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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

30 Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet - E is for Entry Inhibitors

30 Years of AIDS: Learning the AIDS Alphabet--E Is for Entry Inhibitors

Angel in Central Park, by Alina Oswald
Over the last 30 years, AIDS patients have tried various medications that could keep them alive and a step ahead of the disease. One of the warriors, at war with their AIDS, is best-selling author of Signals and Hope, Joel Rothschild. To find out more about his story and his life (including his life taking medications known as entry inhibitors, please read my article "Scratching the Surface of the Divine," originally published by A&U Magazine - America's AIDS Magazine. Award-winning photographer Kurt Weston is another AIDS warrior who also talked to me about his life with AIDS and with medications (including entry inhibitors like Fuzeon) designed to keep him ahead of the disease. I'd like to share with you a short excerpt from Journeys Through Darkness, a biography of Weston's life and artwork, that talks about entry inhibitors.

Entry Inhibitors: The role of entry inhibitor medications is to keep HIV from entering the T cell. One example of entry inhibitor is Fuzeon (T20), available only as an injection administered under the skin, usually twice a day. Other entry inhibitors include selzentry/Maraviroc and Vicriviroc.

In 2003, FDA approved a medication called Fuzeon (or T20) supposed to fight HIV by not allowing the virus to enter the T cell. Because it is difficult to manufacture, the drug is extremely expensive and available only as an injection. Studies have shown that AIDS patients who are on Fuzeon may get skin rashes where they self-administer the shots, or some may become more prone to developing pneumonia.
While on Fuzeon, Kurt has experienced very few side effects and he liked that very much. Also, to make best use of the medication and his time, he had no choice but to quickly learn how to integrate his shots into his daily schedule.
Ever since his diagnosis, AIDS has been a constant variable in the equation that describes Kurt Weston’s existence. In time and with the appearance of new treatments, the threat of his disease has turned from immediate to manageable. These days, AIDS has become more of a constant companion in his life rather than a threat, but it continues to influence, at least partly, all decisions, minor and major alike, that he has to make—be they related to his studies, to traveling or eating his meals. 
   In general, some medications have to be taken with food, while others before or after meals at precise times each day, several times throughout the day, for the rest of the AIDS patient’s life. For this reason, people living with the virus and on such medications always have to take their treatments into consideration when planning their daily activities.
On mornings when he had to make it to school early, Kurt made sure to get all his medications ready the previous night before going to sleep. He lined up all his pills so they would be ready for him to grab on his way out the door the following morning.
But pills are only a small part of Kurt’s treatment. He also has to give himself daily injections.
To be able to self-administer the Fuzeon, he first has to prepare the fluid—that is to put sterile water in the Fuzeon vial and get it hydrated. Then he would store the container in the refrigerator until he’s ready to use it, which should be within twenty-four hours. The daily two Fuzeon shots have minimum side effects on Kurt, but, on the other hand, they’re also “a pain in the ass,” as he calls them, because they require a lot of knowledge, work, patience, and time. And Kurt has to deal with these treatments and medications every single day, no matter how busy or fast pace his day may be.
For a while, Kurt was also taking a trial medication supposed to reduce his lipodystrophy (or body fat mal-distribution), which is a side effect to some HAART regimens. This was a new and experimental drug supposed to keep his fat from accumulating in all the wrong places. Therefore, every single day, after getting his first medication started, he had to take his first dose of pills, and then start hydrating his second, trial medication. Kurt had to self-administer two vials of this medication, daily, in order to see any results. For a while it seemed to work nicely and he started losing his P.I. belly. He also learned to wear clothes that would hide whatever was left of it… Eventually, Kurt had to stop taking the trial medication because of its various side effects.
Medication also interferes with patients’ traveling schedules. Kurt Weston avoids being away from home for longer than a week, partly because he doesn’t have enough room in his suitcase to carry medication for more than six or seven days at a time. When he travels, the photographer has to bring with him the Fuzeon kits containing the syringes, alcohol swabs, medications, sterile water and all the vials with the actual medication. He has to pack them so that they don’t break or get damaged in any way, and then pray to God that at the airport nobody stops him to ask why he’s carrying all those syringes and vials with him.
The entire process is a hassle, but Weston prefers it to taking lots of pills that give him lots of negative and powerful side effects. With the Fuzeon injections, he only experiences a hard tiny bump at the place where he administers the injection, and only because it takes awhile for the drug to disperse from under his skin. But to take a drug whose only problem is that it has to be injected is not a big deal for Weston. He has been on other drugs that gave him all kinds of “unpleasant” side effects.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

30 Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet--D is for Disease, Despair and Death

Three Decades of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet

D is for Disease, Despair & Death
In the AIDS alphabet, the letter D is for Disease, Despair and Death, among many others. I'd like to share with you a short excerpt from JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS, a biography that tells the story of AIDS through the story of a long-term survivor and warrior. His name is Kurt Weston and he is an award-winning photographer who lost most of his eye-sight to AIDS-related retinitis. This particular excerpt from JOURNEYS  describes the beginning of the dark years of AIDS, as told to me by Kurt.

