Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bay Area Issue of LOCUSPOINT is finally Out!

I'm so excited to announce the launch of the Bay Area issue of LOCUSPOINT, a journal founded by Charles Jensen of Lethe Press, who invited me to be guest editor.

This issue features new and exciting work from Brenda Hillman, Dan Bellm, Brian Teare, Randall Mann, Michael Montlack, Kevin Simmonds, Catharine Clark-Sayles, and many, many more!

Brenda Hillman
Kevin Simmonds
LOCUSPOINT is a poetry journal whose mission is to spotlight different regions of the country in each issue in order to explore the rich synergism and magic that occurs in literary communities. 

Here is an excerpt from my introductory essay:
"...By 1955, the San Francisco Renaissance was in full flower. Poets Kenneth Rexroth and Madeline Gleason were busy ringleading a community of Beat and avant-garde poets that included Diane Di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Denise Levertov, Kenneth Patchen, Phillip Whalen, Dick McBride, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and for a short time, Jack Kerouac..."

Click HERE to read the Bay Area issue of LOCUSPOINT. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Chip off the Old Block

Note to my friends: Here's a gift 
I don't want for my birthday next year...

Courtesy So Much Puns.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Susan Sontag Is a Bear!

by Annie Liebowitz

I found this image at the amazing celebrity photo blog Life in Pics.

If you you love Susan Sontag as much as I do (more now, of course!), here's an article about her I wrote for Lambda Literary.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"The Golden Hour" Wins AQLF Broadside Award!

I'm thrilled to announce that my poem "The Golden Hour" has been selected by judge Mark Doty as winner of the Atlanta Queer Lit Broadside Contest!  Here is what Doty said about the poem:
"This beautiful poem evokes a city landscape lit up with the possibility of new love. But it's also tense with the speaker's awareness that this hope may never be realized. In this way 'The Golden Hour' captures how love and desire lead us forward, but can also hold us hostage."
Here is more information from the festival website:
"The winner of the 2011 AQLF Broadside Contest chosen by poet Mark Doty is Brent Calderwood. His limited edition, signed broadside will be for sale during the festival. We are excited that Calderwood will be joining us in Atlanta to read his winning poem during the Keynote Addresses on Friday, June 24, 7:30 p.m. at the Decatur Library. See the full schedule of events at this link."

Friday, June 24, 7:30 p.m.
Keynote Address at Decatur Public Library
Host: Franklin Abbott
Keynotes: Bryan Borland and Theresa Davis
Broadside Contest winner Brent Calderwood

Friday, June 3, 2011

Out of Necessity: A Lit Event this Sunday at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts

The brilliant African-American poet/activist/novelist Audre Lorde once said: "We write because we must." This has guided my own writing ever since I heard it, when I was 17, the year she died.

This Sunday's event, part of the National Queer Arts Festival—a monthlong powerhouse of cultural innovation that descends on The City every June—promises similar insights and inspiration for writers seeking community and purpose, and also for anyone with a heart..

Out of Necessity features award-winning and emerging poets: REGIE CABICO, CHERYL CLARKE, ACHY OBEJAS, VANESSA HUANG, SUZANNE DEL MAZO, NAJVA SOL; moderated by Camille Dungy, curated by Cole Krawitz and Arisa White. If you haven't heard of all these people, look them up, or better yet, go! This is the real thing, folks. 

Sunday, June 5 · 5:00pm - 7:00pm
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts

2868 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA

Tickets: $12-20 sliding scale (advance tickets recommended)
For more info:

Want more? Regie Cabico and Achy Obejas will be leading follow-up workshops for writers to develop their skills in a more focused, intimate environment. I can't wait!! 

 June 4, 12-3pm: "Conflict in Fiction" with Achy Obejas:
June 5, 12-3pm: "Verbal Fire" with Regie Cabico:

Monday, May 16, 2011

"The Lily's Revenge"

Taylor Mac Turns Nostalgia on its Head

In the first of its five (!) acts, an actor—I can't remember if it was the lesbian academic hourglass, the feminist theorist bridesmaid, or the human theater curtain—says that nostalgia is dangerous, hinging as it does on a past that exists only in our minds. Or something like that. After four-and-a-half hours of creator and star Taylor Mac's brilliant, bawdy, psychedelic dialogue, I really can't remember.

