Thursday, December 29, 2011

Warrior Within: An Interview with Award-Winning Photographer and AIDS Warrior Kurt Weston (originally published in Art & Understanding Magazine)

Warrior Within: An Interview with Award-Winning Photographer Kurt Weston originally published in A&U Magazine 
To learn more about Kurt Weston and his work as an artist and AIDS warrior, please check out Journeys Through Darkness, A Biography of AIDS

"Warrior Within" article was originally published in A&U's November 2005 issue. It received a few nice comments from readers (thank you!), allowed me to get to get to know better award-winning photographer Kurt Weston and, ultimately, led to my friendship with Weston and to writing a book on his life and art, Journeys Through Darkness

I'd like to share with you "Warrior Within," which was possible because of my discovery and fascination with Weston's intriguing, inspiring and breathtaking photography. 

Hope you enjoy the read. As always, thanks for stopping by,
Alina Oswald

"Warrior Within" by Alina Oswald, originally published in A&U - America's AIDS Magazine
Journeys Through Darkness
Photographer Kurt Weston works through AIDS-related visual loss to capture a portrait of the pandemic.

Photographer Kurt Weston sees his AIDS as a battle.  And he needs to be a warrior willing to fight the virus that is destroying him.   
“I never really wanted to just give up, even when I had the KS lesions.  I think part of it was the fear of dying, but I didn’t just wait for it to happen,” he says, explaining his source of positive attitude during the course of our phone interview. 

Diagnosed with AIDS in 1991, the award-winning visual artist considers protease inhibitors a miracle that literary saved his life.  But, as he was restoring his health, he was also becoming legally blind, diagnosed with CMV retinitis in 1994.

“I was devastated because here I had spent my life working as a photographer and as a visual artist and I was no longer capable of doing this… or so I thought, because I couldn’t see anything in focus.  I don’t see anybody’s face,” he says.  “I see… like, if you look at the palm of your hand.  That’s what I see of a person’s face.  So, I didn’t think I could ever photograph again.”

Fortunately, it turned out he could.  And his first challenge was finishing the 1999 calendar for the Asian/Pacific Crossroads. 

Many challenges later, after attending low vision technology studies at the California Braille Institute and experimenting with his new special equipment, Weston realized that he could, indeed, photograph.  With the help of organizations like the Foundation for Junior Blinds (now known as Junior Blind of America) and California Department of Rehabilitation, he purchased the special equipment—handheld telescope, special magnification glasses, and magnification and reading software programs like Zoomtext—necessary for him to continue his work.     

“It was scary.  A lot of times, I would take a leap of faith and do a lot of experimentation,” he recalls this learning process.

Kurt Weston is a firm believer that a person can work through a situation, no matter how extremely challenging and helpless it may seem, and use the experience to help others who find themselves in similar circumstances.  This philosophy has helped him work off the dilemmas in his own life while giving his life a deeper sense of meaning. 

His early work in the AIDS community includes the founding of SWAN (Surviving With AIDS Network) a grass-root type of organization for people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as founding the Orange County Therapeutic Nutrients Program, which assists people living with HIV/AIDS.

One of the many ways Weston helps others today is through VSA arts (the Very Special Arts), an international organization committed to promote disabled artists.  In June 2005, as a member of a VSA’s Board of Directors, he went to D.C. with a VSA contingent to advocate for the continuation of funding because “this rigid administration and our wonderful President were trying to take all the money away from arts and education.”  He finds this absolutely appalling because these funds are vital for the careers of many potentially good artists. 

From his perspective, Weston considers art a vehicle through which we can experience the nature of humanity.  In today’s society consumed by superficial realities, his art goes beyond the body and into a metaphysical dimension, connecting with the viewer on a more profound, spiritual level. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet--J is for (pneumonia Jiroveci) and also for Journey Through Darkness

Thirty (30!) Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet--J is for (Pneumonia Jiroveci) and also for Journey Through Darkness

"Lava Fields: Journey from Crater to Ocean"

In the AIDS alphabet, the letter J is for Jiroveci, aka AIDS pneumonia, PCP or Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. PCP is a lung infection commonly seen in people with compromised immune system. PCP, otherwise known as AIDS pneumonia, usually occurs in patients with a T cell count below 200. As in the case of CMV (cytomegalovirus), the organism that causes PCP can enter the healthy human body and live peacefully in it for the rest of its life, not causing any damages. Only when the immune system weakens or deteriorates, the organism activates and can cause pneumonia. In the early days of AIDS, PCP was too often a regular cause of AIDS related death for AIDS patients. Medications used for treatment of PCP include: Bactrim, Pentamidine, Mepron (Atovaquone), and Primaquine.

"Lava Fields: Close-Up"
As a side-note, after years of using HAART regimens to keep in check opportunistic infections (O.I.s) like PCP (pneumonia jiroveci), an alarming news spread through the community--PCP is back. To find out more, check out the related A&U article.

Aside from the medical terms, J is also for Journey--the journey we all take through life, the journey individuals living with life-threatening diseases (like cancer or AIDS) take on their way to recovery. On a more personal note, Kurt Weston's image "Journey Through Darkness" inspired Journeys Through Darkness, the book I wrote on Weston's life and art. Here's a short excerpt describing the making of "Journey Through Darkness," from Weston's series of self-portraits called Blind Vision.

As always, thanks for stopping by,

Excerpt from Chapter Six: Journey Through Darkness

cover of Journeys Through Darkness a biography by Alina Oswald with photographs by Kurt Weston
Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography
The Blind Vision series is only one of Weston’s works to capture an allegorical portrait of the visual artist as he traverses through his journey. In that sense, art becomes an amazing vehicle for Weston, allowing him to use his own life experiences to communicate, inspire, inform and also to visually intrigue his audience. From his perspective, Kurt Weston considers art a means through which people can experience the nature of their humanity. Art can be silly and fun, and it can be entertaining. It can communicate a tremendous amount of information, emotion, and inspiration. In today’s society, consumed by superficial realities, Kurt Weston’s art goes beyond the physical realm of human existence and into a metaphysical dimension, connecting with the viewer on a more profound and spiritual level.
    “I think my life is meaningful,” Weston comments, talking about his source of inspiration. For him life is so fragile and it can be gone in an instant. That’s reason enough for the artist to capture his experience with disability, loss, pain and death in his visual art, because the experience defines him as a real person and also as an artist.
    Although his most recent works include digital photography and sometimes require no camera at all (just a flat scanner which he uses to scan in people’s faces and also his own face), Weston uses regular film and he prints his images on silver gelatin paper so that they can last forever. He wants future generations to be able to look at this work and say, “This was happening at this time in history and this is the impact it left on people whose lives it touched, this pandemic.”
    To Weston, black-and-white is a medium in itself in terms of representing reality. He doesn’t want color to be an “intrusion” in his work, a “distraction” from the message his art communicates to the viewer. Black-and-white offers Weston’s art a concentration of expression. And he likes that intensity, in particular in his portraits.
    Kurt Weston began creating the Blind Vision series in 2000. To represent his visual disturbance described as “pieces of cotton stuck in my eye, floating every time I move my eye,” the artist sprayed a glass with foaming glass cleaner and took a self-portrait sitting behind it. “You see my hand pushing away the foam, which is what I would love to do,” he explains, “I would like to be able to wipe away all that cotton that keeps floating in front of my eye and get a clear view of what I want to see out in the world.”     

