Susan Paxton

Susan Paxton, PhD

I am a passionate activist, trainer, researcher and, most recently, painter. I have seen many corners of this planet and have lived and worked in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia/Pacific. Before HIV, half my life ago, I worked as a theatre director and performer, and founded Scarlet Harlets, one of Europe's leading women's theatre companies in the 1980s.

After my HIV diagnosis I worked to challenge myths surrounding HIV and decrease stigma, and help women living with HIV advocate for their rights and take their place as equal partners in the response. In 2000, I went public about my status in the media when I carried the Olympic Torch on behalf of people living with HIV. It was a frightening thing to do, but turned out to be the best thing I could have done, lifting my burden of secrecy.

Over the past two decades I worked as a public health consultant in Asia and the Pacific, and conducted research on discrimination towards people living with HIV, much of it published by the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV. Working in the HIV sector has brought much sadness. I have lost over one hundred friends, colleagues and lovers to HIV. My installation "The Heart of It" for AIDS 2014 was a tribute to them.

In 2011 I needed to pull back from my 'HIV work'. I started attending an art class at the Positive Living Centre, Melbourne, Australia. I had never put paint onto canvas before and I immediately immersed myself into it and found it calming. I found I wanted to paint water. I had started scuba diving after my diagnosis and it was the most calming activity I had ever done. Painting was like that. I painted more water, and water against rock. I paint because it soothes me, stretches me, and puts me into a peaceful, endless space I experience nowhere else except when diving.