When it comes to love, people can be cruel. When it comes to bidding on love-themed art, people can be downright ruthless. After 17 years spearheading the Valentines for AIDS silent auction at Flying M Coffeehouse, co-owner Lisa Myers has had plenty of experience with these cutthroat collectors. Every year, as the final minutes tick by on the last evening of the exhibition--which features work crafted by nearly 300 local artists--art-thirsty bidders bare their fangs and get down to business.
"People block the book, or write very slowly," said Myers, laughing. "You get caught up in it, just like you're on eBay."
With artwork squeezed into every available nook and dangling from every square inch of wall space, one might assume there would be plenty of art to go around. But, according to Myers, there's at least one item each year that invariably whips folks into a frenzy.
"There's always just this one piece that says something to a couple particular people and then they get in this little bidding war," said Myers. "That's always fun to watch because you never know what that piece is going to be every year."
Last year, it was a painting of Record Exchange by Tricia Pinkert-Branner that went for $600--a small sum compared to the $23,000 that was ultimately donated to the Safety Net for AIDS Program (SNAP), a local fundraising account housed at the Family Medicine Residency of Idaho's Wellness Center. Myers first came up with the idea for Valentines for AIDS in 1993, before AIDS PSAs started filling the airwaves and before the musical Rent first rang out on Broadway.
"Two of my high school classmates one year died from AIDS and it was still at a point in '92-'93 when nobody talked about it," said Myers. "It all kind of came together. Let's do this to talk about love and family and community and let people have these discussions."
Though the public HIV/AIDS outcry has waned in recent years, the need for support hasn't lessened. While federal grants cover medical costs for patients with HIV/AIDS, the funds don't cover other necessities like rent, medication co-pays or utilities. In 2009, due largely to money raised by Valentines for AIDS, SNAP was able to provide 83 clients with $6,000 in food vouchers and 81 clients with almost $15,000 in emergency funds.
"Basically, [Valentines for AIDS funds] 95 percent of SNAP's budget each year," said Jamie Perry, Wellness Center program manager. "So, without it, SNAP wouldn't really be able to help as many people as it does."
This year, to raise even more money for SNAP and to accommodate the community's ever-increasing interest in the event, Valentines for AIDS will expand to the Visual Arts Collective. A group of more than 50 participating artists has been selected to submit additional pieces, which will hang at VAC through the end of February. Bookending this supplemental exhibition will be two nights of local music--one on Friday, Feb. 5, and one on Saturday, Feb. 27.
"The artists are donating part of their commission to SNAP and we're donating part of our commission as well," said VAC co-owner Anneliessa Balk Stimpert. "And then the door money also goes to SNAP."
With the help of local mosaic artist and musician Christine Thomas, a 15-year veteran of Valentines for AIDS, Myers and Balk Stimpert, put together "Love Rocks." The show kicks off Friday, Feb. 5, with an artist reception from 6-8 p.m., then live music from Mike Rogers, Steve Fulton Music, Bill Coffey and Sherpa. In a twist, each of the acts performing at VAC on Saturday, Feb. 27--Juntura, Le Fleur, Ian Waters, A Seasonal Disguise, With Child, Vagerfly and Mere Cat--have been asked to prepare three special love-themed songs or covers.
"We all felt that we would have better results with like-minded kinds of bands on different nights," noted Thomas.
Back at Flying M, artists trickle into the gift shop, handing Myers their wrapped donations, which she squeezes into whatever minuscule storage space she can find. Pieces like Sandy Marostica's Body Language--a polyester plate lithograph that features ladies in antique dress spelling out the word "Love"--rest in Bubble Wrap atop work by artists like Jerri Lisk and Mike Landa. There's even a portrait of St. Valentine done by Jim McColly made entirely of gummi bears.
"Because there are no ground rules or requirements, I think that artists really let their imagination go," said Marostica, who has participated for six years. "You don't have to worry about a juror or pleasing anyone, so I think you're seeing work that is close to the artist's heart that they do for this exhibit."
What has kept painter Amy Lunstrum donating work for the last eight years is the chance to see pieces by her lesser-known peers.
"There are the big names of Boise that we see and hear a lot, and they're wonderful, of course. But what I really like about this event is there are people involved that maybe don't produce regularly or aren't in the galleries regularly who are really amazing artists," said Lunstrum.
But whether it's one of these unknown artists or a familiar Boise staple that has art-lovers battling it out in a no-holds-barred bidding war, one thing's certain: Just like love, if you want it, you've got to fight for it.
"If you want something, you should be there," said Thomas. "People do get very possessive if there's something that they really want."