Artistic (After)Care: Reflections on Queer Community and Collaboration
I am an artist working in photography, video, and installation. Since moving to New York City in the year 2000, my photography has been very personal and has brought me into intimate situations with subjects who grapple with grief, illness, or death, or they feel the threat of being forgotten. I am interested in life processes and how my presence as an artist can be supportive and transformative for my subjects. My working process mirrors that of an ethnographer; immersing myself within relationships for extended periods. It also leads me into collaborative projects with my subjects, who are often artists themselves. Starting around 2009, I began to regard my presence and what I could do artistically with a subject, as performative and activating—in years prior I had been interested in underground film and archives. I would use degraded YouTube videos projected through rotating prisms in cinematic installations. I then began to think about working with people themselves, not just recordings that I found. This evolved over a few years into deeper territory, as I found subjects who were ill, grieving, or dying—and I began tending to them at those moments, while creating work that reflected what was going on. Caregiving intertwined with art making. As a result, the artworks are ultimately personal documents of both the subject and myself.
My most recent collaboration was with my friend Hunter Reynolds, an accomplished artist who died in June 2022 of AIDS-related skin cancer. Years before that, in 2016/17, I began assisting him in his studio on occasion at around the same time I started a parallel career as a horticulturist. I began treating my mental health in 2019 and became less anxious when talking with people. A result of having regular income from horticulture and improved mental wellness was that our time together in the studio became even more focussed than it had been and we got to know one another better. I knew that he would need more help the older he got. I was able to free up time and resources to support him whereas even a few years before I was struggling with too many issues to be fully there for others. In 2021 I became Hunter’s health proxy. What we each brought to our friendship and what worked for us as collaborators was we each drew from experiences of working with other artists, experiences of trauma and loss, and we shared an affinity for the truth. As his health proxy and end-of- life doula, I helped fulfill his final wishes, which included that I make art about his transition. After his death I became an advisor to his Trust and curator of his digital and photographic assets. Following is an account of my life that preceded and informed this.
Between 2010 and 2013, I photographed underground drag performer Mario Montez after he emerged from hiding for over thirty years. In 1977, in his early forties, Mario decided to disappear, and sort of ‘do a Garbo,’ after being an influential actor in Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, José Rodríguez-Soltero, Avery Willard, and Ron Rice films throughout the 1960s and early ‘70s NYC. He had also been a founding member of The Ridiculous Theatrical Company with Charles Ludlam. He told only one person that he moved to Florida and swore him to secrecy. That person, downtown theater and drag performer Agosto Machado, encouraged Mario out of retirement to appear in a Jack Smith documentary in the mid 2000s, which slowly opened the door to his full emergence by 2009-2010. I met him in March 2010 when he visited New York for a conference. Agosto introduced me to him. I exchanged emails and phone numbers with Mario’s boyfriend, who invited me down to Florida to visit them, as well as met Callie Angell, a Warhol scholar.
I planned the trip for May 2010 to Orlando, and Callie invited me to her office in the weeks prior to my trip to view every Warhol film that Mario had appeared in. I felt that I was a little behind on my knowledge of Mario, and she was gracious to give me access to such hard-to-find films. Callie also opened my eyes to the world of Jack Smith, whose storage unit she had cataloged. I learned how Warhol had popularized the term ‘Superstar,’ but it was Jack Smith who invented the term, calling the stars of his films the ‘Superstars of Cinemaroc.” Callie showed me photographs that Smith had taken of Mario in Staten Island, likely when they had been lovers. Mario appears relaxed and magical, yet posed in rocky, precarious settings. Drag was illegal then. Those photographs were political critique with glamor. Seeing his young drag prepared me for when I would work with an old Mario.
Mario’s senior drag was elegant and composed, as if Greta Garbo herself had decided to do her own hair and makeup, and appear once more for the camera. Mario named himself after the 1940s film star Maria Montez, who had been an on-screen role model for people of color and queer youth. Maria had died in her late ‘30s, and Mario’s elder drag was a tribute to Maria, as if she had continued to live and then retire in Florida. Our photographs reflected that perfectly. While I was in Orlando for the first time, though, Callie Angel killed herself. Had I noticed anything unusual in those weeks that I had been in her office? The only thing I recall is the last hug she gave me—that she was almost absolutely limp. I extended that hug and, looking back, I wish I would have stayed with her like that for longer and asked how she was. But I didn’t know her too well at that point. I was just so grateful to have had that time with her and her assistant Claire Henry in her basement office at The Whitney. Two months later, my best friend Gerrard O’Carroll died of cancer. He didn’t want me to remember him looking sick, so he wouldn’t let me see him. 2010 would weigh on me for years to come, like an iron cape. Thankfully, I could throw myself free every six months or so and visit Mario, since our first week-long session went so well, we began planning more visits and that lifted my spirit.
