Joe Monroe creates larger-than-life characters on canvas. An HIV-positive diagnosis has fueled his drive to excel. : The Art of Living


Joe Monroe remembers a comment from a visitor who once viewed his whimsical paintings, populated with flying dogs and other wacky characters.

“You really like your childhood,” the visitor said. “You must not want to grow up.”

No doubt about it. Monroe, 34, likes to play on canvas. At the same time, though, his actions and concerns have an unmistakably adult focus and fullness of purpose. An HIV-positive diagnosis can be a very maturing influence.

Monroe, who began painting professionally in 1985 when he learned that he was infected with the AIDS virus, is a busy man these days.


Last week the artist and three partners formed Joe Monroe Wear, a clothing line that will splash his designs on sportswear carried by stores in New York, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles this summer. Monroe has high hopes for the venture, one he has launched twice before, but without the business savvy he said he has assembled this time around.

Meanwhile, he continues to paint furiously. “I feel a need to be super-prolific right now,” he said in a recent interview at his home, a small apartment in West Hollywood. “If I didn’t have HIV, I don’t think I would be working at this pace.”

Monroe, who has completed about 500 paintings that sell from $500 to $6,000, shows his work at the Dyansen Gallery in Beverly Hills. One of his designs was used by AIDS Project Los Angeles in a greeting card fund-raiser last December, netting the group more than $100,000. He is now working on a 1993 holiday card design for PAWS LA, which helps those with AIDS care for their pets.

Monroe said he thinks his vivid designs and eccentric characters--parachuting octopuses, flying crocodiles and skirt-wearing flamingos--”show others that living with AIDS doesn’t have to be a negative experience. It also proves that people with AIDS don’t always have to be supported by others. We can help ourselves and others in many ways.”

Monroe said he wants his designs to become as ubiquitous as the work of Keith Haring, a New York artist who died of AIDS in 1990.

Designs by Monroe are already emblazoned on beach towels; soon to come are Monroe mugs, dishes, calendars, greeting cards, gift wrap and lunch boxes.


Also in the works is a half-hour documentary of Monroe’s life and work. The project is sponsored by Hoffmann-La Roche, maker of the anti-retroviral drug DDC, as part of a series that profiles how people creatively battle AIDS. The company is distributing the documentaries to clinics and hospitals nationwide. The project was conceived by West Hollywood physician Robert Brooks, executive producer of the series.

“I like Joe’s attitude,” said Brooks, adding that he hopes the videos will encourage others to confront AIDS in innovative ways. “He’s chosen to be bigger than his circumstances. Despite having AIDS, he continues to make contributions, find joy and pleasure and create. It’s an act of courage. In my view, he’s a hero.”

Monroe, meanwhile, has his own heroes, one of whom is “Art Dog,” an all-purpose pup who shows up in a succession of Hockney-esque landscapes driving a car, skiing, camping and scuba-diving. The dog figures prominently in designs Monroe created for T-shirt companies in 1989 and 1990.

In general, Monroe shows a great fondness for the incongruous in his paintings. His “World at a Glance,” for example, is a jumble of spheres layered with cityscapes, farmland, freeways and assorted icons that have no apparent relation to each other. Cupolas are placed next to Arabic architecture; radio towers are entwined with striped snakes. In other paintings, dinosaurs inhabit spaceships.

“That’s my favorite theme,” said Monroe, who took art lessons in school while growing up in Hoopeston, Ill. “The combination gives me this skewed feeling of time and space--past and future are somehow compressed down to the present moment. I like showing people dichotomies, feeding them new ideas.”

Arts writer Andrea R. Vaucher, author of a recent book about artists with AIDS, says thatlife-threatening illnesses cause many artists to discover new resources within themselves and create “new symbolism and inventive characteristics.”


“AIDS becomes something many artists use to make their work all the more powerful,” said Vaucher, a Marina del Rey resident whose book, ‘Muses From Chaos and Ash: AIDS Artists, and Art,” examines the lives and work of 24 artists with AIDS, including Monroe. “For artists, AIDS intensifies an already intense process.”

In 1985, Monroe was just another West Hollywood bartender trying to make it as an actor-model. He checked into County-USC Medical Center with a stomachache that was diagnosed to be an enlarged spleen; he also tested positive for HIV. During his one-week hospital stay, he picked up a sketch pad and began drawing. At a friend’s prodding, he held his first show later that year in a private home, where he sold three paintings.

Monroe began showing in a score of Los Angeles restaurants and coffeehouses and started receiving commissions for his picture-window-size works. A turning point came in 1987 when Patton/Duval Gallery on Melrose, now closed, accepted his work.

Since 1987, Monroe said he has spent much of his time “running away from the virus.” He moved five times in two years--to Santa Fe, then to Laguna Beach, then Venice, downtown Los Angeles and finally to West Hollywood.

During a low period while living downtown, Monroe said, he emerged from denial about HIV and began reaching out, “joining and volunteering for every AIDS organization I could find.” But last year, after numerous deaths of friends and his longtime art mentor, Douglas Hale, Monroe again broke off contact with friends and spent long periods in bed, depressed.

“I no longer felt like those 30 crazy, happy T-shirt designs I had done,” Monroe said. “I started reading Emily Dickinson and writing lyric death poems. I felt like screaming--and was sad, confused. More than anything, I was angry.


“I took 12 blank canvases and stapled them on the walls. I painted all these emotions that were coming out of me, dragging myself to the canvas and spitting out this stuff with my paintbrush, using deep reds and black.”

Gallery owners cringed at presentations of the “virus work,” as Monroe called it. “I knew I needed some kind of venue for that art,” Monroe said.

He soon found it in IDEAS Associates, a Van Nuys organization that helps artists with AIDS develop and present their work. The group sponsors 17 visual art clients, some of whom, including Monroe, have shown at the County-USC Medical Center’s AIDS outpatient clinic, which now doubles as a gallery for AIDS-related artwork.

In recent months, Monroe has begun to return to his former style, but the “virus work” and the feelings that inspired it remain very close to the surface in him.

One painting from that period depicts a face, one eye scrunched, one opened a bit wide. A blood red line drips from the corner of a large mouth. Medals line the painting’s border, lending a fearless sense to the work.

Scrawled above the face are the words “Dear God I’ll Fight You.”

The words, Monroe explained, can be interpreted as a vow to battle AIDS and the public’s perception of the disease, or as a pledge to fight the Almighty.


“I don’t want to look at myself as a helpless, wounded being, especially when it comes to fighting AIDS,” Monroe said. “If that’s what God and society would have for me, I refuse.”