Hope you'll enjoy the read.

As always, thanks for visiting!
Alina Oswald
                                                   Author of JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS

Excerpt from Chapter 2: Cold Warning

It was only a blip in the news, but Kurt Weston heard it as he was watching TV in his condo in Chicago. The photographer wondered if he could actually get the strange “gay cancer” and he called his friend, David, who was living in the same neighborhood. His friend had no idea about the mysterious disease threatening their community, but he agreed with Kurt that the gay cancer news was indeed scary news.
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.
    In the late eighties, after David’s lover died of AIDS-related causes, Kurt reminded his friend of the CBS report from back in 1981:
    “David, do you think you have AIDS?” Kurt asked.
    “I think we all have AIDS,” David answered. 
    He died the following year. He was Kurt’s first close friend to die of AIDS.
    The early eighties 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 just 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 a movie star, Rock Hudson, that the threat of the virus 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. The early eighties have inspired many artists to capture the epidemic in various forms of art, from literature and Broadway shows to film and photography.
    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 administration’s response to the AIDS issue. The picture was taken by Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani and made the cover of Colors magazine in 1994.
    Kurt Weston lived through the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when people were getting infected and having to deal with the reality that they were sick, victims of the mysterious “gay cancer” and that there was nothing that they could do to stay alive. He had to watch helplessly how his friends were dying horrible and silent deaths, a lot of times having no idea what exactly was killing them, or how, or why. In only a few years AIDS has claimed the lives of everybody the photographer knew in Chicago. And when it didn’t claim lives, AIDS isolated and stigmatized its victims.
    While many of those infected were too weak and sick to leave their beds, others were struggling to maintain some connection to the world outside their homes and their disease. Young men looking three times their age walked the streets, their faces drawn and covered with purple blotches, their emaciated bodies hunched over their canes. They were the messengers of the strange and scary disease, and living proof of its presence in the American society.
    But nobody wanted to be around the disease or anybody carrying it. So, many started avoiding using public restrooms or drinking from water fountains, afraid to touch or be around people who could have the disease.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

 Thirty Years of AIDS: We're Still at the Letter C in the AIDS Alphabet

More about Cytomegalovirus, aka CMV, aka AIDS-related retinitis, as told to me by Kurt Weston, an award-winning visual artist living with the outcome of CMV--legal blindness.

I'd like to share with you an excerpt from Journeys Through Darkness, a biography on the life and art of Kurt Weston, a long-term AIDS survivor and award-winning, legally blind visual artist, an excerpt that offers a perspective of what it meant (in the very near past) to live with HIV/AIDS and related CMV retinitis.

As always, thanks for stopping by!
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

