During the HIV/AIDS epidemic, artists became activists. What will COVID inspire?

Mel Andringa with parakeet by David Van Allen. Zoom stills courtesy of Art Office. Masked photos courtesy of City Circle Theatre. Keith Haring painting from Nationaal Archief Netherlands. — Benjamin Minniear/Little Village

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights,
In sunsets,
In midnights,
In cups of coffee,
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife

—“Seasons of Love,” Rent

Jonathan Larson, who wrote the groundbreaking rock musical Rent, spent all of his time, money and effort creating this piece of enduring musical theater. Rent continues to be relevant to new and younger audiences, speaking in particular to young creatives. It’s a classic story of love, loss, financial strain and the unyielding drive to create, all while living in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

In the midst and the wake of the AIDS crisis, many felt that they weren’t getting the real story about the number of people affected, how long we would be living with this new virus or when and if it would end. Back then, people largely felt that if it didn’t directly impact them, maybe it wasn’t real — and there are certainly those who believe similarly about COVID-19, despite the fact that the death toll in the U.S. has exceeded the number of minutes in a year, a number Larson’s musical made famous. (As of April 2, 566,772 Americans have died of COVID-19).

The words and themes of Rent’s quintessential ballad drive us to ask the question: How do we measure this year? Loaves of bread baked? Zoom cocktail parties? Many of us, tired of the bombardment of numbers about COVID-19, turned to creative pursuits that were new, while others tried to hang on to their established creative communities to keep sane and continue creating.

For some, creation is a way to keep our minds focused; for others, it is a distraction from thinking about the daily loss of life caused by a pandemic that has seemed out of control. I found myself panicking when I’d hear of the deaths of friends’ parents, because in the spring of 1990, I lost my dad to the AIDS virus. This pandemic brought that trauma back for me. Watching the death toll rise, with family and friends losing loved ones to a still-little-understood disease, all felt very familiar.

I was a teenager in the late ’80s, growing up in Mason City, Iowa. While I was aware of AIDS, I never felt like it would touch my life. When it suddenly did, I turned to writing and musical theater in high school in part to become someone different from myself, but also to have a community of creative people that was wholly accepting of me. I was a prolific writer back then, and much of my work centered on hiding. How long did my dad hide his illness, his lifestyle? Exploring that in writing was a necessary thing for me, and so turning to writing again during this pandemic was healing. I decided that there was an urgency to tell my story, similar to the urgency felt among many in the gay community to tell theirs during the AIDS crisis.

I started having conversations with my friends, many of whom are creatives, about pandemics and the drive to create. Art has always been political, but for many the images, activism and communities during the AIDS epidemic became truly vital for survival. The government was doing little to acknowledge that AIDS was happening and people were dying, so activism turned to artists. The images from the ’80s still endure today. Will we have art from this pandemic that will resonate 20 years from now? Will we have communities that still endure?

Wrestling with an idea and having the opportunity to meet and discuss ideas surrounding the creation of art have been a challenge, as has finding support for those who are marginalized. Zoom and other online video platforms have certainly been one way to stay connected, but creatives looking for more support can turn to Art Office, founded in May 2020 in conjunction with Public Space One in Iowa City.

“Art Office is a work program in which artists are prompted to consider their creative processes more like workday office jobs,” said Carla Baudrons, managing director of Art Office. “Our mission is to help artists focus and be more productive by prescribing a regimen based on personal responsibility, peer accountability and public engagement.”

Finding community was also crucial during the AIDS epidemic as well, as artists were isolated from their galleries, mentors, art dealers, in addition to the general public, all based on their viral status. It was because of this that a group of writers, critics and curators founded VisualAIDS. Started in 1988, VisualAIDS was a way to help the most marginalized show work, get jobs and secure funding for care and even basic art supplies.

The organization was one of the first national programs to highlight the impact of AIDS on the creative community. VisualAIDS still serves as a place for artists affected by HIV and AIDS to gather, commiserate and show work. Baudrons hopes that the Art Office will serve as a similar kind of place.

“Art Office was in the planning phase when the pandemic started. I had to refigure how the program was going to work. The community aspect of Art Office is integral, so keeping the artists connected was of the utmost importance,” Baudrons said. “Fortunately, everyone who was helping me test the system out was more than willing to use Zoom to connect with their fellow artists, up to five times per week. In the heat of the pandemic, when everyone was hyper-diligent about staying home, Art Office provided its participants a much-needed outlet to see people and practice social skills, as well as the benefits of holding each other accountable in their practices. In a lot of ways, I believe our group flourished because we were forced to be creative in our restructuring of the program.”

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Baudrons is also brainstorming opportunities to show the art created by this year’s participants.

“We have shows at the end of every session, though normally these would be held in a gallery,” she said. “Because of COVID, our shows are online live, either through Zoom or Facebook. Each artist presents their work, and we have a Q&A. The audience aspect is practically nonexistent, and it’s a great loss. The nuts and bolts are still there, but it just isn’t the same.”

