On opposite walls of the trendy Flying M coffeehouse hang dozens of works of art – paintings, ceramics, photographs and more – many depicting hearts, embraces, relationships and love. This artwork is part of the 25th annual Valentine for AIDS event, which takes place from Feb. 8 to Feb. 18 at Flying M Coffeehouse in downtown Boise.
Since 1993, the event has promoted love and acceptance through art, displaying the work of hundreds of local artists. On the surface, Valentine for AIDS may be about art, love and good coffee, but underneath, the event raises money for people in Idaho who suffer from HIV/AIDS. Proceeds go to the Safety Net for AIDS Program, or SNAP, a non-profit organization that provides financial support to those in the community with the disease.
Lisa and Kevin Myers, owners of the Flying M location in Nampa, created the event after Lisa had a personal experience with the disease.
“One of the original owners, Lisa Myers, had two of her friends from high school die of AIDS,” said Kent Collins, the current owner of Flying M in Boise. “She wanted a way to honor their memories and came up with the idea of Valentine for AIDS because so many local artists hung out at Flying M.”
Now in the event’s 25th year, Flying M has seen an increase in participation, works of art and fundraising. According to Collins, the auction made $3,600 the first year and over $26,000 last year. In total, Flying M has raised over $280,000.
However, with that growth come certain challenges.
“We send out over 450 invites, then people RSVP by email, which we have to enter into a computer,” Collins said. “Then, in a span of four days, over 250 people bring their art in and in one day we hang it all with name tags and corresponding bids sheets. When the show is over, we have to call everyone who won a piece, then they come in to pay for it and take it home. It’s so much to keep track of.”
Valentine for AIDS has helped to destigmatize the disease by humanizing it.
“It definitely puts a face to the disease. A very high percentage of our artists are people who have had someone in their life with HIV/AIDS, family members or friends, who they are participating in honor of,” Collins said.
In 2017, SNAP helped nearly 250 people utilize either food vouchers or emergency financial assistance, according to a cost breakdown by the Wellness Center at Family Residency of Idaho. Furthermore, $7,200 went to food vouchers, $8,328 went to medical payments, $3,295 went to insurance premiums and $1,248 went to eye exams and glasses.
The event relies on creativity and the community for success.
“There isn’t really a theme, but many pieces reflect love and relationships,” Collins said. “I was a manager here before I bought the place, so I’ve worked here for over 18 years and I’ve bought one or more pieces every year since I started. My house is like a Valentine for AIDS gallery.”
Collins said he enjoys seeing how many creative people live in Boise and decide to submit their work for the auction.
One of these creative people is Laurie Blakeslee, associate professor of art at Boise State, who has created artwork for all 25 years that the event has been held. Professor Blakeslee specializes in photography, but her artistic sensibility shines through all of her work, including her embroidered song lyrics.
Initially, Blakeslee’s work was mainly still life or black and white photography. But later, she began to think about music, specifically the sappy or funny lyrics in pop songs, which combine both the fantasy and the sadness of love.
“My challenge of creating a valentine was clouded by my cynical attitudes of the sentimental holiday,” Blakeslee wrote on her website. “My pessimism of the valentine as an artificial gesture of affection to be sold and consumed; laden with all the expectations of love and romance, that may never be realized.”
Blakeslee, a committed regular to Flying M since it opened, said she has enjoyed getting to know so many artists in the community and seeing what they do with their valentines each year, but she recognizes the event’s greater significance.
“I lived through the ‘80s when the disease and the people with AIDS were stigmatized, treated poorly by the government and feared and disrespected by the public,” Blakeslee said. “Valentine for AIDS is great at creating visibility around the issue and takes place in a really creative place.”
Collins agreed, saying, “We definitely attract a creative crowd, so raising money for a good cause is a draw. The community support never ceases to amaze me.”
Valentine for AIDS is open for anyone to participate. Prices for artwork range from $5 to over $800. The auction ends at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18.