Artist Kurt Schwartzmann shakes hands with a MUNI driver at his art opening at the LightHouse.

A love letter to MUNI from a visually impaired artist

In 2019, we’re thrilled to host a special exhibition of work by Bay Area artist Kurt Schwartzmann at the LightHouse for the Blind Gallery in our headquarters starting on Thursday, January 10. Please join us for the exhibition opening from 4:30 to 6 p.m.

Portrait photo of Kurt Schwartzmann
Kurt Schwartzmann

While most MUNI riders have less than flattering things to say about the Bay Area transport system, for LightHouse client Kurt Schwartzmann it was a refuge when he needed it most.

It was early in 2008, and Kurt was confronting homelessness in San Francisco. He was exhausted, cold and lugging a suitcase full of his belongings from one place to the next. All he wanted was a somewhere to sit down and get warm. While resting at a bus stop, a bus pulled up and he asked to get on: “I don’t have any money but I would love to be able to board your bus,” he said to the driver.

Without hesitating, the driver responded: “I have to drive anyway; you can keep me company.”

A small and everyday gesture from the driver was a pivotal life moment for Kurt, who was deeply affected by the humanness and compassion the driver showed him. It was the first but not the last time that Kurt found safety and a place to sleep on the buses that crisscross the city, from drivers who would accept whatever payment he could manage without humiliation or scorn.

“When I had nothing, MUNI offered me a ride and shelter,” he says. “This a great way to say thank you to MUNI. The compassion of that driver. I’d love to be able to find that driver and thank them.”

It’s a uniquely San Francisco tale — but it just barely scratches the surface of Kurt’s storied life in the city he loves so dearly.

Kurt, who grew up in Fresno, California, moved to San Francisco seeking the freedom to be himself as a gay man. He has been drawing since he was in kindergarten, but it wasn’t until after he went blind in his left eye that he took up art in earnest and discovered the unique composition that characterizes his series “Yellow Line”.

Kurt lost the vision in his left eye in 2006, due to a complication with AIDS. His doorbell rang and he suddenly realized that he could not see anything through the peephole. Unknown to him and his doctors, Cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis had attacked his left eye from behind and his vision diminished slowly and painlessly. As he describes it, his field of vision is a long thin stripe, which allows him to narrow in on his composition while drawing.

Kurt got back on his feet and sought Counseling Services at the LightHouse in 2015 in hopes of dealing with some of the frustration and anger he experienced as a result of his vision change. Working with a Clinical Psychologist at LightHouse has helped him reframe his thinking and language around his vision.

“The LightHouse has been an integral part of helping me accepting and understanding my vision,” says Kurt. “Before doing counseling with her, I would just get so frustrated. Now I have the language to talk about it with people instead of getting defensive when people make comments about my eyepatch or call me a ‘pirate’.”

Just as the white cane is a useful symbol to communicate blindness to the outside world, Kurt wears an eye patch to indicate that he can’t see in his left eye — just in case he bumps into someone on the street or doesn’t see them waving. 

Kurt is now happily married and living in Golden Gate Heights with his husband Bruce and their dog Louie. Bruce encouraged Kurt to pursue his lifelong love of making art — and to start by designing their wedding invitations. It was a fitting proposal, and led Kurt to City College of San Francisco where he took his first printmaking class in 2015. His art evolved, and as a frequenter of MUNI, he devised his “Yellow Line” series to honor the drivers.

In this series of 64 drawings, Kurt works with 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. When he worked on the pieces in 2015, he would sit at the front of the bus, catty-corner to the driver’s seat. His favorite buses to frequent were the 6 and the 43. With his monocular vision, he could block out the entire world on the left side, focus in on the driver in vivid detail.

Kurt’s love affair with San Francisco doesn’t stop at MUNI — he also has a series of drawings of the Transamerica Pyramid. Check out more of his work on his website.