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AIDS: Dan Anthon uses art in fight against AIDS
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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Dan Anthon took a skills inventory test on a computer back in 1984, and the result said that his strongest skills were in art and design.

He was shocked, to put it mildly, having never taken an art class in his life, short of a pottery class that he once took by accident after registering for what he thought was a poetry class.

"Since it was a computer telling me this, not a person, I decided I could believe it and decided to go to Columbia College," said Anthon, who started taking two art-related classes—and got A's in both.

Anthon went on to earn a second bachelor's degree in commercial and fine art.

Foodworks then hired him to do their graphic design and then he went to graduate school in art therapy.

"I saw graduate school in art therapy as a way to combine my social service work, my love of people and my new-found joy of art-making," Anthon said. "I was accepted at both the University of Illinois-Chicago ( UIC ) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ( SAIC ) , where Don Seiden, still my friend and mentor today, the founder of that program, gave me the confidence to apply to SAIC."

SAIC offered a scholarship, so that's where he went.

Anthon, in his 50s and living in Chicago's northern suburbs, is now a full-time art therapist with a private practice, called The Creative Arts Therapy Studio. He sees adults, adolescents and children with a wide range of issues, from HIV/AIDS, cancer, depression, divorce, ADD, and isolation, to those needing support, and others who love to make art in a supportive environment.

His studio is in Wilmette and he shares the space with Rachel Prendergast and Val Newman, both also art therapists. In addition, Anthon teaches Group Techniques for Art Therapists at SAIC, and has contracts as an art therapist at various agencies/outlets, such as Center on Halsted. He previously was at BEHIV [ Better Existence with HIV ] .

Anthon is gay and has been together with his partner, Robert, for almost 28 years. They had a civil union ceremony last August.

"First, I am grateful that the Center on Halsted offered me the chance to create my studio group after BEHIV [ closed ] ," Anthon said. "The Center has been incredibly sensitive to my needs and the needs of this group, allowing us to have a period of time to adjust to this big change [ in venue ] , before advertising the group to add new members. Now that the advertising for the group has begun, we are slowly adding new and interesting people to our mix, with a minimum of adjustment."

Anthon's group has already had one exhibit, for World AIDS Day last December at the Center. "Exhibiting has been extremely important to this studio process," Anthon said. "It is a bit strange to have to come into a conference room and transform it into a working studio. The energy has been subtly different from the BEHIV group in my studio. It seems that the group too has [ gasped ] a collective sigh of relief that we could regenerate ourselves. Quite possibly the gratitude of regrouping here has given new life to me and my fellow artists."

The group meets every Thursday for two hours in Room 202 at the Center, starting at 1:30 p.m.

"Every week is a high for me," Anthon said. "I love doing this group and being with my cohorts. All [ of ] the artists are really a pleasure to be with. I love their growth and their growing ability to own and accept their own stability, both as artists and as humans. I love our ability to laugh and cry and talk trash, [ or talk ] politics and religion, but at the same time keep our focus on the issues of people living with HIV.

"Carol Mendelson has been with me in this process almost from the beginning. Carol lost her son, Steve, in 1995, six months before the 'cocktail' [ was available in treatment ] . Carol is a trouper, working with me and the group as a volunteer, traveling from Highland Park every week. This past World AIDS Day was particularly poignant in that several of us looked over the diary of Carol's son, published in the Washington Post after his death. Steve was a brilliant political illustrator for the Post and they published four full pages of his diary. It was a powerful, tear-filled moment all of us taking turns reading Steve's words.

"In addition we are joined here at the Center by Amy Hahn and her infant daughter, Addie. Amy [ attended ] SAIC and is an art therapy graduate from Adler School of Psychology. She created an internship with me several years ago and we have remained connected ever since. Amy now joins us every week as a volunteer and the fact of her daughter's presence in the group is a statement beyond words. Everyone feels the [ close ] bond and we all take turns hanging out with this special little girl."

Anthon said it truly has been a big-time change, moving from BEHIV to the Center on Halsted.

"We had a real store-front studio at BEHIV; it was my own studio and the BEHIV artists came to me," he said. "It was stocked with everything and more, and we had constant opportunities to exhibit in the front windows. It was a public enough, and private enough, but we were not hidden away by any means."

That same setting is not easy to re-create at the COH along Halsted Street.

Still, Anthon said, "we have deepened in our relationships, maybe because we had the thought that this group might have ended [ when BEHIV closed ] and we are all really grateful to be back together. The circumstances are not really the issue; we will always have changes and we as humans find ways to adapt. But just to be together for this long and still like each other and even have a growing respect is actually quite miraculous, and I think we don't always talk about it, but the presence of that in the room at COH is palpable."