    Cytomegalovirus, or CMV for short, is a herpes kind of virus that infects most adults, especially after a certain age, and is transmitted in many ways, including eye contact with unclean hands. Once the virus enters the person’s body, it stays there for the rest of that person’s life and most of the time it doesn’t cause any damage. People in normal health are usually unaware of having it.
    When the immune system starts deteriorating below a certain level (T cell count becomes lower than fifty, measured per unit of blood), CMV becomes active and can attack various organs, like the lungs, esophagus or the eyes. When the virus infects the lungs, it causes CMV pneumonia. In the eye, the virus attacks the retina causing CMV retinitis, which, if left untreated, can lead to partial or total vision loss. CMV retinitis is the most common cause of blindness in people living with AIDS.
    With the advent of HAART regimens in the mid-nineties, the number of cases of CMV retinitis in people with AIDS has decreased by ninety percent because the new medications keep patients’ immune systems strong enough, with T cell counts way above the fifty count limit, thus not allowing favorable grounds for CMV activation.
    Kurt Weston’s loss of eye-sight 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 to 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.
    It so happened that Kurt’s nurse was new at running PICC lines up patients’ arms. The procedure didn’t work as planned and so she had to try it several times. She failed each time. When she finally succeeded inserting the needle into Kurt’s vein and started guiding the tube inside, the tip of the needle would hit the inside walls of the vein, causing him even more discomfort.
    As the nurse was guiding the tubing, it eventually got stuck halfway up Kurt’s arm. She tried to continue the procedure, but no matter what or how hard she tried, the tubing seemed to move no farther. Several failed attempts later Kurt started already to be in pain. He also became more and more exasperated with the entire procedure and the nurse’s lack of experience. But the more exasperated he became, the less options she had to finish inserting the PICC line in his arm. So, she thought that it was best just to give up for the day. She rolled the remaining tubing under his arm and decided to administer the medication anyway.  Then she left, telling Kurt that she was going to be back the following day to take the PICC line out and reinsert it in his other arm. And so she did, and the second time around she succeeded without any problems… and also without using any anesthetic.
    Sometimes, while inserting a PICC line, the tip of the needle could “burst” the patient’s veins. Some patients on intravenous medications experienced these “bursts.” Their PICC lines cracked and scratched their veins, leaving bluish spots on their arms.
    For the next couple of years, Kurt Weston has continued going about his daily routine, while having the tubing into his vein and the medicine pumping in his bloodstream to keep the CMV from further damaging his eyes. He has continued running his SWAN meetings, keeping up with his doctor’s appointments and his medications.
    He managed to stay alive. Yet, the PICC line interfered with every aspect of his life. Moving his arm up and down and back and forth caused Kurt’s tubing to move and start coming out of his vein, a little with each move. Every time he had to take a shower, he first had to wrap a plastic bag around the external part of his PICC line and then secure it in place with an elastic band, to make sure it was safely covered so that it would not get wet. 
    Every so often, the nurse stopped by Kurt’s home to change his tubing and flush the line through with sterile saline solution, but the photographer was the one who had to care for his PICC line around the clock. Therefore, he had to learn how to change his dressing, start the IV medication and do daily maintenance of his PICC line. The entire process was complicated and emotionally devastating for the photographer:
    First, he had to make sure the boxes of PICC line kits were shipped to him on time, so that he would not run out of medication. Each of the kits contained everything necessary for him to start his intravenous medication—the hypoallergenic tape, the betadine swab, the alcohol, bandage, cotton swabs and the boxes of syringes.
    In order to start the IV, Kurt also needed the actual bags of fluid that came at a “mind-boggling” price. These bags of fluid needed refrigeration, especially during the summer, when temperatures soared over one hundred degrees. Therefore, during all the years of intravenous therapies, Kurt’s refrigerator was constantly half-full with bags containing intravenous fluid, which, eventually, had to be injected in his body.
    Once the yard-long tubing was in his arm and the IV running, Kurt had to keep his PICC line clean to reduce the risk of infection. Maintaining the PICC line required knowledge, patience, guts and daily attention. Yet, it could not guarantee to keep the potential infections at bay.
    The whole maintenance process required tedious work and became an intrinsic part of Kurt’s daily existence. Every day he had to clean the external part of the line to keep the tubing from getting stuck or infected. Every day he had to peel off his dressing, clean the skin around the PICC line with alcohol, put the Betadine bandage and then replace the dressing with a new one. And each time he peeled off the dressing, he’d have no choice but also pull a bit of the tubing out of his arm. After a while, the PICC line slowly started to migrate out of his vein, until it was out so much that it needed to be replaced. That’s when the nurse had to come in to replace the tubing.
    Kurt Weston has lived with PICC lines in his body and with bags of intravenous medication in his fridge for a couple of long years. During this time, nurses had to insert into and take out of his veins some twenty-five PICC lines, enough to make his arms look like those of a heroine addict.
    One summer, when the photographer was really sick while living with PICC lines in his arms, a friend from San Francisco decided to fly in and visit. The photographer remembers him as a very self-absorbed man who was also living with the virus. He wanted to see how Kurt was doing, and also to visit Chicago and have some fun while in the city. Around the same time, another friend happened to be in town to visit Kurt. And so the three of them decided to go to Grant Park to a Bastille Day (July 14th) concert. But before they could leave, they had to wait for the nurse to stop by and replace Kurt’s PICC line.
    The day was humid and torrid, with temperatures soaring way above one hundred degrees. When the nurse finally showed up, she was already covered in sweat, which was rolling down her cheeks, neck and arms, sticking to her fingertips. She followed Kurt to his bedroom and got to work. As she kept trying and failing to insert the new PICC line into Kurt’s vein, the friend who also happened to be in town stood by the photographer’s side and held his hand. He could not ease Kurt’s pain, but he could at least try to keep him calm and comfortable as much as it was humanly possible.
    Meanwhile, on the other side of the bedroom door, the friend from San Francisco started getting increasingly impatient with having to wait on Kurt and his PICC line. The entire procedure was taking way too long and he was concerned he wasn’t going to make it to the concert on time. So he started pacing the apartment, yelling through the closed door, demanding to know what they were doing inside and what was taking them so long. Yet, he never offered to help or to go inside and see with his own eyes what was going on.
    By then the nurse was doing her best trying to stay calm and “cool” and to ignore the heat coming from outside and the angry voice outside the bedroom door. Unfortunately it wasn’t helping her much. The harder she worked, the more she started to doubt her ability to get her job done. She began apologizing to Kurt, and it was Kurt who ended up comforting her, telling her that it wasn’t her fault and encouraged her to give it one more try.
    Throughout the entire ordeal, the friend by Kurt’s side left the room only once, when he had enough of the whining coming from outside the door. He went to tell the other guy to leave and go to his concert, and that he and Kurt would catch up with him when they were ready. Then he resumed his seat by Kurt’s bedside, as the other guy stormed out of the apartment.
    It took the nurse three tries to get the PICC line in Kurt’s arm. Afterwards he could again self-administer his medication and not worry about it for a while longer.
Living with the PICC line in his body was not easy. Kurt had to deal with the side effects to the medication and keep up with cleaning and maintaining the line. He also had to keep his PICC line from being noticed whenever he went out. He had to hide all the tubing sticking out of his vein for multiple reasons—to protect his PICC line from getting damaged, to protect himself from being stigmatized and judged, and also to prevent people from freaking out when staring at his arm.
    Over time, Weston came up with various ways of camouflaging his PICC line. He would cut out the top of a gym sock and use it to cover up his arm, or he would buy one of the supports, the elbow braces, from a sporting goods store. Using the brace looked more natural, as if he’d had a sports injury. 
    Years later, when he moved to Orange County and was asked to speak to students about HIV/AIDS as part of Positively Speaking program, Weston would appear at the workshops wearing that sock to cover his vein. And while talking with the students about HIV, he’d pull the sock down and show his young audience his PICC line and explain how the medication was administered through that tubing in order to keep him from going totally blind. And while doing so, he’d notice some girls in the classroom turning ghostly white, although none of them fainted.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS--The AIDS Alphabet: C stands for CMV

