Failing and falling is how artist and photographer Christopher Veit described his health in 2006.

Like many artists, Veit was unable to afford medical insurance for regular checkups. He was falling through the cracks of the health-care system. Finally, he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.

"I was losing weight and had zero T cells and my viral load was off the chart," Veit recalls. "I went to Palm Springs and L.A. for treatment, but it was taking too long to get in their programs and it became too daunting."

Veit's family persuaded him to return home to Media, and he drove himself back from California.

While staying with his parents, he went to the Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia, which treats uninsured LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) patients. He said he knew from the moment he walked through the door that he was in the right place. Within weeks of starting treatment of standard HIV/AIDS drug protocols and counseling, Veit's condition dramatically improved.

After regaining his health, Veit says he "just wanted to give back. Because I'd been saved. I needed to pay back that debt to karma."

This week, to keep others from falling through those same cracks, Veit and a collective of more than 80 visual and performing artists present "HeartWorks," which runs Friday through April 26. It features two evenings of multimedia and music Friday and Saturday and culminates in a fund-raiser/silent auction the final night to benefit the Mazzoni Center.

"It's a massive thing," is how Veit describes the magnet collective that will converge on the Ice Box Project Space in the historic Crane Building in Kensington.

On Monday, Veit, 40, and his crew of designers and engineers began installing paintings, sculpture, kinetic art and works that defy categories. As the exhibit's curator, Veit doesn't want to direct the event as much as experience it himself.

Veit and fellow organizer Laris Kreslin began planning "HeartWorks" as a modest show 16 months ago. But they soon were surprised by the loud buzz the idea sparked.

"It just mushroomed," Veit said over coffee early this month. "The space is ideal, and I have no fear that it's going to be a blowout there."

Veit's journeyman career has taken him from the downtown New York art world to Paris runways to working with Los Angeles galleries. He eventually based himself in the high Mojave Desert in California, focusing on huge canvases and photography. Friends he made along the way are helping with the show.

Group shows of this scale and quality are a rarity in Philadelphia.

"This is something for the city of Philadelphia and for art. It's more about what it is not. Basically, it's showcasing an arts festival, but the caliber of the art outweighs everything. It's not for a specific arts institution, art is all around us, and so is this disease."

Kreslin said that donations for the event have come easily because it benefits the Mazzoni Center.

Nurit Shein, Mazzoni executive director, said that Veit's experience with the health-care system is not unique, even in areas with proactive AIDS services. She said that, like Veit, some patients in Philadelphia still find out they are HIV-positive at the point they are diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.

"He has an expansive spirit," Shein said of Veit. "If art is a representation of how artists see the world, then this is quite a statement, because Mazzoni represents how we see the dignity of all human beings and what they deserve regardless of who they are."

"Chris has this universe of colleagues in the art world who respect him so much that they can't imagine not contributing," said Darrell Young, director of development at Mazzoni. Young and Shein said they were moved and impressed that so many artists are creating new work for the exhibit.

The closing-night reception and art auction on April 26 will be hosted by Antiques Roadshow appraiser Alisdair Nichol to benefit the center. Shein says the response to "HeartWorks" has been amazing.

"Once it started emerging, we realized how unique this was. Everybody chipped in and the end result is a lot of the cost in putting it all together has been donated services and time," Shein said. "This really shows how philanthropy is changing. It's much more hands-on, and we want to see where resources are going."

If You Go

"HeartWorks" opens Saturday at the Ice Box Project Space, 1400 N. American St., and continues through next Saturday.

There are two opening parties, tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Johnny Brenda's, 1201 Frankford Ave., and a multimedia video art show Saturday at 6 p.m. at the gallery. Tickets to Friday's show are $20 and include admission to Saturday's show. Tickets for Saturday are $10.

Tickets for the closing-night fund- raiser/silent auction at 6 p.m. April 26 are $35 to $125.

The exhibition is otherwise open Tuesday through next Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with free admission.

Information: 215-546-7824 or heartworks.


Some Participants

A sampling of artists and performers for "HeartWorks":

Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss' work reflects urban life. Among other locals is Alex Da Corte, who creates mixed-media art with unorthodox organic materials.

Chicago artist Takeshi Murata is a "new media technician" working with digital abstraction and animation dubbed "Rorschach seething color."

Straight from Brooklyn is the indie-rock band Gang Gang Dance, described as neo-primitive and tribal. Gang Gang helps launch "HeartWorks" tomorrow at Johnny Brenda's.

Abstract artist Sandeep Mukherjee works in techniques mastered in India to explore the concepts of hybrid objects.

California artist and celebrity art photographer Jack Pierson's collages, word sculptures, installations, drawings and artists' books have been in collections of major museums worldwide.

Buffalo native Cory Arcangel's new media works were featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial.

Closing-night musical performances include PRISM Quartet, an innovative saxophone ensemble that will play at 7:30 p.m. April 26. Also performing is Philadelphia DJ Chad Brown, who created "Country Music Babylon" at Drexel University's WKDU-FM (91.7) as an undergraduate.