Hazel Johnson* is working on a painting that resembles an intense mosaic--a spiral of brilliant rainbow colors growing tinier and tighter as it heads toward the center of the canvas. At first glance, it is bright and easy on the eye. But take a closer look and you'll find hidden complexities and unexpected rewards. It is a perfect visual metaphor for her life.
"The first time I painted was in 1988," Johnson says. She was in San Francisco. "My girlfriend was an artist at a studio for the homeless in the Tenderloin, and I hung out with her because I needed something to do. They told me I had to do something if I wanted to stay. So I painted."
The studio encouraged Hazel to display her work. "People started buying it. My girlfriend was jealous 'cause she couldn't sell anything," says Johnson, whose first painting, of a ladybug, sold for $150.
A jealous girlfriend was the least of her problems: Johnson was addicted to drugs and alcohol. And she was HIV positive.
Though she'd "lost" her family nine years earlier when she came out as a lesbian, Hazel wrote to her mother, a devout Jehovah's Witness, upon learning her serostatus. "I thought I had a year to live," Johnson says, explaining her decision to move back to New Jersey, back to her family.
"My mother was so excited I was going back to church, she didn't even hear the HIV thing. She never talked about it in the four years I was back there."
Only her mother and one of nine brothers knew Johnson was positive. "Nobody ever asked about it. I was in the closet [about being HIV positive] when I was with them. I sneaked to doctors' appointments; I led a double life: Drugs at night, church in the daytime."
After four years in the closet as a lesbian with HIV, Johnson planned her escape: "I told my family I was going to Alaska on vacation. I had no intention of coming back."
She eventually returned to San Francisco, where her former girlfriend once again helped her forge a new path, this time in the form of a 12-step program.
"After I went into recovery, I became really popular, traveling around, telling my story-I didn't say no to anybody," Johnson says. Her first public speech was in front of a crowd of 20,000 at the 1995 Dyke March in San Francisco, on behalf of WORLD (Women Organizing to Respond to Life-Threatening Diseases). "I wanted to represent African-American lesbians with HIV, because we aren't really represented."
These days, she's learning how to say no-and not just to drugs. "I think being positive, you have this sense that time is precious, and you just go, go, go," Johnson says; but when she paints, she takes her time. "I paint in the living room late at night. It's meditative.
It's also colorful. Says Johnson: "I'm really into vivid colors. I have this style that always comes back. It's this notion of everything going to the center. Sometimes it looks like a snake to me, sometimes a road, sometimes like coming out of something and trying to find freedom."