Men killed in gay-bashing murders are honored in powerful new paintings by gay artist-philosopher Matthew Wettlaufer.
He painted Matthew Shepard (1976-98), a university student who was killed in Wyoming, and Allen Schindler (1969-92), a naval officer who was killed by two of his shipmates in Japan. Both were brutally beaten to death for being gay.
Wettlaufer makes connections between the anti-gay hate crimes, other human-rights struggles and his own art in the following interview with Kittredge Cherry, founder of JesusInLove.org and author of “Art That Dares.”
Born and raised in America, Wettlaufer lived in El Salvador and South Africa before returning recently to California. He has a doctorate of philosophy from Germany’s Kassel University and moved to Capetown to teach philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch. He paints a variety of subjects, but his large political landscapes focus on issues of homophobia and political violence.
It is especially appropriate to reflect on gay martyrdom now during the season of Lent, when the suffering and death of Christ are remembered. In the following interview, Wettlaufer is especially eloquent at discussing the meaning of his art because he is a philosopher as well as an artist.
KC: You have a doctorate in philosophy and taught philosophy at the university level. That's unusual for an artist. So I am going to ask you some about the philosophy behind your art. Why did you decide to paint the difficult subject of the gay-bashing murders of Allen Schindler and Matthew Shepard?
MW: I was strongly affected by their murders, it was one of the reasons why I found myself leaving the United States, because of the entrenched homophobia in society which served as a foundation for these acts of brutality. In 2006 I saw the film Brokeback Mountain and it reawoke all these feelings of anguish and pain that I had managed to put aside after moving to South Africa. I walked around in a daze for a week. Then I painted the Matthew Shepard painting, which was my first political narrative. I was actually embarrassed about showing it to anyone, it was too personal and too private, but over time I grew out of that reticence as I started to get feedback from people about it.
I m not sure if this is related but I was at the March on Washington in 1993 and I saw Allen Schindler's mother address the crowds on the Washington Mall. I knew his story already because of an article I had read that described the events leading up to his murder and the murder itself, which the Navy initially tried to cover up. Hearing his mother speak brought me to tears.
All my life I have sought ways of recording the memory of people martyred under conditions of oppression, by working in El Salvador during the 1990s in health care, by teaching philosophy (critical theory) in El Salvador at the University in San Salvador, by activism in the gay community. Painting these people made sense to me as a way of creating an archive of what their deaths meant, so that they never be forgotten. It was in some ways easier to paint Salvadoran subjects as I am not Salvadoran, it was much harder to bring myself to paint gay subjects, especially the subjects of Shepard and Schindler, as this was so close to home and so personal.
KC: What did you experience during the process of painting these terrifying scenes of anti-gay violence? Maybe you felt fear or liberation or a connection with the past?
MW: I cried. I felt angry and exhausted. But mostly I was in tears. I hope that doesn't sound self-indulgent! I also felt a frustration at "not getting it right"--not really capturing what their deaths meant to me--but I think that must be the problem with all art--it never seems to "get" it--only an approximation. Still what I had in my mind was what I actually painted--I always have the picture formed in my mind before I paint, and it usually comes out the way I imagined it beforehand. But capturing the feeling of their loss is much harder to achieve.
KC: Matthew and Allen are sometimes considered to be gay martyrs or gay saints because they were killed for refusing to deny their own (God-given) sexual identity. What spiritual meaning, if any, do you see in their lives and deaths?
MW: As I had wanted to be a priest when I was a teenager, before I realized I was gay, I would not be surprised if spiritual elements enter into the way the paintings connect with a viewer. The cross-like character of the Shepard piece for example is completely intentional. He and Schindler were martyrs, and martyrdom has a spiritual level to it. Some of the strongest influences on me growing up were people who had been martyred for civil and human rights--Martin Luther King J., Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Salvador Allende, Oscar Romero, and Jean Donovan (one of the four US Churchwomen killed in El Salvador).
KC: You described yourself as a "lapsed Catholic." What is your own spiritual journey?
MW: I joined the Church when I was 12. Before that I grew up in a small mountain town in Southern California--I was very fortunate to be around wilderness, mountains, streams--and to be able to hike and to escape into the wilds. I had I guess a pantheistic feeling about spirituality, an intimate connection with life around me. But when I turned 12 I felt I needed to exchange this vague experience for something more structured and organized, so I went to the Catholic Church. Part of the reason for that was seeing the events happening on television in El Salvador during the late 1970s. Oscar Romero's courage in standing up for the rights of the poor and persecuted made a strong impact on me.
I joined the Church though right at the time when things in our parish changed and we had our gay priest replaced with a straight and very rightwing one. I began to clash with him and with catechist classes over the issue of being gay. I went ahead and was confirmed but our priest told me that as I was gay I was psychologically ill and should seek aversion therapy to "cure" myself. I left the Church.
As a young adult I found myself in a 12 step program and it was there that I was able to reclaim much of my earliest feelings around spirituality. I draw on those when I paint. I don't know if I believe in a God--but I believe in a higher power--the universe in its massive incomprehensible vastness inspires me with respect and humility. I study currents in contemporary physics to educate myself more on these matters. I am also impressed with liberation theology, with buddhism and with the essence of what Christ taught, about unconditional love of others and about compassion and forgiveness.
KC: Are you an openly gay man? (If not, it's OK, I'll omit this question when I post the interview.) If yes, how does your sexual orientation affect your art? Do you have any other paintings on gay themes?
MW: I am openly gay :) I think it affects my art in the sense that I see things from the outside looking in. I have a few paintings that touch on gay topics--one of a man next to another man's hospital bed--an AIDS pieta. Also one of two soldiers sleeping with their arms around each other. And one of the two soldiers in the cage--it is titled “There's No Place for Us.” (All three are pictured below.) It has been hard for me to paint "happy" or optimistic pictures dealing with gay subjects, but perhaps that will change with time. Ultimately I would like to create images that are hopeful and life-affirming with all the power and emotion that I have felt in making my martyrdom paintings.
KC: You've lived all over the world -- El Salvador, South Africa, United States. What have you learned about art, spirituality and gay/lesbian issues from your experiences living in such different cultures?
MW: Some places I have lived were more accepting of gay people than other places--at least on the surface and in terms of legal rights. In some places I found that people have an almost physical reaction to art which speaks to them, a strong and passionate accord with visual imagery. It hasn't been my experience that the most tolerant societies are also the most passionate artistically; in South Africa I found a rather lukewarm reception to my work (and to political or social work in general) in the art community--equally lukewarm was the South African reception of abstract and expressionist pieces by some of my teachers, attitudes which mystified me. Yet on the other hand the legal standing of gay people in that country is well ahead of most western countries. In Latin America on the other hand I find a more intense reaction to my work (and to the political painting of other people) yet my experience of El Salvador is that it is a deeply homophobic society but that there are growing pockets of inclusion and acceptance, especially in the cities. It is a struggle still.
For more info on Matthew Wettlaufer, visit www.capegallery.co.za or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.