Whether or not that was the point, it doesn't matter—"The Lily's Revenge" doesn't attempt to shove an arc or epiphany down your throat (unless you ask for it). Instead, it throws out thousands of bon mots, barbs, and zingers, and what sticks will depend entirely on your particular brand of static cling.

For me, that early comment about nostalgia was particularly salient, and ironic: The joy of the show for me is that it gives me a glimpse of the loopy energy and unselfconscious artistic freedom that I imagine was the backbone of the 70s art and music scene in San Francisco, embodied by everything from The Cockettes and Tales of the City to Harvey Milk's theatrical electoral campaigns.

"The Lily's Revenge" seems to me to be suffused with a kind of vicarious nostalgia—but at the same time shows that such energy and shimmering brilliance is still very much alive.

 Presented by Magic Theatre

Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes May 22

Tickets: $30 to $75

Contact: (415) 441-8822,

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Wanda Sykes on "That's So Gay"

If you don't LOVE this funny and important video as much as I do, well, I just don't think we need to be friends. If it moves you as much as it moved me, please share it with everyone you know!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Virtual Reality: All Virtual, No Reality

a man and his pet peeve

I hate to sound like Andy Rooney, and I flatter myself to think that I'm too young to be a curmudgeon, but everyone has pet peeves, don't they? I don't know exactly what a peeve is, but sometimes I do feel like I'm dragging one around on a leash, following its every squat with a handful of plastic bags.

Mind you, I called this site "The Debifrillator" to remind myself to focus on things that get my heart going, not things that make my blood boil. I'm sure I'm not the first person to write about this... In fact, if I Googled it, I'd find hundreds of pages on this issue, which is why I try to avoid Googling anything I want to write about. And well, I'm not one to hem and haw, but .... (ahem)

WTF is up with things these days? Everything is "virtual," nothing's real anymore. And I'm not talking about the Intranets—after all, this is a blog, isn't it?—I'm talking about things that are supposed to be real, the things we now refer to as "real things"—which is what linguists call a retronym.

When I say everything's virtual, I'm talking about the things you can find at Walmart—in fact, maybe especially at Walmart. I mean, the other day, I bought scissors that don't actually cut. They're shaped like scissors, but they kind of just bend the paper. It's like watching someone without dentures gumming a sirloin steak—that is to say, pitiful.

And not just scissors. I bought of pair of sandals yesterday at DSW that looked exactly like the Teva's I got last year at Sports Basement, but these ones are called "Terra's" or something, with the double r looking suspiciously like a "v" if you cross your eyes a little. Well, let me tell you, my feet are f-ed up today. I had to walk barefoot on the sidewalk because it felt like my soles were being removed with a potato peeler.

And potato peelers? I remember when I first used one when I was a kid, eight years old maybe, and I covered the whole kitchen with blood. Now the darned things don't even make a good lint brush.

Scissors that won't scizz, peelers that won't peel, flip-flops that just flop, it's enough to drive a person crazy, especially a writer. And admittedly, driving a writer crazy is a pretty short drive, but still.

And speaking of writers, what about pens?!? Not that anyone uses them anymore. When I pull out a piece of paper and write on a San Francisco MUNI bus, people look at me like I'm showing off. But for those of us who do use the so-called utensils, we expect them to be filled with ink. But we've all experienced it—especially with those virtual pens you get at real estate expos and stuff, the ones they use to get you to walk over to their table, and then suddenly you're going into foreclosure all because you wanted a free pen. I swear, when I leave the house, I always pack at least five—five!—pens, 'cause you just never know which one's gonna work, and for how long.

