Michael Gentile “resigned from his job a month after he was diagnosed and just wanted to make pottery,” his partner said.
His name was Michael Gentile. A local artist in his own right, Gentile would never come to a point where anything he ever did would be seen by the public. But he was an artist. In 1993, I was 15 and he was the age I am now. He seemed so much older at the time, but then anyone over 18 was ancient to a 15-year-old. On a rainy fall day that year, Gentile passed away from AIDS-related complications.
This is his story.
“Mike was exciting to be around; he was always full of energy and spontaneity,” Clifford Mulhare said in a recent email. “He would be the only man I think I have ever loved as deeply as I did.”
Mulhare and Gentile met in Chicago in 1985 while attending a funeral for a mutual friend. “I saw him and thought, ‘He’s gay?!’”
Mulhare, a self-described “queen,” had never met a gay man so masculine and comfortable in his skin, “I thought I would just flirt with him at the reception but then decided that would have been superiorly inappropriate following a funeral.”
Little did he know that Gentile would be the one to approach him. “At that time, I was such a nelly queen – more then than I am now – and a man like Mike asking me out for coffee never crossed my mind as being possible, but it happened.”
After continuing to live in Chicago for a couple of years, the couple moved to Kansas City.
“Mike had friends and family here and so did I, so we thought Kansas City would be a great next step for us.”
Many of their Chicago friends had died from the spreading epidemic.
“It was … 1987 and we had no one to stay in Chicago for. … All the death made us want to start fresh, so we could move forward.”
Gentile and Mulhare bought a house in Midtown. “Mike made a little pottery studio out of one the rooms, where he would throw a dish, a pot, a cookie jar, sometimes even a lighthouse; he really liked lighthouses.”
Many of their friends encouraged Gentile to sell his creations, perhaps even open a little store, but Gentile refused.
“He always said that being an artist doesn’t mean you have to receive payment to officially be called what you already are,” said his brother Martin Gentile in a phone conversation from his home in Seattle. “If you saw something you liked, he would give it to you.”
“It was early summer of 1992 that he tested positive,” said Mulhare, “and I was devastated, but Mike wasn’t. I remember he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I have a year, maybe, so let’s enjoy it.’ Looking back on that now, it seemed Mike knew something I didn’t.”
The couple did not travel the world or throw lavish parties. Both Gentile and Mulhare made pottery.
“Time was the reason Mike didn’t fully pursue his art. He was a counselor for drug users and alcoholics, and he was dedicated to his patients and to the work of that field, but he resigned from his job a month after he was diagnosed and just wanted to make pottery.”
Every morning Gentile would make one new piece of pottery and then another around midday and then on more before he went to bed. Mulhare said that Gentile would mail each new and cooled piece of pottery to friends, relatives, acquaintances, anyone he ever knew. He would thank them for being who they were.
“Mike was always a grateful person and he wanted to be sure everyone was thanked for gracing his life.”
After about eight months of creating his art and the gifts they became, he started to decline.
“The medications never seemed to work, and it was frustrating. Men were getting better, people started to have hope that maybe this disease was losing and we were winning. But not for Mike. It was one complication after another,” said Mulhare. “But he had a will to make the best out of the time he had left. I wish I could’ve been stronger than him for him, but I wasn’t, and that is the one thing I regret.”
Gentile would pass away on Oct. 14, 1993, at his mother’s home in Chicago.
“He wanted to go home,” said his brother, “and so Cliff drove him to our mother’s house.”
As a young friend of Gentile’s, I, too, received a piece of pottery. It’s small, blue and glossy. The note inside said:
To the little man who mows my yard and brings me smiles, I will always remember you for being the one who constantly made me feel young. For that alone I thank you.
Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day. On that day and beyond, I will remember those I have lost and those who continue to live with HIV/AIDS. More important, I will pray for significant progress to be made in the search for something that will end this horrible disease, and that whatever is discovered will be made available to every human on this planet.
Join me and the rest of the world on this day of solidarity and awareness.
Damian Torres-Botello is looking for Kansas City-based LGBT artists of any genre — visual, performing, musical or literary — so that he can tell “Their Story,” as he explores how art can help communities see themselves more clearly. If you or someone you know would like to be interviewed for this column, please contact him at [email protected]