I was just as happy watching television with Mario as I would be photographing him. But when we did work, we worked a lot. He was making up for lost time and I helped him do that. I made a handful of trips to Orlando over the next three years. We became friends. I learned that he lived with the trauma of losing almost all of his male peers to AIDS from afar. He had left New York feeling that no one appreciated him anymore, which is why he put away the drag and started a new life. Within a few years, New York was changed. Time moved forward and carried him with it.
Mario had a stroke in September 2013. My friend Elisabeth Kley told me to go be with him. But I hesitated. The doctor said there was no brain activity. Mario was in a coma for a few days, and then died. I had regrets, and lacked experience. I spent the next year rattled by the loss until an opportunity came about that changed my direction.
The painter Kathleen White died of cancer in her apartment in September 2014. Kathleen was part of the downtown scene and her friends included artists like Nan Goldin who she was an important photographic subject for. I moved into the apartment two months after her death to sort of keep watch, contribute to the rent, and help her boyfriend/collaborator Rafael Sánchez to archive her belongings while her estate was in probate. Rafael introduced me to Hunter Reynolds around that time. I stayed two years in the apartment.
Rafael’s grief was all-consuming which caught me off guard when it became clear to me. At first I saw the magic in such a delicate, loved apartment. But a man in his position is like a cloud that can’t turn to rain. With each story that he told me about their years together, the rooms and objects within them became incredibly charged with a storm of meaning. Yet things were kept so still as not to upset subtle details that the dust could reveal. Organizing things went at a snail's pace and I did a lot of listening. With Rafael’s encouragement, I photographed the apartment. Much of the front room where she died remained untouched but I realized that the flowers hanging upside down, and there were many of them, were hung that way after she died. Rafael had done that with the flowers that were brought at the end and after. “She never would have let me do that while she was alive,” he said.
After a year of living there, an idea came to me: we could make photogram cyanotypes of the upside down bouquets. One by one I would create a “record” of them, and then Rafael could wrap them up and put them away. Would this help him move forward? He agreed to it, but after one try, he wasn’t able to bring himself to wrap it up. I continued the project without his presence. I would put the bouquets back up in the places where they hung. To make the cyanotypes, I would paint large sheets of paper with the light-sensitive emulsion at night, and then during daylight hours I would bring one or two of the bouquets over to the nearby community garden, lay the flowers down on the paper, and expose them to the sunlight. Exposures were around 20 minutes long. While working on them, I would talk with the neighborhood gardeners and reflect on what I was doing.
The cyanotypes were avatars of things that were left hanging. As the months went on, the stasis began to weigh on me. Rafael was always on a knife’s edge and the threat of losing what little he had after losing her was painful to experience so closely. I moved out in October 2016.
It was also in October 2016 that I enrolled in nighttime horticulture classes at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG). I realized that my world was getting too small. I needed to expand my interests, and change how I make money. I had scraped by on earnings from art sales and various gallery jobs up until that point, but it wasn’t a sustainable life. After bouncing around from apartment to apartment, always under water in terms of finances, and learning that a major through-line in my life is about stewardship, I thought that learning about plants–plant care, horticulture, garden design–would open up new possibilities, and it did.
After a year and half of coursework, I looked online for gardening jobs and realized that I was qualified for a paid year-long internship at Wave Hill, The Bronx, a 29 acre pleasure garden and cultural center. I applied and was accepted. I continued taking night classes in Brooklyn, and commuting daily to The Bronx.