Thirty Years of AIDS: Learning the AIDS Alphabet--C is for CMV one last time

AIDS Alphabet: C stands for CMV…

Living with CMV, as told by Kurt Weston in Journeys Through Darkness, a biography on his life with AIDS and his art inspired by AIDS and related eye-sight loss, an excerpt that sketches a picture of living with AIDS and related disabilities and illnesses.

Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS by Alina Oswald
In April of 1995 Kurt Weston received a phone call from his younger brother. The call was not a surprise, but the reason for the call was. His brother, who was living in Orange County, invited Kurt to move in with him. He knew how much Kurt loved the West Coast because the photographer visited as often as he could. So, his brother hoped that Kurt would give it some serious thought and accept the invitation.
Weston did just that and considered it an opportunity to start fresh. And so he began planning his move right away. He intended to have everything packed and the flight ticket in his pocket by the end of August. That way he had a full summer ahead of him to get ready for the West Coast.
Meanwhile, the ganciclovir medication administered through his PICC line and supposed to treat the CMV in his eyes has stopped working. As it happens with viruses (CMV and HIV included), they mutate a lot and become resistant to medication, thus forcing doctors to switch their patients to new drugs in order to keep the infections in check.
Kurt’s doctor decided to put his patient on a new medication, called foscarnet. The problem was that foscarnet had several serious side effects, one being severe kidney damage. Therefore, before even being able to start the treatment, Kurt had first to receive infusions of pure saline solution to hydrate the kidneys and minimize the side effects to the medication. Several months later, the foscarnet treatment started to fail and CMV resumed attacking even more of Kurt’s eyes. 
This treatment wasn’t the last of its kind that Kurt had to go through. The infusions required Kurt to stay hooked to an IV pole twelve hours a day. And while he could not do that, medical professionals administered the medication using a backpack and a small CADD pump—an electronic pump the size of a small walk-man.
During this kind of treatment, Kurt had to carry gallons of fluid medication in his backpack, hook his IV tubing into the pump and then turn it on. That way, while the device was pumping the medications hour after hour into his veins, Kurt could walk around, run his errands and his SWAN workshops, and keep up with his doctor’s appointments and TPA meetings.
It was during one if these treatments that Kurt’s PICC line got infected. It caused fever and fatigue, and it required antibiotics. If not caught in time, the infection could spread throughout the body, causing serious sickness and even death. 
Meanwhile, the heat and the sweat of that summer did not help the infection to go away fast enough, yet Kurt managed, somehow, to get over it. Through it all, he continued sorting through his things, deciding what to pack and what to leave behind, getting ready for the West Coast. And while doing that, he also turned into a not-for-profit organization, putting together fundraising events to raise some money for his trip and for other post-Chicago expenses.    
While preparing for the move, Kurt sold or got rid of what he didn’t need or what he couldn’t take with him. He always had to think three times before deciding what to do with his things and what to take with him that could fit in the room his brother had offered him. And it was terribly hard for the photographer to decide because he didn’t know how much longer he had left to live. Because he had no way of knowing if he was moving to California to start fresh or to die. “It’s very hard when you’re moving and dying,” he explains. “And you get rid of things that are really meaningful to you, [of] part of your life.”

