The sign next to her table reads boldly, "Condom Pins: $10," and then in smaller print, "No, they're not used."
Sheila Brennan is the one behind the table. Condom pins, she says, are "a decent medium," and their popularity at local craft fairs has helped to subsidize her "real art," as she calls it: six-foot paintings and brightly colored sculptures made of wood or styrofoam. Brennan doesn't make the pins just to make a buck on something disgusting, as she was accused of once at a New York City art fair; she makes them to remind people of the necessity of condoms in the prevention of AIDS.
Brennan has been making the pins for about five years, ever since she noticed that more and more of the people contracting AIDS were straight and weren't practicing safe sex. (Her gay friends, she says, started using condoms years ago.) Only women were accepting condoms as a way of life, "but it's always their burden anyway," she says, and most were still not comfortable buying condoms. Nearly 20 people she has known have died of AIDS. By making jewelry out of condoms, Brennan hoped to bring them into sight and into mind.
Brennan smokes Marlboro Menthols, and the box complements her green paint-stained shirt and her closely cropped dyed-purple hair. "I like bright colors," she says. Her favorite artist is Vincent van Gogh because, she says, she is a colorist too. The walls of her apartment, on the second story of a house on Thomas Street near Milwaukee and Division, are covered with her work as well as with photographs of friends--some of whom have died of AIDS in the past few years. From the rafters hang silk shirts that she's in the middle of painting, and the coffee table is strewn with many of her latest condom creations.
Brennan makes the jewelry by dipping the condoms into acrylic resin and then letting them dry into their own forms. (She likes to use the ones with a reservoir tip because the resin collects in the tip and creates "shapes that jump out on things.") Then she paints them in a variety of colors, both bright and subdued.
Men usually ask, "Are they used?" while women ask, "Can they be used?" Although some responses have been negative, Brennan finds that most people look at them and say, 'Oh my God' . . . and then buy them."
Brennan, 34, says she found her artistic talent when her parents sent her to art school to "keep her out of trouble" after she was suspended from her Catholic school on the northwest side. She had told her teachers, "I'm not Catholic--my parents baptized me. I had nothing to do with it." Her parents thought art school would "keep her from ruining other children's minds," she says.
Brennan is one of five children. Her family is Irish, and the customary debates around the kitchen table taught her to "look at both sides of things--mainly to prepare a good defense." She found loopholes in her religion and felt that it "never made sense. . . . As long as you said you're sorry right before you died, you were covered." At Lane Tech High School, she edited an underground newspaper called The Oppressed.
Brennan thought she might make a good lawyer. She worked for the John Howard Association, a prison reform group, after she graduated from Lane Tech. But after spending most of her time interviewing criminals who "never had a chance" and then seeing their victims, who were "a mess," she decided that she could not work in the legal system and opted to return to art. "Every now and then I sort of regret it. I think I probably would have been successful," she says.
In 1979 she graduated from the University of Illinois, where she'd majored in art. She worked as a painter and sculptor, often using objects she found in the street as her materials, everything from old mufflers to tomato crates. She especially likes styrofoam because "it will last a good thousand years."
Four years ago Brennan came down with mononucleosis, and, fearing she might have AIDS, she went for tests. She tested HIV positive. She found she couldn't think about what she wanted to accomplish before she died, as she always used to counsel her AIDS-stricken friends to do. She could only think about what she was going to miss. "I looked at little kids on the bus and thought, "They're going to see Christmas and I'm not,"' she says. Three months later, at the urging of friends, she tested again, and then again, and both tests were negative. "I was glad to have had the experience," Brennan says, but "to know you're going to die is horrible."
Brennan has achieved some artistic success; she's had solo shows and has sold her work to a number of small galleries and boutiques. She has also sold her work to Japanese buyers through a representative in New York, and she would like to expand into the Eastern European market.
She's also achieved notoriety: Her silk-screened T-shirts were banned from the Bucktown Arts Fair last year because the show's organizers said they didn't qualify as art. In retaliation, Brennan--who finds artists censoring other artists particularly abhorrent--hung her T-shirts up anyway. This year, she says, "they banned me from the fair."
But she's happy about what her work is accomplishing in the fight against AIDS. Last year she donated some of her work to the AIDS hospice Chicago House for its fifth anniversary fund-raising auction, and she always donates to its Christmas fair. Brennan will be selling her condom jewelry this Saturday and Sunday at Northalsted Marketdays (883-0500), on Halsted north of Belmont; next Friday through Sunday, August 9 through 11, at the Free Festival (973-0806) on Cricket Hill, at about 4600 north in Lincoln Park; and the following Friday through Sunday, August 16 through 18, at the Belmont Art Fair (472-2000), in the vicinity of Belmont and Broadway. On Thursday evening, August 8, she'll show her "real" art at a benefit for the Peace Museum at Avalon, 959 W. Belmont (472-3020), and this Saturday and Sunday some of her stuff will be in the Dog Days Summer Sale at August House Studios, 2223 W. Melrose (327-5644).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.