For the Compassion that Kurt M. Schwartzmann Received from MUNI Operators When He Needed Help the Most, the Artist Created a Loving Tribute to the Drivers Who Make Sure Passengers Get to Their Destination
by Jackie Bolles
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]rtist Kurt Schwartzmann is a relatively new face on the San Francisco arts scene. His first local show opened recently on August 29 running through September 4 at the First Congregational Church of San Francisco on Polk Street. This exhibition of his works was in honor of San Francisco MUNI Operators, a group rarely, if ever honored by an artist. The show was well attended by MUNI operators and their families, as well as friends and the general public.
I know Kurt as a fellow student at the City College of San Francisco, Fort Mason campus. We met in a printmaking class, and have continued our relationship as friends and fellow artists. He is a talented and charming man. He has a singular and interesting take on the world, and we will continue to hear from him as he grows as an artist.
Kurt tells me: “I was diagnosed HIV positive (not AIDS, as that diagnosis came later) in the early nineties. I was given six months to live. I remember the ‘white coats’ (my doctors) telling me to go on medications right away. I replied, ‘No. You take the meds for six months, then if you’re still alive, I may consider your request!’ My reasoning behind it all was that the meds were killing my friends. I would watch countless friends take their doctor’s orders, and they were dead within six months. One friend in particular was instructed to put on rubber gloves while taking his meds in order to protect his skin from the toxic pills. Another friend asked me to ‘hide’ his meds in a cake so he could tolerate them. I was a baker by trade, so it was an honor to help him. I vowed to myself that I would not go on meds till I saw or felt something wrong.
“I strongly believe that my convictions kept me alive, and I was not alone in this belief,” Kurt says of his survival through this first bout with HIV.
Then in 2006, “The door bell rang. I went to answer, and realized that I could not see anything through the peephole. The loss of vision had come slowly, painlessly and progressively over several months, such that I didn’t notice what was happening. In 2006 an opportunistic virus, Cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis attacked my left eye from behind. The doctors were unable to detect it until it was too late. I am lucky that the CMV didn’t go further and attack my brain, as there was some concern about that.” He was rushed into surgery, where an implant filled with Ganciclovir was inserted, the theory being that the medication would kill the virus without killing Kurt. It was too late. CMV had severed the optic nerve completely. Kurt explains, “There is no sight at all, not even light.” He retains the eye, which appears normal.
Kurt is easily recognized wearing a rakish black eye patch moving about his beloved city on MUNI. When this body of work was being created, he would be sketching his favorite subjects, namely the operators of the transit system, as he rode to and from classes at Fort Mason. The work in his recent show, called “Yellow Line” (The line you must stay behind on transit vehicles for safety!) depicts the varied experiences of the riders, the operators, and details of the conveyances.
Early in 2008, homeless and living on the streets, Kurt found safety and a place to sleep on the MUNI buses that crisscross the city, day and night. He expresses gratitude for the “fare box that accepted whatever change I had, and drivers who allowed whatever payment I could manage, without humiliation or scorn.” He describes MUNI as making “public transportation available to me, and to all.”
Referring to his monocular vision (through one eye), he notes that what most would call a handicap has given him a unique ability to focus in on his subject matter. Kurt used his singular approach to concentrate on the creation of sixty-four drawings that depict his view of what is in front of that “Yellow Line.” His work is a tribute to the San Francisco MUNI Operators, who tolerate endless drama, and still manage to keep the city moving, regardless of what may come, rain or shine. The drawings are matted and framed with yellow lines dividing one from another. Further, each drawing shows the yellow line that greets everyone entering a MUNI vehicle, the line that you must stand behind; thus, the name for his series. He draws the fare box highlighting those that welcomed his coins in leaner times. He draws the MUNI Operators, concentrating at all times on the street and traffic ahead. He always draws a different driver, always demonstrating that same attention to the task at hand, namely getting the passengers to their destinations. He draws the tools the drivers need for their job at hand, he draws the doors opening and closing.
The medium Kurt works with in this series is pen and ink, watercolor, acrylic pen, on cold press watercolor paper. His drawings are 3.5 inches by 16.5 inches. He describes his choice of drawing proportion as a “slice of life,” as he sees it.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MUNI) oversees transit, streets and taxis in the city of San Francisco. Kurt constructed, and created drawings on, several collages made of the transfers that everyone who has traveled the MUNI system in San Francisco knows they must secure upon entering the bus. The transfers are good for traveling from one vehicle to another, and are color-coded to the month of the year. They are still in use today, although there has been some talk of discontinuing their use in favor of all-encompassing plastic passes.
The destination of many trips that Kurt Schwartzmann made while creating the series was the City College of San Francisco, Art Campus at Fort Mason. Kurt was encouraged by his then partner, and now husband, Bruce, to pursue his lifelong love of making art. One of his first efforts, while taking a printmaking class, was to design their wedding invitation. It was in this class that I first met Kurt. Art grabbed Kurt, and took him, as all art making does, to where he had never been before. It is where he is today, offering his work, and continuing to pursue the creative process.
About Kurt’s exhibition, he says; “Tom Nolan, Chairman of the Board of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority came to my show opening night and we posed together, as his partner took pictures of us and my work. He said he had been reading about me in the Society Pages of the Chronicle. Leah Garchik’s column has quite the following! He said he would share my work with his Board members. He asked a few questions concerning my appreciation for the MUNI Operators.”
Most recently, my friend Kurt has fallen in love with that San Francisco icon, the Transamerica Pyramid. He is constantly photographing it from it’s many angles from various vantage points throughout the city. He posts many of his pictures on Facebook. He is answering the landmark building’s call, “Photograph me, draw me, paint me, sketch me, interpret me.” We are just hearing the beginning of this artist’s story. He promises much to come!
To see Kurt’s series on FaceBook log on to: https://www.facebook.com/YellowLineArt.
Jacqueline Bolles is a Boston transplant to Southern California. She is an avid gardener, a sometimes artist, and a literary spectator. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].