Saturday, October 8, 2011

Beginnings of an Award-Winning Visual Artist

When we look at the work of an artist (or scientist or any other person) we admire, the question that comes to mind is not "Who Dunn It?" (whodunnit) but How? How did they become famous?

I think a lot of them started at the beginning... of their careers, that is. Here is the story of Kurt Weston, an award-winning visual artist (photographer) I admire, and the beginning of his career in photography and visual arts. The story is an excerpt from Journeys Through Darkness, a biography I wrote on Weston's life and art.

Hope the read will inspire and give you hope, too. As always, thanks for stopping by.
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness
www.alina-arts.com


Kurt Weston bought the Nikon camera in 1983, when he was preparing to go back to school, to pursue his second degree—a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in photography from Chicago’s Columbia College. At the time, he was working in fashion merchandising and attending various fashion shows was part of his job. At one of these events, he brought his (then) brand new camera along with him and snapped a few pictures. One of the images, "The Runway," is now part of his visual art portfolio and it marks the beginning of his career in photography.
Weston’s passion for photography started early in life, when his high school offered, for the very first time, a photography course which utilized a darkroom with a full complement of essential equipment. That marked his first contact with the world of real photography. Years later, while in college and still debating on what his major was going to be, an art history course reintroduced Weston to photography and, thus, jumpstarted his interest in an artistic pursuit. But following that dream was no easy matter.  
“How the hell are you gonna make a living being an artist?” his father asked when Kurt first expressed his interest in pursuing a career in the arts. So, because his father was paying for his education at the time (1975), Kurt decided to enroll in Fashion Merchandising at Northern Illinois University, in the town of DeKalb, Illinois. It sounded like a great idea, because to work in the fashion merchandising industry, Kurt could mix the artistic creativity he loved, to determine what was “in fashion,” with the sense of business he needed to develop in order to determine how best to sell fashion merchandises and, therefore, to make money and achieve the stability his father was talking about.
Weston graduated from Northern Illinois University in 1979 and landed a marketing job in the staff service division at Hart Schaffner and Marx, a famous brand clothing and suit manufacturing company in Chicago with a century-old tradition, known today as Hartmarx. But the excitement of taking the first steps towards a safe and stable career path in fashion merchandizing was short lived. Two years into his first job, Weston started to become increasingly disappointed with his work and realized he was ready for something more exciting. So he quit Hart Schaffner and Marx and started looking for something else.
His second job was also in the fashion industry, but this time in retail. Weston ended up managing a custom shirt shop. And yet again, it didn’t take long for his second job to become less enlightening and less interesting than he had hoped it would be.
The experience brought him even more disappointment with his profession and with his career choice. Suddenly, the safety net his professional path was offering him slipped into second place, while his desire to do something he really loved took priority. Kurt realized that, despite his experience with his two jobs in fashion merchandising, his passion for the arts, in particular for photography, had remained intact. And because by then, his father’s obligation to finance his education was through—as a matter of fact, by then his father was pretty much out of Kurt’s life—the future photographer decided to follow his heart and the artistic pursuit he’d always desired.
So, in 1983 Weston quit his job at the custom shirt shop, took out school loans and enrolled in a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts degree at Chicago’s Columbia College to study photography. He went to school full-time and devoted all his time and energy to his studies. And he excelled in all of his courses. Nowadays, the artist attributes his excellent grades to the exuberant sense of liberation and enthusiasm he felt as he began studying what he really loved.
Kurt graduated from Columbia College in 1985 and took a job as an assistant to a commercial photographer for Stephens Biondi and Decicco—the studio is no longer in business, but in its day it was one of the largest and most famous product photography studios in the Chicago area. At Stephens Biondi and Decicco, Kurt ended up working with a senior photographer—his first “mentor”—who had some forty years experience in the industry and an eye for new talent, and who saw a promising future in Kurt’s work.
While in school, Kurt had studied, in particular, art photography. It was something he was interested in, but the established visual artists were not many. Meanwhile, although commercial photography was not art photography, it helped pay Kurt’s bills faster and easier. So, while he was still paying off his student loans, he had to stick to his job. And doing so, he learned a lot about lighting, in particular the special lighting necessary for food photography, also about building a room design and other similar things. In time, he got to work on various projects for companies like G.E., Siemens, for television and food companies.
For a while, he found his first job as a commercial product photographer extremely interesting, offering him the opportunity to learn as much about photography as he could… which he did. But two years into his work, Weston started, yet again, to become frustrated with his work and bored with the monotonous subject matter of commercial product photography.
Around that time he happened to bump into a friend, a former colleague from Columbia College. They chatted for a while and caught up with their lives and professions. That’s how Kurt learned that his friend was working as a darkroom photographer for a company called Pivot Point International—an international fashion photography company with innovative ideas and with decades of tradition working with successful designers who create in the realm of hair design, esthetics, and nails.
When inquiring about possible job openings, Kurt found out that Pivot Point was actually looking for a second person to work in the darkroom. And although it wasn’t much of a step forward in his career as a photographer, he considered the possible job an opportunity and applied for it.
Shortly afterwards he got hired as a darkroom photographer. He was to make fashion photography prints. Soon, his experience in the fashion industry and his degree in fashion merchandising were to prove helpful in his new job.
While at Pivot Point, Kurt Weston met and got to know many famous industry people like hair stylists, fashion designers and makeup artists. As he was interested to learn more about fashion photography, Weston asked them if it was possible to do a few weekend photography sessions with the models. He volunteered as their weekend photographer. In exchange, he could use the images for his portfolio, as could the models for their own portfolios. The hair stylists and the other industry people and models liked the idea.
     One of the company’s trademarks has always been an industry-specific book called Design Forum. To this day, Pivot Point International produces three issues of Design Forum every year. Each book includes information on the latest trends in hairstyling techniques, introduces new talents from the industry’s finest hair designers and offers students practical tips. Design Forum books are also brimming with professional photographs of cutting-edge, international hair fashion trends.
While Kurt Weston was working in the darkroom and doing the free weekend photography shoots, Pivot Point was working on one of their Design Forum issues and it just happened that they ran out of pictures for that particular book. They also realized that the photos they originally wanted to include in the book weren’t really what they were looking for. To add to their problem, the model they wanted to use was nowhere to be found. Neither was the Pivot Point fashion photographer who’d taken the original pictures. Meanwhile, the deadline was approaching and the book was yet to be finished and they were running out of options.
    …Or so they thought until the hairstylist who worked with Kurt during the weekends mentioned their freelance photo shoots and showed them a few samples with the model Pivot Point was looking for, wearing a hairstyle he thought would work great for the book. The Design Forum producers took a peek at the pictures and were amazed how much better the hair, and also the photography, looked. Therefore they decided to use Kurt’s images in order to complete the project on time. That issue of Design Forum was, as always, a success.
    Kurt Weston became their full-time fashion photographer. He was finally making enough money as a photographer to create the stability his father had been talking about. He was finally able to pay off his student loans, buy a three-bedroom condominium in Chicago and do something he loved with his profession.
    At Pivot Point he had his own studio and his own team of hairstylists, fashion designers and makeup artists. He was in charge of making everybody feel comfortable and at ease during the photo shoots and he was getting along wonderfully with the people he worked with. And he was definitely getting along with his job. He was enthusiastic and excelled in his photography. He also traveled to many fashion shows across the U.S. and Europe and he got to work with brand names like Clairol, Matrix, Helene Curtis and the like.

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