Artist Michael Payne’s work gets published at AIDS 2018

‘I think people have become too complacent and I want people to get upset, get angry, become active and do something about it. Don’t just look at a painting and look remorseful.’

An international conference provides people around the world with the opportunity to meet and share important ideas and support. This year, the HIV Howler was created to bring art with a message, created by people living with the virus, to the International AIDS Conference in the form of a newspaper. Its motto is “Transmitting Art and Activism.”

“Artists have and continue to play a fundamental role in shaping broader societal understandings of HIV and working within the communities that are most impacted by the virus, such as people who use drugs, sex workers, people of color, indigenous peoples, trans folks, and LGBQ+ people,” notes the project’s call for art submissions.

Michael Payne, a member of the art therapy group at TPAN (publisher of POSITIVELY AWARE), submitted works to the HIV Howler for consideration. Three of his paintings, focusing on pleasure and criminalization, were accepted for publication.

“Blown Away,” “Erotica,” and “Eyes of Hatred” represent the development of both his art and his politics.

Payne spent two years at a liberal arts college, but after losing his job, became homeless. After a week of hitting the pavement looking for work, he received two full-time job offers. “Young people need to look at that. They’re so used to ‘give me’ and ‘I’ll just go home and live with my parents,’ ” he said.

He was estranged from his family. Early on, his parents discouraged his dreams of becoming an artist. While he now believes that they were trying to protect him, they in fact destroyed his confidence. When hanging out with friends, more than one person told him he was like “a scared little boy.” He began to change when a friend said, “Michael, you’re not a little boy anymore.” Still, he had gone into music as a young adult and had a song stolen by an agent. He then gave up all creativity and spiraled even deeper into depression.

“I don’t really fit in the profile of homelessness,” Payne said. ““I came from an upper middle class black family from a very nice neighborhood. My family was full of high achievers. When I was out there I found that there were a lot of people like me.

“It’s just like drugs,” he continued. “People have a misconception of what that means and who those people are. They think that they are born losers. They don’t realize that there are movie stars who made millions of dollars who’ve become homeless.” 

Payne said his work has turned more political of late, particularly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He said some of that work was so angry, he threw it in the garbage.

He was thrilled at having his artwork accepted for the HIV Howler. “For someone who doesn’t even know you to look at your work and say ‘I like it,’ that is so huge to me. You never know what kind of opportunities will pop up when you’re doing this kind of thing.”

Although he had stopped creating art more than a decade ago, he kept a closet full of his work. But he was reborn as an artist after attending art sessions at TPAN. “To have this happen this late in my life, to me it’s God saying ‘I had your back all along.’ I do believe in God. I think He’s doing this as a bucket list [fulfillment] sort of thing.”

Payne gave up explaining his artwork a long time ago, when he saw that others were judging the work from their own perspectives. To him, that was fine, whether they liked it or not. For the pieces accepted by HIV Howler, however, he was happy to elaborate.

“Blown Away” represents illicit drug use, which led to an episode of homelessness in his life. “This to me looks like madness. That’s what the drugs mean to me, it’s total chaos. I put Superman in there because when you’re on drugs you feel like Superman.”

“Erotica” is perhaps the strangest piece he’s ever produced. Filled with orgiastic scenes from a freer time decades ago—not all of which he engaged in himself—it shocks those who know him. Those who don’t have reacted with approval.

Which is strange to him because it’s a piece he never wanted to show, and sent to the artist in charge of the art therapy group just for fun. Jessie Mott, who led TPAN’s art therapy group until recently, responded that he should exhibit it at the group’s annual art show at Las Manos Gallery in the Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, near TPAN.

“I said, ‘Jessie, no!’ ” Payne recalled.

“He was nervous and thought it was too risqué,” said Mott, “but of course, that’s the kind of work I love the most. [Laughs.] I said, ‘No, this is going to be big.’ ” She sees the painting as “whimsical and yet really sensuous at the same time.”

“Jessie told me, ‘Just do it [the exhibit]. Artists are supposed to do in-your-face stuff.’ I thought about that,” said Payne. “I have to stop being afraid to express my art, whatever it is. If people get offended by it, I have to say that’s probably a good thing. Because it’s supposed to be provocative. If it didn’t offend you, it’s not powerful enough.”

“Eyes of Hatred” brings out much more in Payne. While the eyes of the Klansman peep through the holes in his sheet, the eyes of the black man and of the white policeman are blocked by sunglasses. The work holds different meanings for Payne.

He observes that people use sunglasses, even on a cloudy day. “So my thought is … people don’t want to be seen or maybe they’re hiding something.” He’s noticed that individuals caught on video making racist rants that went viral over the summer were also wearing sunglasses. He thought it was interesting that they didn’t bother to remove the glasses.