I keep hearing that computers are supposed to make life easier. They used to tell me, "Just wait till you start writing on your computer; you can save everything to your hard drive and throw away all those sloppy, cumbersome vertical files." OK, so maybe I'm paraphrasing. They didn't all say it exactly like that. But you get the point. Well, now they say don't throw anything away. You never know when your hard drive, or even your backup external hard drive, might crash—maybe next time Mercury comes around, whatever.

And, now, because of smartphones and iPads, even keyboards are virtual, and nw its almst impssbl to write complt sntnc

I mean...why would anyone even want this??

Monday, March 28, 2011

Erica Jong on Blogging

"Blogging is vanity. Like loving the smell of your own farts. Like not only tasting your menstrual blood, but making bloody thumbprints and buying gold-leafed frames in which to display them. But the truth is, not everything you think is worth publishing. Not everyone's opinion matters. How to distinguish a "pundit" from a gasbag? Impossible! On television, they yell and posture. On blogs, they are equally puffed up with self-importance. Only blog if you can make others laugh. This includes laughing at yourself." —Erica Jong

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Liz Taylor in Levittown" by Michael Montlack

"Nobody tells me who to love, or not to love, who to be seen with and who not to be seen with" —Elizabeth Taylor (February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011)

Liz Taylor in Levittown

You wore her perfume, kept score of her husbands,
even delighted in her weight gain
back in the 70’s—when you too had put on a few,
then were inspired to lose it all
(like she always did).

I still wonder if her Cleopatra
had anything to do with that green eye shadow
we insisted you throw away.

Yet from the kitchen table (while doing algebra),
I too watched that night
as she was ushered forward like royalty
for her Channel 4 press conference:
violet eyes blinking, curt smile glimmering,
hair teased to a threshold bordering on self-mockery
yet commanding attention—and you gave it.
“Chuck it all—I’ll never finish before your father gets home.”
The rice could burn, your family could starve
            but “That damn dog had better shut his trap!”

Another bone … then Liz took the mic.
I didn’t know who to look at:
this movie star under a fire of flash
highlighting that hair, those jewels, those eyes;
or you in your terrycloth housecoat and Kmart Keds knockoffs,
lighting a Kent III Ultra Light
to heighten the drama.

I rarely saw you focus on just one thing—
always rushing, even your crosswords were done (or nearly done)
with the spin cycle finishing and your soap opera starting.
Not to mention the phone (and “That damn dog!”).

But you waited for words of wisdom now, eloquence, power
to enter your world, our world: there—on the border of Levittown
and Liz delivered more than I could
when on the verge of tears (rage),
she demanded the nation to Wake up!
See what’s happening?
to not fear the dying, her friends.

She wanted research money, voices of support.
She wanted education
and I was getting just that:
a lesson that distracted me
from X and Y
and what it all might equal
for me—in the future, in this kitchen, on this island—
every day becoming more and more
a man.

And yet she seemed to be teaching you even more,
so evident by the way you inhaled deeper, nodding, agreeing with her
on a subject you’d never discussed, probably never pondered
except during your trip to Frisco when I was 10:
“We saw the Golden Gate, Alcatraz and oh yes … the gays—very colorful,”
punctuated with a whirl of eyes that said much more,
too much.

She was too gracious to name names
—those heartthrobs (Rock) and characters (Liberace)
disappearing without proper goodbyes.
Why?   Why?   You almost cried with her.

I did not
but I could not
though I could have a glimmer of hope
when Liz invited us—the world, America, Moms like you—
to ask Where would we be without these people
we passively watch die?
These incredible people ... who contribute so much?

A tenser tone, more unsettling glare:
I mean, for God’s sake, where would Hollywood be?
Where would I be?
—so bitter she almost scoffed.

And as I watched the rice smoking behind you
and heard Dad’s car pulling up the drive,
I knew exactly where I was—
as if for the first time—
I was there, just outside Levittown,
and surprisingly I was not alone
in that crowded kitchen
which suddenly seemed to be opening up
and opening up
at the beck and call
of one girlish but seriously angry voice
that somehow touched my mother
who’d once again be racing
to catch up with time.