     That particular year Chicago went through a torrid summer. The heat wave claimed hundreds of lives and overwhelmed health officials. Morgues were overloaded and unable to accommodate the corpses that kept arriving at their doors. So, city officials were forced to put in place refrigerator trucks to store the bodies until the morgues could get them.
Kurt had a third—and top—level apartment and the temperature inside stayed steady at one hundred degrees despite the three air conditioning units and several fans that were constantly running. Stretched down on the floor, carrying his medication in his backpack, Kurt was trying to get everything ready for his move across the country. There were times when he thought he was going to pass out, when his heart started racing until it was almost impossible for him to breathe. There were times when he thought he was going to die of heat exhaustion.
But he survived and finished packing. And on September 4th, 1995, he got on the plane to California. It was Labor Day weekend. 
The entire moving process had been intense, but Weston never regretted it because by the mid-nineties, he had no more close friends left in Chicago. They all had died of AIDS. He wasn’t really leaving anything or anybody behind. Besides, despite the fact that he loved running SWAN, he was also aware that his health and his life at the time were not the best. He thought that, somehow, California would help. To this day, Weston believes that had he not moved from Chicago, his health and the overall quality of his life would have been much worse.
But the move to California was bittersweet. Three weeks after his arrival, Weston started to attend the local AIDS organizations in Orange County where he met new people and made new friends. Also, during his first months in California, the photographer became legally blind because of the experimental treatments his new doctors tried on him.
While in Chicago, he’d had to go through the daily hustle of maintaining the tubes sticking out of his veins and his arms, but in time Kurt started getting quite good at managing and caring for his PICC lines. Meanwhile, new treatments and new medications became available, and Kurt’s new doctors in Orange County wanted him off the PICC lines. So, they persuaded him to try the new and improved ways of administering intravenous medications.
One procedure required doctors to surgically insert silicone gel implants in Kurt’s body. The implants were called PassPort and were otherwise known as “implantable venous access ports.” These new kinds of catheters were working pretty much like the PICC lines, only that the catheter was not visible outside the body, but it extended from the port to the large or central veins in the body. The silicon port could be accessed through a needle, and thus the medication could be administered through the needle into the port and farther on through the tubing and into the bloodstream.
The ports Kurt’s doctors wanted to use on their patient were made out of metallic plates on top of which was a silicone gel hump (or septum). These ports were to be surgically implanted under the skin, in the muscle of the chest or arm. 
The procedure sounded pretty straightforward to Kurt. In addition, using the new implants he wouldn’t have anything dangling out of his skin anymore. So he agreed to have the small surgery done and opted to have the silicone gel ports put in his arm, because he didn’t want anything implanted in his chest.
The procedure was done in October 1995, and right from the beginning the port became infected. Doctors put Kurt on antibiotics to subside the infection, but the treatment didn’t work. 
A month later Kurt was running a fever over one hundred degrees. He went back to the hospital where doctors found out that the infection was coming from a nasty bacteria stuck in the tube of the device underneath Kurt’s skin. But while insisting that he needed to have the port in his arm, they did not remove it. Instead, they gave him a massive amount of antibiotics.
For the following three months, Kurt kept having very high fevers despite the oral and intravenous antibiotics he was on. He ended up being hooked to an IV pole all day long, with two daily infusions of antibiotics and two daily infusions of ganciclovir for the CMV in his eyes, pumping through his veins. 
Yet, the antibiotics did not get rid of his infection. In addition, his T cell count dipped to almost null. With his immune system virtually non-existent, the ganciclovir also quit working, because the medication needed some immune system to act on. Therefore, Kurt’s CMV retinitis started running out of control.
At this point, Kurt didn’t care if he was to live or die. He didn’t care if he was going to upset his doctors. He just wanted the device out from under his skin. The doctors finally decided to take it out. For that, he had to go through yet another surgery. The following day all Kurt’s infections started to go away. But by then the CMV had already destroyed more of his retina.
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 eye-sight. 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. [The 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.
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.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Photographing the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero on a Rainy Day

I visited the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero for the first time on Friday. I say the first time because I plan on returning to photograph it, when the lights come on and the names of those who lost their lives on 9/11/2001 are illuminated. Hopefully next time it won't rain. On the other hand, the rain helps us focus on the feelings we have when visiting such places, such memorials. So, I guess the rain did help.

Photographing Mementos, 9/11 Memorial
There was a lot of noise from the nearby construction side, also a long line with multiple check points. All in all, it resembles the airport experience. But I did get inside the memorial park just when the rain started to pick up. Yet, I like the photograph in the rain, as long as the camera gear doesn't get soaked.

And, indeed, the rain adds a dramatic element, in general. In this case, at the 9/11 memorial, the rain only had to highlight this element.
Water Curtain at 9/11 Memorial

The two footprints of the Twin Towers are now watery memorials with names imprinted forever along their sides. Names of those who lost their lives on 9/11/2001 attacks. 
Twin Tower Imprint at 9/11 Memorial
 On one side of the 9/11 Memorial Park new buildings are growing taller and taller each day. The new One World Trade Center building peaks through the low-hanging clouds and fog. Soon it will reach its final height of 1776 feet.

