On top of Duboce Park, the current exhibition at the Harvey Milk Photo Center offers a kaleidoscope of community, couture trash fashion and LGBTQ history. Verasphere: 25 Years of Art & Love chronicles the world of Mrs. Vera, created by partners David Faulk (muse, model and costume designer) and Michael Johnstone (photographer). In photographs, fashion and Faulk's painted work, a glossy lowbrow pop art style the “Verasphere” is bright, chaotic and a bit nonsensical.
Mrs. Vera was born when both Faulk and Johnstone were diagnosed with HIV; she was a purposeful distraction from the disease. “When my eyesight was thrashed with CMV retinitis in both corneas, I took up the camera again for its immediacy,” says Johnstone. “I just wanted to take thousands of pictures of one life. I guess it is a bit obsessive but it was a deep response to the fact that so many lives had been lost [with] photos never taken.”
At the Harvey Milk Photo Center, coffee straws and to-go sauce containers adorn dresses and vests, looking like wardrobes Mad Max: Fury Road costume designer Jenny Beavan might turn to. Faulk’s costumes have become a public closet for events like SF Pride and drag performances throughout the city. Faulk says he doesn’t spend more than one week on each piece; it’s difficult to say which comes first, the accessories or the material.
Part Earth Girls are Easy, part a nod to portrait artists like Cindy Sherman and Guy Bourdin, Mrs. Vera dons a full face of blue paint and turns unnaturally to the camera in perfect model poses. With 25 years of photographs spread across the gallery walls, the progression of the sickness is clear, but so is the community aspect of the ‘sphere.’ Faulk’s modeling angles mix high end fashion with a bottomless self confidence.
Was Johnstone always drawn to portraits? “Not so much just portraits as drawn to color,” he says. “I consider color to be my main medium. For anyone with long term effects of a chronic illness or depression, it is very easy to get drawn down in an undertow.”
He pauses and thinks for a moment, then laughs and says, “I almost died five times, that has quite an effect on one’s morale. Each time I recovered a little, it was like coming up for air. I wanted to reflect that intensity by turning up the color. [It’s] a form of sensory restoration—more color, more joy, more laughter seemed to be the antidote for offsetting the dark times.”
Verasphere spins the color wheel like contestants on Wheel of Fortune—chartreuse pool accessories are glued to neon blue fabrics.
As interest in the Verasphere world continues to grow, Faulk and Johnstone are now the subjects of an upcoming documentary directed by Bay Area filmmaker Robert James, which he's making with the crew from his previous documentary, Ruminations. That film was a profile of Rumi Missabu, the iconoclast co-founder of San Francisco’s infamous performance group the Cockettes. James sees similarities between Faulk and Johnstone's stories and Missabu’s—both are about rebirth through creation and community.
James’ documentary, which he expects to complete in early 2019, aims to tell what he sees as a love story. “They didn’t consider that aspect and thought any filming would be about the art and costumes,” he says of Johnstone and Faulk. “This collaboration started for them in the 1990s after they had both learned that they were probably going to die. They were drawn to each other’s art, then fell in love and started working together as a distraction. The art, the love (and the advancements in medicine at the time)—I believe that it all has kept them alive.”
When asked about working on the documentary, James says, “It’s thrilling in this community vibe sort of way. The costumes really bring the people that orbit their ‘sphere’ together.” It’s not just James’ words that confirm this statement, it’s the love that was obvious in the gallery the night of the Verasphere opening.
‘Verasphere: 25 Years of Art & Love’ is on view at the Harvey Milk Center in San Francisco through Oct. 14. Details here.