©Michael Montlack, Cool Limbo, 2011 New York Quarterly Press
(originally published in The Cream City Review
republished at The Debifrillator by permission of the author)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

John Gruber, One of Gay Movement’s Unsung Founding Fathers, Dies at 82

by Brent Calderwood, republished with permission from the Lambda Literary Foundation 

John Gruber (b.1928), the last surviving member of the original Mattachine Society, died peacefully at his home in Santa Clara on Monday, February 28, 2011.

The Mattachine Society, often referred to as the first successful gay rights organization in the United States (a group called the Society for Human Rights was founded in Chicago in 1924 but folded the following year), was formed in Los Angeles in 1950 by Harry Hay along with his lover Rudi Gernreich and other founding members Dale Jennings, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Konrad Stevens, and Stevens’ then-boyfriend John Gruber.

Initially, due to laws prohibiting homosexuals from gathering in public and private spaces, the group met under strict anonymity, using pseudonyms even with each other.

In Eric Slade’s 2001 film Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay, Gruber discussed the Mattachine Society’s first public act: in February 1952, after Jennings was arrested by an undercover police officer in a Los Angeles park and charged with lewd behavior, the group launched a successful defense, at a time when most homosexuals entrapped by police simply pled guilty and quietly paid the fine. “In those days if you were a homosexual,” Gruber said, “it was your problem and you knew it.”

Although Gruber’s initial attraction to the Mattachine Society was social, camaraderie quickly evolved into loyalty and political consciousness. In an unpublished interview with Slade from 2000, Gruber described his introduction to the group:
I really didn’t think of myself as a homosexual man.  I thought of myself as a guy in college, an ex-Marine….  I wouldn’t have called it group therapy in those days, but that’s really what I meant, a kind of family, a family that I never had at home, a family that accepted me, and that … was a brand new thing to me.
Gruber and the other Mattachine members, in order to garner financial support to hire a defense for Jennings, adopted the name “Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment” and began distributing flyers excoriating the Los Angeles Police Department for its longstanding practice of homosexual harassment, in the process attracting volunteers and swelling attendance at the society’s meetings.

However, the strength that comes with numbers came at a personal price to Gruber, as he explained to Slade: “The new people who came in were… very much… mainstream and… nonpolitical… But everybody loves a winner and we were winners at that point, and they joined us.”

As the Mattachine Society grew, the new members became worried about the leftist political causes, including Communism, advocated by Hay, Gruber, and other founding members. Due to these differences, all the founding members, including Gruber, resigned in 1953.

A rare photo of the Mattachine Society. LR: Dale Jennings, Rudi Gernreich, unidentified-member, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, and Paul-Bernhard. Photo: John Gruber
By the mid-1950s, the Mattachine Society had grown into a national movement, finally supplanted by a host of direct-action antiassimilationist groups that sprung up in the wake of the Stonewall Riots of June, 1969.
Of the original members, Jennings (who died in 2000) and Hay (who died in 2002) are best known today. In 1953 Jennings cofounded the gay political organization One, Inc. in Los Angeles, publisher of the seminal One Magazine; he also authored several novels. Hay went on to cofound the countercultural Radical Faeries in 1979, a group still going strong today with branches throughout North America, as well as in Europe and Asia.

Despite his unsung status, Gruber’s role as one of the founding fathers of the modern gay movement cannot be overstated. By helping to write and distribute some of Mattachine’s earliest literature in order to publicize Jenning’s entrapment case, Gruber not only helped secure one man’s release from jail, but also contributed to a burgeoning public awareness of homosexuality and antigay discrimination, the ripple effects of which are felt even today in issues ranging from marriage equality and youth suicide to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Gay historian Stuart Timmons, who interviewed Gruber for his books The Trouble with Harry Hay (Alyson) and Gay LA (Basic Books), said, “I will always remember John fondly, as the self-described gargoyle on the cathedral of the Mattachine, no pushover. He was a sweet and generous man.”
Additional research provided by Eric Slade and Jim Van Buskirk. Photos courtesy of Eric Slade.