While working at Wave Hill I filmed my daily horticulture tasks while wearing a camera-fitted pair of sunglasses. My transformation into becoming a gardener was being documented. A year later I began editing the video into what would become The Internship, 2020. A 40-minute video about my experience at Wave Hill, which also featured an extended scene with the lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who I had befriended in the last year of her life. I recorded an excursion we took to a park in the West Village in November 2018. It was the day she started taking morphine. She spoke about death and disease, plant-life, and what she appreciates about nature. The walk with Barbara was a turning point for me, because I realized that the things that I cared about most were becoming possible to achieve - care of plants, stewardship of gardens, care for the sick and dying, and the creation of art as an integrated component of my values was all possible. Barbara died March 16, 2019. I started treatment for severe anxiety and PTSD (from childhood trauma) the month after—starting medication and therapy freed up time and energy to be more available to friends and made professional and personal transitions smoother. I needed to care for myself in order to care for others.
In January 2020 I built a greenhouse inside Participant Inc., and filled it with plants that I asked the public to bring in for me to care for, for the duration of the exhibition. It was a winter destination for people to come speak with me about horticulture, to be able to see and smell a living oasis in the worst of the wintertime, and a place for their plants to have a nice blast of full spectrum light and my constant tending. I displayed photographs of Barbara Hammer, a collage I made from two visits that I’d made to Carolee Schneemann’s home, before and after she died. A large-scale cyanotype of a branch that I had pruned. And a large projection of The Internship. This was my coming out exhibition. I am a gardener and I work. The art was about care, mentorship, and the living process.
My friend Robert Appleton, who about a year later would emcee my own wedding, visited with his mother Patsy. He loaned me aloe plants and geraniums for the show. The pandemic came down on everyone within a month of the exhibition closing and isolated me from friends. I was out of work for six months, but then found what became the perfect job working for a private garden design/build company. I tend to rooftop gardens, design terrace plantings on skyscrapers, and maintain interior tropical plantscapes. Every day I see the city from a new perspective.
My friendship with Hunter Reynolds began in 2015 and I suppose, did our friendship end on June 12th 2022 when he died? Hunter was a gay artist living with AIDS. Over more than three decades he made work about the body and AIDS that was performance-based, memorializing, personal, and was made as an offering to others. Hunter was known for creating Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress (1993), a glamorous black hoop dress embroidered with the names of thousands of people who had died of AIDS. He had performed wearing the dress, in a kind of queer half-drag (no wig, but makeup, bandaids on his forehead, pulling his brow upwards). Towering above on a platform, this alter-ego Patina du Prey would display the dress in a gallery while her audience walked around and watched. The performance’s choreography was gestural—swaying, dancing, posing.
It was in January 2021 that I became Hunter’s healthcare proxy, when he had an eye removed due to squamous cell carcinoma. It had first started on his nose around 2018—resulting in the removal and reconstruction of half his nose. But the cancer went inside his sinus, into his eye cavity, and worked its way toward his brain. So the surgeons tried to keep it from going into his brain by removing his eye. For people living with AIDS, squamous cell carcinoma can be very aggressive. Hunter told me that he always had AIDS because his immune system never rebounded, even when he started life-saving HIV medications in the late 90s. At the point of the eye surgery, I had already assisted Hunter for a few years on projects he had mounted in London and New York after he received a Guggenheim fellowship. I was also checking-in on him periodically at his home in Bushwick during the first year of the pandemic—I was geographically closer to him than other friends, as it was only a twenty minute walk for me—and he was living pretty much alone at that point except for a roommate who occasionally slept there and was not supportive. Because of Hunter’s mobility issues, which were from becoming paralyzed on his right side from an AIDS-related stroke in 2005, helping Hunter involved moving, carrying, organizing materials and artworks, and sometimes doing the dishes or sweeping. He was also isolated in Bushwick from friends in Manhattan, so I made a point to be available if he wanted my help or just wanted to grab a sandwich and sit in the park. He’d ask me to get him cigarettes and ice on my way over to see him. He loved chewing ice.
By late 2021, the post-operative radiation treatments were not having an effect on the remaining cancer cells in his face. But throughout the year we forged forward on important work despite the pain he was in. I helped Hunter organize his papers so that he could donate them to the Downtown Collection at The Fales Library, NYU. We packed and cataloged artworks that would be sent to his gallery P.P.O.W.. Hunter began painting a series of self portraits after he lost his eye so I’d bring him new paint and paper every now and then. He would also sometimes paint on his own face, decorating the skin where his eye had been. Initially he wore a patch or otherwise covered up what he would call “the orb” (a skin flap from his thigh that the surgeon put over the hole where his eye had been), but as he got sicker he just let it be, and would paint and decorate it when he went out to events. A few months before he died we went to the Museum of Art and Design together to see his Patina du Prey’s Drag Pose Cage (1990) and I helped him paint the orb. I made it into something of a Fabergé egg. It looked fabulous.