“Maybe they’re ashamed. I’m not a psychologist or anything, but I wonder if part of that is, ‘Even though I tell you I hate you, I know when I’m alone, when I go to sleep at night, that it’s not good to harbor this hatred, but I can’t help it.’ You don’t want to look a person in the eye when you’re filled with that much hatred. It can’t be a happy thing. It’s how we hide our hatred too, and how we may not be proud of it. And I think everybody is capable of hatred. I don’t care what color you are.

“Police use the sunglasses, in my mind, because it’s intimidation. They don’t want you to see whether they’re looking at you,” he said.

He remembers walking out of TPAN one day and the eyes of another black man looking at him with hatred. He thought that with TPAN being known as a place serving gay people or people living with HIV, or both, the man objected to his being.

“You can just see hatred in somebody’s eyes. They say when you look in a person’s eyes, they either smile or they frown. When you look in the eyes of a person who’s nice, there’s a warmth. When you look in the eyes of hatred, there’s a coldness. You know if a car ran over a puppy dog, they would look like that. ‘I don’t care. I don’t feel nothing about it.’ So people like that, I find them really disturbing. I’m just at a point where I’d like them to just stay away from me. I just want to be safe.”

The supposed “victim,” however, is also wearing sunglasses in the painting. “I originally was going to have him as just the innocent victim. But then I thought about how I walked out of here and had this black guy look at me in just a hateful way. It can be an equal opportunity. Black people have been largely victimized. But there are black people who are full of hatred too, for gay people. Me being black and gay, trust me, I’ve been around enough black people that hate gay people and hate me because I’m gay. That’s why I decided to include a black person in there. And I think that’s fair. [Pause] You can’t say one race has a lock on hatred, though white people probably take the cake.”

But there’s much more to his perception of racism.

“When people say racist things, I try to play devil’s advocate. Can people change? George Wallace [an Alabama governor in the 1960s and ’70s who was an outspoken segregationist and racist] atoned at the end of his life. That’s something that you have to process over time. I’ve been in the car with my father when the traffic gets bad and he says. ‘Look at that stupid so-and-so.’ It was just the anger in the moment. When you’re angry with someone you pick a word that hurts them.

“I’m not perfect either. I have had periods in my life when I got angry at someone and used a racial slur. I’ve done it. And I’m not proud of it. We’re all human beings. As long as you are aware that—that’s ... not … good. As long as it bothers your conscience, then you are redeemable. But when you do it and think ‘I’ve done nothing wrong,’ that some Nazis are good, that’s disturbing. That’s Hitler-like.”

He said that with a greater bent to being more political in his art, his work is meant to be disturbing. “I think people have become too complacent and I want people to get upset, get angry, become active and do something about it. Don’t just look at a painting and look remorseful. ‘I don’t want to think about that.’ You need to think about it.”

Said Jessie Mott, “To have that kind of reach, at the conference, is going to be just wild.”

She said that from the start of the art therapy group, Payne was committed to his art and obviously very talented. He was also an unofficial leader of the group. “He’s kind. He’s really helpful to the other people. He has lots of empathy.”

“Ultimately, the group is about creating social connections and building a community,” said Mott. “We check in and we talk about their week. But there’s lots of joking and laughter. It’s like a family, especially for the people who come in week after week. Everyone can find two hours of peace and creativity that week. For some people, it’s their only two hours out of the house. You come in and play. Mostly it’s about a safe place to be creative.”

Payne’s confidence is really showing through now, said Mott. “He has so much work and he gets a lot of response.”

“He’s a real survivor,” Mott said. “He’s a real joy to be around.”

The HIV Howler, funded in part by the Toronto Arts Council, was envisioned by queer couple and project collaborators Anthea Black and Jessica Whitebread, who are based in that city. This is a limited edition project they see as allowing art to be easily distributed. “We loved his [Payne’s] vibrant illustrative works,” said Black via e-mail. “We felt they could be interpreted to show a lot of important ideas that impact people living with HIV, and also the international advisory committee was very interested in showing drawings, paintings, and other creative works by HIV-positive artists and folks who might not be getting mainstream recognition in the art world.”

Forty artists publishing in five languages are represented in the HIV Howler editions. They include an “in conversation” piece between New York mixed-media artist Frederick Weston and Nancer Lemoins of San Francisco, who does printmaking and bookmaking as well as drawings and paintings; writing by Ed Moreno of Brazil; photography by Kairon Liu of Taiwan; paintings by Manuel Solano of Mexico; and drawings by L’Orangelis Thomas of Puerto Rico.