Joyce McDonald with "The New York Times" Weekend Arts section featuring her artwork "Peace" (2004)

The 14th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA VOOM) recognize the contributions of individuals who, through their work, talent and dedication, strengthen our communities and reinforce the mission of Visual AIDS. This year Visual AIDS is proud to honor Tom Bianchi, Joyce McDonald and Muna Tseng.
Below, Visual AIDS interviews artist and curator Sam Gordon about Joyce McDonald's powerful art and message.

Visual AIDS: How did you first meet Joyce McDonald, and do you have any favorite memories of working together or engaging her art over the years?

Sam Gordon:
As an artist, I had also started curating. Nelson Santos was the Executive Director at Visual AIDS at the time and was always keeping his eye out for possible curators for Visual AIDS' series of exhibitions. We began a conversation in 2015 that led to PERSONS OF INTEREST in 2016. I came to the project with ideas of artists I wanted to include—some very personal like Hudson—and ready to dig deeper into the Artist+ Registry.

In the brainstorming around the exhibition, it was clear Visual AIDS wanted to do something beyond the artists often highlighted, to bring to light some of the other artists that have worked with Visual AIDS for long periods of time though whose work was perhaps not as well recognized. That is how I met Joyce McDonald. Alex Fialho and I did a studio visit to her apartment in Brooklyn to consider her work for the show. Fast forward... Joyce's work was on the wall as you first walked into the exhibition—her small pieces hung in a salon style checkerboard of clay faces and figures, adorned with swatches of material, pearls, and paint. The New York Times sent a photographer so we knew a review was in store, but we did not know it would be full color top fold of the Weekend Arts Section! We had seen it online, though in the morning we were all looking for the paper, Joyce and I in different parts of Brooklyn, and when she sent me the photo of her with the paper from the newsstand it made me tear up.

Visual AIDS: As a curator, can you highlight your work with Visual AIDS and the process of connecting with Joyce through the Artist+ Registry?

Sam Gordon: Working on PERSONS OF INTEREST was one of the most interesting and cathartic experiences of my adult life. As a teenager growing up during the AIDS crisis, I felt an incredible amount of fear, shame, and confusion—I think many of us did. In organizing the show, I felt I was able to unpack some of my own trauma around the subject. Joyce is really open about her story—the abuse, the addiction, what she has been through and how she has persevered. We have all been lost at one time, and we all need to be found, to be seen, to have faith. I have to smile as a secular Jew speaking of the Reverend Joyce McDonald's acceptance of Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, because I know her faith is true, just as true as her vision as an artist. Using the most humble of materials—clay is dirt—she sculpts portraits of her loved ones: her father, her mother, her sister, capturing a likeness with an uncanny ease. One day when there was no clay handy, she used tinfoil to make a low relief of a face in profile.

Visual AIDS: Do any of Joyce's artworks particularly resonate with you? What themes are present in these works?

Sam Gordon: Joyce's portrait of her father, a large gold bust, is an important iconic work of Joyce's that I hope to include in Souls Grown Disapora at Apex Art in 2020. It is such a powerful piece—both commanding space and full of warmth. Her father was also a photographer and Joyce has many photographs he took, depicting her family in Brooklyn alongside her six siblings. Joyce's relationship to her family resonates strongly through her work; the loss of her sister Janet, her mother Florence just recently, the sculptures made from life now function as important memorials to dear family and friends. Joyce is truly a visionary.

Visual AIDS: How do you see Joyce's artistic practice relating to the mission of Visual AIDS at the intersections of art, AIDS and activism?

Sam Gordon: HIV/AIDS has long been misdefined as a gay male disease, a white disease, a Western disease. Diverse faces of those living with HIV are important—not only does Joyce represent this in her work, she manifests it herself. As a spokesperson, Joyce has shared her story in church, in schools, and beyond. For PERSONS OF INTEREST, she spoke during a Visual AIDS program about her life in great detail—the audience was mesmerized. As a Reverend, Joyce knows how to build a narrative that both pulls you in, lifts you up, and leaves you ruminating after.

Visual AIDS: Describe Joyce McDonald in a sentence.

Sam Gordon: The Reverend Joyce McDonald is a visionary artist; her revelatory art work and activism follows in the path of Sister Corita Kent and many others who fuse art and experience into strength, hope, and power.

Sam Gordon is a New York based artist and curator. He has organized exhibitions and performances for Visual AIDS, White Columns, Andrew Edlin Gallery and NADA New York. Gordon's painting, drawing, photography, and video work was regularly presented in numerous solo and group exhibitions at Feature Inc. from 1997 - 2013. His work is included in the collections of the Museum Of Modern Art, New York, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis MN, the Tang Museum, Saratoga Springs, NY, and the Leslie Lohman Museum, NY. Gordon has been a visiting professor at the California Institute for the Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2017 he founded Gordon Robichaux, a curatorial agency with fellow artist and curator Jacob Robichaux in Union Square, New York.

Joyce McDonald is a multidisciplinary artist, focused in sculpture and painting. Her creativity captures in stark relief the range of emotions she has experienced throughout her spirited life. Her artwork was featured on the front page of the New York Times Weekend Arts Section in July 2016 for Holland Cotter's feature article "Art From the Age of AIDS." Group show include: AIDS at Home (Art and Everyday Activism) at the Museum of the City of New York, 2017; Everyday at La Mama Galleria, NY, 2016; PERSONS OF INTEREST at the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division, NY, 2016; HIV+WOMEN+ART at Puffin Foundation Gallery, NJ, 2005; Curated at Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, NY 2004; Visual AIDS: Selections From the Archive Project at Robeson Art Gallery, NJ, 2001; and taken-up at Judson Memorial Church, NY 1999, among others. She has been a steadfast supporter and participant in Visual AIDS' LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN and Day With(out) Art programs. Joyce is a weaver of words: not just as a poet or rapper—she is both—but also as a speaker for her church's AIDS ministry and assistant director of its children's choir. She also practices the art of motherhood in her relationship with her two daughters, two sons-in-law and eight grandchildren.