kurt weston, and healing colors

November 16, 2010

I met Kurt Weston a few months ago, at an exhibit in East LA. I was there for a story, and I had photos to take, among other things. But Weston caught me, and I spent most of the night asking him questions. I described him to a someone this week as a, "contagiously beautiful" person. And he is. Weston has an aura of passion and gentleness about him that pulls one into to his stories. 

He has struggled with limited vision for years, but listening to Weston talk helped me see differently. After meeting him, a friend and I sat talking about Weston, God, life and love - and smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee - for most the night.

I hope you'll find him equally inspiring.

You have a unique story as a photographer. Can you give my readers a little bit of a background on yourself?
I’ve always loved photography, ever since I was a child.  In fact, I wanted to study art and photography at Northern Illinois University, but my parents dissuaded me.  However, in 1983, I went for it, registering at Columbia College in Chicago.  
With degree in hand, I went to work as an assistant to a well established commercial photographer named Frank Misek, at Stephens, Biondi, and Decicco, a well-established commercial studio in Chicago.   Two years later, I was hired as a fashion photographer at Pivot Point International, a school for hair design and makeup techniques also located in Chicago.  I created exciting fashion images in the Chicago studio and on location in Europe.  I worked for Pivot Point International until 1993, when my eyesight started to fail. 
In 1991 I was diagnosed with aids, and in 1996 became legally blind due to a related condition called cytomegalovirus retinitis. My limited visual acuity - total blindness in my left eye and limited peripheral vision with no central vision in my right eye - permits me to see the world much like it appears in an impressionist painting. I also experienced one of the most highly visible manifestations of the AIDS virus - Kaposi’s sarcoma - which produced purplish red lesions all over my face and body. I was easily identified as having the disease and experienced the stigmatization many people living with the virus endured during this time.  The inscription of illness and resulting disability has become part of the impetus behind much of my work. By the way, my AIDS and my visual condition are now stable, thanks to anti-retroviral medication. 

Your photography has taken several shifts. Tell me about them. 

The first shift in my work occurred after my diagnosis of AIDS.  In the early 1990’s I was greatly inspired by Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “Angels in America,” in which prophetic ghosts and angels appear to the main character (Prior Walter) while suffering AIDS induced fever dreams. My portraits represent the ghosts and angels induced by my own fever dreams and nightmares. These photographs are of people who are infected and affected; they pose as specters and witnesses to a nation which reacted to the AIDS pandemic in a political and prejudiced manner.  I include allegorical references which are meant to cast a critical eye at the world’s disquietude about the most significant dilemma of the twenty-first century.

While completing the last few weeks of my Master of Fine Arts program at California State University, Fullerton, I was admitted to Hoag hospital...where I was informed by my surgeon I had a very rare form of intestinal cancer called Pseudomyxoma Peritonei. Having just accomplished graduating with my MFA, having several successful bodies of work, surviving AIDS and negotiating my vision loss I could not fathom one more thing happening to me.  

My sister had been getting readings from Moriah a trusted psychic/medium, and requested for me to have a reading with her. Shortly into my conversation with Moriah I realized the authenticity of her abilities and was excited to hear I would beat the cancer.  Moriah indicated to me the necessity to be in and around nature as much as possible.  I decided that I would indeed follow her advice and I would also bring along my camera, photography being my passion.  What has developed is an amazing body of work I entitled Seasons in the Prayer Garden.

My blind work is a series of self portraits representing the physical, psychological and emotional weight of sight loss an inner journey involving my fears about becoming totally blind. This is a journey towards infinite darkness in which physical sight is diminished and obscured but artistic vision, my blind vision, is enhanced. I use the experience of blindness to expand my conceptual expression within the visual realm. Blind Vision illustrates a synergy of the physical (corporeal) experience framed within the context of a metaphysical journey to form a unique vision beyond sight. “Blind vision” has a foundation in classical philosophy.  The sage in Greek epic poems and drama was often named Tiresias, the blind seer, whose prognostic powers foresaw the metaphysical truth underlying human relationships.

