Shelter in Place
Artists Respond to Isolation & Loneliness in the Age of COVID-19
by Hank Trout
People living with HIV/AIDS are very well acquainted with isolation and feelings of loneliness. Those of us who have lived with the virus since the earliest days of the AIDS pandemic have fought a visceral battle against isolation and loneliness for thirty, thirty-five, or forty years, after losing some or all of our friends to AIDS. Our memories are full to the brim with images of friends and lovers lying alone in hospital or hospice beds, abandoned by heartless families, condemned to Hell by “Christian” leaders, failed by public health officials, ignored or worse by an openly hostile government that seemed cruelly intent on letting us die, and ostracized even within our own communities.
Throughout the forty years of the AIDS pandemic, the artists among us—painters and photographers especially—have documented the pandemic’s effects on our psyches. They have made graphic our fears of dying, our pain at losing so many friends, and our experience of loneliness and sometimes self-imposed isolation. From its very inception, A&U has showcased the work of photographers and painters whose work addresses their own and others’ experience of the pandemic—all the fear, anger, grief, and disorientation that they, and we, have known. No matter whether those works comfort us or enrage us, shock us or soothe us, they are valuable artifacts that have enriched our lives as they documented our sometimes lonely fight against the virus.
In these months when the COVID-19 pandemic has raged throughout the world and especially hard here in the U.S., when most of us are living under shelter-in-place orders to combat the spread of this new virus, many of us find ourselves consumed with grief over a steadily growing death toll, fear of contracting the virus and dying from it, anger at our government’s incompetent and befuddled response to the pandemic, and the loneliness of forced isolation from friends and family. For many of us, the news triggers painful, sometimes debilitating memories of our experiences during the worst years of the AIDS pandemic. The two viruses are different in many ways, from the methods of transmission to the unbelievably rapid growth of the death tolls. But for those of us living with HIV, the two pandemics have much more in common than is obvious to our HIV-negative neighbors.
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between the two pandemics is the isolation and subsequent feeling of loneliness many of us are experiencing—again. And so, we at A&U asked artists to share with us, and with you, images they have created that address the issue of isolation and loneliness. If these artists’ works can teach us anything, perhaps it is this: We are not alone with these feelings. There can be solidarity in our isolation.
As you look at these images and read these artists’ words, remember this—someday soon we will be together again. This too, as they say, shall pass.
Dan Nicoletta, photographer
I took this photograph in the days following the first shelter-in-place edict. I have always felt dinosaur bones signaled the existential question of extinction. This photo evokes solitude as it relates to aging (especially my own) and my ponderance of the gravity of the recently implemented shelter-in-place edicts that had just been issued by most governmental agencies due to the world-wide emergence of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic.
Alina Oswald, photographer
Several months ago, I started working on a new series of hand portraits and self-portraits. At the time I had more of an activism purpose in mind for this particular body of work, still do. But then COVID-19 happened and it reshaped, ever so slightly, the overall purpose of my hand portrait series. Its working title is “Talk with Your Hands–Gesture and Self-Expression: A Series of B&W Hand Portraits and Self-Portraits.” As part of this body of work, No Surrender has gone, itself, through its own transformation, in terms of story, symbolism, and, hence, title. Seen through the lens of coronavirus—and/or any chronic health conditions or diseases, such as HIV—the image speaks to the isolation and loneliness, to the despair and overwhelming hopelessness many of us feel when surrounded by this particular kind of darkness, defined by unknowns and uncertainties, insecurities, suffering and death. But this kind of darkness is not really something new, not to the long-term survivors of the AIDS pandemic. Maybe that’s why the eighties are also known as “the dark years” of that pandemic. Today, in a time of coronavirus, we can learn from these survivors, and try our best not to surrender to today’s darkness and claw our way through it and out of it.
Kurt Weston, photographer
I took this photograph in 1989 after my friend Daryl had tested HIV-positive. Just like now with the COVID-19 virus, the 1980’s AIDS pandemic was a frightening time, there were no effective medications to treat HIV and a positive diagnosis was an almost certain death sentence. Many of those diagnosed positive retreated from the social scene and began anticipating their eventual demise. Perhaps those who survived AIDS know all too well the effect a virus can have on the body and the loneliness of separation.
David Spiher, painter
My husband is in the late stages of early onset Alzheimer’s triggered by his HIV. His diminishment began in 2013. This cow skull was strapped to the radiator of the truck we drove cross country to California fourteen years ago. Six months ago, we moved to the relative isolation of a rural Hawaiian rain forest. During stay-at-home, I’ve had to call for an ambulance and an emergency room visit that was more like a dirty laundry pickup, deepening my emotional surrender. Contrary to most people’s experience at this time, making arrangements for in-home hospice, i.e., calling in the cavalry, has brought more people (social workers, nurses, care givers, spiritual advisors and volunteers) into my home and life.
Hank Trout, writer
I won’t pretend to be an accomplished photographer. I take a good photo, maybe, once a decade or so. I took this photo on February 29, 2020, the last day that my husband Rick and I were able to get out of our apartment before the shelter-in-place order. It was taken on the outdoor patio at the Lone Star Saloon in San Francisco, strangely empty for a Saturday afternoon. This is the wheelchair I have been forced to use for two years now. For me, the photo, the empty wheelchair, speaks to the loneliness and isolation that mars the daily life of people disabled by HIV, especially those of us with mobility issues. We’ve known the isolation of being home-bound since long, long before we were ordered to stay home.
Michael Johnstone & David Faulk, artists
Mrs. Vera (David Faulk), dwarfed by Nature fully dressed with beach toy and handbag, ready for anything that may arise. Mrs. Vera and I were staying in Melbourne Australia in the Saint Kilda District. I was taken with the late afternoon light and the starkness of the beach. The goal of the picture was to capture the loneliness, while retaining the whimsy of her self-awareness. Involuntary physical distancing and isolation can become the norm while dealing with a long-term life-threatening illness. In many ways the current Shelter in Place, social distancing and other precautions have affected people globally, resulting in a similar sense of isolation, and uncertainty.
The title On the Beach is a reference to the 1959 film of the same name. “After a global nuclear war, the residents of Australia must come to terms with the fact that all life will be destroyed in a matter of months.”
Gabriel Garbow, painter
While many of my paintings depict a single figure, the ones that include multiples often address the theme of loneliness most directly. In Absent, the two men inhabit the same room, perhaps even the same body, but do not interact with each other. Each seems to yearn for a connection that exists “out there” instead of connecting with what is right under their noses.
Paul Richmond, painter
Singer Troye Sivan commissioned Take Yourself Home to promote his new song of the same title. My husband and I were in the process of moving while I painted it, and this was also just as COVID-19 shelter-in-place mandates were beginning to take effect. I was thinking a lot about what being at home really means. It’s not just a physical location but also a state of mind, a feeling of being comfortable in our own skin. That’s why I chose to paint an image that represents “home” superimposed on Troye’s chest. If we are at home within ourselves, especially while socially isolating ourselves, then we take home with us wherever we go—even new, uncharted places.
For more information about the artists, visit:
Gabriel Garbow: gabrielgarbowart.com
Dan Nicoletta: dannynicoletta.com
Alina Oswald: alinaoswald.com
David Spiher: www.visualaids.org/artists/detail/david-spiher
Hank Trout: @HankTroutWriter
Kurt Weston: kurtweston.com
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.