For nearly 20 years, John Kirtz (BEDV 1978) was a graphic designer in Raleigh with a steady stream of clients. Then, in 1994, when his wife took a job in Chicago, Kirtz figured he’d have to start from scratch in his new city.
But the thought of starting over professionally wasn’t nearly as daunting as what happened next.
Just before the move, Kirtz visited his doctor in Raleigh. He had recently started having trouble lifting his legs to climb stairs. His family doctor didn’t have any firm answers, but deduced Kirtz should visit the specialized Muscular Dystrophy Association Clinic at Duke.
“In less than ten minutes they told me what I had and said there was no treatment or cure,” remembers Kirtz. Just 43 at the time, he had been diagnosed with Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD), the most common of the nine types of muscular dystrophy, which is hereditary and causes gradual muscle weakness and loss of muscle mass.
FSHD is the most benign form of the disease, but still presents serious problems. Twenty years into his illness, stepping onto a curb is impossible for Kirtz. Though he can still walk, trying to navigate uneven terrain without help causes him to trip.
The doctors told him the disease would progress slowly but predictably. In any case, when he was first diagnosed, Kirtz ruled out trying to build a graphic design practice in Chicago, as there would be huge obstacles to traveling through the city to meet clients.
“I didn’t want to go back to school, so I looked around for something else that I could already do,” says Kirtz. “That’s when I found pastels.”
Kirtz was visiting a used bookstore in Chicago when he came across The Pastel Book by Bill Creevy, a successful New York artist. “I hadn’t given pastels a single thought. But I thumbed through the book and thought, ‘I can do this.’” Kirtz liked the visual effect of pastels and knew it was a form of art whose scale and physical requirements (space, ventilation, and flexible hours) were very manageable.
His paintings are small, usually fewer than three square-feet, and almost always landscapes. Unable to walk unassisted safely in the great outdoors, he paints from photographs he has taken from roadsides on his travels over the years.
Though some “plein air” artists criticize painting from photography, Kirtz testifies to good results from his method. One of his pieces, “Taos Pueblo Windows,” won Best Landscape in the recent 2010 Annual Pastel Society of the Southwest / Open Show.
“If you are a decent photographer and have a decent eye, then there are ways to work around the things that a camera lens does to a scene,” says Kirtz. “I actually think a camera can improve a particular view by foreshortening it and acting as a beautiful framing device.”
Kirtz is used to change in his life. In 1971 he dropped out of NC State to see if he could make it as a drummer in a band. That didn’t work out, but rock and roll introduced him to Donna Gilbert, an NC State student majoring in sociology, who had been invited to one of the band’s rehearsals by a mutual friend. The two married, whereupon Kirtz returned to the design school in 1977 and finished his degree a year later.
In 2000, after six years living with Chicago winters, the Kirtzes moved to Highland Village, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Their house is single level and allows Kirtz — working in a home studio — to get around easily. Most of his works are sold through nearby Premier Gallery (premiergalleries.com) and are generally priced from $300 to $3,000.
When we spoke to him in February, an open house at the gallery had just helped him sell two pieces. He admits he isn’t very prolific: he is only able to work a couple of hours a day and produces a painting every month or so. But his work is integral to keeping his disease at bay.
“I’m fighting like crazy to stay upright. If I get confined to a scooter or worse, it will speed up the physical decline.”
Kirtz can now look back at how far he’s come in his life in the past 20 years living with a chronic illness while developing his art.
“The one good part of having this disease is it’s slow in its progression. By and large I get the opportunity to adapt to changes that come along,” he says. “I would not have taken that sort of detour – certainly not when I did – if I had not known that this disease is progressive. I’d just be hanging on as a designer, spending more and more of my time coping with the evolving work life challenges wrought by the disability — and probably enjoying life itself a lot less as a result.”
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