My Day Without Art

A Day Without Art:  A National Day of Action and Mourning in Response to the AIDS crisis.
Organized by VISUAL AIDS, an organization of arts professionals.  December 1, 1989.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, December 1989)

10:00.  Howard Yezerski Gallery.  Hundreds of long thin strips of paper are pinned to the walls, fluttering slightly like leaves on a tree.  Music plays softly.  The space is meditative and serene.  This is “Paper Prayers“, a collaborative installation of small works on paper donated by Boston artists.  There are drawings, paintings, collages made from Christmas ribbons, comic strips, and birch bark, pieces of paper sewn with buttons or pierced with pins, and fragments of life drawings.  The prayers are anonymous, but I recognize the work of many local artists.

Make a donation, take a prayer“, says Howard Yezerski.  All money raised from the project will be donated to the Boston Pediatric AIDS Project.

Tom Grabosky, who designed the installation, tells me that the idea for “Paper Prayers” came from a picture he once saw of paper prayers tied to a tree in Japan.  “We wanted to do something positive…we tossed the idea out to the art community, and the artists really invested their spirit.  Some of these are prayers of mourning, but they’re also wishes for your good health.”

One artist gave her friends silver pens and red postcards stamped with a LOVE stamp and addressed to the gallery and asked them to write down the names of all their lovers.   The red cards twirl on long strings from the ceiling;  the lovers’ names sparkle when they catch the light.   One prayer is made from the blood-red petals and brittle leaves of a dead rose.  Another is made from shiny purple cake-decorating paper, with silver doilies, tiny hands, and a big silver bird nesting on black feathers, all surrounded by a wreath of dark green leaves.  On another, a little black rocking-horse dangles from a shiny black ribbon tied in a bow on a piece of corrugated cardboard painted black.

One shows snatches of a comic strip with the words  “But now, in the closing seconds of the game” and “I want to go back in, coach“.  One says “Love heals all” in crayon. I make a donation and choose a prayer with a picture of a palm tree and the words “sunny California” scrawled in pencil on a pale turquoise ground.

12:00.  Institute of Contemporary Art. Nicholas Nixon shows slides of photographs he took of people with AIDS.  I’m glad I have my prayer with me — the pictures are excruciatingly painful to watch.   Nixon followed the lives of 14 people with AIDS; only one is still alive.  Ravaged by disease, approaching death, they smile or stare or try to smile into the camera, or look away.  Horrifying yet somehow also beautiful, Nixon’s photographs are almost classical images of human suffering, like the pietas and crucifictions and martyrdoms of saints in old Italian paintings. Nixon speaks of the people in the pictures wi th deep sadness and affection.   “He was just a gorgeous human being.”  “She was really somebody.”  “He was glacially brilliant.”    “This man told me, `I volunteered to be photographed because I’m vain and shallow and I want to be immortal’.  He was making fun of himself for being vain and shallow in a very deep way.  He was a real grownup.”   “She gave me the idea for what I’m working on now — a series of modern nudes.  She said, `You ought to do you some nudes, Nick.”

2:15.  Fogg Art Museum.  In the courtyard, 76 chairs are arranged in a spiral.  A large white card on each chair names the occupation, in beautiful calligraphy, of a person who died of AIDS.  Each chair is dedicated to a person lost to someone who works at the museum.  There are all kinds of chairs — old purple office chairs, wooden stools, elegant 18th century Sheridans.   An elaborate wooden chair is for a choreographer, an old leather chair for an antiques dealer, and a schoolchair for a scholar.  A tall, paint-splattered stool is dedicated to a young intern in painting conservation.     Standing at the center of the spiral, I see the backs of all the chairs facing away from me, and feel a tremendous shock of loneliness and loss.  Looking down from the balcony, I see that the chairs are the beginning of a spiral that could go on forever.

4:00.  School of the Museum of Fine Arts.  It’s cold.  On the outside wall of the school is big orange cloth showing a map of the world.  Pinned to the map are hundreds of small green and white circles dangling on strings.  Two students stand near the map, asking everyone who passes by to write the name of someone they know who has AIDS or has died on a circle and pin it to the place on the map where they live or lived.   I write a name on a label, pin it to the map.  The circles blow in the wind, jingling like little bells.

On a circle of grass in front of the Museum of Fine Arts, Mags Harries and her students have installed 12 chairs, each one with an umbrella and a telephone, all painted a chilling medicinal green.  The phones ring, but if you pick one up, no one answers.  The installation is  called “Don’t answer AIDS with silence.”    “It’s a metaphor for a garden,” Harries tells me.  “And also a clock – a clock in a garden.”  The phones keep ringing.  I think of these lines from Donne’s Devotions:

“Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved with mankind;
and therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls;  it tolls for thee.”

5:15  List Visual Art Center, MIT.  Dana Friis-Hansen, who organized A Day Without Art, tells me, “We thought of a day without art as a metaphor for the extreme losses in the arts community, but we wanted it to be something positive, not subtractive, and we wanted to encourage freedom of expression by letting every institution do their own thing, and the response has been incredible.  It’s been a day of raising consciousness, care and concern and compassion.  It’s been an amazing day.”

6:00.  Howard Yezerski Gallery.  The room is filled with people talking softly about the day, but the music, composed for the installation by Karl Lundeberg, helps keep the space peaceful and serene. “It’s real and electronic music and voices,” he tells me.

“I wanted it to be like a temple.”

Many prayers I saw this morning are gone now, but new prayers fill the empty spaces they left behind.   There’s a mood of subdued exhilaration here, and everyone seems deeply moved that, despite drastic budget cuts and threats of censorship, the art community came together today in this outpouring of creativity – confronting death, affirming life, and making art.

8:00.  Outside, in the cold night air, I touch my prayer and think of palm trees. I know that there are paper prayers whispering all over Boston tonight, and all of them are fragile and precious, like people’s lives.

Postscript.  On December 1, the Day Without Art, Howard Yezerski Gallery gave away 500 paper prayers and raised $5,000 for the Boston Pediatric AIDS Project.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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