In Friday’s 7 section I feature a show titled “Trans-Formation” by Iris Duarte at Fig Tree Gallery. (I’d provide a link, alas, but that gallery has a very hard time keeping its website updated. Best bet is to go directly to Duarte’s website.) There’s an interesting premise for the show: Duarte learned two years ago that her daughter, Rachel, planned to change her gender identity from female to male. It was a traumatic time for the artist, who had always liked to think of herself as tolerant but discovered that it can be harder to practice what you preach when you’re talking about your own child. Duarte spent the next two years making art in reaction to her son’s new identity — and he, now called Ewan, in the meantime, made a short documentary film about the experience, which is scheduled to be shown in the upcoming Fresno Reel Pride gay and lesbian film festival.
Here’s the complete interview with Duarte:
Question: Tell us about the letter you received from Ewan.
Answer: It was eight pages in length and explained my daughter’s decision to change gender from female to male, as well as a new name. It was a jolting shock. Due to the very close relationship I have with Ewan, intuitively I knew it was coming. To actually receive it and see that he had made to final decision to come out made it real. No more hoping, pretending, or denial.
What was your initial reaction?
It was mixed. I was scared for Ewan. I was happy for him as well. My main concern was the impact of being a transgender person in how a homophobic and hetero-normative world would affect his future life. Would he be marginalized, even physically attacked due to not fitting into the mainstream society?
How did working on this show help with your own transition to acceptance?
Making my art during this period of time gave me solace, peace, and a place to find comfort as I examined my thoughts, feelings, and fantasies. I could still grieve, and the process of painting gave me space to find a way to contemplate my questioning, reflection, and surrender. Painting opened my way to express rebirth, growth, and deeper awareness and understanding. To join an integration of the outward physical world into the inner world of dreams and intuition.
There’s a painting in the show of a running woman. Tell us about it.
The painting of the woman running is the feeling of not wanting to deal with my fears, anxieties and worries for my emerging son. I am running away, but my feet are stuck in the ground. The figure is not finished intentionally….because there is still a part of me that is not running. Even though I sometimes want to run, I am still fully present in the now. There is really no place to be or go, I must accept and be present no matter how difficult this process is.
You’re blunt in your artist’s statement about your son’s news affected you, describing it as like a death. Some people would have tried to downplay the anguish out of fear of not coming across as “tolerant” or “progressive.” What made you so willing to share your honest feelings?
I was raised by parents who were Unitarian, political activists. They marched in the peace movement, civil rights and women’s movement. To admit to my own limited tolerance of gender identity is not easy, and I felt ashamed. The reason I am so willing to share my personal process, is that I think in general our society is not educated, enlightened, or ready to accept transgendered people. I want people to see that this must change, even though it can be painful and difficult initially.
Your son made a short film about his experience. Tell us about it.
Ewan’s film “Spiral Transition” is his personal journey. For me the film clearly demonstrates the ability of mother and son coming to terms with grief, transition, rebirth, growth, compassion and love is what actually binds us. It is a universal concept of the human condition: how we conduct our life and what we do and say affect others in a profound way.
In the film, the motif of a spiral is important. What does the spiral mean to you?
There are spirals in my work as well as in the movie “Spiral Transition.” For my work the symbolism of the spiral is a constant spiritual representation of rebirth, the cycle of life and death. The spiritual aspect of the spiral represents outer consciousness, materialism, and external awareness, leading to inner unseen essence of the soul or cosmic awareness. In terms of rebirth or growth the spiral represents the consciousness of nature beginning from the core or center and thus expanding outwardly. The spiral is the evolution of letting go, release and connecting to the universe.
Tell us a little about your background as an artist. How did your former career as a therapist/social worker impact your work?
I have not always been an artist. I’ve come to art making in my middle years. I began to make art and explore creativity during an illness that forced me into retiring from social work. I am mostly self-taught, although when I can I have taken many classes and workshops throughout the years. Art has been an avenue for healing, expression and passion. I have a personal goal of combining my skills and becoming an art therapist.
For a show that is anchored in an initial outpouring of angst, your color palette and the kinetic energy of the works is bright, lively, even brazen at times. How do you explain the apparent contradiction?
The paintings done during the last two years or so are bright and hopeful. There are no rules for a color palette when it comes to rebirth, death, or growth. The colors are bold and radiate with vibrations of peace, joy, happiness and beauty. The use of bold color and design enhance the process of incorporating all the elements of personal and spiritual growth.
What was your son’s reaction to the work in this show?
My son Ewan’s statement about my work:” I liked it. It’s a beautiful expression of your process.”
How about audience response?
Very receptive. People have thanked me over and over for my transparent and honest artist statement. There have been many questions about the process. People are curious and want to know more about what I went through. Some people have suggested I continue writing and turn the statement into a book.On art hop night many people came to me in tears after reading the statement. People tell me I have a lot of courage to speak up about my life and what I have been through. I feel compelled to tell my story so others can learn, and open their hearts and minds to be inclusive and sensitive to people who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex. We are all human beings and deserve to be treated equally.
Anything else you’d like to say about this show and the impact on your life?
The process of transformation and transition has changed my life forever. I see this as positive in every respect. My work as an artist will reflect and resonate with this deeper awareness and understanding. As a mother of a transgender son, I would be available to the transgender community as a support person and to work for civil rights for this community.