Morgan Burton Johnson
I am a painter. Art has been long in my life. It has been the thread that kept me moving forward, that wove me into and out of other's lives, it has been my best voice. At age eight I received my first commission, at age 12, my first important award. And as I grew, it defined me more than I defined it. Like so many artists, when I faced a crisis, I could both let the action of painting absorb the hurt, as well as portray it. At age 23, I received my first one-man show. At 25, the first-place award. By 27, I was being included in national shows. Art pulled me towards the spotlight of both acknowledgement of talent, as well as the knowledge of providing something to society which was of value. And then I developed AIDS.
While the progression of this disease didn't entirely stop my abilities to paint, when I first acquired the virus in 1985 I found that the bright outlook that informed my work, my desire to share it, and ultimately my ability to attend to my art was slowly being inhibited. As the disease progressed, to be honest in my work, I had to include this contemporary issue and reflect its affect. But where was the audience for such concerns? While the art world began to lose large names like Keith Haring, those of us emerging into it, or living in the fringes of acknowledgment in local communities, found no venues listening to our suddenly altered narrative. Then I discovered the VSA program, and at the depth of my retraction and physical decline, I realized that the voices of those of us with conditions termed 'disabilities' were being recognized as still contributing, still trying to speak, still attempting the life-long mastery of our callings. As networks of hospice and HIV care developed, such as the one I contacted, the HIV Alliance in Eugene, Oregon, galleries across the nation (like DIVA in Eugene) started realizing that important lessons could be learned and shared by organizing shows around those with altered voices. Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital is another example of an established organization with a national reputation putting forth challenged voices. Perhaps they existed all along and until my disability I was unaware. But being immersed in these venues made me realize that I could resume my career as my health permitted. I had never stopped painting; I had never stopped wanting to paint. Art, it seemed, was more important than giving in and fading away.
So the thread that is art once again pulled me along in and through one of my life's biggest trials. Though I of course owe my health to the lucky timing and advent of AIDS therapies, I owe the health of my psyche to art. It lead me through the initial condemnation that society had of HIV infection. It held me to the primary task of my life, sharing whatever unique voice and talent I have, and finally, art made me of value to myself through its pull and demand, inwardly, to be voiced.
Art is long, follow your awe.