One WTC 
The memorial park represents a place where the Past and Future intersect, in a spot some of us may call the Present.
Looking through, at the base of the South Tower footprint, one can see the American flag through the water curtain of the memorial. I'll be visiting soon to photograph these sacred grounds again. Hope you'll do the same.

As always, thanks for stopping by.
Alina Oswald

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS--Learning the AIDS Alphabet: The Letter C

Thirty (30!) Years of AIDS--Continuing to Learn the AIDS Alphabet: The Letter C

Next in the AIDS alphabet is the letter C. C stands for quite a few terms, including cancer (something AIDS patients are--or at least were--familiar with) like in KS (Kaposi's sarcoma), a type of skin cancer… C also stands for candidiasis (candidiasis in the mouth is also called thrush) and much more:

Cidofovir: This antiviral medication is similar to ganciclovir in the way it works to keep CMV from multiplying. Cidofovir is available as intravenous injections (IV). One major drawback is its a negative effect on the kidneys. Usually, an infusion with a saline solution is necessary before the use of Cidofovir.

CMV: CMV, or cytomegalovirus, can enter an individual’s body in a variety of ways, including by touching the eyes with unclean fingers. Once inside, CMV remains in the body for life, in an inactive, dormant state. When an individual’s immune system starts deteriorating and its T-cell count deeps below a certain level (50), CMV can become active. CMV can infect different organs: the eyes, lungs, esophagus, or bowels. In AIDS patients CMV mostly attacks the eyes, causing CMV retinitis, which, if left untreated, can lead to partial or total blindness. Medications used for treatment of CMV retinitis include ganciclovir, foscarnet, and cidofovir.

Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS
Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS, by Alina Oswald
To find out more about CMV, check out the following piece I wrote as an appendix for Journeys Through Darkness, a biography that tells the story of Kurt Weston, a fashion photographer and long-term AIDS survivor who has lost most of his sight to CMV (AIDS-related retinitis) and, in the process, become an award-winning, legally blind visual artist.

CMV Retinitis at a Glance

Flashing lights, floating spots, speckles of cotton before the eyes disturbing the sight, making it hazy and blurry as if you’re looking through a screen may or may not be early signs of blindness. These symptoms may be the first signs of an eye disease called CMV retinitis.
Retinitis means infection of the retina, the thin layer of light sensitive tissue lining the back of the eyeball. The function of the retina is to convert the optical image we see with our eyes into electrical impulses that are further sent through the optical nerve to the brain. In the case of retinitis, even if the infection is cured, scars may remain on the retina. If left untreated, retinitis can lead to partial or total blindness.
Viral retinitis (caused by a virus) is most frequent in people with weakened immune systems, like HIV/AIDS patients or cancer patients (chemotherapy treatments can weaken immunity, making the patients prone to viral retinitis). There are three viruses that are commonly responsible for viral retinitis:

Herpes simplex virus, which causes cold sores;

Varicella zoster virus (HZV or Herpes Zoster Virus), which causes chicken pox;

Cytomegalovirus retinitis, which causes total or partial blindness.
Cytomegalovirus is a kind of herpes virus that once inside the human body, it stays there for life. The virus is transmitted through bodily fluids like saliva, blood, urine, semen and breast milk, and lives peacefully in the healthy human body, in an inactive, (otherwise known as “dormant”) state, not causing disease. Most people get exposed to CMV, especially with age, without being aware that they have been infected.
When the immune system weakens, CMV can become active. For example, in a person with AIDS, when the T cell count dips below fifty (a healthy individual has approximately one thousand T cells measured per unit of blood), CMV becomes active and can attack different parts of the body, causing serious damage. The virus can cause CMV retinitis in the eye or CMV pneumonia in the lungs and it can also spread to the esophagus, stomach, and bowels.
In AIDS patients, CMV most commonly affects the eye, causing CMV retinitis, an infection affecting the retina, which swallows and inflames. As a result, the signals sent from the eye to the brain become incomplete or inaccurate, leading to blurry vision or blind spots in the vision. 
In some cases, people with CMV retinitis do not have any symptoms of the disease, sometimes even while they’re on the verge of losing their sight. That’s why it is advisable for people with very low T cell counts to go to an eye specialist for regular examinations and for a special test that checks for CMV in the eyes. Early lesions would look like small yellow-white patches with a grainy appearance, often accompanied by bleeding.
There are three standard medications used to treat CMV retinitis: ganciclovir, foscarnet, and cidofovir. CMV medications can be administered as intravenous (ganciclovir alone or in combination with foscarnet), intravitreal (injected into the vitreal fluid of the eye), as intraocular implants (surgically implanted into the eye to gradually release the drug), and also as oral medication. Oral medication is used for maintenance or as prophylaxis, to keep the CMV in check (inactive), thus reducing the risk of more damage to the retina and, therefore, preventing more vision loss.

HAART regimens, introduced in the mid-nineties, help keep the patients' immune systems healthy enough not to be prone to CMV infections. Therefore, with the advent of HAART regimens, the cases of CMV retinitis cases among people living with AIDS has decreased by almost ninety percent.

