When a culture suffers the loss of artists, musicians, scientists and writers, it loses its vision as well as its progeny. Of the millions of people killed during the Holocaust, many died between the ages of 18 and 40. When we think of that age group, we envision people raising children who will follow in their footsteps. When a large portion of an age group is destroyed, not only are those people annihilated, but also are their descendents. Inspiration and the imagination of spirit are diminished for years to come. When artists became victims of the Nazi regime, they left no heirs to claim their legacy. Symphonies were not scored, canvases were not painted and sculptures never carved. Their futures were foreshortened. All the thoughts, techniques and visions of their creative spirits were burned to ashes along with the influence of future generations.
A person’s offspring is not limited to human regeneration; descendants can be an artist’s disciple or those that are influenced and inspired. You do not need a bloodline to distinguish heritage; art generates a life force that courses through the veins of future artists in the same way blood seeks genetic dominance. One example of artistic influence is through the work of Peter Voulkos. Voulkos began distressing the vessel in the 1950’s by tearing it apart and prodding the plate with a stunning vitality that initiated change. He inspired a new way of conceiving form and the backdrop for a new ceramic idiom emerged. You can see Voulkos’s presence whispering through the pages of present day publications. He kindled a spirit that still echoes today, creating a legacy that will impact generations of artists to come. Our artistic verbal communication was enhanced by his presence, yet due to the great losses we experienced in one generation due to AIDS, our country witnessed a diminished artistic strength.
During the 1980’s a disease erupted in the United States like a force so profound, it was hard to slow down. The AIDS epidemic became an unconquerable component of everyday life. People I loved succumbed to the disease and I witnessed the massacre of the potential. So many people died in that 18 to 40 year old age bracket, a time when their creativity should have flourished. Our country lost something precious then- it lost a generation. In 1989 I lost my best friend to AIDS.
I graduated college in 1972 and formed a pottery cooperative with three other people. It was a difficult time in our country; we were in the midst of the Vietnam War. People were dissenting in various ways-from banning the bra to burning their draft cards. The world around us was in crisis, yet we built a little piece of heaven on our commune. We furnished a studio, constructed an 80 cu. foot gas fired kiln, and enthusiastically launched the Kilnhaus Potters. Our pottery was sold in various shops and galleries and we made a living from our art. We comfortably meshed into our community and were an exciting addition to our town. Our commune remained intact for five years before two of us left to open our own studios. I moved on, as did my friend, Ira Messing; both of us excited to devour our futures.
By the time the early 1980’s arrived, Ira’s life was inadvertently jeopardized. That insidious virus was infiltrating our country and viciously skulking through the male homosexual community. The evil menace was labeled Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and the acronym AIDS was born. By 1982, 1200 AIDS related deaths in the United States were already reported by the US Centers for Disease Control.
Ira Messing was an extraordinary man. As a child growing up in the Bronx, he mastered the French horn and piano. His piano skills were so superb that recordings were made of his performances. Upon graduating from The High School of Music and Art in NYC, Ira enrolled in the State University of New York at Albany. That is where we met. He was so attractive and charismatic; people were drawn to him by sheer magnetic force. Eventually this political science major wandered into the ceramic studio. He was so enamored with the program, he persuaded me to join. I was an art history major at the time but decided to get my hands wet. Two other friends of ours were also in the class. The year was 1971 when we met our teacher, Frances Simches, whose passion for clay was seductive. The ceramic studio was an exciting place to be, and clay was the miraculous thread that knitted our creative spirits, ushering us towards the future. Fran respected our goals and continued helping us in many ways after graduation when we established the Kilnhaus Potters.
Being a potter was one of Ira’s dreams; he also needed to farm, so farm we did. We launched our cooperative on a 500-acre farm, housing our studio in a series of barns. The 1970’s was a period of innovative thought. We explored new ways of living, which filtered down into a lifestyle of self-sufficiency. We worked alongside chickens, goats, sheep, cows and pigs. We slaughtered our animals and butchered our meat. Everything we grew was for consumption including fields of produce, which we canned and froze. We had a fully operational commune. We worked in the fields during the day and in the studio at night. While some of our friends were working at 9 to 5 jobs and partying in clubs all night, we worked on our farm and ceramic business. It was a 7-day a week job and we loved every minute of it. We were kids in our 20’s and didn’t need much sleep; we were too excited with our work. When Ira left the commune, he moved into the country and continued vegetable gardening along with his pottery. He received his Masters degree in Social Work and became a therapist in Albany New York’s mental hygiene facility. This loving, gentle man contributed greatly to his profession, and people adored working with him. His energy was phenomenal, and he continued producing and selling his pottery. I opened my own studio in a nearby city and began a teaching career in ceramics and sculpture. However, the rhythm of our lives changed in late 1987 when Ira was diagnosed as being HIV positive. Shortly after, he learned that his positive status changed to the disease, AIDS.