Monday, December 19, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet--I is for Immunomodulators

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet--I is for Immunomodulators (Interleukin-2)

"The Hope Principle"
On our journey through the AIDS alphabet we find ourselves at letter I, for Immunomodulators. A class of immunomodulators is administered to patients with weakened immune systems (for example cancer patients or AIDS patients). Here's a short excerpt from JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS that, I hope, sketches a portrait of life on these medications through the story of long-term AIDS survivor, award-winning legally blind photographer Kurt Weston

Self-Portrait w/ Dab the AIDS Bear
Hope you enjoy the read. As always, thanks for stopping by.
Alina Oswald

Excerpt from Chapter Seven: Seeing the Future--Life’s Crystal Ball: Life Without Va

Journeys Through Darkness
The new HAART medications have saved Kurt Weston’s life. Bringing his immune system to a level that doctors considered “safe” was another story and required additional work, time, and treatments.  When he initially started taking Crixivan, Kurt’s immune system was virtually non-existent; therefore the medication, no matter how powerful, could not be as effective as doctors would have liked. They decided to try to boost Kurt’s immune system using immunotherapy—a treatment used to rebuild an individual’s impaired immune system, usually involving the administration of several cycles of immune system stimulants, called immunomodulators. 
    One example of an immunomodulator is Interleukin-2, a substance naturally produced by the body to stimulate its immunity. When the immune system is compromised and deteriorates below a certain level, like in the case of HIV/AIDS or cancer patients, the body cannot produce enough necessary Interleukin-2 and doctors can then intervene and administer a commercial version of the substance in order to boost the body’s immunity. For AIDS patients, Interleukin-2 has the potential to halt HIV progression by maintaining the T cell count in a normal range for prolonged periods of time. Interleukin-2 can also be used for cancer treatment, to prevent the reproduction of cancerous cells.
    For two consecutive years, between 1999 and 2000, Kurt Weston had to go through several Interleukin-2 cycles as part of his immunotherapy. During this time, the photographer received the medication several times a day, five days per cycle, every other month.
    The treatment was helpful and definitely necessary, because the stronger Kurt’s immune system was getting, the better the new HAART medications could help him regain his health and allow him to live an almost normal life. But the treatment also had severe side effects, similar to the ozone therapy ones, including a hundred and four degree fevers and rigors. And because of these side effects, by the second day on Interleukin-2, Kurt started feeling very sick. On the third day, he was holding on to dear life.
    Doctors had to prescribe several medications to control the side effects and help him complete the treatment cycles. Kurt ended up taking Demoral, a powerful pain medication that knocked him out, and also various over the counter pain killers, like aspirin, for the rigors. After each Interleukin-2 cycle Kurt was going through several days of convalescence before he could start feeling better and getting on with his life again, only to resume his therapy a mere month later.
    Kurt Weston survived the treatment and, two years later, he completed all the required immunotherapy cycles. As a result, his immune system eventually started to get better and his T cell count soared from three to six hundred seventy. CMV was again inactive in his body, yet the damage the virus had caused in his eyes was permanent.
To this day, in order to maintain whatever sight he has left, the photographer has to put daily prednisone drops in his eyes. The drops burn his eyes but allow him to continue photographing and creating visual art. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet -- H is for HIV

Thirty years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet -- H is for HIV

Journeys Through Darkness

HIV: Human Immunodeficiency Virus is a human virus that causes the weakening of an individual’s immune system by attaching itself to a protein on the T cell, called CD4. Once inside the T cell, HIV uses its own genetic material to make copies of itself. The T cell is destroyed in the process.

Much has been written about HIV/AIDS. I've written much myself--those interested can check out my most recent article on AIDS conspiracy theory. Therefore, for letter H (for HIV) of the AIDS alphabet I don't really want to talk about HIV but one of the many ways it has altered people's lives. Here's an excerpt from "Chapter Four: Self-Reflections" from JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS, a biography of AIDS including my own journey through HIV/AIDS. 

As always, thanks for visiting!
Alina Oswald
"Reflections" by Alina Oswald

AIDS, for example, isolates and stigmatizes its victims, while taking away their social life, their connection with their families, friends, and peers. But it doesn’t stop at that. AIDS continues by peeling off layer after layer of one’s life, until there’s nothing left. While the network of familiar faces (friends and family) may vanish first, the financial layer comes next. Patients are left jobless. With their bank accounts depleted, some are forced to live on disability. AIDS also attacks the most private layer of human existence, that related to the self-images individuals reflect on themselves and on others. The disease mutilates the physical appearance of its victims to such extent that it can permanently fracture this aspect of patients’ lives. The intimate connections, the physical touches people need especially when during tough times, disappear shortly afterwards. And so do the personal and sexual lives of AIDS patients, because nobody desires them and nobody wants to be with someone whose body is deformed or who’s sick and dying.
    The actual physical death happens only after a slow and painful process during which patients are forced to experience the death of several dimensions of their existence. Those who manage to survive are sometimes left with virtually no means to do so; they are forced, therefore, to come up with their own ways of staying alive. Some do that by developing their own survival skills, like learning how to live in the moment or informing themselves about AIDS and researching various ways to stay alive even if only for a while longer. After all, they have nothing to lose.
    Through it all, staying alive becomes an art in itself. Learning this complex process is not easy and not everyone has the kind of strength or inspiration required to attempt it.
    More than fifteen years after his AIDS diagnosis, Kurt Weston considers himself lucky to have connected with people who could help him quickly learn how to fight the disease, and who gave him the hope and strength necessary to keep focused on his surviving. The photographer believes that being around survivors at that stage in his life and his AIDS was a vital part of his winning the battle with his disease.
    While frequenting Test Positive Aware, Kurt was also completely taken by surprise to come face to face with people he’d known for a long time, in his pre-AIDS diagnosis existence. And he could read the same surprise in their eyes. And although it was obvious, every one would inquire what the other was doing at TPA, yet no one was willing to say anything more or tell the true reason behind their presence inside an AIDS service organization building.
    “Even in the gay community, if people knew you were infected, you were damaged goods,” Weston explains. “[They] didn’t want to have anything to do with you. It got so bad that friends I was going clubbing with, their first question was ‘are you feeling ok?’ or ‘have you been feeling all right?’”
    In general, people were attracted to the fun, the parties and the beautiful individuals attending these events. Nobody wanted to have to deal with other people’s burdens, especially when associated with HIV and AIDS. So, Weston and others like him didn’t really share their AIDS diagnoses with just anybody, but rather with only a few of the closest friends. It was a strange and at the same time sickening thing to do, but they had to constantly be aware of the aura of stigma and prejudice surrounding AIDS and those infected.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet -- H is for HAART (December 7, 1995)

HAART: Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (or Treatment) regimens (or HAART, pronounced like “heart” and sometimes referred to as ART—Anti-Retroviral Treatment) consist of a combination of three (or sometimes four) anti-HIV drugs. Also known as “the cocktail,” HAART regimens have radically changed the progression of the disease. HAART regimens have the so-called “Lazarus effect” on AIDS patients, turning AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable, life-long disease. The new medications started being FDA approved in 1996. (Some mention December 7th, 1995, as the discovery of HAART regimens.)

Here's an excerpt from JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS on HAART (pronounced like heart). Hope you enjoy the read. And, as always, thanks for stopping by.

