What is your biggest fantasy; the dreamlike imagery that brings your mind to realms beyond what human eyes see on a daily basis? To me the best fantasies have a basis in reality because that allows us to imagine that we can one day fulfill those fantasies…or at least come close. Those things we feel as if we are lacking, a triumph of social justice, a personal pursuit, a passion obtained, a fulfillment of a feeling we’ve never felt, but know exists…these are all factors, conscious or not, in our fantasies. A fantasy is personal, yet often grand and encompassing of a world we wish to see.
How do we visualize these fantasies? Some have great imaginations seeing imagery without needing further input from outside sources; in other words, those who can visualize. Others require that outside input. This is where art comes in. Art that speaks to you makes you feel like a giant, 10 feet tall and able to reach beyond what you thought possible…or maybe it makes you soar like an eagle, feeling as if you can float high above the treetops, dominant over your domain. That’s my kind of fantasy art anyway, art that lifts you up, boosting you to a higher place, bringing you in, and giving hope, even if it only exists in your brief gaze upon said art.
It is not unusual for me to see people emote when viewing my work. Back in the day I loved how it would make people smile, maybe laugh. I still get smiles and laughs often, though many of my newer paintings see people in front of the canvas with heads turned, intensely contemplating the vibrantly brushed story staring back at them. A delay… and then a big smile, a question, a sigh, tears…it varies because each painting tells a different story to each viewer.
Tears. This reaction often makes me just as happy as a great big smile. It means I’ve connected. And then I’m there to listen. The story of why a piece speaks to someone gives that painting purpose, a calling. And for me personally, floating around in the deep end has more purpose when I’ve connected with someone through my work. (To read more about the deep end, check out my blog post from August 1st).
You can’t force a visual fantasy. Trying to capture someone else’s exact vision from head to canvas is nearly impossible, but an artist can exude a mood, an overall environment in which that person can sit and experience a feeling they wish to feel. That’s the real fantasy factor of a painting…when someone wants to live inside of it for a while. I paint pieces that I want to see, that I want to be surrounded by, that I want to feel…depictions of the world as I imagine it can be.
Social justice. I never thought of myself as a warrior growing up, either through my art or otherwise. I’ve discussed in previous writings about my timidity of expression in my very early works. I held back a lot…too much, or so I thought. I’ve come to realize that I used the time when I wasn’t fully expressing myself to practice, think, and plan for a more revolutionary body of work. I’ve uncovered so many sketches and designs that I had done…some of them I had duplicated years later without remembering I had ever sketched that same thing in the first place. The difference between then and now is that I’m more able to tackle the task at hand, creating a fantasy on canvas that I’ve always imagined, but didn’t have the skills or the testicular fortitude to bring to fruition. Current events loom large in much of my work input. Discussion of LGBTQ curriculum bills lit a fire under me to get going on bringing LGBTQ history to life. I cannot control what teachers teach, or what school districts allow them to teach, or what parents are educating their kids about, but I can create art for the world to see. History portrayed in whimsical imagery, sometimes literal, and sometimes just a sign of the times. Most importantly, I try and represent.
Radical. Beyond history, I’ve long held the “radical” beliefs that sexuality and gender are things to be celebrated, that equity and diversity are virtues, that laughter is essential, that bodies are beautiful, that consent is key, that black lives matter, that brown lives matter, and that being young at heart is much more important than ones actual age.
Rainbow. As a self-aware gay man I’ve come to understand that my very existence is revolutionary. I can’t claim to know what it is like to be black, brown, transgender, or any other “other”, but I do know what it feels like to be the “other ” in the room. And you know what? I love it. Not being the only other mind you, I thrive on being around all the other others. A room full of everyone who is the same is boring. Being a token is boring. My favorite color is rainbow, and I think that says a lot about my artistic mindset. I literally could never decide on a favorite color, and I cannot feel comfortable in a room full of people who are all the same because I much prefer the diversity of color, gender, age, etc. It means there are new stories to be told from varying experiences, varying voices. It’s my happy place, even if it is sometimes a fantasy.
Black lives. I’m often asked who my favorite person is from my painting “Common Threads: the Birth of Pride”. That’s a difficult question to answer, but my favorite to discuss is Essex Hemphill. Why? Everyone has heard of MLK and his epic and essential life. Some have heard of Bayard Rustin, a gay black man who did amazing civil rights work alongside MLK during the 50’s and 60’s. Despite the LGBTQ curriculum bill taking effect in Illinois and a few other states around the country, the life of Essex Hemphill will most likely not be a story shared in K-12 schools.
So here’s the scoop. Essex was a Chicago born, D.C. raised gay black poet who was known for making a giant contribution to the D.C. art scene through his brave writings and readings. Here we have a young gay black man making a career in the 80’s and 90’s writing poetry about being a young gay black man, and receiving awards, fellowships, and grants for doing so (www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/essex-hemphill). In 1986 his friend and fellow writer, Joseph Beam, published an anthology of poems from gay black artists entitled “In the Life”. The anthology included Essex’s work and it received attention worldwide. After Joseph died of AIDS in 1988 Essex worked with Joseph’s mother to complete the sequel anthology they entitled “Brother to Brother”. Dorothy Beam invited Essex to come live in her home so they could work on the project together. While she knew of her sons homosexuality and writing content, she didn’t know of Joseph’s battle with AIDS until after he succumbed to the disease and his writings then hit the grieving mother in a whole new way. In 1992 Dorothy Beam was quoted as saying, “My son knew I’m a worker, I’m a go-getter... In his heart, my son knows I would finish his book. If there is a heaven, he’s there and he’s smiling.”