As a person living with AIDS I face the prospect of a greatly reduced life span and deal with threat and decay daily.  It has been a bitter battle just to stay in this world, so I am not about to flinch or look away.  The Hearts of a Silent Age photographs are about the realization of loss and shattering the facade.  

Hearts of a Silent Age photographs are about the realization of loss and shattering the facade. In this project I became fascinated with the concept of longevity and the process of aging.  I began photographing senior citizens, capturing the lines on faces of lives long lived.  I was privileged to work with fascinating individuals, who shared their life histories layered with a multiplicity of experience and emotion.  

I know that you advocate for the disabled, due to some disabilities with your vision - can you tell me about that, and about your work?

The arts have provided me the opportunity to act as a political and social practitioner, representing aspects of my own and my subjects’ disabilities. Being disabled in society lends me a perspective on the specific human experiences of marginalization, exclusion and forms of oppression. I have produced powerful participatory documents from a marginalized world in the same way that Larry Clark brought us the troubled teens of Tulsa and Nan Goldin the heart-shaped bruises of 1980's New York.  
I am no voyeur; my images are insider's reports.

As an artist living with disability I have been committed to the full inclusion and access to the arts for the disabled. I have participated as an artist and advisor with the national arts organization VSA arts, the National Arts and Disabilities Center and the California Arts Council. In 2003 I assisted these organizations with the groundbreaking “Hire Value Conferences – Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities.” In 2005 I coordinated and assisted with Shared Visions the art exhibition featuring the art of blind and visually impaired artists at the Southern California College of Optometry.  The Shared Visions exhibition provides opportunities for blind artists and accessibility by utilizing low vision devices and vision enhancement technologies.  Now, in its 6th year Shared Visions has become an international exhibition. I have also involved myself with political action, advocating on Capitol Hill for the continued federal funding of the arts in education.

How might people get involved with/help out with your work?  

My hope is everyone will support the arts by attending exhibitions and performances. I also hope people will understand the importance of the arts in our educational system and support the continuation of funding for the arts and sustaining arts programs...It is also important to realize disabled artists, who are often in the margins of main stream art, are just as capable and accomplished as an able artist.  Disabled artist may even offer a deeper perspective as many experience life on complex existential levels.        

You have talked a lot about the healing power behind colors in your work, can you tell me, first, about your technique, and second, about your thoughts on colors, and the healing nature of them?

Although I see little definition or form I can perceive bright colors. I direct my camera towards any brightly colored scene that is visible through my peripheral vision.  I edit my photographs by viewing them on a large computer monitor and utilize screen magnification technology. My camera in many respects becomes my third eye. My technique enhances color frequencies embedded in natures’ color field not visible to the human eye.  I believe these augmented color frequencies have a positive effect on the human psyche and activate latent regenerative, healing properties.   

You mentioned that were told you needed to be in nature in order to be healed from bout with stomach cancer, can you tell me your own story?

Incredibly, it has been over two years since my cancer diagnosis.  I have had several MRI and CT scans on 3, 4 and 6 month intervals and each scan indicates no new tumors.  My doctor is amazed as it was anticipated the cancer would have aggressively spread throughout my abdomen. Miraculously, I am not only surviving but thriving and appreciating each incredible day.  I feel so fortunate to be able to continue my work and create imagery which helps others to experience a similar appreciation. 

The shift in your photography appears to have made it a kind of gift to those around you - have you experienced it as such, or had others tell you they see it as such?

Yes, I do consider the Prayer Garden work a gift.  Undoubtedly for me it was a gift of life and continued creativity.  Many patrons who have seen the work have commented on the uplifting aspects of the subject matter and color intensity.  I interpret each of the images in this series as a multi directional prayer.  The incredible landscapes and nature scenes are a prayer from God to us in the corporeal realm.  My documentation of these incredible landscapes, what I like to refer to as “God-Scapes,” is my prayer for life and healing.  The viewer’s response to the imagery, their exuberance and appreciation of the aesthetic in the work is also a prayer for their sustenance and perhaps more universally the sustenance of the entire planet.              

Ultimately, the work is all about appreciating life and holding life consciously.

photos via Kurt Weston