Alina Oswald
Author of JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS (now also available as e-book)

By January 1996 the photographer started to realize that he was already legally blind, but when he shared his concerns with his doctor, the HIV specialist remained sure he could save Kurt’s vision. The available solution was to try two new, experimental medications to treat the CMV.
    About the same time a new life-saving medication was coming on the market. It was one of the first protease inhibitors (or P.I.s) medications called Crixivan, and it was part of a new treatment called HAART (pronounced like “heart”) regimen, otherwise known as “the cocktail,” which was going to radically change patients’ lives, turning AIDS from a definite death sentence into the manageable disease that AIDS is today.  
    The Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Treatment was (and continues to be) a revolutionary triple-drug therapy made possible by Doctor Ho of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York City. HAART put Doctor Ho on the cover of Time magazine and made him “man of the year” in 1996.
    These new kinds of medications first started coming out in December 1995, so during the previous months, drugs like Crixivan were still under last, or phase three, of testing and on the verge of getting FDA approved. Because there were not enough medications for everybody needing them, some drug companies offered to give them to patients on a compassionate use basis only, otherwise known as expanded access programs.
    EAP was (still is) a program through which pharmaceutical companies distributed upcoming medications that were already in the pipeline but yet to be FDA approved to people who needed them most. This process had been very rare and extremely difficult before the AIDS years. Usually, a doctor had to call the manufacturer and then the FDA, fill out hours-worth of paperwork and wait for months to get a drug sample, enough only for one patient. And then start all over again, for the next patient. And so on.
    Fortunately AIDS has changed all that. The epidemic has forced people living with the disease and AIDS organizations to learn fast the drug industry regulations, to meet with people from the industry and with government officials and to draw proposals. But nothing really happened until people living with AIDS went out in the streets and demonstrated, literally, for their lives. A familiar example is the 1988 ACT-UP demonstration on Wall Street, New York City. [ACT-UP, or AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power was founded in 1987]
    Only then, the FDA started allowing drug companies to open trial programs as soon as they had available at least some safety information on the drug. That’s how the “drug lotteries” started in 1989. There were several such lotteries and participants had to meet several criteria.
    For example, in 1995 Glaxo provided a (then) upcoming medication called 3TC to over thirty-two thousand people in the United States. It was the largest expanded access program ever.
    Merck announced its Crixivan lottery in July 1995. The company was giving away drugs to eleven hundred people in the U.S. and an additional seven hundred fifty patients from twenty-nine countries in Europe, South America, Canada, and Australia. Merck was to pay for the drug, including shipping, and also for post-selection central laboratory tests and the urine pregnancy tests when and if needed. To be able to participate in Merck-organized P.I. lottery, AIDS patients had to meet several criteria, including to be clinically stable, to be able to follow directions and have certain T cell counts and viral loads. [Glossary to this book provides more detailed information regarding definition of terms like T cell count and viral load.]
    The lottery took place in August 1995. In Chicago, Kurt’s doctor put his patient’s name in the program. By December, Kurt’s new doctors in California received a phone call from his former physician: Kurt had won the lottery. He was one of the eleven hundred AIDS patients approved to receive the new drug. Winning the drug lottery literally saved his life. To this day, the photographer seriously doubts his ability to stay alive if it wasn’t for the new medication.
    He started treatment in January, right before he got his doctors to take out the silicone gel inserts from his arm. At the time, there was no way for Kurt, or his doctors for that matter, to imagine the powers of the new HAART regimens, to think that in just a matter of months they would be able to bring his immune system back on track and far from the dangerous zone of CMV activation. All Kurt’s physicians knew for sure was that if their patient didn’t receive the two experimental treatments fast enough, he would lose his vision for good. 
    But Kurt knew that his vision was already gone. It took him several months to get his doctor to accept the truth. It wasn’t until May of 1996 that the physician finally agreed to give Kurt a certificate stating that the photographer was legally blind. He needed it to register to the Braille Institute where he could learn how to survive in his new world of new insecurities, and darkness.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

World AIDS Day: A Look Back at 30 Years of AIDS and the AIDS Conspiracy Theories

December 1st is World AIDS Day (WAD), Reason to Take a Look Back at 30 Years of AIDS and the AIDS Conspiracy Theories

[Author's Note: This article was also published in Out IN Jersey Magazine.] As always, thanks for stopping by. Remember those who've lost their lives to AIDS today, on World AIDS Day, and every day.

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness, a Biography of AIDS

Remember the movie Conspiracy Theory starring Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson? Have you ever wondered why you believed the Mel Gibson character’s side of the story and not what seemed to be the “official” version?

Truth is that conspiracy theories intrigue many of us. Our first reaction to them may be dismissal, but then we cannot help but give them that second thought. Conspiracy theories populate not only our fantasy—movies and novels—but also our reality. Take, for example, the conspiracy theory surrounding the Holocaust, moon landing or 9/11 attacks. Most of them are proven to be absolute lies. A few continue to fuel our pre-existing distrust in the official perspective on pretty much everything.

Take, for example, the AIDS conspiracy theory. We hear the word “AIDS” maybe more often this year because we find ourselves in the thirtieth year of pandemic. When it comes to AIDS, there are a multiple versions of related conspiracy theories, ranging from total denial of the existence of HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) to the existence of an available AIDS cure, which, though, is kept secret at the gain of the Big Pharma and the expense of millions of people living with HIV/AIDS.

The AIDS conspiracy theory has made the headlines, on and off, throughout the last three decades—in 2008, because of statements made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s former pastor. Regarding the AIDS conspiracy theory those who tend to consider the idea of the government’s involvement are not necessarily AIDS denialists, but rather skeptics about the AIDS information (especially related to how HIV entered the U.S.) presented to them by the authorities. And maybe, just maybe, the seeds of this skepticism are based on experiences lived by the skeptics themselves or by their friends and loved ones.

When it comes to the AIDS conspiracy theory—by which HIV was man-made and introduced in the American gay society through the hepatitis B vaccine experiment of the late seventies as a biological warfare in order to cleanse the society of gays, drug addicts, prostitutes and the like—most people automatically dismiss the thought, mainly because the idea itself sounds like an impossible genocide, something nobody would be capable of. Yet history has proven otherwise—remember the Ukrainian genocide, right before the beginning of World War II, when millions of people died of starvation under Stalin’s orders; or the genocides decimating populations on the African continent, some of them in recent history.

In the U.S. many question the notion that the government allowed AIDS to happen. Many more question the truth (or falsity) of the AIDS conspiracy theory. Nobody can positively say when (or if) it can be proven with total certainty. What is proven, though, is the fact that the government allowed the Tuskegee experiment to take place. The Tuskegee experiment started in 1932 and lasted 40 years. It involved 600 black men—399 infected with syphilis and 201 not infected. Participants did volunteer but they were never told the whole truth about the experiment, nor were they cured of syphilis when penicillin became available and the official treatment for the disease. The experiment ended in 1972, only after the Associated Press broke the story.

But who’s ready to break the AIDS conspiracy story once and for all, one way or the other? The truth is that, among the experts on either side of this seemingly fragile topic, not many are willing to talk out loud about it (or reply to interview inquiries for that matter). Most medical experts dismiss it altogether. On the other hand, there are a vocal handful of AIDS conspiracy theory proponents who make their voices heard, but not many of them on the government’s involvement in the hepatitis B vaccine experiment that preceded only by a few years the first cases of AIDS in the United States.

Therefore to find the answers, those who don’t dismiss the idea of AIDS as a conspiracy theory turn to trusted people, those who’ve lived through the horrors of the dark, early years of AIDS. These warriors, long-term AIDS survivors, may not be able to certify the conspiracy theory. Yet, they can talk about true-to-life experiences they’ve lived through.