More on the Mattachine Society Here:  

Friday, March 18, 2011

‘Dustan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master'

 Ed. by D.A. Powell and Kevin Prufer
Reviewed by Brent Calderwood for

We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, but just look at the pillow-lipped, sleepy-eyed poet gazing out from a soft-focus 1940s sepiatone on Dustan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master and your hunch is bound to be right. What’s inside is just as out of the ordinary as it looks: quirky, rarefied, romantic, and unabashedly epicene.

For this first offering in Pleiades Press’s Unsung Masters Series, esteemed poet-editors D.A. Powell and Kevin Prufer have unearthed a rare gem, and in the process rescued Thompson from becoming a literary footnote. As they explain in their introduction—which gamely balances academic rigor with engaging narrative—information about Thompson was hard to come by. He had virtually dropped off the literary map by the 1950s, even though his World War II-era work was well-published alongside that of Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden and others.

Powell and Prufer offer valuable insights into why Thompson remains elusive: the burning of literary bridges, a midlife conversion to Catholicism, and his own stipulation against posthumous republication of his first two collections of poetry—the poetry that was best-received and also most homoerotic.

Thankfully, the editors, by means of scholarly detective work and presumably a healthy dose of charm, have gained permission to publish a modest selection from those two volumes, as well as from his later narrative and poetic work. Their assiduous selections make a persuasive case for the inclusion of Thompson’s work among the best in mid-century gay poetry, as well as among the best of WWII-genre poetry (Thompson, in spite of his trust fund and apparent fragility, fought with the U.S. Army).
Rupert Brooke, who drove Cambridge boys, and modern reviewers, wild

Thompson’s work compares well with contemporaries like Rupert Brooke and Stephen Spender; and for a niche modern readership, which includes this reviewer, those comparisons alone make this book worth a look. For many others, though, Thompson’s adherence to form and meter and his frequent Classical allusions may at first glance seem old-fashioned or twee. However, his consistent musicality, his clever use of internal rhyme, slant rhyme, enjambment and campy, odd imagery transcend era and convention, making Emily Dickinson an even more apt comparison.

In “This Loneliness for You Is Like the Wound,” Thompson uses eyewitness war imagery to address his lover—ostensibly the girl at home, but more likely the boy on the next cot:
This loneliness for you is like the wound
That keeps the soldier patient in his bed,
Smiling to soothe the general on his round
Of visits to the somehow not yet dead …
The sonnet teems with clever loaded images like “bullet-bearing heart” and “fever chart,” concluding with the heroic couplet “Yet now, when death is not a metaphor, / Who dares to say that love is like the war?” In building a love sonnet around homosocial and homoerotic imagery and ending with an almost postmodern consideration of use of metaphor within the poem itself, Thompson blazed the trail for later New Formalists like Thom Gunn and Randall Mann, whose work is anything but twee.

Like many writers before him and since, Thompson frequently locates his poems in Classical or military settings to allow for an otherwise unconventional emphasis on masculine sexuality. “Tarquin,” for instance, is a vague-ish Roman title, but the poem reads as an au courant lament for a lost trick, or else as an ode to a newfound bad-boy: “The red-haired robber in the ravished bed,” “the sinner who is saint instead,” “bellboy beauty, this flamingo groom.”

Thompson’s work, overflowing with double entendres and winking metaphors, will no doubt provide poetry lovers with the same giddy, titillating awe that film buffs get from watching classic Film Noir (which similarly gained traction during the war years). It’s an awe that comes from seeing artistic work whose innovation, naughtiness, and depth not only survived, but were born of, the conventions and limitations that threatened to censor them.