(this information and more on the story of Dorothy Beam can be found in this January 2019 Philadelphia Inquirer article, written shortly after her passing https://www.inquirer.com/news/joseph-beam-dorothy-obituary-lgbt-black-gay-brother-20190105.html).
I am not black, and hold exactly zero claim to the experience of someone who is, but I have known many moms. Mom’s of LGBTQ people. I’ve known those who embrace their children fully, and those who don’t. Joseph Beam’s mother is a woman who wanted the legacy of her son and those like him to not only live on, but to be celebrated, and she spent much of her life working towards that goal. Dorothy Beam mentioned heaven; while I myself land somewhere in the vicinity of atheist or agnostic, I do hope there is a heaven, because Dorothy Beam belongs there along with Joseph, and Essex and alongside all the other moms, dads and guardians who embrace and celebrate their LGBTQ kids. Essex, for his part, continued his work as long as life would allow…showing a nation the intersectionality of being black and gay…in the 80’s and 90’s no less. How did he do this? When asked in a 1990 interview by Chuck Tarver published in Network about a joke he made about “[being} gay in only a few cities, but [being] black where ever you go”, Essex responded, “Each part of me empowers me. So I can’t say, well my left hand is gay and my right hand is black.” At the end of the same interview he was asked about his often used salutation “take care of your blessings” and he reminds us that we all have our talents, saying, “Some of us bake wonderfully, write, paint, do any number of things, have facilities with numbers that others don’t have. Those are your blessings…so take care of your blessings”. This resonates with me as much as his passion for educating folks about intersectionality through his poetry. If you’re a mature person who has never heard or read the readings or writings of Essex Hemphill, I recommend it (the fainter of heart should be prepared to clutch their best pearls due to the intentionally provocative nature of some of his works).
Portraying the value of diversity in my work truly is as much fun as it is important to me. I enjoy the challenge, adding the fantasy factor to real imagery, bringing each piece back to a place where folks can hear it speak to them. One person’s simple kiss in public is another’s revolution. One person sees cute elephants, another sees a poignant reminder of a pivotal life moment. One person sees representation of people in history, another sees themselves represented in history. From trite to deep, or anything in between, how one sees these pieces is based in their own back-story more than the intention of my vision.
Whimsy. I’ve long been a fan of curved lines, of flow, of things swirling, falling and dripping. These natural elements are embedded into my man-made visuals. Just like you can never fully capture ones fantasy, you can’t fully capture nature either, so I focus on making nature better. Brighter colors, exaggerated lines, an angel, a dragon, a phoenix rising from the ashes in an abundance of spectral realness.
So here it is. The phoenix.
The ultimate symbol of strength and renewal so many of us are imagining for ourselves and for the world right now for various reasons. The global pandemic has not only caused cataclysmic disruption to our lives on it’s own, but it has made the already weak points in our society fracture, and put unique stressors on our relationships. Like the phoenix, we will rise from this. Will we ever be the same? No, and that’s probably a good thing. In my fantasy we are each using this time to think differently, build and rebuild our skill sets, hold fast to those who are good for us, and chart a new course for the future, rising through the ashes in a resplendent burst of color. My hope for “Rainbow Phoenix Rising” is that it raises people up along with it.
In my opinion, good art, while it may awe, should not make people feel small. The Statue of Liberty, for example, is seen by some as a symbol of America’s freedom and to others it is seen as a symbol of what America should be. Two very different views of the same art, and yet either way it uplifts the spirit, maybe with a feeling of pride, or a drive to work harder to better the lives of others. Either way, we rise with her, lifting our own torches for our own reasons.
Young at heart. Millennials and Gen Z are fabulous at being socially aware, and appreciating art. In any era, younger generations are often looked upon with dismay by older generations. I have a one-word theory of why this phenomenon exists…empathy. To expand on that one word, once people reach a certain age it seems that they forget about what the early part of their journey was like, that they were passionate, made mistakes, had fun, pushed the envelope. Often times parents and guardians raise children as if the child is to pick up where the parents left off, as if the children should have learned from the experiences of the parents to be the kind of better people the parents had envisioned. That’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works. Certainly we can learn the words of others experiences, but the experiences of others are not our own. We are all individuals and we start from scratch with our own fresh journey. I truly believe that empathizing with our younger selves is the gateway to good mentoring of the next generation. This is how we stay young at heart.
Each generation is a phoenix unto themselves. Those who have risen in decades past would do well to blow oxygen into the young puissant embers. This is what being an ally is…helping others to glow. The journey doesn’t cease to proceed without supporters, but it sure does make the path longer and steeper if we go it alone. Rising from the ashes doesn’t mean we were ever defeated…it is a rebirth of sorts, but to me the phoenix is the story of those who have been beaten down, not just in this moment, but over time, only to get fired up and ready to go once again. These are the spirits that never die, and this is the spirit that I hope comes through in my art and in this piece. Those who are spirited, playful, ageless, those open to learning, those who appreciate the colors of life that even the most privileged among us can view with wonder, those are the hearts that beat loudest in my ears and those are the hearts that I paint for.
So the phoenix is a mythical creature, but is its meaning pure fantasy, or does it signify a reality? I think that’s up to you…you with the hearts that I paint for.
Watch the video version of this blog here:
As an acrylic painter, I use my soft bristle brushes to tell a story of love and pride in vivid, contrasting colors and strong whimsical line work. I portray a love for life and the magnificent creations this world has to offer, and love of the diverse array of people that occupy our spaces and the relationships they enter into. In my work I celebrate pride in the communities we come from and live in, and pride in ourselves, embracing who we are in bold fashion.