Artist puts a face on AIDS Exhibit: Jason Dilley's 'life masks' of those living with HIV, and the tapes that accompany them, bear witness to the fact that the disease touches every corner of the national community.

March 03, 1998|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

They tell their own stories. Sometimes haltingly. Sometimes asking for understanding. Often with a tinge of sadness. Occasionally with the joy and wonder only the very young can convey.

The stories are from people who have one thing in common. They are living with AIDS.

Jason Dilley is the artist who brings their stories to the public and puts a face and voice behind each one.His "Project Face to Face" is a traveling, interactive multimedia exhibit that tells the stories of people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The exhibit consists of detailed masks of real people who have AIDS. The stark white masks are mounted against a black background. Some masks have smiles complete with teeth, or beards. Some are the small, narrow faces of children not yet in their teens. What makes the exhibit so poignant is the tape-recorded voices of the people talking about living with AIDS or of their lives in general.

For some of those who saw the exhibit at Johns Hopkins University yesterday, it changed the way they thought of AIDS and the people who have the disease.

"This is an incredible idea," says Jenn Coughlin.

"A lot of the time when I hear of people with AIDS, I am so stricken with sadness, because you want to automatically write them off as dead," the 19-year-old freshmen says. "But hearing ... the little kid, Buddy, talk about his cats and listening to Fred saying how he wanted to study Italian, you see how alive these people are."

"When you listen to the tapes, you get to hear the actual voices of these people," says Steven Kwok, 21, a senior and residential adviser at the school. "Putting the faces with the voices makes what they are saying a whole lot more emotional and powerful. I've never spoken with anyone who has HIV. This is the closest I have come."

Kwok says he will encourage other students to stop in and view the exhibit.

Dilley, who likes the exhibit to be shown to young people in educational settings, expects "Project Face to Face" to make people think.

"People come to the exhibit with a variety of reactions from their own history," he says. "The reactions could be of hope, fear, understanding."

There are 19 masks on exhibit, but soon there will be one more. "I am going to do a local person to make it even more relevant to them," he says.

Dilley, 42, is trained in classical theater, not art. "But oral history is a part of that background," he says. He began making the masks and tapes in 1988 and has more than 60 of them.

The idea to do the masks with the tapes first came to him in his sleep, Dilley says, at a time when he was working as a volunteer on Ward 5A at San Francisco General Hospital, which is for people with HIV.

"A friend suggested that a good way to get out of yourself was to go out and help someone else," says Dilley, who says he has lost many friends to AIDS. "And I wanted to help people in need, so I went to San Francisco General Hospital."

It takes him about 40 minutes to make a mold of a person's face, then another seven hours to finish it. He spends about an hour interviewing the person, then edits the interview down to roughly five minutes.

"I look for things people say that are different than what someone else said," Dilley says.

Dilley's exhibit has been touching people in museums and universities around the country. In nearly every city the exhibit visits, Dilley does a mask and history of a local person he finds through AIDS organizations.

The masks are identified by first names only, and the people are of every age, race, gender and sexual orientation. The white portrait face castings are commonly referred to as death masks, Dilley says. "These are life masks."

There's Mary -- a former financial analyst who used to earn up to $80,000 a year but now gets about $600 a year from the state -- who says people are shocked to hear she has AIDS.

"One of the myths I hear people say is that they would never date a woman who has AIDS and that they can tell if she has AIDS," Mary says on the tape. "I just want to say, you don't know. You have no way of knowing."

Then there's Chava, who describes himself as a straight Latino male. "I felt alone," he says. "I felt like a leper. I couldn't talk with anyone."

His therapist said that people would be afraid at first but then they would get over it. Some people in his life never reached that point, Chava says.

Anya was looking forward to starting life as a young adult when she learned that she had AIDS.

"I found out in the summer before my senior year of college, which I haven't finished yet," she says in an eerily calm voice. "I put that on hold. It floored me. I was absolutely shocked."

Buddy was 7 years old when his mask was made. He talks of his pets, which are his major concern. "Do you ever cry?" Dilley asks Buddy on the tape.

"Yes, I cried because my cat got killed. His name was Funny Face." Not one to dwell on the negative, Buddy sounds cheery with additional news. "I have another cat. His name is Puddin."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.