In 1989 the activist organization Visual AIDS launched “Day Without Art,” an annual event in which galleries and museums across America marked World AIDS Day by covering paintings and sculpture with black cloth. But in 1997 the group decided that hiding art wasn’t the answer—why not use it to raise AIDS awareness? The memorial was renamed “Day With(out) Art,” and New York City artist Wolfgang Thom agrees with the change. Thom, who teaches a free art therapy class for HIV-positive people at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York City, says, “Given the option of a Day Without Art and a Day With Art—[I say] definitely with.” This World AIDS Day, December 1, Thom’s class will have much to display, thanks to his inspired leadership.

Thom himself has only recently welcomed painting back into his life. In the 1980s, he studied fine arts in Paris—but had his dream to become an artist dashed after his lover was diagnosed with HIV. Devastated, Thom fell away from painting and sculpture, until the creative process pulled him back four years later. In 2006, Thom, who is HIV negative and a floral and event designer in the city, approached GMHC about volunteering and began teaching an art therapy class. Thom proposed the theme “The Heart Reaching Out” for his students. “It’s about breaking down isolation,” he says. Each of the nine men in his class interpreted the theme on a 24-inch square canvas, and then the individual squares were joined to form one large square. The process was not always smooth. “If I have a student on dialysis,” Thom says, “who am I to say ‘You must be here next Tuesday to finish this’?”

But on the day that Thom had set to complete the work, all the painters—and paintings—were present and accounted for. After discussing how to configure the nine brilliant canvases, the men hung them in GMHC’s 12th-floor lounge. Each student was photographed in front of his work, the painting wreathing his face. Each has written a few words about himself or his painting. One HIV-positive painter addressed the power of art, saying, “It can be full of love and it can hurt.”

Painting means different things for the men in the class. For a man named Osvaldo, art has become a vocation. Since beginning his art career at GMHC, he’s won commendations from Visual AIDS’ “Postcards From the Edge” exhibit and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Photography Contest. Fred, another student, was an art major in college. But “addictive behaviors,” he says, estranged him from his talent. “I really feel like I neglected my creativity,” he adds. Fred rediscovered these qualities when, out of work on disability, he joined Thom’s class. Now he is deeply invested in the class’s second project, for which Thom asked his students to think about how they deal with stress or hardship. They toured New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, each seeking out a work of art embodying the attitude with which they face stress—be it anger, hope or self-assurance.

At the class on a recent Tuesday, students were in the drawing stages of the project. Things happened in fits and starts. “I’m lost,” one student, Jorge, said of his struggle to move from idea to reality. Thom, meanwhile, counseled Perdomo on his drawing, in which the Greek god Eros appears in the top left corner. “He has one foot in the painting and one foot outside,” Thom said. “He’s tripping over his own art. You should reshuffle the deck. Start over.”

Juan, a student whose painting, inspired by Dali’s Madonna of Port Lligat, will feature the floating fragments of a stone arch, used a yardstick to lay down the lines of his piece. Gonzalez, a dialysis patient who has tattoos snaking down his arms and up his neck, worked with Thom to mark off different territories of the painting, separating the sky from the land. “Your world is going to happen between those lines,” Thom said.

Raised in Puerto Rico, Gonzalez left home after his community, his church and his family rejected him for being gay. Neither New York nor the country where he was born feels like home. While he cherishes the independence he has found in the city, he still yearns for the landscape of Puerto Rico. “I’m going to have plants in here,” he says, pointing to the sides of the drawing. “When I was young, I didn’t have friends to play with, so I played with the amapola trees.” Gonzalez said the surreal drawing represents his living room—where, despite his qualms about New York, and, thanks to the healing power of art, he is finally beginning to feel settled and safe.