AIDS and Art Activism: An Interview with R.D. Riccoboni

R.D. Riccoboni at his shop in Old Town, San Diego.

R.D. Riccoboni at his shop in Old Town, San Diego.

R.D. Riccoboni is an internationally collected artist based in San Diego, California. He was born in Fresno, California in 1960, and his family relocated to Connecticut to care for his aging grandparents when he was three years old. As a young boy, he enjoyed exploring his family’s farm and visiting historic places on family road trips, but his favorite activity was art. When he was four, he got into one of his mother’s paint-by-numbers sets and completed a painting of the USS Constitution. When his parents saw what he had done, they gave him his very own art supplies, and his childhood hobby evolved into a lifelong passion and career.

I met Mr. Riccoboni while I was on vacation in San Diego, California over spring break. My boyfriend and I stepped into his shop, Beacon Artworks in Old Town, and looked around at his wide array of colorful paintings. As I made my way through the shop, I spotted a letter on the wall from the first-ever AIDS Czar, Kristine Gebbie, and at the top was a White House letterhead. I was astounded and beyond excited—I knew I wanted to interview Mr. Riccoboni about his experience with HIV/AIDS and how he used his talent to effect change. He was kind enough to share his experience with me in the following responses, covering his art shows, his close friends who dealt with HIV/AIDS, and how the LGBT community grew and evolved in light of the epidemic.

Do you remember when you first started hearing about the AIDS epidemic? What were some of the things you were hearing, either in the media or through the grapevine?

In 1978, after high school, I moved to Long Beach, California, where my mom had family. I got a job there in a bank as a teller because my relatives convinced me that if I were an artist, I would surely starve to death. By this time in my life, I realized I was gay. I started making friends with other gay men in my neighborhood and building up a support system of new friends. We became like family. I met a nice gay couple who were customers where I worked. We would always chat for a bit whenever they came in. I remember them telling me how excited they were to take a trip to Hawaii for their honeymoon for a couple of weeks. A week later, I was surprised to see one of them back at the bank. He told me that his partner had developed a bad fever and flu on their trip and they’d had to return home, where he was still sick, but getting better. A few days later, he came into the bank very distraught. He told us he had come home from work and found his partner passed away on the sofa; their cat was sitting upon his chest, meowing. We all asked what had happened and he said he wasn’t sure, but he feared it could be the “gay cancer” that was reported in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We were all shocked and didn’t know what he was speaking of. It was terrifying. Many of the people I worked with were also gay, and I remember my fellow employees discussing afterwards what the heck was going on out there.

Tell me about some of your personal memories of AIDS. Are there any particularly poignant moments you remember in your friends’ experiences in dealing with the disease?

As time went on in those early days, things just got worse. Friends were getting sick left and right, and it seemed I was attending more and more funerals. I didn’t know it then, but this would last for years. The epidemic was something that I (or no young person) was ready for at this stage of life, and it made me grow up fast. It seemed that I would make new friends, and before I knew it, they’d be taken away. I remember first there was fear—if this thing was contagious, airborne—and all the panic overtook everyone. I remember visiting a friend in the hospital where they made me wear a protective suit, like I was going into a nuclear disaster area. We didn’t know anything at first, and many of my friends had to take each other in because of fear. The lack of knowledge was paralyzing.

Life was discouraging, but we tried to make the best of it. I think this is why the community has a reputation for partying. We began to turn sad events into life celebrations. After about five years in California, I returned to the East Coast. I had put my creativity and my art on the back burner; it was just too much. I just wanted to be left alone. I found I could not escape the spread of HIV/AIDS through communities across America. By this time, it was all over bucolic Connecticut, as well. I started working at a bank there. Things seemed bleak, but I told myself that this was the way life had become.