Helping Ira live with AIDS was a phenomenal experience. During the late 1980’s many people were exhibiting symptoms that were attributed to AIDS. People were being diagnosed daily. The major decision my friends had was whether or not to be tested. In hindsight, of course, this sounds criminal, but everyone was scared. It was staggering. People knew that by going to get tested they might get a death sentence. There was no cure and very little help at the time. The only medication available was AZT, which would delay some symptoms, but offered very little in the long run. Eventually they all got tested, and sadly, most of my friends tested positive. Our worlds changed drastically. Everything revolved around AIDS and our government was not listening to the crying voices. The administration was reluctant to help. Not until the end of Reagan’s term were significant sums of money finally directed towards AIDS research.
In the 1980’s, being homosexual was not as savvy as it is now in 2007. There were no light situation comedies like “Will & Grace” on the television, which enabled our culture to become more comfortable with the subject of homosexuality. Many people were still “in the closest” while I was growing up and this disaster only made it worse. When the AIDS crisis accelerated, a shameful cloud descended upon the gay community that later developed into anger. I felt helpless as Ira entered into this most tragic period of his life.
Ira confronted his fate with extreme courage. After his positive diagnosis, he decided to council men who were testing positive. He used his talents to help others. He led a men’s AIDS support group for about a year until his illness became unbearable. After his initial “attack” of pneumonia and his first of many hospital stays, Ira went through a period similar to remission. He knew this phase was only temporary, but he was determined to take full advantage of it. He was in the process of renovating his house and continued to work on that project. He planted his vegetables and flowers as I helped him set up his studio. When his wheel was in place, he began the ritual of making pots. That last summer was glorious - he was alive and working at the things he loved most in life. One beautiful day, when life felt so natural, Ira forgot he was sick. We were in his garden and he was hoeing peas, when he looked up, hugged me and said, “I love my little life”, and went back to his peas. Days like that were few. He spent the summer making pots. Beautiful pots that he would never see finished. Eventually I had to move them to my studio where, tearfully, I glazed them for his family and friends. By the end of the summer, he was coughing heavily and weakening. One day he looked at me and said, “I’m done.” I loaded his last bisque kiln for him, and we did something a little naughty. We went upstairs and toasted his gorgeous life as a potter with a forbidden glass of wine. I found myself staring at him. You would never know he was so deathly ill. His hands were strong, his arms bulging with muscles, his face beautiful. Only his eyes were sad, yet so clear, understanding something I was not privy to. I knew Ira Messing for 21 years. We created a beautiful farm, a working pottery, and lots of dreams. Only his dreams were ending now, as mine were moving forward.
The plague was all around me as I went from one funeral to another. How many people all over the country were experiencing this same devastation in their lives? This disease disproportionately struck the art world. Many gay men were in the creative arts, leaving a large hole in the tapestry of our lives. As early as 1989, organizations like “Art Against AIDS” were launched to raise money and awareness to this incursion. People were crying out in a multitude of ways. The “Names Project Quilt” was produced honoring those that died of AIDS, and was exhibited on the grounds of the Mall in Washington DC. It later toured the country in museums, growing larger each day as more and more people died. Ira died in 1989 when almost 90,000 people had died from AIDS in the US alone, a number that exceeded the Vietnam War. To date, 25 million people worldwide have died from AIDS; 40 million more are infected.
We have had much progress in overcoming this horrendous disease in our country; but the medication people are taking who are HIV positive is not without problems. We have erroneously labeled the drug management program a “cocktail”, which is a misnomer for this medical regime. The word cocktail connotes a pleasant drink that one has socially. Instead, the program is complicated. Some people are not physically eligible to take this combination of drugs and some have intolerable side effects. It is very expensive without insurance and we really do not know the long-term effects of the drugs on the body. The sad element to this story is the fact that mutations of the AIDS virus have developed, ones that our modern drug companies cannot decipher. We do not have a cure, and until we do, we must remain vigilant in our behavior.
On July 18, 1989, my best friend Ira Messing lost his fight with AIDS. As we gently laid his body into the ground, I reflected on this universal ritual. We should never forget those people who died two decades ago, a time when there was little hope, a time when our country overlooked them. We should not forget the people worldwide that are still suffering from this dreadful disease. We should not forget Africa and India, where AIDS is winning the battle over life.
Almost twenty years ago, Ira Messing died and the art world lost a man that might have showed us a new way of perceiving art. Almost twenty years ago, a generation lost a creative force, and I lost my best friend. This article is dedicated to all those people whose lives were abruptly ended by the anguish of AIDS; to those whose contributions were never visible; and to those who left behind a vacuum of inspiration and imagination in our culture’s creative voice.