Powell and Prufer capstone these tantalizing glimpses of Thompson’s oeuvre with wonderful essays by other poets and critics, including Edward Field—himself an early acquaintance of Thompson’s—and Dana Gioia. There is also a middle-of-the-book folio of images—a privilege most often reserved for Hollywood sirens and literary giants.
Edward Field in U.S. Army, where he met Thompson
The schoolboy and soldier snapshots are a delight for the reader who’s already gotten a taste of Thompson’s elegant, ribald sensibility; the photo reproductions of pages from Thompson’s short-lived lit journal Vise Versa will give the reader a further taste of the kind of campy, envelope-pushing poems and reviews Thompson wrote—work that we hope will one day be republished in full, but, were it not for this new and valuable volume, might never have been known about at all.

On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master
Dunstan Thompson
On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master
Edited by D. A. Powell and Kevin Prufer
Pleiades Press
9780964145412, Paperback, 190 pp

And while we're on the subject of hot gay poets—or was that just me?—here are a few more for your viewing pleasure: 

Lord Byron
Charles Jensen

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Elton and Son

This photo is begging for a caption. Any ideas???
(....a few days later...) 
OK, your responses came in on Facebook: We love Elton, but we couldn't resist when we saw this picture. Here are the winners.  

Warning for the faint of heart: 
they get naughtier and meaner as they go on....
  • welcome to the world, Yes, I'm your crazy looking queer dad, You're going to be just fine!
  • "Stop, Elton! That's not a gummi baby!
  • I can buy you a wig just like mine--all right two wigs.
  • ...And so the seed for decades of an inexplicable, yet recurring, nightmare is planted.
  • ‎"you look as tasty as a jar of rod stewart's splooge!"
  • ‎"Is that you Daddy? ... *erp* I think I just said goodbye to a yellow brick!"
  • you're worried about this queen eating his own child? HAVE YOU HEARD HIS LAST RECORD???
  • Ahhhh " Look what just fell out my ass!"
  • This reminds me of Goya's horrific painting of Saturn devouring one of his childen. It's in the Prado in Madrid. Find it online and compare. Would make a hilarious "Separated At Birth" side by side.

  • Future hit lyrics for son: "I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid, / your talent burned out long before your voicebox ever did."
  • "Will you digest faster??? Daddy's run out of mousse!!!!"
  • ‎"No more wire safety pins!!!!!"
  • Brent said: ‎"If placentas are good for smoothing your skin, imagine what a moisturizer made from real babies'll do!!"
  • David replied: You were a real baby once. How'd you like to be made into moisturizer?
  • Brent responded: If I were in a bottle on George Clooney's nightstand?—I'd love it!!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Defining Moments: Artist Gypsy Ray Creates Beauty out of Adversity

by Brent Calderwood
reprinted by permission from A&U Magazine, November 2010 

For the last thirty years, Gypsy Ray’s photographs and drawings have exhibited extensively throughout the United States and Europe. Her photographic works are included in collections in the U.S. Library of Congress and at the British Museum in London.
In the mid-1980s, Ray’s widely acclaimed documentary photographs of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS were exhibited in San Francisco and thereafter were included in several group exhibitions and solo shows throughout the United States. Twenty-five years later, their startling intensity and immediacy prove timeless. Courageous, candid, and undeniably artistic, they create beauty out of tragic circumstances. They also challenge notions of photojournalism and art photography as separate categories.
Ray has said that she eschews labels such as “artist,” “photographer,” or “documentary photographer.”  While these are all apt descriptors, they fail to capture the ways in which she blurs these lines, sometimes literally, as in her mixed-media series “Concealment”; inspired by her personal battle with breast cancer, Ray’s black-and-white drawings of bandaged bodies, often hazy and in extreme close-up, obscure gender and color in an effort, she says, to make their message universal.
I recently spoke with Ray from her home in Kilkenny, Ireland.

Brent Calderwood: How did you come to photography and drawing as a career? 
Gypsy Ray: I studied drawing and photography at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.  It was known as one of the very few photography programs within an art department [in the 1970s]. It was an enlightened place to learn photography because it combined the science of photography with the art of that medium. I then did an independent program through Goddard College’s San Francisco office to receive my Masters so that I could teach.