Around January 2022, he was given the news that the last possible treatment wasn’t having any effect. We talked about it. He wondered if he should keep going on the treatment or cancel it and request home hospice. For bureaucratic reasons still unclear to me, the decision needed to be made quickly. He chose home hospice. He could die with his cats, and he had friends in the East Village building that he had just moved to. Home hospice was up and running by the first week of March. It was difficult getting it in place, and he had fallen on his head that January and needed a craniotomy to remove two hemorrhages, so he was a fall risk. He stayed with his friends Jim Fouratt and Joel Handorff for several weeks in February while a ramp was installed in his apartment and 24-hour home aids were confirmed.
Initially Hunter’s home hospice experience was tense. He wanted his independence and resented his 24-hour care workers. He had lived a full life with intense highs and lows. He was the king of his domain. During the first couple months of home hospice he insisted on handling his own medications even though he often missed medication doses, lost medications entirely, misplaced instructions and missed deliveries. But as the illness progressed, he wasn’t able to focus on all those things. He’d made very particular plans for aspects of his home hospice, but as he slowed down, things just didn’t happen the way he’d envisioned. He’d imagined a disco soundtrack for his time in hospice. But instead, he ended up leaving his phone on Netflix primetime soap operas. Our focus turned to pain management, hydration, then alleviating agitation, then managing him as a bed-ridden person.
At a certain point, Hunter couldn’t continue making art or writing an email or—later—even speaking. When he stopped being able to sit at his computer and work on things, I encouraged him to make final decisions about four figurative digital collages that he had been working on, as, thankfully, completion was close enough that it was simply a matter of deciding how dark the background was supposed to be. So I showed him reference prints one at a time, explaining the decision that needed to be made. He just had to point and say yes or no. The final prints would be made after his death. An epic, 30-foot collage would not be completed, neither would a video he was working on. We discussed that a few times. He said, “Big.” And I said, “I know, but don’t stress about it. Just concentrate on being comfortable now.” Whether it was a grunt and gesture, or one word or an eye roll, I understood what he would try to communicate up until the last couple of days. I thought he handled the loss of speech rather well. He would just repeat himself slowly and try to enunciate the word or words that came to mind, like thirst, pee, pain, fear (I’d give him a Klonopin), up (if he wanted to be moved into an upright position), down, and phone. He’d make a gesture with his finger if he wanted me to take a picture.
Hunter had a big presence on social media but by April 2022, he wasn’t able to take pictures and post them. Or write captions. Hunter had used his body in his art and made art from his various illnesses and bodily transformation over the years. When he was no longer able to do this, he enlisted me, as a fellow artist, to document and share, through photography and video, his final year. I had posted on his behalf in the past when he wasn’t able to—like when he had his eye removed, and when he had the craniotomy. He always called me a collaborator even when I would say assistant. As he could do less and less, I found myself on the phone every day with his hospice nurse and the hospice hotline and his home health aids and his other caregiving friends, and then organizing his medications, then administering them, and taking photos throughout, I realized just how true that was. I collaborated on his death. I was aware the whole time of our integrated and layered care for each other—and that the document I was making was important to him. But I was proud of prioritizing his pain management and fulfilling last wishes.
Every couple of days I would post a picture on his Facebook account and type something about the progress of his illness. I would have some news to share—like he went on a walk with his home aid, or planted something in the garden, or he had french fries, or his cats were at his side. We were losing him, and it was important to share with friends on social media so they could support him. The photographs served a purpose—they showed that he was truly dying, he would not make it through this one, and they helped people understand that they needed to say their prayers, send their flowers, and make peace with it.
Also in April I took an intensive online three-week end of life doula course through INELDA (International End of Life Doula Association). I had felt I was a step behind, and I wanted to learn how to be a better caregiver to Hunter. After a friend of mine saw my pictures of Hunter online, he suggested I do the training, that I would be an excellent end-of-life doula for artists. The course caught me up to speed. I learned to ask Hunter what he wanted his vigil to look like, if he wanted a last breath ritual, if he was interested in guided imagery, were there particular people he wanted to reach. He didn’t want a last breath ritual and after a month or so of inviting friends to see him in his apartment, he told me he wanted more time alone. He didn’t want any organized rituals during his vigil. We did guided imagery a couple of times and liked it, where he would envision going to a relaxing lake whenever he needed to escape. In his last month, his cousin Dianne Blell, a small circle of friends, and I tended to him.
