With the help of his partner and subject, a San Francisco photographer commemorates the colorful lives of friends lost to AIDS
by Chip Alfred
When you look at the body of art surrounding the AIDS pandemic, you see a lot of thought-provoking yet often dark imagery. When photographer Michael Johnstone almost lost his eyesight from CMV retinitis, he decided to take a totally different approach. Along with his partner, David Faulk, he developed Mrs. Vera’s Daybook, a bold, brash photo collection. “It had to be vivid. It had to be colorful, and it had to fly in the face of everything that was expected of me,” says the photographer.
In a city soon to be devastated by AIDS, Johnstone was diagnosed with HIV more than thirty years ago. After mourning the loss of countless friends, he nearly died three times. “My senses were dulled,” he says. “I wanted something that would bring me a sensory restoration.” The two men created an eccentric, unforgettable, and heartwarming character. “She sort of represents all those people I knew in a lot of ways.” Traci Vogel of SF Weekly describes Mrs. Vera as the love child of iconic San Francisco drag model and photographer Cindy Sherman and the Cockettes, a hip, gender-bending 1960s performance group. Faulk, forty-nine, (who portrays Mrs. Vera) has never been a drag entertainer. He concocted the look and persona of the garishly over-the-top elderly woman with costumes made from recycled objects—everything from hair curlers to Christmas lights to plastic silverware. She’s “a drag tornado” designed to honor the memories of all the vibrant personalities eradicated by AIDS. “It’s not to minimize the loss, but to remember what was created by the people who are no longer with us and were so fascinating and young and at the beginning of what they were going to do,” Johnstone, fifty-seven, explains.
To transform into Mrs. Vera, “a fully upholstered woman,” Faulk dons layers of makeup, outlandish costumes, wigs, and accessories to be photographed by Johnstone all around town. Particularly fond of daytime photos, together they compose an almost jarring juxtaposition of a totally “unnatural looking character in natural settings.” Mrs. Vera, who personifies that quirky relative we all have, encourages people to feel their creativity without worrying about the judgments of others. She never seems to quite fit in, but that’s fine with her. She’s proud of who she is. Not your typical sexualized drag queen, Vera “elicits a reaction that people aren’t expecting from themselves,” says Faulk, especially when she’s spotted face down in the back of a garbage truck or dumped on a city sidewalk inside a derailed shopping cart.
What started out in the mid-1990s as a dress-up photo session one day in Golden Gate Park mushroomed into a wildly popular phenomenon. Soon, Johnstone and Faulk were making appearances at Pride Parades, street fairs, and other public settings. Crowds were instantly drawn to them. Their loyal following evolved into the Verasphere, a growing group of supporters who wear crazy costumes and travel en masse to various events in the city—spreading their spirit of jubilance and liberation. “We’re ambassadors of good cheer,” says the photographer, who describes the genesis of the Verasphere as a response to healing and long-term survival. Johnstone never thought he would be one of those long-term survivors. So the artist chose the immediacy of a camera rather than drawings or illustrations to memorialize the lives of loved ones lost. Uncertain whether he’d be able to do anything with the snapshots, his intent was to just have fun while he still had the energy. Mrs. Vera’s Daybook pays tribute to Johnstone’s offbeat circle of friends while making a powerful statement about the impact of the pandemic. “I felt that everything was being taken by the virus. I didn’t think our joy should be taken with it.” Johnstone also notes the catharsis the Verasphere can evoke. “There’s a lot of damage that’s been done to my generation. I’ve sought to repair that, and I wanted to invite others to join us and free themselves of their burdens.”
The photographer and his subject agree the project has taken on a life of its own. Mrs. Vera’s outfits have been featured in art auctions and costume exhibits. When Faulk conducted a Mrs. Vera-inspired makeover workshop at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the session was so well-received that the instructor was yanking glue guns out of students’ hands long after the session was supposed to be over. Earlier this year, Faulk and Johnstone’s work was featured at the Visual Aid Gallery in an exhibit entitled “Saints and Sinners,” curated by Julie Blankenship.
Both HIV-positive and healthy, the couple believes their relationship is stronger than ever. “It’s very intuitive for two artists to collaborate, and the fact that we are partners is very special to me,” says Faulk. Mrs. Vera has enriched their lives in many ways. These guys aren’t sitting around the house feeling depressed or disconnected. They’re involved in the community—volunteering, working on AIDS fundraisers, and attending fashion shows. For those living with HIV and isolated or struggling to cope, Johnstone advises, “Don’t be afraid; get out there. Get back on your feet and have some fun!”
Each of the two artists enjoys pursuing their own individual projects as well. Faulk expresses himself painting surreal cartoon characters who face challenging environments. Johnstone has been working on two other photography collections. “Velocity” utilizes dual images to depict his battle with CMV retinitis, which now presents only a minor visual impairment. “Recent Futures” deals with how many futures one has when confronted with a life-threatening illness. He refers to the “five-year plan” so many talk about, asking us to consider what if it was only five months or five days—or maybe even five minutes.
Looking toward Mrs. Vera’s future, the photographer envisions the images of Mrs. Vera’s Daybook, now a chronicle of the daily activities of the geriatric queen of camp, someday being compiled into a coffee table book. In 2012, Mrs. Vera made her movie debut, starring in Lost and Found, with Johnstone serving as a producer/director. The film features the eternally over-embellished and occasionally mysterious woman imparting words of wisdom to a young man coping with loss. “If you’ve lost someone, just try to imagine having the life your friend would have wanted you to have.” Above all, Mrs. Vera counsels, we should embrace diversity while celebrating our individuality. “Why shouldn’t you be who you want to be? There are always going to be people out there who don’t want us to be ourselves.”
Enter the Verasphere online at www.verasphere.com. To learn more about Mrs. Vera’s Daybook and the photography of Michael Johnstone, visit www.queer-arts.org/johnstone. View more images of the Verasphere at www.flickr.com/groups/verasphere/. Enter the Verasphere online at www.verasphere.com.
Michael Johnstone and David Faulk are both Visual Aid artists. Log on to www.visualaids.org for more information about how the non-profit organization helps support artists living with life-threatening conditions through grants, gallery shows, and more.
Chip Alfred interviewed R&B singer Keri Hilson for the August cover story.