What Is Possible
Hugh Elliott taps into the therapeutic aspect of creativity
by Chael Needle
Anyone familiar with The AIDS Memorial on Instagram (@theaidsmemorial) may be familiar with the work of artist Hugh Elliott. He designed the second iteration of the T-shirt promoting the popular social media campaign, which features a way for people to pay tribute in image and text to those close to them who have died from AIDS-related causes. The T-shirt is sold by socially conscious merch company Adam’s Nest (see this month’s Holiday Gift Guide), as is another bearing one of Elliott’s designs: Mask.
Says Adam Singer, Adam’s Nest founder: “Following Hugh’s creation of the second AIDS Memorial T-shirt supporting SAGE [an organization that supports LGBTQ+ elders], he and I have had regular contact and launched a second T-shirt supporting Greenpeace. As the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining strength throughout spring, the season in Provincetown was up in the air. I was trying to find ways to keep an open dialogue with Adam’s Nest customers and launched a ‘Soap and Hope’ Charity T-shirt with queer artist Jeremy Novy for COVID relief efforts. Hugh had forwarded an illustration of the masked man and we thought it was a perfect graphic for the masked season in Provincetown and [Adam’s Nest decided to] have a portion of proceeds support the AIDS Support Group Cape Cod. Throughout summer it was very well received and as the pandemic continued we updated in a military green color for fall.”
The Elliott-illustrated T-shirts show only a sliver of Hugh Elliott’s talent, which is immediately on display on his Instagram @wehogayman, where digital renderings of flowers, faces, and his dog Bunny abound.
Raised in the South, Elliott attended Washington University’s fine arts program and its graduate writing program before moving to San Francisco’s Castro Street neighborhood, a mecca for the queer community, in the late 1970s. He made another move to New York City in 1985 and became, as he says, a “Chelsea boy.” While in New York, Elliott worked in the fashion industry and also wrote a two-act play about HIV titled Oz, which was staged at the York Theatre in 1996. In 1998, he made his last move, to West Hollywood, California.
Recently, A&U had a chance to correspond with Hugh Elliott via email.
Chael Needle: How did the AIDS Memorial collaboration come about?
Hugh Elliott: My connection to The AIDS Memorial was very strong. I’m a long term survivor of thirty-five years and, having lived in New York City, I recognized and knew many of the men who were remembered there.
My collaboration with The AIDS Memorial came about because I’d submitted a couple of tributes that were very popular on the site. Through that I became friends with Stuart who runs the Instagram and when they were planning on making a second T-shirt for charity, he asked me to create an image knowing from my Instagram that I was also an illustrator.
What were you trying to express with the design?
My intent with the new image was to be as life-affirming and inclusive as possible. I felt the first image, while very successful and creative, had a very activist approach with its pink triangle/Silence=Death visual reference, while I wanted something softer. I also wanted to include people of color and women. It can be easy to overlook that AIDS affects many different groups other than just white men. And while I’m a white male, I wanted everyone to be represented. I wanted to illustrate how we as a group of people with this disease can connect and comfort each other.
Yes, I love the diversity of people in your portfolio on Instagram. Your treatment of the human form is beautiful. What was the process like arriving at or perfecting this style?
Well, in college I majored in printmaking, so I tend to view the images I create through that lens, such as layers you might have in silkscreening for example. And of course there are the artists who I admire: Peter Max and his use of vibrant color; Warhol and his blocks of color behind his portraits, Hockney.
I like constantly trying new things as well. I’ll inadvertently create an effect in the illustration program I use (which is pretty basic) and then want to explore and use it in my work. It’s really a constant exploration for me. I’ll begin with a vague idea, see something else that catches my eye, and then the final image may be completely different. It’s like life where being flexible and inquisitive can often result in pleasant surprises!
So you enjoy the process of discovery. What has the experience been like sharing your work on Instagram?
It’s been interesting! I’m often surprised at what posts get a larger number of likes. It’s often ones I’ve dashed off versus ones I really love personally. People love my posts where I write about anecdotes from my storied past, so I like that.
Also as a gay man, I’m older and not constantly posting pictures of myself at the gym or shirtless so my Instagram’s attention comes more from a different demographic. I try really hard not to be numbers obsessed but I am, after all, mostly human.
Well, who doesn’t like the rush when something one posted is loved! Tell me a little about your two-act play that addresses HIV….
Well, I’d never written a play before but I wrote it as my response to seeing the play Jeffrey off-Broadway. Which I hated. After I wrote my play (which I’d named it Oz, way before the TV show) I wasn’t sure what to do with it. But I asked a friend who was in the Broadway musical Tommy to read it. He said “I will but I’ll tell you now—I hate everything.” But he loved it and actually arranged the very first reading in his apartment with some of his fellow cast members. Michael Cerveris read the lead.
I then asked another friend who was a director to read it but [he] kind of forgot about it. A few months later he called to say he’d given it to the York Theatre and they chose it for a staged reading series. So it was performed there one Sunday night to a packed house in 1996. That night was scary and exciting.
Oz deals with a man who’d found out he was positive and was unsure how to proceed telling his friends and his new boyfriend, and their various responses. I’d already been coming out as positive, so it was partially a reflection of my feelings about that journey. It was a thrilling experience but my life was in upheaval at that time and I wasn’t able to pursue it. But I still have people ask to read it and I love hearing praise, right? [Laughs.]
How has your thinking changed about living with HIV since the 1990s when you wrote the play?
Obviously, since then, there’ve been dramatic advances in medicine for one. So, I think the diagnosis has usually moved from being deadly to being manageable if you pursue proper care. I have lived through the gamut of prognoses and I’m personally at the point where age and AIDS have intersected so an issue could be due to several reasons. Throw COVID-19 in there for good measure and it’s all a guessing game.
Also, the stigma about the disease has dramatically changed and people who are newly diagnosed as positive have so many more resources and role models who’ve come out before them. I came out rather early about being positive in the nineties and actually had two close friends who found out they were positive and then looked to me for advice and guidance. I wrote an article about having AIDS in 2002 for Salon magazine as well. So, I was very open about my personal status. In many regards this coming out can be very similar to coming out as gay. First you feel like a special snowflake but eventually it’s just like “Yeah, I have AIDS. What’s the deal with your haircut?” Life is happening all around us despite your bloodwork.
Are there ways you feel your experiences living with HIV have influenced your art? If so, could you comment on that?
Having HIV and AIDS has influenced my art because I often use creating as a means of stress reduction and to center myself. The images therefore usually tend to be more colorful and fanciful. For example, I draw a flower every day in some form. I’ve actually been down and depressed and gone to communicate that feeling in art but veer to brighter colors and end up with a more optimistic image. I’m just drawn that way.
My art (and writing) also serve as my testament to what is possible despite a virus. That I’m going on thirty-five years positive but still creating (mostly) beautiful images every day reflects how we can live fully despite our diagnosis. Even if I’m the only one constantly aware of my history, I’m still amazed and confounded that I’m able to make what I do.
Follow Hugh Elliott on Instagram @wehogayman.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.