As always, thanks for stopping by!
Alina Oswald
Writer Photographer Author

Thursday, October 13, 2011

HIV/AIDS Updates: The Good, the Bad and the Trend(s) in the Latest CDC-released Numbers

The Good, the Bad and the Trends in the latest CDC estimates can be broken down as follows:

The Good—the latest CDC estimates, based on its national HIV incidence surveillance, show a plateaued number of new HIV infections at approximately 50,000 new infections per year between 2006 and 2009. [There are still over one million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States.]

The Bad—the CDC estimates also show that, during the same period of time (2006-2009), the only increase in new HIV infections was found among young men who have sex with men (MSM), in particular among young African American MSM. Online, the CDC report calls this particular estimate “alarming.”

The Trends: there are actually two trends developing simultaneously. First trend is the leveled-off number of new HIV infections in the United States. The second trend is the very increase in the new HIV infections among young MSM, in particular among young African American MSM. 

To take it one by one…

Yes, the number of new HIV infections in America has plateaued, but, as Kevin Fenton, MD, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, mentions online, they have plateaud “at an unacceptably high level.”

The alarming part is the steep increase in new HIV infections among MSM. While this group represents only two percent of the total population, it accounted for 61 percent (29,300) of all the new HIV infections in 2009. Young MSM (ages 13 to 29) accounted for more than a quarter of all the new HIV infections nationwide (27 percent or 12,900). In addition, CDC estimates show that new HIV infections among young African American MSM increased 48 percent between 2006 (4,400 infections) and 2009 (6,500 infections).

“We cannot allow the health of a new generation of gay men to be lost to a preventable disease,” comments online Jonathan Mermin, MD, director of CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. Mermin points out the importance of refocusing on the fight against HIV by confronting homophobia and stigma still related to the disease.

“HIV remains one of the most glaring health disparities in this country,” Dr. Fenton says in an online report.  HIV/AIDS affects in particular communities of color:

African Americans represent 14 percent of the total U.S. population and, in 2009, accounted for 44 percent of the new HIV infections. In the same year, the HIV infections among African Americans were eight times as high as among whites; among African American women, 15 times as high as among white women.

Hispanics represent 16 percent of the total U.S. population and, in 2009, accounted for 20 percent of the new HIV infections. In the same year, the HIV infections among Hispanics was three times as high as among whites; among Hispanic women, more than four times as high as among white women.

To reduce the number of new HIV infections, in July 2010, White House officials started the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which seeks to reduce HIV infections in the U.S. and to bring to the forefront HIV preventions programs especially in the communities most affected by the virus. To accomplish this, CDC has started a new “High-Impact Prevention” approach to HIV prevention activities, based on their “effectiveness, cost, coverage, feasibility and scalability [for] the greatest possible impact with available resources.”

Author's Note:
"HIV/AIDS Updates: The Good, the Bad and the Trend(s) in the Latest CDC-released Numbers" article by Alina Oswald was also published in the October issue of Out IN Jersey Magazine.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS: Continuing the AIDS Alphabet - Bactrim

In a previous post I mentioned the importance of knowing the AIDS alphabet.

A stands for AIDS, AZT and antiretroviral (ARV) medications, even ART (short for HAART, pronounced like "heart" the so-called AIDS cocktail, the medications introduced by Dr. Ho in the mid-nineties and what had a Lazarus effect on AIDS patients, bringing them back to life (active life) from the brink of death)

B stands for Bactrim (let's just stay with Bactrim for now). I'd like to share what I've learned about it while researching and writing Kurt Weston's, an award-winning legally blind photographer, story Journeys Through Darkness. Hope you'll enjoy the read and find it informational.

As always, thanks for visiting!
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