The 15-year run at BEHIV was, "packed full of memories," Anthon said. Nick, for instance, was a member of the studio for several years and made small black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings, among other ways of working. He often talked about how HIV affected him physically. "He was adamant about his own regimen of treatment and fought with his doctor often, but was clear and strong in his own resolve about what worked for him and what did not. He remains healthy today," Anthon said. "He mentioned that he had, in his former life, danced with the Joffrey Ballet and that his body was just never going to be able to do that again.

"In the meantime, the American Art Therapy Association was having its annual conference and that year it was in the Palmer House Hotel in the Loop. I was invited to ask one or more of my clients to be a part of an opening ceremony in the ballroom, a performance before 1,000-plus art therapists from [ across ] the U.S. We would be performing, creating a large painting spontaneously while a small band played. It was an incredible experience for both of us, performing together, dancing in front of my peers, paint all over us, all the while we were creating a collaborative image together. By the time the event was over, we were both elevated beyond our normal state of being, clearly we were in a natural high.

"The regular studio group was still happening in Evanston that afternoon and we went to the studio. When we got there, it was obvious something special had happened to the two of us. We were dancing around the studio and he stripped down to his boxer [ shorts, which ] certainly was not a typical event in my studio, and [ he ] proceeded to finish painting his pants and shirt from the afternoon event, saying, never did I ever think I would have the chance to perform again. He wore that outfit to the studio often as a reminder of that day, but it was always a reminder to me, that event and many others, that people who have been dealt the HIV blow, feel a new lease on life, understand the value of being alive, and enjoy and savor whatever life presents, and how lucky we all are to have the gift of life.

"That has been the constant lesson for me of working with individuals with HIV/AIDS."

Anthon said he started working in the HIV/AIDS world for multiple reasons, including losing two very close friends to the disease. One was his former lover, Dick, while the other was a dear friend, Philip. "Both of them still keep me doing this work from the inside out," Anthon said. "But I don't do it just for them any more; I do it for the joy it brings me and the joy I see in the faces around the studio and the faces of those who see the exhibits we mount every year. It is really quite a privilege to still be able to do this work."

Anthon admits he was a "nervous wreck" years ago heading into the first group. He managed; the group managed; and all have progressed in countless ways.

"We have had a few deaths [ of group attendees over the years ] , but the majority of the people who leave move do so to go to other geographic locations," Anthon said. "The wonderful thing is, many of them [ still ] stay connected, sending me art they are currently working on, submit to our shows or just plain tell me how hard it is to keep up their art without the support. People have left for Montana, Colorado, Hawaii, Milwaukee, and [ elsewhere ] . One woman who moved to Los Angeles sends us letters with images of her current work and, the odd thing is, [ her ] letters often come on the very day the group meets. She periodically returns and visits whenever she comes back to Chicago."

Anthon said that, within the current group, there are no HIV-positive women.

So what's ahead?

"It would be great if we could have a real studio at COH," Anthon said. "I believe that an art studio can be a heart and maintain the pulse of any vital organization. That is a rather grandiose idea on my part; I know full well how finances dictate. But it is a dream, nonetheless."

Anthon said the biggest surprise over the years has been the group's critiques. "We don't do them every week, but often we put the art we are working on up," he said. "These are not like art school critiques. They are confrontational sometimes, helping people to better their skills, but are also a discussion of content and metaphor. People often want to know how others perceive their work and the critiques allow us to have that verbal dialogue. The art does speak for itself and we respect that, but having a respectful dialogue is also an extra added bonus."

One of Anthon's favorite stories from over the years centers on a woman who had not done art since she had been diagnosed, about 10 years earlier. She began tentatively at first in the group, Anthon said, but she came back with a real fervor. "Her images were so powerful; they were sought after in the shows and she was visibly stronger and stronger, in her art and in her life.

"She had two children and they often came to the group as well. Having her children around gave all of us a lift. The banter between this woman and the men in the group was precious and over the top at times, with laughter and tears. The other thing that has been so poignant is the diversity: men, women, straight men and women, all races all finding ways to live together around the art and to enjoy each others company and respect each others contributions."

The HIV+ Art Therapy Studio Group meets Thursdays, 1:30-3:30 p.m. at the Center on Halsted. No previous art skills are necessary. Materials are provided. Exhibition opportunities will be available. To participate, interested people must have an HIV diagnosis and complete a Center on Halsted intake. To register or receive more information, please contact Dan Anthon, Art Therapist directly at 847-491-1095 or .

This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.

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