Daily Texan - Changing our Views
by Cyndi McLendon
The first thing you see when you walk into Rites of Passage's "Life is a Terminal Illness" exhibit in the Texas Union Gallery is a row of simple black and white photographs. One picture could be from a family scrapbook: a smiling couple from a small Texas town holding a baby boy.
The picture is deceptively perfect, however. At 24 and 26 years old, respectively, Gerri and Jim Briggs' lives were going along quite smoothly until their baby, Jason, was discovered to have AIDS. Neither of the parents was a drug user, neither received a blood transfusion, both are. heterosexual, and now the whole family is infected with the human immunodeficiency virus.
This is just one of the many stories told in Cindy Pickard's photo collection titled "Portraits of People who live with AIDS." Accompanying the photographs are the works of art created by the patients, staff and friends of Rites of Passage, a non-profit statewide home health care organization started in the Austin area by Pickard about three years ago.
Pickard believes the most creative period in a person's life is when he or she is dying. Through art, music, poetry, and other creative activities, Rites of Passage provides supportive care for people suffering from life-threatening or terminal illnesses and a means to deal with them. "We don't just provide home care," says Pickard, "we help them live until- they die"
Beneath the photographs lie handwritten comments, giving the subjects and their friends a chance to speak directly to the viewer. Some of the subscripts are poems, others are stories or quotes, but all make powerful statements about what it's like to live with AIDS. One ex-drug abuser pictured with his wife included the quote, "Loneliness is as life threatening as any terminal illness. Love soothes the pain."
"You can't treat AIDS very well physically," Pickard says, "so you change your views." Once a week, the patients attend art classes with other terminally ill people - mostly AIDS patients - and learn to express their feelings through their work. "This class is such a safe and warm place to be," says staff member Susan Krivacic, "it gets them out of themselves and their problems." In the art-therapy sessions, the patients are not taught art, but how to bring the art out of themselves. The exhibit gives them all a chance to voice their feelings, talents and hopes to people who might not have been personally exposed to the world of AIDS.
Through this exhibit Pickard hopes to show that "all kinds of people are affected by AIDS and share the same feelings." Patients of organizations like Hospice Austin look for love and acceptance. They tend to feel isolated and afraid, and because they have AIDS or carry the HIV virus, they especially need the same emotional support and friendship essential to everyone's life.
Pickard also hopes to educate as many people as she can about the physical and mental effects of AIDS, Making the subject less taboo. "Most patients wanted to say that AIDS shouldn't be kept in the dark," she says. Pickard and her son Andy, a UT RTF student, have produced a public service video about Rites of Passage and the story of the Briggses called If AIDS Is So Bad, Why Don't We Know Anybody Who Has -It? According to Pickard, "The numbers of people affected (by AIDS in the future) will be amazing." There, are already an estimated 1.5 million people in the United States who are'' HIV-positive. "AIDS is everywhere it doesn't discriminate. It's no longer just a gay man's disease."