This essay was originally published in the Winter 2004 edition of Spunk Magazine.
The Smiths, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Oscar Wilde, David Wojnarowicz, The NEA, gay bars and gay boys, the threat of AIDS and the culture of resistance: these were some of the ingredients for the stew that was The Savannah College of Art and Design (Savannah, Ga.) my freshman year in 1987. This was also the year of my coming out at 22, the year of the best gay bar of my life (The Who's Who, which eventually burned down) and the year I discovered that the sleepy coastal town I was born into was not the one I was about to re-enter at all. Growing up most of my life on the east side of town right outside of a low-income housing project called Savannah Gardens (which my friends called “Savannah Garbage”) I rarely had the chance to go downtown. Here were the famous squares with their colonial homes, moss riddled trees, River Street and the Telfair Museum. These would have been special occasions, moments for the genteel, the picturesque. Perhaps walking along these streets gave me another sense as well: darker forces operating within the city, ghosts and skeletons, a town where history was once made. If it did this feeling proved elusive. Savannah was as regular as rain. Seasons came and went. Every spring the azaleas would bloom as usual in a rich riot of colors all around the city. I was always surprised to find on closer inspection that they were such ugly flowers.
Was it spring when I first entered the low Victorian doorway of The Who's Who? I was so afraid I had to be dragged there kicking and screaming by my friend Paul. I thought I had a reputation to maintain but secretly I understood that I was ashamed and nervous and really green. (It is true that the bar stood wide open on Bay Street at the edge of downtown for all to see. It was a test of your mettle to open the door.) When I walked in to the strains of Madonna's “Open Your Heart” (the bar maybe a third full) all eyes turned to us. Maybe this was the first night I saw J, the bartender upon which all others should be modeled (a version of Fassbinder's Querelle), or Mother, a heavy middle aged man in drag who would greet everyone at the door with a fem “hey doll” (Mother knew absolutely everyone). As I approached a lit up 70s style dance floor blinking in near pitch black darkness I knew nothing would ever again be the same for me. I danced skittishly with boys; eventually I slept with them. Soon I was inside those forbidding old houses where the students rented rooms. My senses opened to the look and smell of mahogany, granite and marble, dark rooms with vaulted ceilings, and to the bohemian spirit with which these students inhabited them. I met painters, actors, drag queens and dilettantes, most of whom created their homes with a mattress and a boombox. It was wonderful to see these young gay boys take the town, one by one, its history and spaces, and make it over for themselves. Suddenly the alleyways, carriage houses and cobbled streets of the brochures had become a space for liberation. With this freedom came a new responsibility: a slow creeping sense of the political.
After my entrance into the bar I enrolled at SCAD. Everything was downtown – the school had bought up nine historic buildings for its campus. Inside these once formidable buildings I took my foundations courses: Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, Janson's History Of Art, and Johannes Itten's The Elements Of Color. I remember taking my first stabs at developing a sensibility: ciphering out the baby scratches of Cy Twombly, finding something deep in Warhol, and the electric thrill of Lautrec's cartoons. I will never forget the first rush of becoming fully involved in the process of making art, the energy and completeness of total immersion, and wincing as these works were discussed in a class critique. I remember the city, this new vision of the city, the disco, and the constant media coverage of the AIDS epidemic. I remember requesting Mapplethorpe's banned photography book at the library (studying what most people would still consider pornography) thrilled to the bone. I remember ACT UP. I remember the living death of artist David Wojnarowicz through his brilliant images and writings and his account of what was happening to us in the world at large. I remember The Smiths and The Pet Shop Boys and memorizing all of the lyrics (the first accurate mental picture I ever had of gay life). I remember reading Wilde for the first time: The Critic As Artist. Covered by a great green canopy of oak and Spanish moss, by good manners, by booze and hangovers, these were my first attempts to grasp the world. I was one of the true inhabitants of the streets of that city in that time, of dark nights and dark leanings of the heart. More than anything SCAD gave me a reason to be where I was. I pretended I would end up an artist, and I did, but not in the way I expected. In the era of WHAM! and Ronald Reagan mine was probably a sentimental education, and these experiences still inform the artwork I do today. But I think it was the gay bar, the place of everything illicit and forbidden, which informed me the most. It took me to art school and behind those pretty facades from a long past antebellum South. Those wonderful old houses provided a stage for me and all the boys back then. We were all visionaries, we were all secret sharers, we were all the future. We did a lot of it in the dark, where I am sure our forebears had done it before and I hope they are doing it now. From that little southern portal, a big world.