How one man turned to photography and art as a healing, coping mechanism

San Francisco-based artist Steve Gibson first met tragedy at a young age when he saw his older brother, whom he referred to as his “Irish Twin,” die from Polio at the age of 5. As an adult, he experienced another sibling’s death when his younger sister and her husband died in a plane crash. And in the 1980s, Gibson’s community was wiped out by the AIDS epidemic.

With the support of his partner Carlos Ferreira, Gibson has found a way to cope with his losses and take care of the illnesses that affect his mind and body on a daily basis. His emotions are soothed through his art.

Gibson’s workflow involves small black and white photographs of friends and family. He examines them, noticing the tender touches and subtle movements, which help define a relationship. Then he brings vitality to them through his paintings.

Born in 1948, Gibson grew up as the son of a career officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. His childhood required relocating from place to place, resulting in little opportunity to settle into a home. Growing up in a military family, there was no space for emotional vulnerability; as he said it “would have been a black mark” upon the family. Therapy was not an option. Gibson, who was too young to know how to process trauma, was forced to stifle his emotions and cope on his own.

In response, Gibson discovered art.

At first it was a hobby, a way to pass the time in class. “I hated being alone when I was young,” Gibson said. “When I was drawing people, I was never alone.”

It then became a defining interest; he took lessons in high school and had his first commissioned piece by a friend’s mother. After completing his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University, he returned to his passion by studying at Massachusetts College of Art. About 30 years later, at the age of 54, he finally became a full-time artist.

Steve and his partner Carlos hold one of the paintings that hang in their house which is a version of the photograph of of Steve and his friends in Philadelphia. Carlos says that it is his favorite picture, “It captures the mood of the time. It was the 60s. We thought we could do anything!” Photo by Rachael Cerrotti

Gibson says his transition to being a full time artist came as a necessity after being diagnosed with HIV in 2002. Along with suffering from ADHD, bipolar disorder and fierce tremors, his professional life was forced to come to an end.

“At the time that the epidemic was going on, I thought that I would be dead within a couple of years,” Gibson said. “So then I realized that basically I am retired. And since I never thought I would live this long, I didn’t have a retirement plan. So I said, what am I going to do? Then I said, I have a lot of art to do, there are pictures to paint. I had the family album, so I started doing that.”

In 1994, the flooding of the Flint River in Albany, Georgia, (which displaced over 22,000 people) ruined nearly every item of sentimental value in Gibson’s parents’ home.

“All of the photographs of our family over the years got left in the house. Some got miserably screwed up. My mother was such an even-keeled person that it wasn’t something to cry about. She said, what am I going to do with them? So I said, send them to me.”

A watercolor of Steve’s mother and his Aunt Marian fishing in Wisonsin in the 1930’s. It was painted in 1979 and was part of Steve’s first show on Newbury Street in Boston. It was lost in a fire at his parents’ home in Georgia.

One of the first pictures Gibson painted once he began delving into his family’s past was of his older brother as a young child wading in the water shortly before he passed away.

An acrylic painting done in 2004 of Steve’s older brother, Mike, in the Pacific Ocean. The original black and white photograph of this was one of the last taken before he passed away from Polio at the age of 5.

An acrylic painting done in 2004 of Steve’s older brother, Mike, in the Pacific Ocean. The original black and white photograph of this was one of the last taken before he passed away from Polio at the age of 5.“To think that when I was painting that picture of my brother who I hadn’t seen in 40 or 50 years, I was on the beach with him. I am very fortunate,” said Gibson, recognizing that this story could be told in many different ways.

Gibson’s first commission upon becoming a full-time artist later in life was from a women who offered him $200 a month for supplies in exchange for paintings of her family with her brother, who disappeared as a young child.

Gibson then found Visual Aid, a San-Francisco based organization that helps artists with life-threatening illnesses continue their creative work. During the time he was affiliated with this group — from 2004 until 2012 — Gibson would receive vouchers every six months for materials. But for that to be fulfilled, he had to submit essays about the progression of his work.

“On the one hand, I hated doing that because I had to write, but on the other hand I had to write so I had to think,” Gibson said. “I had to take myself out of the art and think about what am I was doing. Each time I did it I was always trying to represent the truth. It was always different than what I wrote the year before. It wasn’t that I had lied before, but it had changed. The picture was no longer about that picture but it was about the relationship to the other pictures.”

This successful transition to becoming a full-time artist gave Gibson an outlet to better understand and come to terms with the stories of his past. “The therapy was in the artwork,” Gibson said. “I discovered that I love not just portraits of individuals, but group pictures. I like to do more than one person. I like to do things about how people touch one another. It may be subtle and other people may not notice it, but I feel it.”

For the second time, Gibson’s art has been accepted to Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital’s Art Ability, which is a year-long program serving as a showcase for, and a celebration of, artists with disabilities. His pieces will be displayed from November through January.

The genesis of Gibson’s lifetime of art is layered with empathy and self-reflection. He has done what many people hope to do; he’s found an effective way to provide himself with not just emotional relief, but with a sense of closure.

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