Something that stands out in my memory was seeing the AIDS Quilt covering the entire National Mall in Washington D.C. It was the last time the quilt was displayed in one piece, because it had grown too large. When I saw the quilt of a friend who had recently passed away, I could barely contain myself. Being with loved ones and friends at the time they passed was both difficult and bittersweet. It hurt that they were gone, but I was also relieved that they were no longer suffering. The hardest experience for me was telling my friend that his partner, my beloved housemate, passed away at home while he was at the store for just a moment.

How did you become involved in AIDS activism through art?

I settled in the New Haven area after moving back East. One day I came home from work and there were about 20 solicitations in my mailbox from AIDS agencies asking for money and help of any sort. I was burnt out and tapped out. I thought to myself, I’d like to help, but what can I do? I’m only one person. And deep inside me, a voice said: Paint—you can paint. And I started painting again. I decided to paint pictures of the gay community, the good times and the way we really were. A friend of mine came by and saw some of the art and asked where I’d bought it. After I told him I had painted it, he said, “You have to have an art show!” He offered to host one at his home, and we created the event as a fundraiser for a local AIDS agency. We asked for a donation at the door and raised a lot of money. The encouragement from that event gave me the energy to keep doing art shows that doubled as fundraisers. I even got to meet Keith Haring in New York City. He was doing a fundraiser in the Village by selling his art on T-shirts—I still have mine. The more I involved myself in art, the easier life felt. Eventually I took my art on the road, and I ended I up back in California, living in the Los Angeles area. I kept making art and creating fundraising events, on my own or with other artists. Every time I had a show, I’d write a press release and tell people to come see the art to support a cause that was important in their community.

Mr. Riccoboni often looks to the LGBT community for inspiration for his art.

Mr. Riccoboni often looks to the LGBT community for inspiration for his art.

What I didn’t realize is that others in the community were watching. I was offered a wonderful international book deal, representation by The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and numerous other gallery opportunities.

One day I received a call from Elliott Johnson, the executive director of the AIDS Clinic at University of Southern California–Los Angeles Medical Center, the largest teaching hospital in the world. Elliott said he needed help in getting people to come to the clinic, get tested, and visit AIDS patients in the hospital. This was in 1994, a time where the stigma of AIDS kept patients separated from their loved ones and the epidemic was raging out of control. He wondered if it was possible to create some sort of art exhibit in the clinic to get the community there, since so many of his patients were artists. He invited me to the clinic and where he had assembled a group of employees, nurses, and patients to meet with me about creating an art show. I was overwhelmed when I walked in; everyone was looking to me for an answer. We got right to work, came up with a plan, set a date, and created an invitation. Then someone asked, “How are we going to get people here?” Everyone went silent and I could see the sadness move across faces around the room. I told them that we were going to invite everyone we knew, or even strangers we passed by or talked to over the next month. The hospital agreed to make fliers and postcards immediately.

At this time, Hillary Clinton was the First Lady, and she was proactively pushing healthcare reform. I suggested that we invite Mrs. Clinton, and the group laughed and brushed it off. I decided then, even though I had no political connections, that I was going to write a letter to the White House. After all, the least they could do was ignore it or say no. The next day, when the hospital had the fliers ready, I drove over to pick up a stack, went home, and wrote a heartfelt letter to the First Lady inviting her and the President to the art show. I addressed the letter to the White House, took it to the post office, and off it went.

Describe the experience of receiving a letter from the White House commending your work around HIV/AIDS.

About two weeks later, I heard my doorbell ring. I answered the door and it was my mail carrier holding my mail in his hand. He said, “I’ve never delivered one of these before, so I thought I’d best do it in person.” He gave me a handwritten envelope with a letter inside from the White House!

Copies of the letters Mr. Riccoboni received from the White House.

Copies of the letters Mr. Riccoboni received from the White House.

My message machine was going off at the same time. The first message was from Bonnie, who was a volunteer coordinator at the LAC+USC Medical Center. “Randy,” she said, “What have you done?” She said the whole hospital was abuzz and that the White House would be sending a delegation to see the art show, including AIDS Czar Kristine Gebbie and the Surgeon General, a brilliant woman named Joycelyn Elders. The hospital had been trying to get the White House’s attention on AIDS for more than 10 years, and I had gotten through with a nice, handwritten note!

