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My Journey as a Queer Artist

Sean Gyshen Fennell

By Sean Gyshen Fennell
Sean Gyshen Fennell is queer artist and activist originally from the Pacific Northwest. He attended Willamette University in Salem, Oregon and recently completed his graduate work at Washington University in St. Louis, Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. Fennell is currently living in Denver, Colorado and teaching at the University of Denver, School of Art.
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After I had interviewed several gay Catholics and the leader of Peace and Justice (Sister Marge O’Gorman), I realized that I had to find someone who could set the stage of the documentary by laying out the official Church doctrine on homosexuality. This proved to be a complicated process of dealing with Catholic bureaucracy from the Archbishop down to the ostensibly heterosexual Father James Knapp, the leader of Courage (the official Catholic Group for people with homosexual tendencies). While I was attempting to get an interview from someone inside the Church about the doctrine, I had to be very careful to not draw too much attention to some of the other organizations and people I had already been in contact with. I did not want to cause the gay friendly organizations to be shut down. Eventually, I was granted an official Archbishop sanctioned interview with Father Knapp. The interview was tense, his speech was guarded and he recorded me as I recorded him.

“A Place at the Table” runs approximately ten minutes and is comprised of interviews shot in the interviewee’s personal spaces such as, a home or place of worship. They are linked together with symbolic footage of Catholic imagery, mostly taken from the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis and the Saint Francis Xavier College Church. This documentary addresses the Church’s doctrine in contrast to the actual experience of living as a homosexual in the Church.

After working closely with the gay Catholic community, I wanted to return to working with ideas of gender, experience and the body. I also felt it was time for me to work more directly from personal experiences.

At age 14, I underwent a double mastectomy as a result of gynocomastia, a disorder in some boys that results in the formation of breasts at puberty. The surgery left me with large scars across my chest and around my nipples. These scars represent my own painful experience with non-normative gender.  These photographs attempt to take control back over my body in a way that celebrated that experience while acknowledging the pain.

Out of the images I had, I found one that struck me; my eyes were closed, my expression a mix between ecstasy and pain – my gesture dynamic. I wanted to highlight the gesture and emotion while emphasizing the scars. I came to the idea of sewing red thread into the image over the scars to accentuate the emotional consequences of the surgery. During the process of sewing I noticed that the gesture in the photograph was similar to the action I was making. This realization caused me to connect the thread to my hand in the image. The thread and image seemed to visually merge into each other.

For the final presentation of what came to be known as “Sewing the Façade” I chose five images, printed them life-size on matte finished paper and sewed into them with red thread. On some of the images I sewed strictly over the scars from my surgery and in others I responded less literally to the image. All of the images are of me from the mid-torso up, on a black background, with my eyes closed. The thread is sewn into my chest at various locations and connects to my hands to make it appear as if the image is sewing itself. I left the needle on the thread dangling outside the frame to further the illusion and to break the frame of the picture. The use of red thread and the inclusion of the needle is of particular importance to the work. They are meant to be read beyond the literal reference of blood and surgery, to be healing yet destructive, concealing while highlighting, masculine and feminine. These elements get to the core of what I want “Sewing the Façade” to visually articulate.

“Sewing the Façade” addresses ideas surrounding the body in relationship to self-expression, queerness and gender. It celebrates the beauty of the non-normative while documenting the pain afflicted by the normative ideal.

Most recently, I created the video installation “Veiled.” The work consists of large amounts of various white fabrics suspended in the middle of a dark space with a video projection coming from inside. The initial view is of a large circular glowing white satin form. There is a part in the fabric that serves as an entry revealing the inner part of the installation. Inside there is soft gathered chiffon. From behind a single sheet of sheer fabric a video of myself is projected in small scale. Since the fabric is sheer and the projection is from behind, the flowing fabric lining the structure also has a larger less sharp version of the video projected on it. The rear projection is also what gives the exterior fabric a glow, even though no discernable image can be seen from the outside... (continue reading)

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Eve said:

I love your art, especially the iconoclast images. Can I find them online elsewhere?
This type of art also highlights the similarities between devotion to religion and devotion to your partner, which I think is closer than a lot of people think.

Posted at: December 10, 2008 8:11 AM

caleb said:

simply stunning...:)

Posted at: January 18, 2009 5:14 PM

RedLime magazine said:

We are running a short feature of your art on until Feb 4th

Your work is beautiful!

Posted at: January 30, 2009 10:28 AM