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Questions: New Work by Positive Artists

Interview with Sharon Siskin

"QUESTIONS: New Work by Positive Artists" was an exhibition of visual art and a community conversation by participants in Positive Art.

Positive Art is a community visual arts project that provides free classes as well as paid teaching positions and exhibition opportunities for people living with AIDS/HIV, their families, friends, and caregivers.

RQ interviewed Berkeley, California artist Sharon Siskin, who founded Positive Art in 1988.

What led you to organize Positive Art?

In 1987, I saw The Names Project Quilt displayed in its entirety at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. My activist sensibilities led me to found Positive Art the next year as a response to an epidemic growing in my community — the Bay Area and the arts community. I knew that if I was facing a life-threatening disease that it would be very important to me to continue to make art. I thought other artists would probably feel the same. For instance, families and caregivers would give support around shelter, food, and meds, but might not have a clue about how to support the artistic part of the person.

What keeps you involved fourteen years later?

My love for the AIDS community embodied in the dear friends I have made and lost over the past fourteen years. The commitment of the organizations I have worked with. My commitment to remain involved as the demographics of the disease keep changing to include people with many other problems besides their HIV status. These have all kept me involved. I have gained a lot of personal, spiritual, and political insights from this work, which has influenced me as a person and an artist.

What is the goal of Positive Art?

Our mission is to provide a safe and supportive environment to share our skills and to assist Positive Art participants to find their own artistic voices. As artists, we know that the process of art improves people's emotional and spiritual health. We encourage participants to make art that addresses the issues of life with AIDS. The voices of people living with AIDS are powerful tools for AIDS awareness, education, prevention, and compassion.

Our public art projects such as murals and transit-kiosk posters bring communities together and put art out in the streets of our local neighborhoods. Our exhibitions often involve community interactive components such as panel discussions, community conversations, and exhibition walk-throughs with local youth organizations.

What is the role of art in healing and in social change?

Art is a great tool for social change in its process and its product. In its process it can help art makers with their quality of life, clarity of thinking, communication skills and self-esteem. In its product it has the power to speak almost universally and has the power to transform our view of what is possible. In a tangible, practical sense, visual art-makers make objects that are left behind after we are gone. They tell our stories and give future viewers a glimpse into the truth about AIDS and its effects on individual lives.

As artists we are always asking questions in our creative process, as we are natural problem-solvers. Many of the artworks in this year's exhibition addressed QUESTIONS as they relate to AIDS in our lives and in our communities, and also QUESTIONS addressing our role as artists and citizens living in the post-September 11th world.

What are your dreams for Positive Art over the next five or ten years?

My dreams are that the program ends because there is a cure for AIDS. My reality-view of the future says that we — Positive Art — need to do more public art work to keep educating those most at risk, out in the streets.

Will there definitely be a fifteenth annual show? A twentieth?

Hopefully. Positive Art is sponsored by Artist in Residence Grants from the California Arts Council, a state agency, now threatened by state budget cuts. Governor Davis has proposed a 57% cut to the California Arts Council and targeted all community-based arts projects with under-served populations for extinction. The Assembly and Senate have proposed less severe 30% cuts.

We get additional support from several non-profit organizations. Many non-profits are seeing an unprecedented drop in funding. This is especially true for funding that many AIDS organizations used to receive from corporations. In the past, many of our clients have been white gay men who had personal or professional ties to these corporations. Over the past few years our client base has changed in demographics to include a large percentage of African-American women, men, and children who are poor and have no ties to these corporations. Hence, the funding has disappeared.

Any final thoughts?

Artists, for a very small amount of money, are literally holding together communities and schools that would have no other access to the arts. We are the hearts, souls, and spirits of these communities, and we share our skills and creative problem-solving abilities with communities that have grown to depend on us. The current state budget reflects no respect or value for our service.

As artists in U.S culture, we are used to fighting against the silencing of our voices. We work tirelessly as activists to make the "powers that be" aware of our contribution to our society and our history as human beings.

Positive Art classes are currently facilitated by three HIV positive artists: Bob Corti in photography and digital media, Nancer LeMoins in several technical areas of printmaking, Ben Simmons in video production, along with Sharon Siskin and occasional guest artists. Classes take place at The Center for AIDS Services in Oakland, Derek Silva Community in San Francisco, and Tranquillium in Richmond.

For more information about Positive Art, contact Sharon Siskin,, (510) 486-8118. Sharon Siskin is Artist in Residence with the California Arts Council and is Adjunct Professor at the Department of Arts and Consciousness, John F. Kennedy University.