I painted a portrait of Gareth Thomas using my fingerprints to combat HIV stigma11/23/2020
As a child, I never thought being an artist could be my actual job.
Growing up in the Welsh valleys, I never really saw anyone’s dreams coming true, so why should mine?
That’s probably why I still pinch my time every time I get to present a piece of work to someone I admire, or receive a tweet of approval.
In August of this year, I was commissioned as patron for the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board to create a piece to celebrate the week of Pride Cymru. I decided on a portrait of Welsh rugby legend, Gareth Thomas, using red paint dotted onto the canvas with my fingerprints.
The red paint simulates blood, the fingerprints represent identity, and the concept was to help break down the stigma around HIV and getting tested. People have such negative connotations towards HIV, which I think is down to lack of education, and there is a generation who still remember derogatory headlines about HIV/AIDS from back in the 80s. Today, it’s about knowing your status, owning your health and erasing the taboo.
Knowing Gareth personally, and having created several pieces for him in the past, I knew he would be on board with it. He’s so passionate about raising awareness and turning his story into a beacon of hope for people in the same situation.
The artwork itself took me about five hours to create. I often experiment with unusual ways of making art, and countless unorthodox mediums from dirt in the back garden to hundreds of pounds worth of caviar, painting with my tongue and feet instead of my hands.
Fingerprints have such a childlike innocence, and to be used for such a powerful statement gives it that added emotion.
For me, the process of creating is equally as important as the final outcome so I recorded the making of this work in time lapse – something I’ve been fond of doing for my social media followers for a decade now.
I get to improve my skills and I have fun whilst doing so. Creating art by yourself is a very isolated process but recording it and allowing others into your world is quite revealing. I’m excited by that.
The day I unveiled the artwork to Gareth and the team at Cardiff Royal Infirmary Department Of Sexual Health (where it was due to be put on permanent display) was probably one of my proudest moments to date, not just as an artist, but as a person.
Gareth had tears in his eyes as he gazed in awe at his own likeness. He explained that, for him, the hospital building was once ‘shrouded in shame’ and that now the picture is going to hang ‘with great pride’.
He added that he had never been sure how his dad felt about his diagnosis, but upon hearing about the painting, his dad sought out the image online. This finally made Gareth realise that his father really is okay with it.
As a proud LGBTQ person, that really hit home and I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with pride that my work could evoke such a reaction.
2020 in general has been extremely tough for so many people, but I’ve never felt more inclined to create art that speaks to people, that boosts their morale. Art really can speak to people when often words cannot.
At the start of the pandemic in March, I put out a Facebook call out for people to send in selfies to be included in a digital collage of a healthcare worker wearing a face mask.
The final piece was printed on 15 foot tall banners outside most hospital sites in Wales, reproduced on the front page of newspapers and spoken about on talk shows in America. It was even featured in the opening credits of ITV’s This Morning for three months.
I also created a collage of footballer Marcus Rashford in recognition of his campaign for free school meals. This time, I used images I was sent of children who benefit from the scheme.
I relied on free school meals myself as a child so it meant a great deal to me personally but it was still incredible to have Marcus thank me and share it on social media. It’s always an honour to get the approval of the subject.
I have an independently-released book celebrating 10 years of my work coming out this year, and my next dream is to have my own TV show in the same vein as Art Attack, making art using anything but maybe for a slightly older audience, with an edgier angle.
For now, I have an ever growing list of ideas and concepts I want to try, which I keep close to my chest.
Whether it’s the obviously fun aspects of my work, such as Marmite on toast and pizza portraits, to the more political pieces, my overall aim is to make people smile.
My work often has a message behind it, but it’s always one of love.
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