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Last week I attended a preview of The Normal Heart, directed by Ryan Murphy (Glee) and screenplay by Larry Kramer. It was an emotional film that I’m sure many of the handsome actors will be nominated for come award season. I was moved to tears several times throughout the film, but I was also aware I was watching another Hollywood production of the AIDS crisis – featuring mostly men, mostly white, mostly dead. The film, like the play before it, is an important looks at those very volatile early years from 1981 to 1984 in New York City during the onslaught of the AIDS Crisis, and examines the personal devastation and political neglect of the government. I left the theater feeling drained, my heart heavy, but with the activist hairs on the back of my neck standing up - wondering what about those living with HIV today, what if the story didn’t “end” in 1984.

The next morning I received a text from a friend that Albert J. Winn had died on Tuesday, May 20th. Al was an incredible photographer, writer, teacher and friend.He was one of the first Visual AIDS artist members I met when I began working at Visual AIDS in August of 2000, but actually I first came across his work as an undergrad student in California. That is where I was introduced to his My Life Until Now series, an autobiographical photography project that he began in 1990 after receiving his “AIDS diagnosis.” The work is an affecting and direct examination in black and white pictures of his physical and emotional journey. We see a young, trim Al in his apartment with his partner Scott, we see a thinning Al wearing band-aids after his many doctor’s visits, we see him lining up his medications, and his new pumped up body after the cocktails start to take effect, we watch is hair grow and fall, and see the “tribal marking” on his face before his tissue filling for lipodystrophy, he shares the death of his dog Zoe with us, and later he stands in front of us in diapers as the chemo treatments begin – Al hid nothing from us. Al was a survivor. When I spoke to him last, he told me about the new “rare cancer” they found, and how he probably didn’t have much time left. He said to me “Somehow I though after AIDS, I thought I might be spared more grief.” He was tired and angry and frustrated, but he also said he was thankful that he was able to live this long and have all this time on earth, when so many of his friends died too young and too soon.

A few days later I receive another text, this time from a friend in San Francisco about the passing of Rob Anderson, another extremely talented artist who I also meet through Visual AIDS. He was a master painter, who started his own school to teach classical drawing and painting. He shared his knowledge with others generously. However, the work of his I know the best is not his classical paintings, but an ongoing installation project called Rattlesnake in a Moving Car that incorporated the stories of 20 longtime HIV survivors. Rob recorded their oral histories and also drew their portraits. He said that the project was “a personal quest to understand why I survived with HIV for 34 years, and find a way to give hope to others”. The complete installation was to be presented with the audio recordings, special lighting, framed drawings and sculptures that included quotes of each story. The title of the installation came from one of the oral histories, in which his subject said “HIV is like driving with a rattlesnake in the car. The challenge is keeping it in the passenger seat where it won’t cause harm.” Rob wanted to tell the diverse stories of those survivors. His story was also one of courage and survival. In 2010, Rob was diagnosed with lymphoma, which later traveled causing brain cancer. Even so, he continued to work, and in April of this year completed a large mural for Yale that he excitedly invited his friends to view. Unfortunately, the day of the unveiling he was admitted to the hospital for complications and passed away on Saturday, May 24, 2014

Rob and Al were both amazingly talented artists whose work gave us insight into living, fighting, sharing, loving and surviving with HIV. Their reality is what is missing from The Normal Heart, the film looks back at a specific time in history, but AIDS did not end in 1984.The film concludes with white on black titles stating that "Since 1981, more than 36 million worldwide have died. More than 6,000 people every day are infected with the virus." I hope that it will inspire action, but I also fear for many this will become a two hour “AIDS history” lesson – another film which focuses on the past. But HIV/AIDS is very present. Everyday I see work by artists living with HIV, work that shares their stories, struggles, joys and voices. In Al and Rob's work, they made legible a life lived long term with HIV and all the complexities that it brings. It was their life until now.

Albert Winn

Rob Anderson