Gallery Glance: Poignant Photograph by Philip Heying is Part of Spencer Museum’s “Healing, Knowing, Seeing the Body” Exhibit

Philip Heying, “Repurposed billboard west of Salina, Kansas along 1-70 7/13/2014 – 1:40PM” (2014), inkjet print (Spencer Museum of Art)

I NEED A KIDNEY. Hand-scrawled across an old billboard, this message was written in haste, with no time for niceties like “please” and “thank you.” The crooked black lettering on plain white background stands in stark contrast to the surrounding lush and verdant pastureland. No vivid colors or cartoon characters beckon to passing motorists from this sign.

It seems strange that a billboard typically used to guide drivers to needed services, or to advertise goods, or to encourage support of a politician, has been repurposed in a last-ditch attempt to locate a much-needed organ essential for human survival. But the viewer has no trouble understanding that this is a dire emergency. A desperate plea for help from someone . . . anyone. Why were such drastic measures necessary? What has this world come to? Clearly, there is a larger story here.

Further investigation into the origin of the billboard revealed a local resident frantically trying to locate a kidney donor for his wife, who had not qualified for the official transplant list. Although the specifics of this case are not known, rural areas make up 63 percent of primary care health professional shortage areas (HPSAs). Without routine access to health care facilities, treatable diseases quickly escalate into terminal prognoses. For patients facing kidney failure in these communities, lack of health insurance, unaffordable medications and excessive travel time for regular follow-up visits can signify medical non-compliance. And medical non-compliance can be a reason for disqualification from the transplant list.

To photographer Philip Heying — driving on I-70 just outside of Salina, Kansas — this billboard is symptomatic of a global crisis of the current geological age. In his series, “A Visual Archaeology of the Anthropocene from Eastern Kansas to the High Plains,” Heying explores the complicated and often fraught interaction between Man and Nature. “I look at the land that is my home and with increasing frequency see ‘improvements’ that are detractions . . . ‘additions’ that are removals . . . ‘development’ that is destruction.”

With an archaeologist’s eye for artifact and evidence of human history, Heying’s photographs are replete with duality: drought-stricken crops unable to produce food contrasted with a typical super-sized day at Costco. Toxin laden rivers and the now necessary water treatment plants. Add to this drained wetlands, scorched remains of forest fire, and non-biodegradable fast food containers — all a part of constant consumerism and the drive to buy the next “best thing” before the last “best thing” has even worn out. Progress and innovation have left Heying’s home in central Kansas depleted and tired.

Natural resources are not infinite. Heying’s photographs are an attempt “to clearly, fearlessly, see what is being wrought” — a necessary first step to figuring out a better way. He prophetically cautions: “There can be no technologically improved replacement for a particular forest, wetland, watershed, topsoil or climate.” Add kidneys and the human body to that list of irreplaceables.

“Healing, Knowing, Seeing the Body,” continues through May 16 at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. Reservations required, www.spencerart.ku.edu.

Jane L. Aspinwall

Jane L. Aspinwall is the former curator and collections supervisor of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Holding a PhD in art history and an MBA, she has authored and curated numerous publications and exhibitions on photography. Aspinwall is currently working on a project about the early work of Alfred Eisenstaedt.

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