Self Portrait in a Million Parts

It’s no small thing to see the self. I live in a world of constant distractions. I live in a world that begs me to examine how other people see ‘me”. But do I see myself, really? Am I studying external shapes and colors or do I see myself?

Over the past month I’ve found myself a little stunted in deciding what to do in my studio. Yes there are commissions. Yes I am I surrounded by the dynamic images I’ve created over the past 5 months in this CDMX studio space. But I have been spending a lot of the month, outside of building business related stuff and commissions, reflecting on what direction I want to go in with the studio work devoid of pursuing this non existent gallery show. The show that sits in the air like ether evaporating.

I thought I was working on this idea built from my Queer Saints series of telling the stories of historical figures who gained fame when history erased their queerness. It’s an interesting topic, but when I look at the work I see more. I posed the question to myself, “If you remove the stamp of Queer Saints what is below the surface?” Why ask the question? Well because I could feel something deeper going on. It came from the experiences in Ojai, CA where I was applauded and raised up by the community for excellence. Then five months later I was tarred, feathered, and exiled from the same community without due process because of my queerness. Some will say – “well Micheal that seems like a leap,” but I tell you at the core of my life experiences are the stories of violence because others are uncomfortable with who I am. I am a veteran of violence and the scars remain. Like my metal plate in my hip aches when a storm approaches, that same ache comes through when violence approaches.

What to do with that? What to do…with that. I know what the 24 year old art student did with that. He got angry and created protest art. He marched in front of the Dean’s office and declared offenses and sat on Michigan Avenue with a sign glaring at the “straights” passing with all their privilege.  24 year old me spewed anger outward. Probably 48 year old me does some of the same in different forms today, but the problem is all that anger has taken it’s toll. When I look at the work I don’t experience the anger.  What I am seeing in my work is an expression of beauty. I see a boundary between my experiences and the desire to evolve them into a story. Not a story of shame. Not a desire to bring sadness into the world. It’s not an outward expression I am seeking. It’s a healing inward to the young Micheal.

Me in College
Me at 26 in my photography class at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Young Micheal. Naive for sure. Believed the world would accept his spirit. He did not know the world was so closed to the individual who did not meet the brand requirements. Yes it’s true, the world has evolved it’s brand and you can see “queer” has taken on it’s own stamp. Put on the logo and everyone looks to you and says, “I know who that person is. Thanks for wearing the logo so I don’t have to worry about who you are.” But the truth is my life is full of bold experiences that present brand(s) and appear authentic. The experiences are authentic. I experienced them as the person I was. However, the brands were separated. Categorized. Neatly stuck in boxes and pulled out based on outside factors. No I am not blaming society. I decided after years of violence that I needed to survive. I created those boxes, categories,  systems, and survival techniques to save myself from the negative experiences. All the while I did not realize that I was poking at the scar. I was scratching at the scar without noticing it. Believing in the authenticity of my experiences, but not accepting that all these boxes combined is actually who I am. Who I am. “me”.

Let’s unpack those boxes. No not here. That’s going to take too long and why torture you with this examination? I’m not going to do that in this way. It’s just that I am sitting here in this packed studio. Every wall is layered with art. It’s what one may call “a blessing”. I get to sit here and examine my work and ask questions about what it is to be human. It’s a luxury really. Many people, ok most people, don’t get this kind of opportunity. I’ve made choices that lead me to this moment. I have had experiences, recent experiences, that demand I examine who this Micheal Swank is. I can ignore and blaze my queer saint trail forward. It will lead to something, but then I am ignoring what is clearly calling out to “me”.

Conclusion. There is value in the process and production of the Queer Saint series, but there is someone stashed in one of those boxes begging for air. I don’t want to go on ignoring those parts of me or pulling them out for specific scenarios. I want to feel comfortable in my own skin. Not naive. Not angry. I want to be able to stand firm like I did in October when I was attacked by prejudices of others. I owned myself and stood there being judge and pelted. I stood as Micheal Swank without boxes or categories. I understood how all my life experiences made me stronger. I know it is possible to exist in that same light every day and felt the heat of my power. Instead of masking that behind a brand or stylized idea to make it consumable, now I want to pull everything out and throw away the boxes. Find some glue and put it together. Take a picture to remind myself this is what you are for those moments of doubt. It’s time to accept those experiences and decide how to move forward. No wait. Who will move forward.

Image of the artist Micheal Swank