“As an artist-photographer and as one who holds the reality of living with a life-threatening illness, I see the world with a certain sensibility. That I identify as a gay man and as a Quaker/Buddhist also affects my perceptions. Similarly for how others see me, I have been embraced, vilified, or rendered invisible.” _Tom Antonik
A French ACT UP T-shirt, black with white text and pink triangle, reads: “ACTION = VIE.” Next to it, its American counterpart: “ACTION = LIFE.” More than two decades into the AIDS epidemic, we no longer need T-shirts to tell us what SILENCE equals.
Both shirts share the same shelf among the collection of artworks and memorabilia that artist, photographer, and HIV/AIDS activist-educator Tom Antonik has donated to the University of Southern Maine’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Collection of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine.
Susie Bock, head of Special Collections and director of the Sampson Center, says, “The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Collection has really grown in the last few years. We’ve had donated to us the archives and records of Northern Lamba Nord, which when the AIDS crisis hit Maine became the AIDS hotline. We just took in the records of OUT RIGHT, and we’re becoming the chronicle of LGBT history in Maine. We’re incredibly lucky to have had Tom agree to donate his work and to exhibit it now.”
“Most of my life I have struggled with the tension between wanting to share what I see, and a certain uneasiness and lingering fear of being seen. Some of that tension comes from being aware of my sexuality from early on in life — and also being aware that to come of age as a young gay man in small town Maine in the early ’70s [meant] that my survival depended on my not being seen for who I really was. I could brush aside being taunted as a ‘faggot’ so long as the proof was not evident. One of the ‘proofs’ to which I was (and am still!) most vulnerable is that I would be ‘caught looking.’ ”
When I visited the exhibition on Tuesday, Antonik was still in the process of installing it. As I write this he’s sorting through boxes full of mounted photographs, bags full paraphernalia, working to curate his own collection. How to take decades of artworks, portraits of friends, artists, community members — many of whom lost their lives to AIDS — books, pamphlets, newspaper articles, T-shirts, and other artifacts from two decades of life, and edit them to fit a space that could only accommodate a fraction of it?
How to choose the portrait of one individual over another?
“As an artist (turning to photography as my primary expression a few years after my AIDS diagnosis in 1988) I both reveled in the possibilities of a kind of social license that being an artist-photographer presented to me, while also holding a certain heightened awareness that to share what interested me was to reveal myself as well.”