How did living in those different locales affect your work?
GR: First living in Iowa City informed my AIDS work because I started a series on the male nude there, and several of my models were friends who were gay.  Then, living in the Bay Area, I saw the need to work on a visual response to HIV/AIDS, both a personal and political response to what was happening in the mid-1980s press. Also, we—my husband and I—were experiencing the loss of friends through the disease, so this felt very important to do.

The HIV/AIDS photographs seem so intimate. How did you find your subjects, and how did you get them to open up to you?
GR: I almost always work thought an agency, at that time with San Francisco AIDS Foundation and San Francisco Hospice. This lends validity to my presence and helps establish contacts and trust. It is then up to me not to betray that established trust…. It is hard for me not to become involved with the people I work with. I am an artist but also have been a teacher in my working life. So being supportive and often fond of subjects comes automatically.

How is your approach to photography different from—or the same as—your approach to drawing?
GR: Although the technique is different, my approaches to both are similar. Recently, as a response to illness, I combined the two, using a photograph first and then obscuring it with drawing in a series entitled “Concealment.”

What can you tell me about that series? Images like Concealment #30 are striking, and yet it’s not clear what part of the body they show. Is this intentional?
GR: This work was a necessary working out of my own experience with cancer.  But in doing it I realized that I did not want the series to be either so personal or so gender-specific that it couldn’t also be universal. During chemo, I looked a bit like an egg! [Laughs] And in a photograph, [I looked] neither male nor female, so some of the images are myself.  But many are of others and are obscured so that the viewer has to search the images.  Everyone has a trauma they need to cover over to get on with daily living.  Thus,“Concealment.”

In addition to breast cancer and HIV/AIDS, your projects have addressed subjects as various as urban schools and the Special Olympics. Do you see a common link in these projects?
GR: I am drawn to documentary subjects. Breast cancer was a personal response that evolved into a specific, not just female, response to covering up trauma. “San Francisco City Middle Schools from the Early 1990s” was another project I was invited into and embraced. “Special Olympics” began as a student volunteer project when I taught at Cabrillo College [in Santa Cruz County, California] and then extended to my own work with the U.S. Special Olympics and similar work with Camphill Communities in Ireland where I now live…. All of these are, in a sense, educational.  Perhaps their link is a desire to visually teach.

How did you wind up in Ireland?
GR: I moved to the Bay Area to receive a Masters, and I ended up staying. Then I married a man from Ireland and moved back [to Ireland], where we could afford to finally purchase our own home. Working here has changed my work, but so has age. I find that drawing offers me the quiet I need. And yet now, through the Kilkenny County Council, I’m photographing an extended family of Irish Travellers at their halting site, so … I am still doing documentary photography. I am still, at 61, passionate about both drawing and photography.

What’s next for you?
GR: I am heading to the studio full time, retiring from teaching. This is emotional but also exciting.  I have been fortunate to be the arts facilitator for a wonderful group of women in a socially inclusive program. It is hard to leave this but also a wonderful way to end my teaching career…. Going into the studio full time is very exciting. I have so much I want to do and explore.

You can learn more about Gypsy Ray’s work at

Brent Calderwood is a San Francisco-based writer and activist. His essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared widely, including in A&U. His Web site is

True to Life: Artist Lenore Chinn Portrays the Depth and Diversity of Our Relationships

by Brent Calderwood
reprinted by permission of A&U Magazine, October 2010 

San Francisco native Lenore Chinn, who’s been exhibiting her photorealistic acrylic portraits locally and nationally since 1977, has described her work as “fusing an Asian aesthetic of sparseness and clarity with visual narratives” that veer away from stereotypical depictions of gender, race and sexual orientation.
Recently, Chinn’s work appeared in the remarkable exhibit, “We Were There: The Lesbian Response to the Early AIDS Epidemic among Gay Men,” at San Francisco’s African American Art & Culture Complex. Amid the mostly black-and-white photography and ephemera, Chinn’s paintings of her gay male friends, many of whom succumbed to AIDS-related illness in the eighties, stood out as indelibly warm in both color and emotional content.
Based primarily on the photographs she takes herself, Chinn’s paintings are so detailed that the viewer can see the grain in a hardwood floor, the headlines on a newspaper, the stitching on a pair of jeans, and—most compellingly—the emotional truth of their human subjects. Every shared look between lovers, every pensive solitary gaze, every proud stare into the lens of the camera, is captured affectionately and meticulously.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Chinn about the paintings in the “We Were There” exhibit, as well as her work as a whole.