Bactrim: Bactrim is a wide-spectrum antibiotic and the most common medication used in treating PCP. It comes as an injection (IV) for acute cases of PCP and as tablets for maintenance and prevention treatments. One major side effect is that patients can become allergic to Bactrim and, therefore, forced to try other, sometimes less effective, PCP medications. Patients can be desensitized back to Bactrim, in pediatric (small) doses.
Once out of the hospital, Kurt followed the doctor’s advice and took his medication—Bactrim tablets—to keep his pneumonia in check. He was also eager to resume whatever normality of life and career were possible. Yet, the process was a long and strenuous one, partly due to the virus ravaging his body and partly to the side effects to the very medication supposed to keep him alive.
While Bactrim was an effective medication for keeping PCP in check, it wasn’t unusual for patients to become allergic to it. When that happened, doctors tried to give patients other medications, but too often the results were not as effective.
Halfway into his treatment, Kurt experienced an allergic reaction manifested through rashes and fever. He became allergic to Bactrim and his doctor had no choice but to take him off the drug and switch him to something else. Kurt ended up trying several other medications, as the physician was trying to find one that would work at least as good as the Bactrim initially did.
One of the PCP prophylaxis treatments the doctor tried on Weston was pentamidine. The medication could be administered intravenously, intramuscularly (both used today to treat acute cases of PCP), or inhaled as an aerosol, which was later approved as PCP prophylaxis treatment. 
While the intravenous pentamidine could cause severe pancreatitis, Kurt’s doctor decided to start him on the aerosolized version and administer the medication as a fine mist the patient had to inhale. Kurt had to sit at a “machine” and breath in the mist containing the medications. He was doing this during his lunch breaks. But despite his doctor’s high hopes, the treatment didn’t work. The photographer ended up in the hospital, again, with a second bout of PCP.
Around that time, the photographer started putting his time and energy into reading as much as he possibly could about the disease, trying to find a way to survive it. That’s how he came upon a San Francisco publication called BETA. The Bulletin Experimental Treatment for AIDS published an article that explained how patients could be desensitized, or adapted, back to Bactrim, while restarting them on the medication in small, pediatric doses. Excited about the new possibility, Kurt shared the news with his physician and begged him to try the procedure on him. But the HIV specialist thought the procedure was too risky.
In retrospect, the photographer believes today that any doctor would have reacted the same way because there was just not enough information about AIDS to allow these kinds of risky decisions from medical professionals. But that didn’t mean that doctors gave up on their AIDS patients.
Several drug combinations later, Kurt’s physician still couldn’t find something that would work effectively on his patient. And it wasn’t long until the doctor slowly started to run out of options when it came to finding new available medications that could keep his patient’s AIDS pneumonia in check. He had one more choice left to help treat Kurt’s PCP. That was intravenous pentamidine, a drug that could cause serious side effects and could increase the chances of developing pancreatitis. But the doctor tried it on Kurt and the treatment eventually worked and helped the photographer get over his third bout of PCP.  
Out of the hospital for the third time, Kurt and his doctor had, again, to decide on a prophylaxis treatment. And again, Kurt pleaded with his doctor to desensitize him to Bactrim. This time the doctor agreed to it. The procedure worked and Kurt won another small, yet important battle with his AIDS.
By then, though, he had only three T cells left. Today, almost two decades into his living with AIDS, when talking to students about HIV/AIDS as a Positively Speaking volunteer, Kurt Weston calls his three T cells “the Three Stooges: Moe, Curly, and Larry.”

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

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.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS: AIDS Alphabet

1981-2011: AIDS is thirty this year, 30! Although I've been documenting the pandemic for about a decade, although I've covered everything from survival stories to the latest medical updates and hopes in a possible AIDS cure (and/or vaccine), the truth is that we are still living in a time of AIDS... and we may continue to do so for quite a long time.

Three decades of AIDS, yet how many of us know our AIDS alphabet? It may come in handy to help us navigate the complexity of living with HIV/AIDS. Because the truth is that there is, indeed, a very fine line to walk, "a very fine line between disaster and hope," as best-selling author, Joel Rothschild, used to say, a very fine line between living an active life while living with a life-threatening disease and becoming its next victim.

I feel like I have to mention HIV/AIDS especially this year, when the pandemic turns thirty, thus continuing to keep the AIDS conversation alive. So, for starters, I'd like to start my own AIDS alphabet, as I've learned it while researching and writing Journeys Through Darkness, a biography that tells the survival story of Kurt Weston, an award-winning photographer who lost most of his sight to HIV/AIDS.

As always, thanks for visiting! Hope you'll find Kurt Weston's story as inspiring as I found it.
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

AIDS: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome includes a complex of diseases determined by the deterioration of an individual’s immune system.
Antiretroviral medications: ARV medications fight the virus by interfering with the growth and replication of HIV at various stages of its life cycle, thus prolonging the lives of those infected with HIV.
AZT: AZT (Azydothymidine) is the first mono-therapy antiviral drug, FDA approved in 1987

In 1987 the FDA approved the first anti-HIV medication, azidothymidine [AZT], which had powerful negative side effects. While the drug was suppressing the replication of HIV, it was also causing bone marrow suppression that could lead to anemia, hair loss or a decrease in white blood cells. Other side effects included nausea, muscle weakness, and headaches. But AZT was the first AIDS medication to offer patients a sliver of hope for survival, no matter how slim that was. So Kurt had no choice but to take the drug if he wanted a chance to stay alive.
AZT made him extremely fatigued, to the point that Kurt started to find it more and more difficult to maintain the high energy level he needed to sustain at his job. As a fashion photographer he had to work with many people, from hair stylists and make-up artists to fashion designers, who were looking up to him to make decisions. It was his job to keep them motivated and enthusiastic in the studio, but in order to do that Kurt needed to be energetic and enthusiastic, himself. And all he wanted to do was crawl up in a corner, somewhere where everybody would just let him be with his fatigue, nausea, and sickness.