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.

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Orca 1
Orcas: Our Shared Future

Royal BC Museum dives into the world of orcas with upcoming feature exhibition

Frank Ludwig in a forklift with his long hair during Trooper’s heyday. (Photo submitted)
Humble Island beginnings blossomed into storied career for Trooper keyboardist

Frank Ludwig got his start as a boy pumping the organ in a tiny downtown Chemainus church

Joan Miller with the Vancouver Island North Regional Film Commission says there’s much room for optimism in the region rebounding from COVID-19 and is excited about what the future holds for the region. Black Press File Photo
North Island film industry optimistic about post-COVID rebound

Interest in filming here is still high, according to film commission, once things open back up

The 10-part Netflix series Maid, which is being exclusively shot in Greater Victoria, has been filming in Langford and Colwood over the past two weeks. On April 7, filming will take place on the east side of the Esquimalt Lagoon. (Black Press Media file)
Netflix series ‘Maid’ filming in Colwood

10-episode Warner Bros. production filmed exclusively in Greater Victoria

Lantzville singer Raymond Salgado will sing ‘O Canada’ before the Vancouver Canucks’ upcoming game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 17. (Photo submitted)
Lantzville singer to perform ‘O Canada’ at Vancouver Canucks game

Raymond Salgado scheduled to sing the anthem at Rogers Arena later this month

Nanaimo children’s entertainer Steve Romanik, represented by his character Mountain Dweller, is giving away his songs and stories to help raise money for children’s causes. (Photo courtesy Steve Romanik)
Nanaimo children’s entertainer ‘Mountain Dweller’ helping raise money for kids’ causes

Steve Romanik partnering with Nanaimo Child Development Centre, B.C. Children’s Hospital

“Racing Classics” by John Horton depicts sailboats near Trial Island off the coast of Oak Bay. The painting will be featured in his <em>Maritime Impressions</em> exhibit at the Winchester Gallery until April 14.
Greater Victoria galleries beckon spring with vibrant, whimsical nature scenes

At The Galleries: look at what’s on display this month

‘We Are All Beautiful’ by Elise Cole and ‘The Modern Thrall’ by Enigye (Happy) Amarkah (from left) are two of the pieces featured in VIU’s Anti-Racism Arts Festival. (Images courtesy the artists)
Vancouver Island University holds first Anti-Racism Arts Festival

Three-day online event to feature visual arts, performance, film and poetry

Thomas Kuecks, Bellamy Kuecks and Paula Foot have come together to create an album of stories for children. (Nina Foot photo)
Moments with Miss Paula creates musical stories for kids

Music and the spoken word from Island pair available on streaming

Author Eden Robinson poses for a portrait during an interview in Toronto, Wednesday, May 29, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin
Trickster trilogy author Eden Robinson hosts online conversation and reading

Haisla and Heiltsuk will join fans in event hosted by Vancouver Island Regional Library

Nanaimo author Lawrence Winkler’s latest book is ‘The Last Casebook of Doctor Sababa.’ (Bulletin file photo/supplied)
Nanaimo author wraps up trilogy following ‘antihero’ Island doctor

Lawrence Winkler presents ‘The Last Casebook of Doctor Sababa’

‘Frank Ney’ by Patrick Flavin, ‘Millstone River Upper Falls’ by John Collison Baker, ‘Labyrinth of Dreams’ by MA Molcan, ‘On the Other Side’ by Liana Ravensbergen, ‘December Snow’ by Laurel Karjala and ‘Jacks Point’ by Dana Smiley (cropped, clockwise from top-left) are among the works in the Nanaimo Arts Council’s latest exhibition. (Photos courtesy Nanaimo Arts Council)
Nanaimo Arts Council presents its first online gallery show

Submissions now open for upcoming ‘Ekphrastic Celebration’ show

Dorothy Sevcov’s exhibition ‘Having Fun With Acrylics’ is on display at Art 10 Gallery until the end of the month. (Josef Jacobson/The News Bulletin)
Experimental paintings now on exhibit at Nanaimo’s Art 10 Gallery

Dorothy Sevcov’s ‘Having Fun With Acrylics’ on display through April

Most Read