Brent Calderwood: Do you consider your art political?
Lenore Chinn: The immediacy of an image is very powerful. Once an image is seen it cannot easily be dismissed. In that sense I do view my work as a form of activism and that is a conscious choice.
I view my work as a catalyst for change, for creating an environment in which the viewing public might rethink how art is defined, viewed and considered. Art is a powerful tool in the social justice movement though not everyone has that perspective–yet.

What early experiences influenced your philosophy and approach to your art?
What I believe greatly affected me was the times in which I came of age as a young artist. I went to San Francisco State when … the country was in the throes of the Vietnam War. Civil Rights issues were front-page news and ethnic studies was a burgeoning concept. Women’s studies came later….I still have black and white photos (pre-digital of course) taken of the SFPD on campus with full riot gear, mounted on horses and motorcycles, marching through campus. It was the time of the Kent State student deaths by National Guardsmen; college campuses were sites of resistance and national student strikes.

How did you start using photography in your work?
Photography was a tool from my early years of painting and I have always carried a camera with me wherever I went. It used to be a 35mm camera (Minolta or my dad’s Pentax), now it’s an Olympus digital. I learned to view through the lens and my photographs became my source for drafting works on canvas….I shoot a lot of photos wherever I go, sometimes documenting events or people, and whether I intend for something to end up on canvas or not, I know when something might have potential.

Although your paintings are based on photos, they reflect conscious choices about factors like color scheme and light and shadow. How do you determine what changes you will make in taking your images from film to canvas?
I work with texture, color and light to bring out the most effective image I can convey. Sometimes my photos are not shot under the most ideal lighting conditions or there are extraneous things that don’t lend themselves to the strength of a composition. So I do make choices and adjustments where I find it will create a more focused image.            

How do you determine the subjects for your paintings?
My friends had always been intricately involved in my work, both as subjects and as supporters of my work. They were often artists and we supported each other’s aspirations. So they did figure prominently in my paintings.
When I started college as a young art student some of my closest friends in the arts were young gay men. Through one of them….I became acquainted with a core group of gay Latino friends who would become extended familia. Then I got to know all of their partners over a period of many years. Almost all of them died of AIDS or AIDS-related complications between 1984 and 1990.
In the past my work had been viewed in the context of documenting a gay, LGBT or queer community but that was not my intention when I painted each subject. They happened to be largely people I knew, often good friends, or I was commemorating a relationship. So in that sense it became a visual journey of our history as a community and some of that was a painful episode in our collective histories.

Your work as a whole conveys the importance of representing women and people of color. How do your portraits of gay men fit (or not fit) within your oeuvre?
            The twin friends [in “Son Cuates”] identified themselves as Mexican American but their father was white. John, in “The Family,” is half Puerto Rican. My friend “Robaire” in “Departure” is also of mixed heritage, French-Moroccan Sephardic and Jewish. Others are Cuban American. I think my work reflects the complexity of our country’s tapestry of people.

Do you think audiences for your work are more savvy about the sexual, racial, and cultural aspects of your work today than they were in the eighties, or less so?
Whether audiences are more savvy now or then I cannot say. But I do feel that those who see themselves in my work or can identify with a life experience in my canvases come away with a positive affirmation and this is something that is not so common in the fine arts. By my approach I make our existence visible. We count.

For more information on Lenore Chinn visit

Brent Calderwood is a San Francisco-based writer and activist. His essays, reviews, and
poetry have appeared widely, including in A&U. His Web site is