Friday, January 14, 2011

All Aboard!: Embarking on My Journey Through Darkness


In this blog I mention my book, Journeys Through Darkness, quite often. Here's an excerpt from Journeys in which I talk about how I got to embark on this Journey and learn about the world of AIDS--from its dark years to its lighter times--an experience  that will stay with me throughout my entire life.

Hope you'll enjoy the read. As always, thanks for visiting,

Alina Oswald
 
 Chapter One: The Runway

“All aboard!”
I’ve always thought of these two words as being part of some script, a symbol of departure, separation, tears and heartache… an ending. I’ve never thought of them as actually being used in real life. But there I was, on an early summer morning, in my own reality, the first time on a train in over fifteen years, settled comfortably in my seat.
“All aboard!”
The two magic words set the train in motion, the conductor’s voice still ringing in my ears as the train pulled slowly out of New York City’s Penn Station, heading to D.C. But, unlike the movies, my first Amtrak experience was not the farewell-y, teary kind, but quite the opposite. In a peculiar way, it symbolized the beginning of a journey and the start of a spiritual transformation.
I was on my way to attend the VSA Arts gallery opening event, personally invited by Kurt Weston. He was one of the twenty-three featured artists selected from a group of 560 artists from around the world. 
Formally known as Very Special Arts and founded in 1974 by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, VSA Arts is an international nonprofit organization promoting and showcasing the works of artists with disabilities from over sixty countries. Kurt Weston is not only a VSA Arts featured artist but also a member of VSA’s Board of Directors in California. Each year he attends the annual VSA National Convention in Washington, D.C.
As part of the event Kurt Weston and his partner, gay rights and AIDS activist Terry Roberts, attended in 2005, there was also an art show displaying works created by children with disabilities. One of the winners was a girl from California who, while paralyzed from the neck down, could paint by holding the brush in her mouth.
At this event it is not unusual for Kurt and Terry to meet with senators and to advocate for the continuation of funding for the arts and education, funding which is vital for the careers of many potentially good artists. It was during a reception following one of these meetings that the visual artist had the chance to meet Senator Ted Kennedy, his sister Jean Kennedy Smith and Senator John Kerry.
The three were squeezing their way through the reception room as everyone present reached out to shake their hands and greet them. As Kurt Weston took his turn to shake Ted Kennedy’s hand, the director of VSA Arts California, who was also present at the reception, took a snapshot of the quick handshake for which, even today, Weston considers himself lucky.
When he first mentioned the 2006 VSA Arts event to me, I was hesitant. I guess because it wasn’t something that happened to me everyday. Kurt Weston’s artwork has fascinated me ever since I first set my eyes on The Last Light, even if only through the samples posted on the artist’s website. But I had never had the opportunity to look at the actual photographs and touch them, and try to connect with them. The VSA Arts event opening provided me with this very unique opportunity, and there was no way I was going to miss it.
And so, on a glorious weekend in early June 2006, I found myself for the first time on the Amtrak. The train trip itself ended up being a surprisingly positive experience; the weekend, an artistic adventure.   
One of Weston’s winning entries welcomed us—Kurt, Terry and myself—as we first entered the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where the event took place. The featured photograph, Losing the Light, is part of Weston’s Blind Vision series of self-portraits capturing the artist’s vision of his blindness, showing people the physical and emotional impact that visual loss can have on an individual.
AIDS-related retinitis has left the photographer totally blind in his left eye and only with some limited peripheral vision in his right eye. Therefore, he cannot focus or see things clearly anymore. He can only make out tones of colors. He also experiences floaters, or what he describes as “pieces of cotton that are stuck in my eye and keep floating and flashing every time I move my eye.”