What makes it interesting is that some of these stories reflect intriguing coincidences in the larger picture of the controversy surrounding the AIDS conspiracy theory. For example, the hepatitis B vaccines were first offered to members of the gay community, in the late seventies, around 1978. Participants had to receive three shots in order to get the vaccine. Long-term AIDS survivors, nowadays, recall that they got all three hepatitis B shots, and then developed AIDS in the early and mid-eighties.

The first official U.S. AIDS casualties surfaced on June 5th, 1981, in Los Angeles, where doctors found a strange type of pneumonia, called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, in five young gay men. Although the medical professionals didn’t know the cause of the disease, they knew it was associated with a weakened immune system. And the cause for this impaired immunity was still a mystery. The patients died within days. That same summer, an article published in the New York Times announced the appearance of a rapidly fatal form of a rare cancer—Kaposi’s sarcoma, or KS—that doctors had found in 41 homosexual men. During the first years of the U.S. AIDS epidemic, the “gay cancer” a.k.a. “gay plague” was considered an intrinsic part of the gay community, so much that it was called GRID or Gay Related Immune Deficiency.

For many members of the gay community the mention of the new “gay cancer” came as a blip in the news, during the early eighties. It wasn’t until a few years later that the “gay cancer” made headlines again, under a new name. In 1985 the Center of Disease Control announced that it wasn’t a (gay) cancer causing all the disease and suffering and death, but a virus called Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. The CDC called the multitude of strange diseases the virus caused Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. The Center of Disease Control also promised that a vaccine was on its way.

By the accounts of long-term AIDS survivors who’re here today to tell the story, the early eighties of the epidemic (1981 – 1985), known nowadays as the “dark years of AIDS,” were the years of silent sufferings and mysterious deaths. They were the years when a lot of people just… disappeared. One day they were around, the next they were gone, and nobody knew for sure what had happened to them. It took four years of too many silent deaths and one publicized celebrity death for AIDS to make the headlines in the U.S. It wasn’t until the disease claimed the life of actor Rock Hudson (1985) that its threat was brought home to many Americans. 

But that doesn’t mean that the first four years of loss and suffering and sickness of unknown people were forgotten. They have inspired many artists to capture the epidemic in various art forms, from literature and Broadway shows to film and photography.

Author Randy Shilts wrote about the forgotten years of AIDS and the individuals who lost their lives to AIDS during those years in his book And the Band Played On, later made into a movie. In The Band Shilts touched on what is now common knowledge—the disinterest with which the Reagan administration treated the AIDS epidemic in the United States. It is a fact that President Reagan uttered the word “AIDS” for the first time only years after the appearance of the first official AIDS cases in America and after the CDC’s announcement of the HIV discovery.

Playwright Tony Kushner also touches on the indifferent treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS by the Reagan administration in his play, Angels in America, later made into an HBO movie. The story of Angels starts in 1985, a time when HIV was announced as the cause of AIDS, a time when Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions covered AIDS patients’ bodies, almost as a sign of what an AIDS diagnosis meant in those days.

Those living in New York City at the time may remember the giant billboard posted in Times Square displaying a picture of Ronald Reagan, his face covered with purple Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. It was a protest message capturing the Reagan administration’s response to the AIDS issue. Photographed by Italian Oliviero Toscani, the image made the cover of Colors magazine in 1994.

When it comes to the artistic interpretation of AIDS, some artists are more vocal than others. Some become activists, while others use their artwork to express their opinions. That’s how we get thought-provoking, rich in symbolism pieces of visual art, such as Dion Hitchings' "aids." 

A similar message to the one captured in Hitchings' "aids" is present in Kurt Weston’s "Anger is an Energy." The photograph portrays a gay, HIV positive, African American man. The symbolism of this image is two-fold—the tolerance and acceptance with which the African American community surrounds its HIV positive and/or gay members, and also the anger towards the disease seen as a source of positive energy, vital for AIDS patients to stay alive.

When it comes to AIDS, award-winning photographer Kurt Weston hopes that related artworks will become a testimony; that future generations will be able to look at the body of work inspired by AIDS and say, “This was happening at this time in history and this is the impact it left on people whose lives it touched, this pandemic.”

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Go with the Flow – Lessons Learned from A Flow Affair, a Documentary by Wolfgang Busch

Go with the Flow – Lessons Learned from A Flow Affair a Documentary by Wolfgang Busch

How Do I Look?  No, this is not a question, but a documentary that, a few years ago, offered me a peek into the fantastic ball community and the unique opportunity to interview the equally fantastic filmmaker and LGBT activist, Wolfgang Busch, who also directed and produced How Do I Look?.

Last month I had the chance to revisit Busch’s inspiring work when invited to attend the New York City premier screening of A Flow Affair, at Manhattan’s St. John’s Lutheran Church. The event brought together well-known artists and activists united in their efforts to keep alive the diverse forms of flow arts—flagging (or flag dancing), fanning, flouging (vouging + flagging) and poi. Among the speakers Reverend Mark E. Erson, the first openly gay pastor at St. John’s, thanked Wolfgang Busch “for having a vision;” Reverend Charles Gilmore talked about flow arts and his beliefs in “our responsibility to preserve this gay art form;” R&B singer Meli’sa Morgan mentioned her own commitment to support the flow arts community [her song, “All in the Name of Love,” is on the documentary’s soundtrack]. Also in the audience were singer/songwriter Robert Urban [his new CD is Rock Widow], young flaggers from New York City and San Francisco, individuals whose stories were part of the documentary, and, of course, A Flow Affair director and producer, Wolfgang Busch.

With A Flow Affair, Busch adds more layers to the complex sketch of LGBT community by focusing on yet another of its defining aspects—the history of flow arts in all its forms. It is, therefore, symbolic that A Flow Affair screening premiered in October. Yet, while watching the film, it’s easy to realize that this symbolism goes beyond that of LGBT history month (October), tapping into LGBT communities and reaching audiences across the country and the world (latest screening was in Brazil).

A Flow Affair offers a glimpse in the rear view mirror at a past of LGBT community, using it as a vehicle through which to learn about its future. As if to emphasize this role of catalyst between past and future, during the discussions that preceded and followed the Flow Affair screening, someone in the audience mentioned that sometimes you have to go back to the old way, in order to understand the new way. And that is right, but not always easy. A Flow Affair makes it easy, offering ways to address and bridge that “generation gap” when it comes to keeping flow arts alive.

This generation disconnect (gap) has its reasons: today’s youth identifies flag dancing with older generations; there are no large stages available for flaggers; or, how some may say, it’s human nature for people to change, to fall out of love with someone or something. Originated in the seventies especially in the circuit parties and peaking during the mid-eighties while identifying with the AIDS community, flagging represents not only an art form, but one of self expression, and has perpetually changed with time. Nowadays we find this art form being taught in workshops, performed in parades and parks by men and women alike. Even more, the art of flagging is being passed on from parents to children. Each generation, each individual has the opportunity to reshape this art form and, thus, to ensure the continuity of this form of flow art from one generation to another.

But flagging is not the only flow art available. A Flow Affair captures a full image of the history of all flow arts—including flagging, fanning (which is an ancient art form with Asian origins) and poi (which mostly identify with San Francisco flow arts community).

A young flagger who traveled all the way from San Francisco to attend A Flow Affair premier screening offers flow arts a new stage—the social networks stage.  Because flagging has changed his entire life, he encourages others to give it a try. He also adds, “It’s human nature to seek God’s love and that’s what flagging offers.”