The doula course helped me understand what to expect at different stages of his dying: swelling in his legs, secretions in his mouth, terminal agitation, increasing anxiety and pain. I also learned that loved ones and visitors will react differently to the situation, and the doula must focus on the patient’s comfort first. Some friends could not be present and calm with Hunter when they visited, so I asked him if I needed to tell them to stay away because they were causing him stress. He said “No.” But those people didn’t come back anyway.
Once Hunter couldn’t make decisions for himself in late April, I was making medical decisions on a daily, and later hourly, basis as his health proxy, while also offering support to other caregiving friends with knowledge from my doula course. I shared that it's best to touch a dying person’s hand by putting your hand under theirs. Even though putting a hand on top of theirs comes so naturally, it can feel very heavy to them and make them feel trapped. Alternatively, having your hand under theirs gives them more control. This was especially helpful for visitors to know once Hunter was bed-bound and could not speak.
In the hours before he died, I read to him all the comments people left him online. At that point he couldn’t speak or move, and he could only expand his eye or give an almost indiscernible sarcastic eye roll. He recognized names. I hope he appreciated the feedback but I’ll never really know what he was thinking. Stop?
Hunter’s friend Jim Fouratt came by in his last few hours and did a ritual with music and energy work around Hunter’s head. This went on for some time. Hunter was in a trance-like state. His morphine doses were pretty high and frequent at that point. I pulled back a little on his anti-agitation medication, hoping he would move a little bit, but he hadn’t done it in days, and it didn’t change anything. Hunter died in the early morning of June 12th 2022. After he died, Dianne and I cleaned and dressed his body. I painted the damaged spot on his face with gold glitter. Dressing and tidying him up really helped Dianne and me. His body was warm and sweaty; Dying had been tough and you could see that. We made him look like a prince. Dianne art directed everything. I was so relieved she was there. I turned the temperature way down on the air conditioner and invited a few friends to view the body before the funeral home came to take the body away.
His friend Gail Thacker did a four corners ritual (but accidentally facing the wrong direction each time she opened a corner). His friends Martha and Shelley had been chanting Buddhist prayers for weeks and they came to be with us. His friend Ethan came an hour before the body was to be taken away and made a death mask. That’s when I cried. We had made him look so nice and the process of doing the death mask ruined it– shattering something that had held the day together for me. To do the mask, his face was covered with polypropylene jelly, then layers of fabric strips were dipped in a plaster slurry, and applied one at a time to his face until the whole thing was covered. Ethan invited the people in the room to add strips to the face. Once it was set, Ethan pulled the cast off, revealing a gooey face where our prince had been. Hunter had looked so bad for so long, it had been really important making him look good again earlier in the day. But I knew that he would have appreciated the mask being done. Soon after that the funeral home came and took the body away. They were pleasant and professional. “Big Guy,” they said. “Yeah he was 6’3”,” I said.
Throughout the years that I knew him, I experienced body sympathy for Hunter, and it grew stronger. Initially I noticed it after spending some time with him—I would start limping like him. Years later, when he lost his eye, my left eye began to have issues. When he was transitioning, I had immense headaches. I couldn’t breathe through my left nostril until he died. Looking down at my photos of Hunter, I see a person who also had a history of embodying other people’s pain and emotions. Both in art and life. My artmaking became an attempt to channel and transform the feelings I absorbed, but it was a process to realize that.
I married my partner on Zoom in Spring 2021, during lockdown. Our friend Robert was our emcee. Poet and artist Pamela Sneed married us. Hunter and 100 others attended online. Hunter had just had his eye taken out, so even though he wanted to speak, he hung back and watched. He’d been through a lot. About a year later, when Hunter was transitioning to death, I came over to see him after work. He fumbled with the words because the tumor and the pain medications made it hard for him to speak, and to be heard. He had to say it a few times before I understood what he was saying. “Robert Appleton died.” It happened suddenly one night. To hear it from Hunter added to the shock because we all planned on Hunter dying, but to then suddenly lose someone so wonderful as Robert… It was hard. Hunter died a couple of months later. For their memorials I designed the flowers. My theme for Robert’s was “wildflower thicket” because he loved wildflowers. Hunter’s I called “exotic debris.”