My father was a Baptist minister and I grew up in the church. I was recognized early for my artistic gifts. Art classes weren't available in Mississippi public schools, so my parents encouraged me and provided me with private art lessons on weekends. By age 15, I felt a "calling" to the ministry as an artist, not a preacher. I knew my pulpit was to be the canvas.
After high school, I was offered art scholarships to several Baptist colleges. I tried to combine fine art studies with religion, but that was not being done in 1974. Instead, I got a Bachelor of Theology degree from a fundamentalist college, and as a consequence of coming out as a gay Christian, I was excommunicated from the church.
I returned to my first love and true calling: art. Making and studying art became my religion. I enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts and graduated in 1991 with a BFA in painting and a BA in art history.
My experiences, however, taught me the church was not a safe place. I still had a dream and a calling. I searched and found only one graduate school offering what I wanted. The only problem was that it was at a Methodist seminary. Two weeks after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, I enrolled in Wesley Theological Seminary under the mentorship of Cathy Kapikian and The Center for the Arts and Religion. I was suspicious of religious people from years of rejection, but I was not going to hide the truth of my being a gay Christian. To my surprise, there were many students and faculty who were either gay or extremely supportive.
Finally, my dreams were coming true. It seemed all my life had brought me to this special place. I could see my future: teaching one day at the post-graduate level and bridging the gap between the church and the arts. I "wrote" my course papers as paintings. Everything seemed to be following a well written script.
In January 1992, I fell deathly ill and was diagnosed with end-stage AIDS. The doctors told me to put my house in order and said I had about three months to live. After my family came and said their goodbyes, I was left alone in the hospital to die. I could not believe it. I wanted prayers for healing. I refused the hospital chaplin's prayers for comfort in dying, and asked him to leave my room. I refused to believe that I was going to die after all the events and miracles in my life had led me to Wesley Seminary. Soon an Episcopalian AIDS chaplin, Jerry Anderson, stopped by almost every day and prayed with me for healing. Three months after entering the hospital, I was back on campus and painting in the studio.
In the Advent season of 1993, I was alone in my apartment and was overcome with grief from the loss of almost all my friends, loved ones and mentors to AIDS. I felt like no one knew me anymore. A strange thing happened as I cried, I had a waking dream, like a vision. I say myself sitting on a hospital examination table, naked, and hooked up to oxygen and IV drips. Suddenly, the image changed. It was no longer me sitting there, but Christ, covered in AIDS cancer lesions with his head bowed, nude, wearing only a crown of thorns. I knew I had to paint it. I quickly gathered my supplies and, in a transcendent experience, I made the first version of "Man of Sorrows: Christ with AIDS." I had questions that needed to be answered. As I painted Christ, I was reminded of the many versions of "Man of Sorrows" referred to in Isaiah 53, 3-4, from the 16th century and of Gruenewald's Christ as a plague victim. This gave me the merit to continue. I also knew I had to answer the fundamentalists who were saying AIDS was God's judgment on gay people and drug users. In the painting I also quoted Jesus' words from Matthew 25 that when you offer care giving "to the least of these, my brethren, you are doing it unto me." I intertwined the words with the image. Afterwards, I knew something inside me changed. I realized God knows my pain and shares my grief. I was healed of a lot of hurt. God still knew me.
I used this painting for one of my class papers on ethics. Then I kept it in my apartment. It was and is very personal. The seminary gallery had an open spot in their schedule and persuaded me to exhibit my painting. A visiting priest from Cape Town who had been sent by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Washington, DC to research AIDS ministries saw my painting. Several months later, Archbishop Tutu and his new ministry, Wola Nani-Embrace, invited me to Cape Town to make a similar version of the painting in St. George's Cathedral. I went while I was still a student at Wesley Seminary and while I was on experimental medications to save my eyesight from CMV, an AIDS-related virus.
My painting brought attention to the AIDS crisis in South Africa and helped kick off the new ministry, which is still active today. I set up a studio in the back of the cathedral, at the end of the main aisle to the high alter. I made the painting 3 1/2 feet x 5 feet. I quoted the text from Matthew 25 in the 3 languages spoken in Cape Town: Xhosa, Afrikaans and English. I had many daily visitors while painting. Some were deeply touched. Others yelled and spit on me. When "Man of Sorrows: Christ with AIDS" appeared on the front page of the Cape Times in December 1994, it triggered worldwide controversy. When someone showed up at the cathedral "to rid the place of the heretic artist," I was placed in protective custody and Archbishop Tutu responded to the press, defending me and the painting as theologically correct.
After I returned to the United States, I continued my studies at Wesley Seminary and graduated in 1996 with a Masters in Theological Studies. During this time, the painting took on a life of its own. After touring South Africa's universities and townships, the painting now hangs at Wola Nani-Embrace's center in Cape Town, where people still come to hear and see the message of hope and healing it offers.
More than 10 years after painting this icon for people with AIDS, it has been seen by more than 10 million people, was shown at the World Council Of Churches, appeared on covers of Christian magazines, papers, periodicals, web sites, and Cathy Kapikian's new book, Art in Service of the Sacred.
Dreams do come true in ways that we can never imagine.
I answered God's call and have lived to see people touched by my work.