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.”