With fifteen years experience as a legally blind photographer I have overcome the barriers and obstacles of producing and exhibiting my art. My art has been exhibited in many art venues throughout the United States. I have also championed the cause of disability in the arts through my participation as board president of VSA arts, California. I continue to advocate for the full inclusion and access to the arts, for artists who are blind and disabled. In September 2005 I curated the “Shared Visions” art exhibition featuring the art of blind artists. My art has also been featured at the Berkley art museum, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Kennedy Center-Washington DC and the San Francisco City Hall.
In 1991, I was diagnosed with aids and in 1996 became legally blind due to aids-related CMV retinitis. My limited visual acuity (total blindness in my left eye and limited peripheral vision in my right eye) permits me to view the world as if it were an impressionist painting. My life and remaining eyesight were spared by lifesaving anti-retroviral medications. To this day I involve myself with the war on AIDS and volunteer as an AIDS prevention educator. In 1998, I realized I could still utilize my remaining vision to create fine art photography. I am passionate about my art. It has been a unique vehicle for my _expression throughout my life, and in particular at this time living with AIDS and vision loss. I desire to continually create and expand a body of work which will raise people’s consciousness about disability, vision loss and the fragility of the human condition.
As an advocate for the disabled, I continually strive to focus on my ability rather than my disability. In 2005 I was accepted into the highly competitive MFA program at California State University, Fullerton. My acceptance into the graduate program provides me the opportunity to expand a body of work and provides me with the graduate level education necessary to become an educator. As an educator I can share my technical knowledge of photography and work experience with students passionate about this amazing art from. Acquiring my MFA degree will also allow me to advocate on behalf of disabled artists. I will continue to live as an example of a person living with disabilities working beyond limitations and utilizing boundless skills and creative talents.
Moving around his garage studio, Kurt Weston deftly pulls multiple tripods, reflectors and a backdrop from shelves loaded with his camera equipment. He's setting up a photo shoot. The final touch: He nimbly unscrews the back of a chair to use as his perch. Such activity might not seem worth notice except Weston is a legally blind art photographer.
A Chicago transplant who now lives in Huntington Beach, Weston was among 23 winners last month of an international competition titled "Transformations," organized by the Very Special Arts, California, a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities participate in and enjoy the arts. Weston, a former fashion photographer, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1991 and was told he had six months to live. He said he learned to "see" again after losing his vision to the disease.
Now he owns hundreds of hats -- to shade his "good" right eye from blinding sunlight -- and "still stay somewhat color coordinated with my clothes." When he was first diagnosed, his doctor advised him not to tell anyone to avoid prejudice. He continued working at Pivot Point, where he was the lead fashion photographer until his vision started going and he began seeing floaters in his camera lens and the backdrops. His ophthalmologist confirmed that CMV retinitis had destroyed the retina of his left eye and left just some peripheral vision in his right eye. As his condition continued to worsen, Weston's brother, Paul, asked him to come to California so he could live out his last days in nice weather. California's golden touch, aided by the new retroviral cocktail drugs, helped him get his health back. But his vision was permanently damaged, and Weston thought so was his career. As his world spiraled into darkness, Weston started putting together a set of works that described his mental and emotional agony. "Peering Through the Darkness" is a set of self-portraits of Weston. The image that's won him repeated honors depicts him wearing his monocle and pressing his face against glass, trying to wipe away the white floaters that obstruct his vision. "I find my inspiration in what I'm able to create -- creating things that makes a difference," he said. Weston still develops his own prints in his garage sink. A magnifying lens with the thickness of two bread slices helps him to read or see things held closely to his face. ForWeston, showing his work at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., as part of winning the international competition is a high point in his second career. "It's just starting to take off," he said of his career as an art photographer.
Top art experts, from such places as New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Kennedy Center as well as an independent curator, selected Weston's work after sifting through 292 entries from all over the world. Weston is no stranger to recognition. His work has been exhibited at the Berkeley Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and San Francisco City Hall. He also has sold some of his pieces to the Houston Museum. "Kurt has given so much to his local community," said Alice Parente, of Very Special Arts. "Not only is he a wonderful artist but a magnificent one, looking to help other people through his art." What he would really love to do the rest of his life is teach and help other people through his work, Weston said. Weston is enrolled in the graduate program for fine arts at Cal State Fullerton, and is working on portraits of seniors as part of course work. The images in his series "Still Life/Still Living" are almost like refined portraitures in charcoal and pencil. But they also capture the lines on faces which tell of sadness, loneliness and an esprit de corps that he likely shares with them.
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 full-blown 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.
Kurt Weston’s 2005 Unfinished Works award-winning work captures The Last Light of a dear friend. “He had AIDS and hepatitis,” the artist explains. “He was seeing the light of day for the last time [because] two days after I took that picture he died. He had been a big light for many people and helped the HIV/AIDS community for many long years.”
Peering through Darkness is part of Kurt Weston’s Blind Vision series of self-portraits that show people the physical and emotional impact that visual loss can have on an individual. In order to represent his visual disturbance—which he described like “pieces of cotton stuck in my eye, floating every time I move my eye”—he 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.”
Weston believes that black-and-white offers his art a concentration of _expression. And he likes that intensity, in particular in his portraits. He uses regular film and 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 who’s lives it touched, this pandemic.”
But Kurt Weston is also concerned about today’s young generation and the impact HIV/AIDS has on it. A volunteer in the Positively Speaking HIV Prevention program, he goes to schools and talks to students about HIV/AIDS.
“It’s strange that people are ignorant about how they [might] get AIDS,” he comments. “We need a lot more of [education and prevention]. Unfortunately, this administration has fallen short in terms of discussing this issue. They basically only want people to know about abstinence. It would be nice if young people could abstain from sexual behavior, but that’s not the reality. The reality is that a young person with hormones coursing through the body is going to engage in sexual behavior. And it’s to [this kind of] individuals that we need to provide safer sex messages in terms of how to do it safely and prevent getting infected.”
What about an AIDS cure? Kurt Weston believes that stem-cell research will be an integral part of finding a cure, one that will come from some type of genetic therapy. Until then, he reminds, there is so much work to be done.