It is also symbolic that A Flow Affair premiered in a place of worship, intersecting the element of spiritual healing with that of physical healing—especially associated with the AIDS epidemic.  Embarking its audience on a journey into the history of each of flow art forms, A Flow Affair offers a complex, in-depth lesson in LGBT culture and history; therefore, A Flow Affair doesn’t only plant a seed for the flow art form, but a flow community seed, allowing the continuity of this kind of artistic expression.

A Flow Affair is yet another testimony that, over the years, Wolfgang Busch has become not only a teacher of LGBT culture and history, but also a historian himself, his films documenting, for posterity, an important part of our history. Put them together, Busch’s films, and they help sketch out a complex, rich and forever evolving image of the LGBT community.

Author's NOTE: Flow arts enable self-expression by engaging all our senses:

TOUCH: the soft, almost fluid material of the flag wraps around the body, kisses the skin; it reveals its beauty warmed up by the sunrise light; flagging ignites the journey within, the reconnection with one's self; flag dancers get lost in the moment, while the world around them disappears, leaving room for self-expression
SIGHT: the bright colors of the fans (fans, sometimes considered extensions of one's hands and arms) wrap the body, as in angelic wings; thus they create yet another path to self-expression, allowing dancers to experience the power of living in the moment, which, in turn, facilitates the connection between one and one's self
HEARING:  the flick of the fan underlines the moment of bliss while, in the same time, makes it disappear, as if to remind us that we shouldn't get stuck in a moment, even a blissful one, rather to go with the flow--with the artistic flow, that is--and continue to use flow arts (for example) to create a complex blend of artistic flow, that, in turn, would ultimately guide us on the path of self-expression and self-rediscovery.
TASTE & SMELL: are also enhanced by flow arts and through the journey within the soul they offer, one that leads to self-expression and self-discovery.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet--G is for Ganciclovir

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet--G is for Ganciclovir

Continuing the AIDS alphabet, after quite a break, we find ourselves at the letter G, for ganciclovir.

Ganciclovir: This is one of the earliest and first medications used for cytomegalovirus, CMV, treatment. This antiviral drug helps to treat or prevent infections caused by CMV by keeping the virus from multiplying. Ganciclovir comes in three forms: intravenous, intraocular insert, and capsules. The capsule form is used for maintenance and prevention therapy only.

I've talked to individuals who had to take ganciclovir to keep the CMV in check. I was impressed by the story of Kurt Weston, an award-winning photographer who lost most of his eye-sight to CMV. Here's how he describes the experience in an excerpt from JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS

Kurt Weston’s vision loss didn’t happen overnight. The photographer experienced the first symptoms of CMV retinitis in 1993, while he was still working at Pivot Point. When preparing the room for a photo shoot, he would notice flashing spots on his backdrops or he would see shreds of cotton and start blinking, trying unsuccessfully to get rid of them. Only later he realized that those shreds of cotton floating in his view were floaters and one of the first signs of cytomegalovirus attacking his eyes.
Although Kurt always kept his doctor’s appointments and went for his regular checkups, his eye specialist kept misdiagnosing him. A few years later, in California, his new doctor determined that the virus had been doing extensive damage to his patient’s eyes. Parts of Kurt’s retina had been infected and then healed, while other scars on his retina were more recent, together causing permanent damage to his sight.
The virus also spread to Kurt’s esophagus. He started experiencing severe heartburn, so he went to see his doctor. An endoscopy showed that CMV had been making a huge hole in Kurt’s esophagus, causing serious damage… enough to make the doctor wonder how his patient could still manage to walk around.
Kurt’s first treatment for CMV retinitis involved a medication called ganciclovir. Twice a day, every day, a pump the size of a small tape recorder would administer the necessary dose of intravenous ganciclovir through a PICC line directly into Kurt’s vein.
The actual process of inserting the line in Kurt’s arm was extremely difficult and painful using a large needle that Kurt didn’t think would fit into his vein. A nurse had to insert a yard worth of intravenous tubing in his arm, and then guide it up his vein, all the way near his heart. An x-ray machine helped her monitor the entire process and the location of the intravenous tubing so that she could make sure that the line reached the large vein, where it needed to be for maximum infusion of the medication. 

Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS
But Kurt Weston had to experience having a PICC line inserted in his arm before starting the ganciclovir treatment. Here's a short excerpt from JOURNEYS, describing Weston's experience with ozone therapy at a Nevada clinic:

The medical personnel at the Nevada clinic used the PICC line to administer the ozone. What followed was a hellish ten-day therapy that Kurt was determined to survive. “You get high fevers and your teeth are clutching,” the photographer recalls. “You start shaking [until you] feel like every muscle in your body starts knotting up, like getting into convulsions.”
Those who worked at the clinic prepared heated blankets to wrap around the patients to keep them from shaking. After completing the daily ozone sessions at the clinic, patients were taking ozone containers with them to the hotel where they were staying during the ten-day treatment. While in the hotel room, they had to pump the gas into their rectums.
During therapy, Kurt got hallucinating fevers of a hundred and four degrees. He became sick, enough to worry his father, who tried to convince him to stop the treatment altogether and go back home to Chicago. But Kurt refused to give up and insisted on finishing his therapy. And when he did, he saw his T cell counts soaring.
This gave the photographer some hope. He even came up with the idea of purchasing a small ozone generator and continuing his treatment at home. The only problem was that he didn’t have a PICC line in his arm anymore. The doctor at the Nevada clinic had taken out the tubing from his arm once he was done with his ozone therapy. The only other way he could self-administer ozone was to self-inject with the gas… but that was something he did not believe he was able to do.
Yet, the ozone home therapy opportunity was far from vanished. During the following years, between 1994 and 1996, the photographer was to go through some twenty-five PICC lines that medical professionals had to insert in and take out of his arms to administer intravenous ganciclovir medication for his CMV retinitis. Later on, he used those PICC lines to self-administer his ozone, using a home ozone generator that he ended up purchasing after all.

Alina Oswald

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cold Season Remedy: Sylt Blues and Beaches

I originally called this image "Island Green." The island is Germany's Sylt. With a funny name and 90 degree turned T-like shape, Sylt is located at the border between Germany and Denmark. The northern "exposure" offers the island a hint of white nights at the beginning of June (white nights, like in extremely long days and hints of weak daylight around midnight).

Sylt is known as a northern mecca, where rich people vacation. Sylt is a paradise for those who want to escape the craziness of everyday life and immerse themselves in nature. But Sylt, with its wrap-around beaches and freezing temps (especially water temps), is also known for its gourmet food, expensive boutique shops and bike (motorcycle) parades.

Mostly, though, the island of Sylt is known for its blues... As the story goes, "the blues" settle in four days after arriving on the island. I've been through that experience myself. I'm not sure how to explain it, though. It is a kind of depression that takes over not only your soul, but your body. You feel sick inside out and find it hard to breath. The more you reach out for air, the more suffocated you get, surrounded by all the chilling loneliness, by the icy water drops the North Sea breeze throw in your face. The chill penetrates your skin, cut deep into your flesh and soul. All you can do is curve in a human question mark, trying to find refuge. Instead, you find a darker shade of blues...

For some, though, Sylt is much more than its blues and beaches. Sylt is about getting lost in its nature, strolling on its endless beaches, allowing the breeze to brush your hair and kiss your face.

Sylt is an interesting place to pay a short visit. For more about the German island of Sylt, check out my travel CNN iReport. May your dreams of summer see you through the bitter winter days.

