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HIV patients find art positive

Free classes help fill inner needs

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Dewayne Sessions of Salt Lake City has a thick strawberry-blond mop, blazing blue eyes and AIDS — and finds peace at an art gallery on Pierpont Avenue.

Last spring, Sessions started his search for a place where he could pursue his interest in painting and collage-making. "I wanted to get some good feelings back in my life," he said. But since his co-payments for prescription medicine climbed to hundreds of dollars a month, Sessions could afford neither art supplies nor instruction.

"I just started calling everybody I knew," he said. "I was lucky enough to run into the Utah Arts Council. They just took the ball and ran with it."

That ball became Art Positive, free workshops for people with HIV, at the Art Access Gallery, 339 W. Pierpont.

Sessions, 42, was diagnosed with HIV on March 28, 1998. He was an advertising consultant in Phoenix, but when he fell ill and began to suffer from full-blown AIDS, his family moved him to Utah. "I was supposed to spend my last days here — but I got better."

Now he gives presentations on HIV prevention to high school students and spreads the word about Art Positive.

"If there's anybody out there in a dark corner," send them to Art Access every other Saturday. "I can't stand hearing about people who are HIV-positive and giving up," he said.

The workshops are about experimentation, not intimidation, says Wayne Geary, the artist who teaches them every other Saturday. Since classes began meeting in June, his students have seen improvement. "They're getting better at communicating what's inside," Geary said. The Utah Arts Council provides high-quality art supplies, while Art Access Gallery provides the workshop space and pays for the instructor.

"They say they look forward to this day, that it keeps them going," Geary added. But attendance at the free workshops has been slim. Health problems often force participants to stay home.

"These are pretty vulnerable people. They're dealing with a life-threatening illness," said Ruth Lubbers, Art Access' director. But creating art "can give them something else to focus on. . . . It can give them a way to deal with some of the frustration."

Sessions plans to make an enormous collage of butterflies, while Wendel Kirkbride, another Art Positive participant, is working on a painting of a palm-shaded, idyllic spot on Key West.

Kirkbride, 35, has been HIV-positive for many years, and illness forced him to retire from his job as a computer consultant. During the workshop, he's upbeat, engaging in an animated conversation about art festivals he's attended.

"When I was working, I was quite the road warrior," he said, and he visited artists' communities from California to Florida.

Art Positive participants have their own community that will, at the end of this year, present a special exhibition at the Utah Arts Council's gallery in the Rio Grande Depot. The show will open Dec. 7 during the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll from 6 to 9 p.m.

Like Sessions, Kirkbride urges artists of all levels to try an Art Positive class — regardless of perceived skill or experience. The thought of making art can be a little scary, he acknowledged.

"People say, 'I can't make a perfect photograph" reproduction. "Well, of course you can't," and that's not the goal anyway, he said.

Kim Martinez, a University of Utah art professor, taught earlier Art Positive workshops. "I'd say, 'Why don't you try this?' And sometimes they'd come back with something even cooler," she said. "Make as many things as you want to. And if you have 20, at least one is going to be good."

"You don't have to be a professional artist to get a lot out of making art," Lubbers added. "It fills this inner need that people have." Her Art Access Gallery has offered courses for people with many kinds of disabilities. "We've had so many artists who say, 'I have to have art. Without it, I'll die.' "

Sessions recently assembled a gleaming mosaic of what looks like multicolored beads. They're pills. He takes 31 of them a day now, but previous prescriptions turned out to be ineffective. So, he turned those into a pill painting, a canvas of defiance.

E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com