"People are shocked in ways that they don't expect to be," says Rodney "Rod" Rodriguez. "They expect to hear tragic stories of people dying and that's happened, but you're not going to hear those stories as much in the people who are living with the disease."
Rodriguez is talking about the arcHIVe project, a nonprofit that focuses on blending art and HIV awareness. It began five years ago when Rodriguez noticed a large age gap in the gay community. Artists, athletes, musicians; all types of creative individuals were lost in the AIDS epidemic of the '80s, creating a huge artistic void. So, to counteract that loss of culture, as well as the stigma of the virus, Rodriguez began collecting the works of those who were living with or affected by HIV.
The project first began with intimate interviews where people recorded their individual journey through their diagnosis. It then transformed into a collection of more than 160 unique pieces of art that are stored by Rodriguez and loaned to fundraising organizations or presented at events like the San Diego Fringe Festival.
"Once we open up and are able to talk about [HIV] and have some real dialogue and discourse, then we will be able to address the stigma as well and talk about the realities of the disease and get away from the mistruths and misunderstandings."
The arcHIVe project is preparing for "Artini," an annual art gala that they'll be hosting Saturday, May 7, at 7 p.m. at Sunset Temple (3911 Kansas St. in North Park). The event will feature artists who took a 30-day challenge to create art every day. Still, Rodriguez isn't content with just having art shows. He's looking into commissioning a live dance performance and opening a writer's workshop to create creative outlets for those in the HIV community.
While Rodriguez admits that it may not be the case for everyone, an HIV positive diagnosis can be empowering. "I can't even remember how many times I've heard somebody say, 'contracting HIV was the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me a new lease on life, '" Rodriguez says. "Every time someone is willing to be brave enough and trust in us and what we do, to share their story, that's a great accomplishment."