As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Redefining the “Real” in Real Estate: A Conversation with NYC Metro RE Agent Michael Jeavons

Redefining the “Real” in Real Estate: NYC Metro RE Agent Michael Jeavons Shows Clients the Dynamic, Exciting (and, Yes, Sexy) Side of Real Estate, While Helping Them Find the Perfect Home

The term “unconventional” excites our imagination and our inquiring spirit. It makes us wonder, sometimes question, by offering a new perspective to all aspects of our lives, including professional lives. Therefore, for this blog post I interviewed a fascinating business professional who’s not afraid using this attribute to redefine the profession he’s so passionate about. I’m talking about real estate agent Michael Jeavons. His story sketches out a fresh new profile of the business of real estate, one that house seekers can better understand.  

RE Agent Michael Jeavons
“Real estate is dynamic, sexy [and] exciting,” RE agent Michael Jeavons comments, talking about the new face of real estate. To the three characteristics that also describe Jeavons I would add “charming.” This unique blend of qualities makes him the real estate agent of choice for anybody looking to buy, sell or rent a place.  His fascination with real estate is contagious, turning his clients’ (usually cumbersome) process of finding a place, an exciting process.

Michael Jeavons began his career in hospitality management because he enjoyed helping people. He then went on to work for a national real estate developer marketing large high-rise projects. Presently, he focuses on metro NY and NJ luxury residential real estate.

“It fascinates me,” Jeavons confesses talking about his passion for real estate, “and I like [sharing this] fascination with [my] clients.” At the same time, as agent and client work through the process together, they also develop a deeper relationship, one based on trust. This bond helps both agent and client to find that home (apartment or house) perfect for that client. This connection is real and it is possible for several reasons: Jeavons’ passion for, commitment to and attention to details that come through during the very first client/agent meeting; Jeavons’ ability to assure his client the guidance needed when navigating the maze called real estate.   

Indeed, for the layperson the process of shopping for a home can be an overwhelming, sometimes outright intimidating. Consulting a real estate agent for a home search brings access to that agent’s experience, knowledge, and expertise.

But what makes a good agent, one worth trusting with your home?

“Experience and knowledge of the different areas are very important when choosing a real estate agent,” Jeavons explains.  He goes on to explain what makes a great agent. “Great agents teach their clients. They are patient. They give guidance, yet allow their clients to learn for themselves as the process evolves. Above all, great agents have the highest level of integrity.”

A great real estate agent not only knows the “flavor” of different neighborhoods, but can also read the clients’ unspoken language and hear beyond their words in order to ascertain exactly their particular desires and needs in a new home. After all, Jeavons comments, “time is very valuable. No client wants to have his or her time wasted viewing properties [that] do not meet their needs.”

So, what do home-shoppers want?

Clients are in search of the best value for their special needs, no matter if they’re seeking a place in a metro area or elsewhere.  “Everything sells and rents,” Jeavons explains. “There is truly a place for every taste and price range. All the more reasons to work with a qualified real estate professional who can help direct search efforts.”

Finding a place can become an even more difficult task in today’s economic climate, especially during the winter season.  Yet, it does not intimidate Jeavons, who sees it as a challenge and yet another opportunity to look at the bright side of the real estate business.

Yes, the economic climate has changed, but those interested to buy can make the best of it. “Sellers and buyers should expect to see little change in the current sale price of units,” Jeavons explains. “Prices have stabilized in the metro NY/NJ markets. Historically, it is one of the best times to buy with prices and interest rates lower than they have been in years. On the other hand, landlords and tenants should expect a significant increase in monthly rents, as demand for rental units increases.”

Usually, the greatest selection of inventory comes out in the spring. In general, buyers purchase property in the warmer seasons (spring, summer, and fall). Yet, buying a home in winter has its advantages. “Given the current buyer oriented market, mostly any time of the year is a great time to buy,” Jeavons advises. “If you are willing to purchase or move during the winter months, there is generally an opportunity for greater negotiation. [That is because] units are more difficult to move during the winter, [thus] making it a great opportunity for buyers.”

So, what would sellers need to do to prepare their homes for potential buyers?

“Make it clean, neat, and fresh!” Jeavons advises. Remove all excess personal items. It usually makes a small urban space seem larger and more comfortable. Also, thoroughly clean and, if needed, repaint the space. Perform any deferred maintenance—for example, repair leaking faucets, replace broken windows, fix doors. “Buyers respond most positively to clean, bright, neat and well-maintained spaces,” Jeavons comments, “they sometimes lack the vision to see beyond minor imperfections, such as paint, cleaning and minor repairs.”

Another way to improve the quality and increase the value of a property is to invest in that property, but only in times that will add value and provide a return, Jeavons cautions. He explains that, traditionally, areas that sellers usually renovate include kitchens and baths, and replace general appliances. But, during the renovation process, sellers should “keep control of expenses,” Jeavons urges, “realize that extra expenses associated with personal preferences may not transfer into direct returns upon selling.”

Jeavons is a real estate agent, and also a shopper. This sets him apart from other agents because he understands what his clients go through when trying to find their perfect homes. This, in turns, helps them guide his clients through that real estate maze mentioned at the beginning of this post. Being a buyer himself, he also loves seeing property with his clients. “It is the whole reason I work in real estate,” Jeavons explains.

Real estate is about touch-and-feel. Therefore, Jeavons encourages all perspective buyers to go out and see as much inventory as possible. And then to find an agent who’s willing to do the same with them. “Because the value of real estate is largely subjective and based on what a buyer is willing to pay,” Jeavons explains, “the more property [clients] see, the more [they] understand what they’re seeking in a property purchase, how much they’re willing to pay and what a property is really worth. I enjoy seeing each new property as much as my clients do. It helps me grow my perspective, as well as that of my client.”

From Michael Jeavons, a real estate professional:

On real estate: “Real estate is about touch and feel. Get out and see as much inventory as possible, and find an agent who is willing to do the same.”

On clients: “There is no such thing as a best/worst client. Each client is an individual with special needs and desires. Finding a home is a very special process. Each search is unique and, in time, will yield special results with the perfect home.”

On preparing a place for sale: “Make it clean, neat and fresh! De-cluttering will make a smaller urban space seem larger and more comfortable. Buyers sometimes lack vision to see beyond minor imperfections, such as paint, cleaning and minor repairs.”

More on preparing a place for sale: “Keep control of expenses. Just because you value a $10K Viking range does not mean a potential buyer will.”

On best time to purchase real estate: “Given the current buyer oriented market, mostly any time of the year is a great time to buy. Winter months [offer] an opportunity for greater negotiation, [because] units are more difficult to move during the winter, making it a great opportunity for buyers.”

On real estate forecast for owners and renters: “Sellers/buyers should expect little change in the current sale price of units. Prices have stabilized in the metro NY/NJ markets. Historically, it is one of the best times to buy with prices and interest rates lower than they’ve been in years. [On the other hand,] landlords/tenants should expect a significant increase in monthly rents, as demand for rental units increases.

For more real estate tips please contact Michael Jeavons at 551-226-9804.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

30 Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet - F is for Foscarnet

In the AIDS alphabet, F is for Fuzeon and also Foscarnet, an antiviral medication that prevents CMV (cytomegalovirus) multiplication. Foscarnet can be administered intravenously in a health care facility or at home.

