Roger Braimon, Multimedia Artist

Resident at Westbeth since 2009

My Friendship with Barton Benes, Part 3

Over eight years have passed since Barton died on May 30, 2012.

He once told me I could pick one of his art pieces from his studio. I remember feeling so excited and guilty, wondering what I had done to deserve that. I chose a five-foot-tall piece he informally called A Case of the Blues. It has 176 two-inch squares of paper encased in a scalloped, collaged and seashell adorned frame. Each square displays a unique blue item of disparate origin and significance: a cube of billiards chalk, a cluster of HIV medication in a plastic pillbox, and a Native American poker chip with a swastika symbol, allegedly used on the Titanic. Barton had a story for every item he collected. I now know that he sourced the last four or so rows from a close friend of his in North Dakota when he ran out of blue items. The piece currently faces my bed, where Barton watches over me like multiple spy cams. On certain occasions, I’ll cover the piece with a blanket.

When he’s not checking in on me, he is on view at Barton’s Place. Portions of his Westbeth studio apartment are exactly relocated with his original art and artifacts (as well as both his and his mother’s ashes in a pillow) in the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks. Barton knew how his life, his work, and his collections could be influential to people far from major cultural and artistic institutions, and planned for this physical resting place.

Barton was a pioneer in so many ways, especially as an out and proud gay man living with HIV for 20-plus years without contracting AIDS. He participated in the first AZT trials that led to breakthroughs in preventive medications that I now use every day. He was partnered before his marriage became legal, defiant when it was dangerous, and always lived and worked “on the edge,” to use his own words. I smile when I think of Barton and his distinctive raspy voice and expressive face. I miss him, but I still feel the love I had for him and the love he had for me.

Photo: Roger Braimon

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