The show was a rewarding experience for everyone involved. Like we’d envisioned and hoped, all levels of patients, outpatients, and staff created art. The dignitaries offered to bring back some of the art to Washington D.C. to use as an example of how art can heal by bringing the community together. I proudly have copies of my letters from the White House on display in my San Diego gallery today.

What public policy decisions about or discrimination against people with AIDS were particularly upsetting to you?

Not allowing gay men to give blood transfusions is ridiculous. You can be tested for HIV when you go to give blood and get immediate results. It’s a no brainer. Gay folks are not second-class citizens.

It was also disturbing to me, in the beginning, to see people turning a blind cheek and shunning people with HIV/AIDS, and it still stings a bit. Hopefully we’ve forced the government to deal with plagues more quickly and efficiently in the future. Only time will tell. I think it will always be an ongoing educational process. The sad truth is that folks are still being infected with HIV at a tragic rate, and they are still shunned. Safe sex practices should be discussed more, regardless of age.

Working with the folks at the hospital opened my eyes to this disease and who gets it. Before working there, I focused primarily on my community, on LGBT. Within moments of my meeting the artist group at the hospital, I realized that half the patients I met there were not exclusively from the LGBT community, but were from every walk of life: white, black, Latino, Asian, Indian, women and men, all Americans. We sometimes forget that we are all in this together, that everyone is fighting their own battles and just wants to be loved and accepted.

When we’re young, we think we’re immune to anything. Yet all of humanity is fragile, and in the short time we’re on this planet, we should take care to talk openly about difficult subjects like HIV and AIDS. It begins with each and every one of us. Art is one of those things that can help people start talking about difficult subjects.

How did LGBT communities in California change during and after the worst years of the AIDS epidemic?

We came together, during and after those years; we had to. We had to show we were there and we survived, and we were worthy of love and of celebrating life. I think this is why pride festivals and marches on Washington became so huge.

What were some of the reactions you witnessed in AIDS patients and their friends families when you brought your art to hospitals?

I had a lovely woman, an AIDS patient whose husband had recently passed away, come up to me with tears in her eyes and say, “Thank you. [The White House] listened. I didn’t think they would, but they listened.” For me, that made the whole experience of these events worth everything, that she felt heard and had a voice. Art is that powerful.

One amazing reaction I witnessed was a social one. In the hospital, there was a hierarchy of protocol and people who interact. That may be good in business, but in living communities, we all need to interact with each other. We took a scary three-story building, where people had a possible death sentence hanging over their heads as they were admitted, and turned it into an art gallery, created by and for them. When people create art for a unified purpose, something odd happens: they talk to each other. More things get done in a smooth and effective manner. Patients, staffers, nurses, and doctors all began communicating with each other because an invisible environmental wall had come down as they created art together. A dead place became alive, and though it remained a serious place, its energy changed.

Are you still active in HIV/AIDS work?

Yes. Whenever I can, I donate time and art to any community agency that requests assistance, not just HIV/AIDS agencies.

As someone who knew several people who died from this disease, how did HIV/AIDS change you personally?

It changed me forever. You never get over losing loved ones, ever. At first it hardened me and I isolated myself from the world. I stopped counting friends who had passed away when that number hit 100. As someone who has been a part of many communities, I don’t want to know what that number is anymore. However, I’ll never forget those wonderful faces. Honor and remembrance are important to me, and it’s also important that I live my life; my friends would want that. Something inside me changed when I tapped into my creativity and reached out with it. Many of my friends may be gone because of this disease, but in a way, I can touch them when I paint. In order to cope and survive, it was necessary to turn sorrow into joy and celebration. Activism through art helps with that. Using my talents at home in my community touches more people than I will ever know and honors not only the people that I have lost, but others I don’t know at all.  When we do something in honor and joy, living life is better… it just is.