Foscarnet, Fuzeon and other medications give hope and keep patients not one, but several steps ahead of the disease, yet it takes a warrior to deal with all the complex aspects (medical and otherwise) of living with HIV/AIDS. Before the advent of HAART (Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapies) in the mid-nineties, CMV was the number one cause of visual loss in AIDS patients. Total or partial visual loss takes another meaning for those for those who make their living painting with light (photographing). They have to become warriors at war with their AIDS and related disabilities and start their Journeys Through Darkness to find their way and survive a world of darkness. Here's an example from Kurt Weston's (an AIDS warrior and award-winning, visually-impaired visual artist) Journey Through Darkness :

Confusion comes easy. So does self-destruction and self-doubt, especially in a situation like Kurt’s was. It is often easy to get entangled in the debilitating game of questioning oneself and of judging one’s actions. It is often difficult to stay clear of the multitude of “what ifs,” “only ifs” and second-guesses threatening to redefine one’s past. There were times when Kurt’s own AIDS, and later on his vision loss, had threatened to push him further into this labyrinth of confusion, at times almost to a point of no return. Therefore, his secret for surviving had always been to never allow failures from the past to govern his life, to alter his future and keep him from making the best of his situation. He wasn’t going to change that kind of guidance even in the face of his permanent vision loss. Therefore, the photographer pleaded with his doctors until he got the necessary paperwork to enroll in classes offered by the Lower Vision Department at the Braille Institute.
It was vital for him to start learning how to survive and how to “see” again in his new world, in order to move forward with his life and his dreams. Kurt had to start by learning how to use a cane, work with adaptive technology and read Braille. And he didn’t have to do it all alone, because he had the support of his new partner.
    Kurt had met Va Hong after moving to Orange County, while attending a Positive Friends meeting at one of the local AIDS support organizations. Va was a “wonderful Vietnamese man” whom Kurt found “very cute.” The two started talking and found out they had quite a few common interests. It didn’t take them long to start dating and afterwards to begin a serious relationship.
In time, as Kurt started losing his sight, Va became not only his partner but also his guide. Va ended up taking Kurt to his doctor’s appointments, which were spread all over the city, and everywhere else the photographer needed to go. Va also introduced Kurt to the Asian Pacific Crossroads group, a local organization serving Asian Americans living with HIV/AIDS. There, Kurt got to meet many people who knew Va and form meaningful relationships. Va was the one to tell Kurt about the Braille Institute and encourage him to attend classes. 
While the Braille Institute was providing useful information through hands on activities and courses, it also required students to live on the campus. And while Kurt didn’t mind doing that, he really didn’t enjoy his staying there either. To him, the Braille Institute looked more like a senior center. Most of the patients were in their seventies and eighties and most of them had lost their sight to age, to macular degeneration. To Kurt it seemed that they were only there to kill time, while he needed a fast and immediate immersion in studies that would allow him to continue his life despite his visual disability.
Besides, Kurt had different kinds of problems. He was the only one to have lost his sight to CMV. He was the only one who had AIDS. Yet, upon his acceptance, the Braille Institute officials instructed him not to mention his disease or the real cause of his blindness to anybody. “We just think it would be better if you don’t tell anybody about your situation, because, you know, people don’t understand,” they told him.
The advice reminded him of his doctor’s words years earlier, in Chicago, when he was working for Pivot Point and was recently diagnosed with AIDS. The officials at the Braille Institute listed Kurt’s reason for being there as cystoid macular edema, which is a swelling of the macula, and which Kurt had as a result of the side effects to his medication that had damaged his macula, thus his ability to see things in focus with his right eye.
During his short stay at the Braille Institute, Kurt couldn’t really make any friends, so he tried to stay focused on his studies and relearn, as fast as he could, how to get around in his new world. He attended all the classes that were required of him, studied hard and learned quickly.
One of these classes was a beginners typing course. The instructor suggested that it would be a good course for Kurt who, at the time, was not computer savvy. So the instructor set Kurt at the keyboard and started him on his typing. Moments later, the photographer found himself struggling to stay focused on what he needed to do. He tried his best to go through the course smoothly, but found it terribly boring. Yet, he kept typing the same letter over and over again before moving to the next letter and repeating the process. No matter how much he would try, Kurt was slowly getting bored out of his mind. So he started eavesdropping on conversations going on around him, which seemed to be much more interesting than typing letters ad nauseam.
That’s how he decided that one particular conversation was, indeed, worth his undivided attention. Kurt overheard one of the seniors in the class talking to the instructor about his Department of Rehabilitation counselor, how wonderful she was and what wonderful things he had learnt there. From what he heard, Kurt realized that what the rehab program had to offer was just the perfect kind of low vision classes he needed, and he memorized the counselor’s name and phone number, and made a quick mental note to contact her as soon as he could.
Later that day, right after he was done with his classes, Kurt made an appointment with the counselor. Not long afterwards she stopped by his place and explained everything to him about the program and all the benefits it had to offer. She also told Kurt about the Foundation for Junior Blind, describing it as offering similar courses as the Braille Institute, but at a more intensive pace.
To attend courses at the Foundation for Junior Blind, Kurt would also have to live on campus, in Los Angeles, during the week and then return home to Orange County for the weekend. And knowing that he eventually had to learn how to negotiate and live his life as a visually impaired person, Kurt accepted the challenge and started the long application process and the endless waiting period for an opening.
During the few months Kurt had to wait to actually start his studies at the Foundation for Junior the Blind, his partner, Va, started to get really sick. Va was hospitalized with AIDS-related lymphoma and, because the pain was becoming more than he could possibly handle, doctors had to put him on morphine. It took Va a couple of weeks to die. He passed away on January 8th, 1998. And throughout the entire ordeal, Kurt has remained by his bedside.
Literally two days after Va’s death, the photographer received a phone call from the Department of Rehabilitation. They had good news. There was indeed an opening available at the Foundation for Junior Blind and they were waiting for him in Los Angeles to start his courses immediately.
But no matter how promising the opportunity, at the time Kurt found it impossible to make himself attend school. He wasn’t ready just yet, not while he was still mourning the loss of his partner. Va’s death had been slow and horrible, and Kurt had had to witness his lover’s suffering and to live through all the pain and loss that came with Va’s passing. The experience had left Kurt numb and overwhelmed by a sorrow he didn’t know how to escape. So, while risking what could have very possibly been his only chance to relearn how to “see” again and get acquainted in his new world, Kurt politely declined the offer and was ready to give up his slot.
Fortunately, the Institute for Junior Blind rep on the phone with Kurt wasn’t as eager to let him give up. While there was no telling when the next opening was available, she recognized that Kurt’s situation was indeed special and offered to hold the slot for him for another two weeks, while making him promise he would think about it and call her back.
Reserving the spot was a difficult task in itself, especially when so many people were waiting in line to enroll in the classes and Kurt was very much aware of the favor she was doing him. So he did think about the journeys to come in his life. He wouldn’t have been able to learn about the Institute for Junior Blind if he hadn’t gone to the Braille Institute in the first place. And he had been able to do that because of Va’s encouraging him to move on with his life. So, two weeks later, Kurt called back the institute in Los Angeles and told them he was ready to start his studies. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Jersey Juxtapositions: Jersey Artists' Art Makes LGBT History

Jersey Juxtapositions: Jersey Artists Use Art as a Vessel to Navigate the Trouble Waters of the Fight for Equal Rights and Make (LGBT) History

October is LGBT history month, yet not many are aware of it. Even more, not many are aware of the recent LGBT history, rich in events that have shaped our lives. Recent LGBT history has redefined our existence in our very lifetime. After all, the 1969 Stonewall Riots are part of our recent history. Many individuals who experienced the beginning of the gay liberation movement are still here to tell the story. The same can be said about events surrounding prominent members of the community—Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, Lawrence King—or the continuing fight for equal rights.

Nowadays, a majority of individuals supports same-sex marriages. More and more universities and colleges are offering LGBT studies programs through which they help bring the LGBT history to the forefront.

