Human Fabric
Entwining feelings related to HIV seroconversion, remembrance and longing into swatches of decorative materials and textiles, San Diego-based artist Scott James Vanidestine stiches together an evocative queer vernacular making his “gay” experience and that of his oral history contributors more visibly potent and universal
Text & Photos by Sean Black

Growing up in Oklahoma and part of a generation glued to MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco, artist Scott James Vanidestine, thirty-seven, remembers vivdly Pedro Zamora, one of television’s first openly HIV-positive personalities.

It has been nearly twenty-three years since Zamora’s death from AIDS, just a little more time than his life of twenty-two years, yet he is still remembered passionately today. Not just for Scott but for scores of youngsters, Pedro became the face of his peers—the paradoxical personification of vitality and despair in the pre-cocktail years of AIDS. In 1994, after the show’s last broadcast, Pedro succumbed to a rare brain disorder, but he will always be remembered as a vibrant Latino activist, educator and a humanitarian who many times set aside his own basic needs during his last struggling years in the hopes of reaching others, particularly those of color to spare them his disease.

“I felt like Pedro was my friend,” recalls Vanidestine from his City Heights suburb home, which he shares with husband Andrew and a boxer-mix rescue named Wrigley on the outskirts of San Diego.

But it was a real-world friend he met years later who provoked a direct response to HIV.

When Scott was nearing completion of his MFA at the University of Illinois–Champagne, he reconnected with a friend who was struggling with life yet being very secretive about with what exactly he was dealing. He worked in film and was stationed at the time in India. Although working with a big company, he felt very alone. One day he revealed his truth and said, “Look, I just found out that I am HIV-positive and I have been dealing with this for about six or seven months.”

Scott, who was struggling in his own ways with the direction of his work, decided the best way he could empathize was through art. “I came up with this idea of asking some silly questions like, ‘what is your favorite color and favorite animal?’ and juxtapose them with some questions that were really heavy.

“I posed those questions to my friend in the hopes that it would help him to help me understand his situation as well as to help him verbalize and pinpoint how he was feeling. I am an artist—I wanted to use the responses of my friend in India to make him something beautiful because I empathized with his feelings of devastation and loneliness—like it was the end of his world.”

He continues: “I wanted to make him something to help him emerge from this. I was working on these fabric panels and while they were stuck up on the walls I started thinking about how do we talk about things visually without using words—as gay people I think we do this a lot or we pick up on the cues. A lot of my research in grad school was about hanky codes, naval flags and underground railroad quilting—where fabric is used as a base then through color and arrangement visually communicate something.”

Scott constructed a draping panel in creamy white, sourcing from eBay a collection of Indian-made appliques from a bride auctioning off remnants of her scrapped wedding. “White is about being alone and in hanky code it symbolizes something definitive—either all in or all out.”

His creation, 3 Weeks After Exposure (2016) was recently included along with work of eleven other artists working with preconceptions and signifiers of masculinity. Artists included Cassils, Badly Licked Bear, and Ryan James Caruthers, among others.

Wignall Museum Curator Roman Stollenwerk chose to include Scott’s piece in his well-received exhibition “Man Up!” moving from the Chaffey College Campus in Rancho Cucamonga, California, to Cerritos College, also in the Golden State. Stollenwerk chose his work based on his interest in Scott’s ability to promote discourse around gay culture, masculinity, and the codes, signs, and signifiers that express and shape identity the mission of Scott’s work. “It really ties in to the exhibition in terms of the performance of masculinity and identity, and the abstract language of identity,” shares Stollenwerk. “Scott discusses these things with materials and processes that are an unexpected and engaging addition to the exhibition.”

Stollenwerk continues, “For me, this particular project of Scott’s is about intimacy, vulnerability and communication. One problem with traditional notions of masculinity is the negative attitude toward discussing feelings and emotions, and revealing anything that could be interpreted as vulnerability or softness. Scott’s conversations act against this masculine characteristic, but the content is then recoded in an object that contains hidden expressions and doesn’t readily state its meaning.”

Scott’s aim to challenge the viewer to decode objects that straddle between the known and unknown. “Most of my works draw on a family history of working with our hands through quilting, sewing and carpentry. Oftentimes the materials, I use carry a deeper connection to place, symbolism, or symbolism through storytelling.”
Since 2013, Scott has been collecting the oral histories of HIV-positive men, a project inaugurated by the confidence shared by his close friend. The series titled “UNTITLED (7 POZ QUESTIONS), Oral Histories Project” is told through a series of responses to a seven-part questionnaire posed to the subject. The responses drive his processes of making.

1. Favorite color?
2. Favorite animal?
3. First (MM) kiss?
4. Greatest moment?
5. The moment you found out you were POZ?
6. Do you know who exposed you?
7. Do you remember the experience?

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Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @seanblackphoto.