This is Not a Cocktail Party

Victoria artist creates pill sculpture to raise HIV awareness across Canada

Artist Peggy Frank sits with her “cocktail” sculpture.

Victoria artist creates pill sculpture to raise HIV awareness across Canada

A martini glass sits on the back porch of Peggy Frank’s Oak Bay home. It’s no residue from an early spring garden party — in fact, the seven-foot-tall glass is so big that Paul Bunyan would have trouble tipping it into his mouth. But if he did, he’d be met with a cocktail of 2,000 pill bottles that represent the anti-retroviral drugs and supplements Frank has had to take over the last 26 years, just to stay alive.

It all started four months ago, when Frank was laughing with a friend at a party and joked that she should make a giant sculpture out of the “cocktail” of drugs she’s had to take since she was diagnosed with HIV. Or perhaps it’s more fair to say it started on that day in 1987, when Frank learned that, within 10 years, her life would take on a new mantra: “this is not a cocktail party.” That mantra would become the title of her newest, awareness-raising art installation about to take Canada by the bottle.

Back then, however, life had a little less cheer.

“I got the call in university — back when doctors still told you over the phone — and I was in disbelief. I didn’t even know I had opted for an HIV test, that’s the kind of world it was,” says Frank. “So when I was diagnosed, I knew my dreams of working in international development were gone. I knew no one would hire me. The doctor explained I would have about seven years to live, where I would be sicker and sicker, and then I would die.”

Frank was 32 years old, and was just completing her master’s in resource management at Simon Fraser University. She was all set to enter the world of international scientific research and social impact assessment work, but while starting her initial therapy of 49 HIV-specific pills a day, realized her goal was changing.

“It was impossible to leave the house, or do anything. My life circulated around my alarm clock, having food in my stomach or making sure it was empty,” she says.

As her dreams shifted, Frank fell back on a long-term disability package thanks to a position she’d previously gained with the B.C. Ministry of Forestry, drawing wildflowers. Her artistic talent blossomed despite her personal struggles.

“We still see HIV as a scary disease,” says Frank. “With refined medication it’s not so scary — the virus is almost benign in my body, for example — but we still fear AIDS, even when there are diseases out there that are much more devastating. However, this really isn’t a cocktail party. You do have to take a lot of pills just to stay alive, and that’s where the idea came from.”

To create her sculpture, Frank leaned on her community, friends and even pharmacies to collect the 2,000 bottles that would symbolize all the drugs she, like many others living with HIV, has had to take. The result touched Frank and her friends.

“When I first heard about this cocktail glass, I thought it was ambitious,” says Dutch Van Barneveld, who boasts that he and Frank are an item. “But it’s really easy to get drawn into one of Peggy’s projects — she has this light in her eyes, and the glass is always half full with her. I couldn’t believe the people who would be down here in her basement, every day, washing bottles, helping in any way they could and making sure she had what she needed to make this happen.”

Van Barneveld, who works in construction, was able to help Frank with the creation of the “glass,” which is formed out of a plastic-like material called styrene. Then, as Frank says, for the next four months it was a matter of learning “1,000 ways not to do something” — from glue that didn’t bond to pill bottle labels that wouldn’t scrub off — until the piece started to come together.

“HIV is such a social illness, and I guess that’s what I am hoping to show through the sculpture — it’s social in how we relate to it and how we stigmatize it,” Frank says. “I didn’t imagine I’d live to 40. I was almost certain I wouldn’t make it to 50, and in another year I will have survived to the unbelievable age of 60.”

But Frank has done more than just survive. In 2006, the artist co-founded positively AFRICA, a group that functions through the solidarity of people living positively on two very different continents. Ironically, Frank says the group is doing much of the work that she originally had thought she would do with her life. She has also been an active member of the Vancouver Island Persons Living with HIV/AIDS Society (VPWAS). Now, on May 1, Frank and her cocktail glass will embark on a cross-Canada tour to visit approximately 30 cities and communities throughout the country before reaching the final destination of St. Andrews, N.B., on May 31. There, Frank will be one of 16 finalists in the 2013 Canadian Sculpture Competition. This isn’t likely to be the end of the party, though — Frank has already been asked to consider the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa as a potential home for the sculpture.

“There’s a truth with art, and with most things I suppose: the moment we overthink our talents we get nervous, but if we just go with it, things seem to happen,” says Frank. “I’ve been very grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given. If anything, living with HIV has taught me more about how to live in this world. It’s shown me that my community is bigger than I ever could have dreamed. This disease isn’t something I would wish on anyone, but my life is more full because of HIV.” M

Join the send-off party for Frank’s tour by contacting VPWAS at 250-382-7927. To learn more about Frank and follow along with her cocktail journey, visit her blog at peggyfrank.blogspot.ca.

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