In honor of National Coming Out Day, I want to discuss something largely overlooked by the LGBTQ+ generation of today- the AIDS crisis.
Eric Rhein was a young artist living in the East Village of Manhattan in the 1980s, where he witnessed many friends and lovers go through the struggle of living with HIV and AIDS. And then, in 1987, he found out he was HIV positive. Out of fear for his career, he kept the information secret for years until he found a few people he felt he could trust, and they helped him feel comfortable enough to be open about his fight. Unfortunately, shortly afterward he took a turn for the worse and ended up hospitalized for a stretch of time.
Referring to the time he spent at St. Vincent’s Hospital as his “Artist Residency”, the whole experience was brimming with creativity and inspiration. He felt the presence of everyone he lost to the disease around him, particularly in the leaves he found on the ground outside. Thus, the beginnings of his internationally collected and ongoing Leaves project, in which he dedicates a wire silhouette of a leaf he traced to a friend with AIDS who passed away.
In his own words, “One by one, I picked up leaves until a host of kinsmen was gathered in my arms. In death, they continue to be the teachers that they were in life, generously sharing with me the gifts of their individual attributes.”
Currently, there are over 250 portraits.
We lost almost an entire generation to the AIDS crisis, and since there are so few left to tell their stories, it feels like few talk about it. Please, take some time to remember the history as you celebrate today.
(If you’re interested in learning more about the AIDS crisis in the LGBT community, I highly recommend the documentary We Were Here, available to stream on both YouTube and Netflix.)