Art Posi+ive: Fighting Spirit
Simon Thwaites first made headlines when the Canadian military fired him for being HIV positive. Almost two decades after winning his landmark case, the ex-sailor has found a new way to express himself and connect with others through painting.
By Jennifer McPhee
HALIFAX PAINTER SIMON THWAITES may be a warm, kind person with a natural gift for putting people at ease, but don’t get the wrong idea. He’s nobody’s pushover: Pick a fight with him and the odds are against you.
Thwaites’ most legendary battle began in 1989 when the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) fired him for being HIV positive mere months before he was eligible for a medical pension. Before giving Thwaites his marching orders, the navy yanked his security clearance, which meant he was assigned to menial tasks typically reserved for navy personnel who commit offences. “My friends in the military thought I had committed some kind of heinous crime,” Thwaites says with a laugh. At one point, the CAF even placed him in isolation and required him to wash his own toilet and tub with bleach.
The navy estimated that Thwaites would die within three years, but he was still around to celebrate in 1994 when the Federal Court of Canada upheld his landmark human rights case, sending a clear message to employers not to discriminate against people with HIV.
Human rights lawyer Peter Engelmann, who acted for the Canadian Human Rights Commission throughout the case, says the medical evidence introduced during the hearing helped educate Canadian employers about HIV at a time rife with false fears and misconceptions about the disease.
Engelmann recalls that Thwaites was compassionate and calm despite everything he had been through: “He took up this fight, which was especially courageous in those days. He was determined to see it through.”
This past year, Thwaites, 49, began revisiting his journal entries from that tumultuous period and turning some of those emotionally charged memories into visual art. Back then, he titled his journal “Dead Man Talking” because the military was treating him as though he were already dead.
Even though the paintings inspired by journal entries from that period express red-hot anger toward the CAF, the images also reveal his determination to rise above his situation. His Salvador Dali-esque painting “Frustration” depicts a skeleton in chains kneeling in a graveyard on top of a pile of skulls with red ribbons on their foreheads. In the midst of this, a man standing on the skeleton’s back sprouts wings.
“The skulls are the people who have died before me . . . I am literally standing on their backs,” Thwaites explains. “The chains exist because I am trapped in that, yet there’s this individual in the middle trying to escape and be a person in life instead of just a skeleton or skull.”
Even Thwaites is surprised by the depth of his anger back then. “I didn’t realize at the time that I was going through that process,” he says. “I’ve never been angry for having HIV. I was angry at the way I was treated. . . How you treat people who are sick or going through a challenge in their life, that’s totally within your control. Maybe I expect too much from people, but I think that the human race is better than that.”
The court awarded Thwaites more than $160,000 in compensation, which amounted to roughly $30,000 after lawyers’ fees and taxes (and the government clawed back even more later). He used the cash to put a down payment on a house and began to focus on creating art—something he’s excelled at since childhood. “My teachers made art fun,” he says. “Everything else you do in life is either right or wrong. But they instilled in me that art can never be wrong.”
Thwaites now enjoys the challenge of teaching himself new techniques and sees art as a way to connect and communicate with others. For this reason, his work reflects his own experiences and almost always includes hidden stories and themes. “I like to watch somebody look at a piece of art and try to figure out what it’s trying to convey.”
“Prophecy Awakening,” a mosaic-style painting of hands releasing objects holding tiny people into the air, explores the idea that we all belong to a community that helps us discover and release what’s inside of us. This is a fitting theme for Thwaites—after all, few people understand the benefits and risks of belonging to a community the way he does. After living with HIV for more than 25 years, Thwaites has grown close to many people only to watch them die. He used to belong to a support group—every single member died over the course of just one summer. And out of 27 people who originally sought HIV treatment at Halifax’s Victoria General Hospital in the mid-80s, Thwaites is the sole survivor.
It hasn’t been easy, but Thwaites continues to reach out to other people with HIV by teaching art workshops, joining support groups, even sitting with people in the hospital as they prepare to die. “The person who survives doesn’t just take the sadness of losing someone,” he says. “The person who survives also takes the love and joy that person shared with them in their life. It’s not all about the loss. It’s also about what you’ve gained.”
In Thwaites’ experience, joining a community of people with HIV to share experiences about doctors, medications and side effects equips many people with the information they need to stay alive. “I think support groups are the greatest thing since sliced bread. That’s what it’s all about—listening to other people who are in the trenches dealing with it.”
Thwaites says that doctors and nurses sometimes sugar-coat HIV information, but he insists on giving and receiving the cold hard truth. It may annoy people, he says, but his truth-seeking nature is probably one of the reasons he’s still around.
“I’m the one at the conferences with my hand going up every five seconds,” he says with a laugh. “People look at me and think, ‘Oh no, he's in the room. Is he going to say something?’ But if you don’t ask a question, you don’t get clarification and then you don’t understand. And if I don’t understand, I’m pretty sure whoever’s sitting next to me doesn’t either. I tend to be a bit of an activist that way.”
In 2009, Thwaites became a minister and helped start a new church in Halifax called Angel Hall. His spiritual side surfaces in many of his paintings, which depict angels and resemble stained-glass windows. His most recent paintings of hands grasping and releasing butterflies reveal that he’s ready for change in his life. “Next year will be my 50-year mark,” he says. “What’s beyond that? I’m not sure, but I see my art carrying me through.”