Looking at HIV/AIDS through art, faith

Looking at HIV/AIDS through art, faith

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A local church is inviting the community to take a peek into the minds of men and women living with HIV/AIDS in an innovative exhibit that fuses art with the real-life experiences of the local HIV/AIDS community.

Penns Park United Methodist Church, 2394 Second St. Pike, will exhibit “Through the Window: Insight into the Spirituality of AIDS” through the end of July.

Philadelphia artist Lois Wilson created the 12-piece exhibit as part of her work toward her doctorate degree in art and theology, which she received last year from Wesley University in Washington, D.C.

Wilson, a professional storyteller, is also the founder of Artwell, an organization she launched in 2005 that utilizes creative and performing arts as therapeutic outlets for individuals with HIV/AIDS.

During group sessions, she began to take note of the profound and often inspirational messages being passed among participants and decided to record them.

“People who were living with the virus were just saying these incredibly important things, so I started to write them down in this little spiral notebook,” Wilson said. “I thought, ‘They’re too good, I don’t want to forget this.’”

For about two years, Wilson copied down comments that she found especially meaningful, along with the first names of the individuals who delivered them.

When she started her doctorate program and was brainstorming for the final project she’d eventually be tasked with, she got the idea to fuse the thoughts shared during the sessions and into one cohesive work of art that demonstrates the myriad questions those with HIV/AIDS face on a daily basis.

While she was out walking one day, Wilson spotted an old window in the trash and carried it home, with her, deciding to incorporate it — and numerous others she later collected — into her project.

“It was a practical idea at first, just to use the windows as frames for each piece, but it occurred to me that there was an enormous metaphor waiting to be understood with the windows,” Wilson said. “With the windows themselves, I think they’re just beautiful the way they are. I never did anything with them besides clean them a little, so they’re scarred, they’re broken and they have their own little stories to tell. And when I put the windows together with the pieces, it created this metaphor of looking through this window to understand another person’s experience.”

Wilson said the use of the windows illustrates the natural barriers that separate all people, including those with HIV/AIDS.

“I used the windows because this is how all of our conversations take place — across gender lines, racial lines, socioeconomic lines — just person to person. I can’t crawl inside your skin to understand you, but the best I can do is just look through the window to what’s on the other side.”

It took Wilson about two years to complete the project, the final product of which was 12 window-framed collages, each containing a quote describing one individual’s experience with HIV/AIDS, surrounded by Wilson’s own artistic interpretations.

The exhibit has spent the last two years traveling to churches and faith communities, and was featured at Washington D.C.’s Church of the Pilgrims as one of the cultural events during the 2007 Capital Pride.

Wilson said the exhibit has been featured primarily in religious circles, as these are often the communities who most need to be exposed to the messages contained in the work.

“One of my beliefs that drove the formation of the exhibit is that communities of faith — and I find this to be a genuine tragedy — are often the last place where people who are newly diagnosed with HIV or AIDS turn for support. These communities have typically been unwelcoming to the gay community and to others who have been most deeply impacted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, so when folks get diagnosed, they may not want to go talk to their pastor because they may feel like they’ll be judged or rejected,” Wilson said. “Part of my desire in creating this exhibit was to give a voice to the HIV community and to help others witness and hear the grassroots spirituality that is coming forth from this community, so that together we can build a bridge across that gap, between the faith communities and the HIV community.”

Yet the exhibit is not confined to religious settings; Wilson said she would present it to any audience that wants to learn more about the human impact of the disease.

“It’s not a heavy-handed religious approach, but rather it’s about the spirituality of this community, not of any one religion or dogma.”

The exhibit will be on display at Penns Park from 3-6 p.m. Friday-Sunday through the end of July, and Wilson will be on hand from 6-8 p.m. June 20 for an artist reception at the church.

If you’d like to host “Through the Windows,” contact Wilson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and include the exhibit’s name in the subject line of the e-mail.

Jen Colletta can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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