Participants have struggled, certainly, with the lack of in-person connections and physical workspaces, but, Baudrons said, the “resilience and comradery of facing a global pandemic together” helped to mitigate that loss.

Many creatives enjoy making art alone, and sequestering during the pandemic may have felt almost normal for them. But for creatives in theater, finding a new way to perform and collaborate was vital. Christian Drollinger says the connections and community he finds in City Circle Theatre Company have been lifesaving.

“In general, I think the arts communities have flourished during the pandemic,” Drollinger said. “Initially, it was quite difficult. There was a lot of uncertainty about whether or not theater should be happening, and how do we adapt? I remember talking to a friend who was just cast in a local production about what their plans were, and how can we continue to create art amidst the anxiety and sadness that was just beginning to set in. And then we shifted to online theater.”

In the early 1980s, anxiety and fear drove Larry Kramer to write A Normal Heart, as he became frustrated with the gay community’s resistance to take AIDS seriously. City Circle is making their own foray into original work with Acting Out While Staying In, a series of short plays by eastern Iowa playwrights opening virtually on April 9. It’s a trend that’s been prevalent in area theaters throughout the pandemic (RHCR also premieres Zoom Into Spring April 19). But content aside, the fact that theater survived online at all may have had a similar effect.

“Glitzy costumes, extravagant sets and an orchestra transformed into people on screens. It felt cold and distant,” Drollinger said of the early days of virtual theater. “It was not the warm, welcoming community I was used to. But not too long later, I grew to admire the actors who approached the challenge with the same level [of enthusiasm] they’d give a live audience.”

An essential worker, Drollinger found that theater allowed them to breathe and live without fear. While this pandemic drove us farther apart physically, as the virus spread with proximity, theater in the 1980s served as a place where actors with HIV/AIDS could find a group that would accept them, when the world at large just saw a sick person, dying of their own fault.

“Being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, theater has always served as a safe place, and for many the only place where they are loved and accepted,” Drollinger said. “It was a struggle, the loss of the physicality and proximity of the community, for me personally. But then, these amazing videos were created, and shared all over social media. Even though we were physically apart, we were still connected emotionally, through our online artistic communities.”

Mel Andringa, a longtime Iowa artist, and founder of LegionArts in partnership with CSPS in Cedar Rapids, doesn’t find having community quite so vital as a visual artist. He’s been producing more work than ever during the pandemic, specifically about the pandemic.

“I am more productive during the lockdown, and my work addresses the lockdown, but most of my artist friends are frustrated because they’re either trying to wait it out or act as if it is a distraction … from a long-standing practice,” Andringa said. He was surprised that area artists did not incorporate last year’s derecho experience more into their art.

“Disruptions like COVID, etc., are gifts to an artist,” Andringa said. “Something was taken from them, like feelings of normalcy, and they need to wrestle with that experience until it gives something back, be it a painting, a story, a dance or a song.”

Art as a means of processing and commenting on a crisis was central to AIDS activists. In addition to playwriting, Kramer used prominent artists of the time to make very moving images that have now become iconic and instantly recognizable. Keith Haring and his horned sperm and the powerful pink triangle with the text SILENCE = DEATH serve as reminders of a crisis that still rages. The AIDS crisis inspired artists to use their art as activism, which in turn spurned eventual legislation. Maybe the images of the pandemic have yet to come.

Andringa was reluctant to discuss his specific experiences creating art in the environment of the AIDS epidemic, but did say, “The conservatives were favored to win, but they underestimated the tenacity of their opponents, who either despite their personal traumas or perhaps spurred on by them, fiercely fought for their lives against the onslaught of indifference to their plight. I see no such threat facing vaccination deniers, economic Jeremiah or libertarian anti-maskers, yet they all put on the ashes of oppression to assume their victim status.”

He also said that while his desire to sing his own song is strong, he is also listening as much as possible to the songs of others, especially during the pandemic, where other artists are struggling in a myriad of ways. During the pandemic, artists and creatives have had a difficult time with support, both financial and emotional. But Andringa notes that financially, he’s all right.

“Being housebound and not shopping as much has put me in a pretty good situation for the time being. My biggest challenge has been handling technical problems in a much more complicated environment,” Andringa said. “I can Zoom, but I’m in over my head when I try to play with the cool kids.”

Like the AIDS crisis before it, this pandemic has come with great loss. The current LGBTQ community lost many fine creators due to government inaction, misinformation and bigotry — factors that drive the higher death counts in marginalized communities today. Fear and uncertainty created some of the great works of the late 20th century, but at what cost? Even though strife and turmoil are great for a creative process, staggering loss of life is a very hefty price to pay.

COVID-19’s devastation has been astronomical. Art will again be a medium through which we can explore what happened. Community and support are a constant struggle, now more than ever. Artists, writers, community theater and musicians have always been uplifted in our community, and that support will need to continue if we don’t want to risk losing another generation of creatives.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that art supplies could be purchased from Art Office. This is not true, and has been corrected.

Darcie Hutzell is an Iowa native and has been a writer for most of her life. She is a University of Iowa graduate and lives with her family in Iowa City.