It’s true what you’ve heard and what you’ve read, I am stepping down from my position here at Visual AIDS because of exciting growth opportunities for the non-profit that I founded, Project and Connect. My departure has been slow, deliberate, and thought out. I made my intentions to leave known to my colleagues here in April, so this transition has left me with time to think, and a chance to stay deep in thought, wondering how I got here and why I was blessed with this opportunity.
I believe in the dark beauty in everything, and though my own exposure to the HIV virus was ugly—I was left stabbed and bleeding in the bathroom of a club in the Castro for nearly 7 hours—the dark beauty in it came with the life that was and is ahead of me because of it. I live with the virus. I talk to it and tell it my troubles when we’re alone at night. A community member I met last year taught me how to do that. The virus and I have learned to cohabitate and while we don’t always get along, we do understand each other. So to my fellow positive humans, I say get to know your virus if you haven’t already. It sometimes - sometimes - does kind things for its host. The virus led me to Visual AIDS and led me to return to the life I had left behind, but with a new purpose and sense of understanding. Though it’s eating away at me and I often hate it for doing that, it also gave and is giving me a second chance. I saw life from a new perspective and I finally knew what I needed to do.
A few months after my own HIV diagnosis, I had just returned to New York from San Francisco after finally registering my project, Project and Connect, as a non-profit organization. I was looking desperately for community. I felt for a long time that I was the only living boy in New York and the only one who understood. My own diagnosis however, was the slap in the face that I needed to prove that working with and for people living with HIV was where I belonged, despite the fact that I had been doing this work in one way or another since 2012.
I attended the opening of Visual AIDS’ 2017 annual exhibition VOICE=SURVIVAL at the 8th Floor Gallery, hoping to meet potential partners and other artists. What I discovered there was more than I could have ever expected. I briefly met Esther and Alex and ever the promiscuous networker, gave them my shiny new business cards in hopes of establishing some kind of relationship and then after making my presence known by tripping over a wire, left with high hopes and a feeling of belonging.
Excited and feeling moved by the exhibition, I went home to research Visual AIDS so that I could figure out how to make some kind of inter-organizational relationship work. To my surprise, when I went to the Visual AIDS website, I found a job posting. I couldn’t afford to pay myself out of Project and Connect’s budding organization’s budget, so I needed a job and I applied immediately with no expectations. One thing led to another and I was starting here as Development Associate.
From my first day, I knew that Visual AIDS was different. I was embraced by my colleagues and used my experience living with HIV as an opportunity to teach and to learn. Meeting with so many beautiful and talented Artist Members are experiences that I will never forget. For all of the blood work I’ve had to have and all the time off I’ve needed to see the doctor - or even to work on Project and Connect - Esther never batted an eye. Visual AIDS is a supportive and bolstering environment and I truly did enjoy coming to work almost every day because of the potential I saw here.
But times change and life moves quickly. Project and Connect grew exponentially throughout my year here and our reach broadened. Our programs were taking off and I was working full time for both Visual AIDS and Project and Connect. 40 hours a week in the office and 30 hours a week on the streets, working with the community. I am tired. But coming to work here in an always exciting and challenging environment helped me to forget my exhaustion from the night before and kept me on my toes. Still though, I had to make a choice, and I couldn’t let Project and Connect fade away, so I came to the conclusion that it was best to leave Visual AIDS.
Over the past year, Visual AIDS gave me so much more than just a salary. Thanks to Visual AIDS, I also found the greatest co-project director I could have ever asked for, Visual AIDS’ 2018 Curatorial Resident, MC Roodt. I made the (happy) mistake of volunteering to pick him up at JFK when he arrived on February 28th (at 7AM) and we hit it off immediately, despite the fact that we were both ready to fall asleep.
After spending the better part of March exploring the city together and a teary-eyed airport goodbye on April 1st, I trekked to South Africa in early July to meet up with MC and while there, I met the person who is now our newest project partner, Charl Smit. One quickly became two and now there are three. It’s mind blowing. In South Africa, we spent much of my time there on an impromptu road trip around the country and learned so much about each other, including our uncanny ability to work and create together.
In just a few weeks from now, the three of us as Project and Connect will traverse the United States and South Africa to meet with HIV-positive community members as well as sex workers, drug users, and others. Three artists and doers on the road together. We will be spending six months a year working in the United States and six months in South Africa and will learn about the lives of so many and we will work with our community to create all things beautiful and amazing.
So much is changing now. I’m moving on from Visual AIDS and my tiny, one person project has grown into a global initiative. I am about to start a life with two people who I have come to believe are the best people I will ever meet and they are moving to the United States to do this with me. All signs also seem to indicate that we are likely moving ourselves and the project’s base back to my hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, where we are needed and where we are excited to be. I’m scared but elated. So much is happening that at times, I can do nothing else but breakdown and cry. I have yet to figure out if they are tears of fear or joy, but there are certainly no tears of sadness. I can see the future clearly for the first time ever and I owe this feeling in large part to my time at Visual AIDS.
In a previous life before I started working at Visual AIDS and slightly before the advent of Project and Connect, I was the director of the Queens Symphony Orchestra. Being surrounded by the music I love and introduced to new pieces, I have racked up many go-to favorites, one of which is Ralph Vaughan Williams's “The Lark Ascending.” From its beautiful violin solos, to its mild, beckoning orchestral swells, the piece makes me dream and create, and I’ve been thinking about and listening to that piece a lot lately.
Like the lark, I’m being pulled somewhere I never thought I’d go and into something I never thought I’d do. I’m spiraling up towards the stars and into the night. I went from a dark-feathered bird, destined to crawl in the dust when I started here to a bright, soaring thing aided by the beautiful music of my aforementioned new companions and lifted by the gentle but strong touch of the Visual AIDS community.
As I walk out of this office on my last day at the end of today, “The Lark Ascending” will be playing in my mind. Its beauty will remind me that I came here dark, desperate, and seeking and I am leaving bright, fulfilled (but not yet full), and singing. Confident in the road ahead that was paved by my time here.
Thank you and farewell, Visual AIDS. Thanks to each and every one of you and to the people that I met while serving here, I no longer feel like the only living boy in New York.