Becoming aware of approaching footsteps
Some paintings just have to be painted. They play around in my head relentlessly like a catchy pop song and although I sometimes struggle keeping them motivated and nourished until they are ready to be brought into the world, I ultimately know they will come into being at some point.
One of the constant memories of my youth, specifically my teen years and early twenties, is not of an event or particular experience, but of a feeling. It was an ubiquitous dreadful and dark feeling of always needing to be alert, of always keeping an eye over my shoulder.
From a very young age I was always quite obviously gay, not stereotypically camp-type-gay, but I was always a little too flamboyant and arty, or as younguns say nowadays, I was ‘extra’.
Sadly as a result of this, I would often find myself the target of unwanted attention or, even worse, actual violent, physical attack. I grew up in a very working class and rural area in the North East of England and quite honestly, they were simply not ready for, or appreciative of, my particular type of fabulousness.
Verbal abuse, being spat at, ripped clothing; I have a good few memories of specific incidents of unprepared for violence, both at school and in the years afterwards travelling to and from art school. I thought the random assaults would stop once I moved to London in the New Romantic late eighties (with arguably the trashiest but best fashion and music ever in the history of the world) but if anything, the unwanted attention and hostility from the straight world increased along with my own sense of daring, fashion choices and flamboyance.
What would any of us do in such circumstances? We either let those oppressors weigh down our wings or we climb their dull prejudices, like steps, for a clearer launch.
Fast forward a few decades to now and that feeling of mild internalised panic and/or constant alertness has subsided considerably, and that combined with better understanding on how to ‘pass’ or how to go unnoticed, means I feel a lot more at ease in communal spaces and public transport. Also, it’s worth pointing out, fashion now, pfft, honestly, where are the fucking risks? Anyway, that’s not to say I don’t still occasionally feel the odd tingle of dread, when, for example, I’ll walk into some straight bar in a rural area. Special-ness is like glitter, you’ll never truly get rid of it all no matter how hard life scrubs at it.
Anyway, that memory, that feeling, that dread, that’s what this painting is about.
It is about the cost of having the bravery to go out into the world, fully knowing you are displaying, what some would consider, a challenging amount of fabulousness, and there’s a good chance your clothing will be pulled at, your appearance laughed at, your face spat into, or a curse, a punch, or a kick aimed your way for daring to be different.
But you know, some boys like boys, some girls like girls and some people can’t wear beige, so get over it!
The Sydney-based and utterly inspiring performance artist Mara Maya Devi and I talked a lot about this painting before they sat for me. Although I had had this painting in my head for so long, it was a very familiar melody to me. And I needed to know that the message behind it was a shared experience and something that we both understood. Mara is ‘everything’ (now, I know for a fact young people say that ALL the time!) and they (Mara’s pronouns are they and them) are fabulous in ways that I wish I was and always wanted to be. But just like me back then, half a world away and many decades ago, the world is unfortunately still not always ready for Mara’s fierce, fabulous bravery and yes, they modelled that feeling for me very easily and knowingly.
The painting is called ‘Becoming aware of approaching footsteps’ and is a representation of that particular sinking feeling in the gut that most of the LGBTQI community, (and women and people of colour) know only too well.
Who is approaching, what is their intention?
It is a portrait, of Mara, yes, but also a portrait of that split second before fear kicks in, when, with a heavy heart and resigned stiffening you realise once more, that the world still might not be ready for your kind of fabulous.
It saddens me that all these decades after my youth, when this painting first appeared in my head, it can still find meaning in the world. I can only hope when Mara gets to my age, this painting and this feeling of dread has no resonance with anyone anymore and is nothing but a long gone memory, like some trashy 80s pop song no one remembers.