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A Day Without Art : Blackout a Stark Reminder of the Devastation AIDS Has Wrought in the Creative Community

December 01, 1991|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some of the display cases are shrouded in black today at the Craft & Folk Art Museum.

This is the international Day Without Art, a worldwide reminder of the devastation to the art world caused by AIDS. And so the museum, located on the fourth floor of the May Co. store at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, has decided to remember benefactor Ted Warmbold. Editor of the San Antonio Pilot and a former editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Warmbold was also a distinguished collector of folk art--he brought home more than 5,000 objects from Mexico and Central America during the final six years of his life.

As his widow, Carolyn Nizzi Warmbold, recalls, Warmbold came back from a collecting trip to Guatemala in early 1989 and developed "a sledgehammer headache." Nine days later he was dead from cryptococcal meningitis, one of the opportunistic infections that kill people with AIDS. He was 45.

His wife of 23 years was stunned.

"In one week, I learned that my husband had AIDS, that he was going to die--right then--and that he was bisexual," she said in an interview from San Antonio, where she teaches communications at Trinity University.

Although she resisted going public with his illness at first, she quickly came to the conclusion that fear and prejudice had helped kill her husband as surely as AIDS had, and that they were killing other people as well. Of his death certificate, she said, "I think the third line should have read, 'He died of homophobia.' "

After her husband's death, Carolyn Warmbold gave more than 300 of the choicest pieces in his collection to the Craft & Folk Art Museum, in part because she believed that he would have wanted people with Mexican roots to have ready access to the work. But today the bright, charming figures are covered up, and there is only blackness and an open letter to the public from Carolyn Warmbold.

"I do not know what is the greater tragedy," she writes, "that Ted died of AIDS, or that he was so afraid of losing livelihood, family, church acceptance and community status that he covered over his homosexuality with silence. Given the deep-seeded homophobia in our country, Ted had a great deal to fear and every reason to keep his sexual orientation secret.

"But we have had enough of silence and secrecy. Globally, millions are dying because we are too timid to speak out about the disease. A million and a half people are HIV positive in our country alone. Many of them--gays and drug users--are the 'marginalized,' those that our society considers 'others.' If there is one thing Ted's death taught me, it is that there are no 'others.' AIDS can happen to anyone, even a patron of the arts."

It breaks Carolyn Warmbold's heart that her husband--a man of passion and appetite--felt he had to deny, even to his wife, an essential side of himself. "Everything in his life conspired to keep it a secret," beginning with his religious conviction, she said. Her husband had once studied for the priesthood. He left the seminary, she learned long after they were married, because of a homosexual incident. His Catholicism remained important to him until the end.

She has learned since his death that he may have known he had AIDS, but he refused to be tested. "I just think he was afraid of losing everything," she said. Including her. On their last anniversary she had asked him if he wanted to end their less than perfect marriage. He said no, and she believes it was not simply because she was a convenient cover for his other life.

If Carolyn Warmbold sounds too wonderfully compassionate and fearless to be real, she had her human moments. At first, she didn't want the cause of her husband's death included in his obituary. She came to agree with his newspaper colleagues that the truth was best. But to this day, she says: "If there had been kids and they were young kids, I would have fought to have kept it out of the paper. It's just so different here than it is in New York or Los Angeles. It's a whole different kind of fight."

In her husband's eulogy Carolyn said he "drove fast, ate quickly, loved deeply, edited passionately, collected voraciously, and was the most energetic person I ever met."

In her letter she tells the public: "It is important to remember that Ted's vitality represents only a tiny fraction of the energy lost to the arts from AIDS deaths. And that the absence of art in museums today only slightly conveys the collective loss felt by loved ones of those who have died of the virus."

A professional media watcher, Carolyn is not thrilled with the way the media is dealing with acquired immune deficiency syndrome. "AIDS didn't start on Nov. 7, 1991," she says of the Day the Magic Stopped. She is appalled by the tendency, in the media and in the world at large, to divide AIDS patients into innocent victims (children and transfusion recipients) and guilty ones (gays and drug users).

She allows no such talk in her classes, where she has been known to schedule demonstrations on condom use as well as more traditional lessons. "I don't think we've come as far as we think we have," she said.

"AIDS can be boiled down into one word: loss ," she writes. "Loss of life, loss of energy, loss of creativity, loss of the ability to speak and to speak out. I am grateful that a Day Without Art has allowed one small venue to break through the silence enveloping the greatest medical disaster and human tragedy of our time."

She and her husband were "sexually estranged for seven years" before his death, Carolyn said. She had an HIV test at the time of his death and it showed that she was not infected with the virus.

Ted's lover died of AIDS in March.

The museum is open today from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"I know that what I'm doing with this art exhibit is a little thing in terms of a giant pandemic," she said, "but, dammit, I just don't know what else to do."

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