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Artist Niki De Saint Phalle Sketches Lifesaving Truths for Teenagers Unwary of AIDS

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Like many people back in 1984, artist Niki de Saint Phalle was ignorant about AIDS. No one in her Parisian circle of friends had come down with the disease, and she had read little about it in the press. One day de Saint Phalle visited her longtime friend Swiss immunologist Dr. Silvio Barandun, a fan of her colorful naïf paintings and sculptures who also happened to be an AIDS specialist. Barandun told de Saint Phalle of his concern that AIDS would soon spread to younger age-groups, who were especially at risk because they weren’t reading the existing information and traditionally disdained using condoms. “Help me educate them as a humanitarian effort,” de Saint Phalle remembers him asking her. “Or else this disease is going to be another plague.”

Three years later the artist and the doctor have produced a striking book for adolescents about AIDS—AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands (The Lapis Press, $6.95). Illustrated with de Saint Phalle’s colorful, whimsical drawings, the book is both straightforward and sensitive, and educators are interested in it as an AIDS educational tool. “The main problem was finding the right tone,” says de Saint Phalle. “We wanted to give information without moralizing and to stress the positive quality of human relationships. I wrote, ‘Romance is in again.’ ”

De Saint Phalle, 57, composed her text in the form of a letter. She describes the disease (“a virus which lives mainly in blood and sperm and vaginal fluids”). She tells how AIDS can be contracted (through anal, oral or vaginal sex) and how it can’t (from mosquitoes or toilet seats). And she outlines precautions bluntly enough to make some parents cringe (“use a rubber…never share a needle”).

The first printing brought forth only about 500 copies, but the book quickly caught on with the experts. “It’s not depressing,” says Dr. Mathilda Krim, head of the American Foundation for AIDS Research. “It’s humorous, affectionate and accurate.” For the U.S. publication, de Saint Phalle turned to her old friend California painter Sam Francis, who agreed to bring it out under the imprint of his own small arts-oriented press, Lapis. De Saint Phalle translated and revised the text with two medical experts, Dr. Paul Volberding of the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco and Dr. William Haseltine of Harvard Medical School. “This book is crucial,” says Haseltine.

As an artist, de Saint Phalle has always followed her own path. The daughter of a French nobleman banker and an American mother, she was raised in the privileged worlds of Paris and New York. After a short career as a socialite model, appearing on the cover of LIFE in 1949, de Saint Phalle married writer Harry Matthews and moved to Paris, where she turned to painting and the avant-garde art world of the 1950s. Soon she became notorious for her own version of “automatic painting,” shooting at bags of paint with a .22 rifle, causing them to bleed colors over a canvas. For the past eight years de Saint Phalle, divorced from Matthews and separated from her second husband, famed Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, has been absorbed in the construction of an enormous esoteric sculpture garden in Italy, based on 22 signs of the Tarot. “I’ve been planning it since I was 25 when I saw Gaudi’s sculptures in Barcelona,” says de Saint Phalle, a Tarot devotee who lives in one of the cavernous sculptures called The Empress (de Saint Phalle’s bedroom is located in the right breast, the kitchen in its left). “It’s my destiny to make a place where people can come and be happy, a garden of joy.”

Though it may not be obvious to everyone, de Saint Phalle sees a direct link between her garden and her book. “The world has been experiencing a whole pattern of auto-destruction, whether in environmental disasters like Chernobyl or health disasters like AIDS,” she explains. “Young people need to become involved. AIDS is a complex situation that’s sure to bring out the best and the worst in people. And it’s just beginning.”