Three years ago, when Madrona artist Jacqui Beck’s son came out as transgendered, she went through all of the emotions a parent usually goes through in that situation.
After a lot of reading, education and growing, Beck decided to use her art to create an exhibit about the experience of her son and other people in the transgender community.
The “Gender Personal” project will be on display at the Kirkland Arts Center (620 Market St, Kirkland) through July 12. On Saturday, June 7, Beck will give a talk there about the project at 7 p.m.
Beck was baffled when her son first came out, “because I didn’t know very much — none of us did,” she said. “I think I thought there were about four transgendered people in all of America.”
Beck started attending support groups.
“I just asked questions and cried and didn’t understand, and Finnbar and I talked a lot,” she said.
Her son, who changed his name legally to Finnbar Face-Book last year, was still figuring things out, too.
While Beck was dealing with the situation, she’d go to her studio and write and paint. “That’s the way that I work through stuff,” she said.
Through Face-Book, Beck came to realize that everyone has his/her own gender and that it’s all very complex, she said.
The transition wasn’t always easy, though, Beck admits, saying sometimes she laid things on Face-Book that she shouldn’t have. She asked him why he couldn’t be more like Ellen DeGeneres — identifying as a woman but wearing masculine clothing. She would also tell him, “I really miss my daughter.”
That alone isn’t bad, Beck said, but she said it a lot.
“At one point, he said to me, ‘I get that you miss you daughter, but I would love it if you welcome your son,’” she said. “And that’s the kind of amazing thing about my son: He can understand, he can empathize and then he can ask for what he needs.”
Beck decided to take the experience and turn it into art. She interviewed Face-book first, armed with a list of questions and a digital recorder. After her son, she interviewed seven other transgender or gender-variant people.
“The more I did it, the more amazing it became,” Beck said.
She transcribed each of the interviews with a little help from her children. Then she would take the transcripts to her studio and paint and write poetry.
In the end, she created two poems and three paintings for each interview subject. Those will be on display at the gallery, along with the interviewee’s picture, a short biography and an excerpt from their interview.
Each painting speaks to something the person shared with her. Her painting “Whether” that she painted for Face-book “speaks to the complexity of the human experience,” she said.
Aidan Key, founder and director of Gender Diversity (genderdiversity.org), was one of the interview subjects. Gender Diversity supports children, teens and adults who are transgender or gender-nonconforming. It also provides support to the families, schools, doctors and therapists who interact with transgender people.
Beck has become active within the transgendered community as a result of the project, Key said: “It’s just stunning and really powerful.”
The interview was like “sitting down with an old friend and just speaking directly from the heart,” he said.
Sometimes, words aren’t enough, but art can capture people in a different way, Key said. He thinks Beck’s exhibit is so powerful because she understands this and appeals to the heart, rather than intellect.
“That’s where people make leaps and bounds in terms of understanding and acceptance,” he said.
The project is “one of the most powerful projects I’ve seen that can quickly communicate our experiences in a really beautiful but accessible way,” Key said.
When learning about gender, Key said it’s important for people to understand that the transgender community’s experiences and identities are real.
“The challenge is to...not only find our own voices but to have venues for them to be heard,” he said. “[Beck’s show provides] a venue for our voices to be heard.”
The experience of ‘coming out’
The Kirkland Arts Center was the perfect place for her show, Beck said. Downstairs, there is the mini exhibit for each person; upstairs, there’s a book with all of the transcripts and the other poems, as well as information from local advocacy organizations and books with more information about gender.
One of Beck’s favorite parts is the closet, which she and her husband built, in the downstairs gallery. The outside is decorated with words from the interviews, while the inside looks very much like a typical closet, with clothes and shoes.
“I had the idea that I wanted people to go into this space, close the door, experience being in the closet and think about things that they share and don’t share with people, then come out of the closet — just having that experience coming out,” she said.
People get angry when they cannot tell what someone’s gender is, Beck said. The violence toward gender nonconforming people and the high suicide rates in the community were her main motivations for creating the exhibit. She hopes people become more familiar with it through the art and say, “‘This is just something that is true for some people,” she said. “‘Some people are plumbers; some people are transgendered.’”
Beck is giving one of the paintings to each of the interview subjects, and the others are available to buy. A portion of the proceeds will benefit organizations that help the transgendered community.
Beck also presented the project at the Gender Odyssey (genderodyssey.org) conference last year. Gender Odyssey is an annual five-day national and international conference held every August at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center. The first two days are full of programming for professionals, while the other three days have community-based programming for transgendered people.
This year, Beck will be one of the free speakers at the conference, and her art will be displayed at the event.
After Gender Odyssey, Beck isn’t sure what she’ll do. People have asked her if she’d like to bring the show to Seattle or take it on the road — both of which she’d like to do.
She’s also considering a show from the perspective of the family members, partners and friends of transgendered people.
For more information on the Gender Personal project, visit genderpersonal.org.
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