Why is it important to know our LGBT history?

First of all, because it is part of history; most importantly, it is part of our living history, because we are still “making” it in our very lifetime.  Also, it is important to know our LGBT history and its heroes—those sung and unsung—to realize that, at the core, we are all the same—we all yearn for our liberties and freedoms, for our equal rights, for a more understanding and compassionate world. 

This “same” can come in different flavors, reason why we experience different kinds of LGBT rights celebrations, specific to particular regions of the country—and the world—to better connect with individuals living in those places.  In that sense, the now widely acclaimed ay pride parade that started on Christopher Street transcended not only the country and continent, but also the entire world. One cannot expect the New York City Pride to be identical with the Hamburg Pride (Germans call it CSD, or Christopher Street Day, after Manhattan’s Christopher Street); one cannot expect the more local Jersey Pride Fest to be the same with those in Middle America, where they put up picnic tables for the event. Regardless of the setting, the pride parade is a manifestation of LGBT activism, an expression of LGBT history in the making.

To better understand LGBT history at a national (and, dare I say, international) level, one needs to start by learning his/her local LGBT history. This can be achieved through related events, LGBT activism or by supporting an LGBT-related local non-profit. Art opens yet another path, one that gives learning about LGBT history a more creative spin. In the process, art becomes a guide to an artistic activism for many creative individuals. …And Jersey has plenty of those. 

3 Little Indians, by Dion Hitchings
Dion Hitchings, for example, is a talented artist who started drawing at an early age. He worked as an art director for Manhattan companies with well-known names. For a while he was, as Hitchings mentions on his website, “in fashion heaven.” But then things changed… 9/11 happened and he was laid off; he also lost his significant other in a car accident. In the midst of it all, Hitchings moved from New York City to New Jersey. The move gave a new direction not only to his life, in general, but also to his artwork and the creative process through which he makes it happen. 

As a result, Hitchings started to reprioritize his life. He took up painting again—he draws a self-portrait each day, just “to keep up the discipline and grow” in his art.

One of his most representative pieces is President Obama’s portrait, for which he used crayons, magic markers and highlighters, on eight different layers. He explains the painting as his “reaction to this fear,” to the fear we’ve all felt during the economic downturn we’re still experiencing. The creative process did help the artist get the fear out of his system.

He also loves drawing Native Americans, maybe because the artist is part Cherokee. Hence the art series called Ten Little Indians, a collection of Indian portraits. “Do you know that [Native Americans] accepted their gays”? he asks.  [The Cherokee term for LGBT means “two spirit.”]

Dion Hitchings calls his art “primitive, child-like,” inspired by the world around him, including Jerry Springer shows.  “I spell everything out,” Hitchings describes his artwork, “I don’t hide, because it shows you why I’m who I am.”

Living in New Jersey has helped Hitchings redefine himself as an artist; also as the owner of Outsider Gallery and publisher of artsy SIC semi-annual magazine. Hitchings explains that the jersey element in his art life and his life, in general, comes through three-fold: his “first nest” is his home, which he shares with his new partner; his second nest is his studio with a gallery in front. Opening the Outsider Gallery has allowed the artist to connect with local residents, meet people and other artists; make friends. This connection represents his “third nest.”

“The openings are fantastic,” Hitchings says, talking with much pride about Outsider Gallery. “Art is an education for kids.” In that sense, Hitchings is drawn to children’s art, because it allows unrestricted artistic and spiritual growth. Living in Jersey has helped Dion Hitchings tap into his own unlimited artistic resources and, through his gallery and artwork, create a sample of a better, more understanding world.

James Yarosh, a Self-Portrait
Jersey has offered artist James Yarosh a larger canvas on which he can create. An example is his recent show, exhibited in the window of a main street in downtown Red Banks. A Family Portrait allowed Yarosh the freedom to be “vulnerable and sensitive to all the subtleties of [his] subjects.” Working on the show also allowed the artist to discover his subjects’ truths and paint these truths on canvas, thus see the lifetime of experiences of the individual sitting across from him, “with empathy.” A Family Portrait included a self-portrait, as part of the five personal and psychological paintings, a portrait of his partner of 18 years, also of his parents and a former stray cat, Ilean. 

James Yarosh has always seen art as a “symbol of hope and beauty to believe in, despite what the world seems to want to serve up on any given day.” For him “art is both humbling and inspiring, and certainly a noble profession.”

Art is a profession Yarosh embraced years ago, while in his twenties, as a painter. He opened his gallery at the age of 29. The venue allowed him to spent the next decade of his life growing as an artist, while combining art with interior design. In that sense, when he looks at a room he sees a larger empty canvas on which he can create his art. “I always thought homes should be very personal,” Yarosh explains, “almost a diary of our lives.” He finds artist’s homes in particular interesting, because they represent artist’s feelings and understanding of the world.

Miguel Cardenas
Jersey is also home for artist Miguel Cardenas. He and his partner of 16 years, Paul Mendoza, are fixtures in the local LGBT community, and also in the artist community. 

Cardenas is the founder of Vital Voices, an art show featuring works from LGBT and LGBT-friends artists, now in its ninth year.  “What supports our mission more than that?” he asks, more rhetorically, talking about the show opening this year at Hudson Pride Connection Center in Jersey City, first weekend of October.

But what mission is he talking about? LGBT activism? LGBT history awareness?

When it comes to activism, Cardenas leans more towards the artistic aspect of it, one that allows people to gather together and celebrate, for example LGBT history month. This way, art becomes an intrinsic part of the local Jersey City activism, giving it a sense.

Hope, by Miguel Cardenas
While working in architecture, Cardenas’ background is in art history. Blend the two together and you’re offered a glimpse inside Cardenas’ art world—a world of juxtapositions capturing an artistic interpretation of our reality.

Juxtaposition has always been an intrinsic part of Cardenas’ artwork, of his everyday life. “Juxtaposition is a movement,” Miguel Cardenas explains. “I live it—I’m Ivy League, I’m Catholic, I’m gay. I work in Manhattan and live in Jersey City.” Cardenas doesn’t stop at the local juxtapositions, though. He finds a source of inspiration in the Cuban paradox world--the reality of the situation in that country and the heaven-like, imaginary pleasure land sometimes depicted in movies. This juxtaposition strikes a personal memory in the artist, his mother being Cuban.

Sticks, by Miguel Cardenas
Cardenas has used juxtaposition as a source of inspiration for his artwork. As a result, some of his art pieces blending graffiti and Matthew Sheppard, or old and young drag queens, were featured in this year’s Fresh Fruit Festival art show, Bright Lights, Queer City, at Leslie-Lohman SoHo gallery.

Cardenas likes the in-between-ness because, he explains, “we are all in between. I don’t see myself moving away from the idea of in-between-ness,” Miguel Cardenas adds. “The medium is changing, though. Subject matter can change over time.”

In today’s digital world, artists can use iconic images to teach, for example about LGBT history. “The youth of today don’t know the LGBT history,” Cardenas comments, “and it’s very recent history.  It’s for us to spread the word.” Cardenas comments that young individuals, today, don’t know how lucky they are to have gay pride, which the artist calls “a big party [and also] a civil act, a political act.”

Art can be a venue for politics. Art can break down the stereotypes. It can become a vessel to navigate the trouble waters of today’s fight for equality.

To read more about Dion Hitchings, James Yarosh and Miquel Cardenas, check out the October issue of Out IN Jersey Magazine.
As always, thanks for visiting!
Alina Oswald