch, but I was thrilled with the result.”
Through David’s artwork, he and Ralph are “actively working out the ways and means of dealing with our physical, mental and emotional health.” The thornier that life becomes, the more life’s prickliness assaults them, the more revealing and more beautiful their art becomes.
David Spiher has exhibited his work in galleries from coast to coast. Most recently, his show “Remembering to Forget, The Clocks,” at Strut, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s Castro Street complex, featured the five paintings featured in this article as well as other paintings depicting David’s changing life with Ralph. More images of David’s work can be found on the Visual AIDS website at www.visualaids.org/artists/detail/david-spiher. For more information on “Last Men Standing,” the film that David and Ralph participated in, check out our article from May 2016.
Hank Trout is an Editor at Large for A&U.