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Southern Spaces
A journal about real and imagined spaces and places of the US South and their global connections

"The Room that We're Able to Take Up": Forrest Lawson's Queer Aesthetic

Emory University
University of Georgia
Published August 25, 2020

Overview

In this edited version of a series of Zoom conversations, visual artist Forrest Lawson and Queer Intersections series editor Eric Solomon discuss the evolution of Lawson’s art, which "explores the array of complexities experienced by individuals within the gay community."

Queer Intersections / Southern Spaces is a collection of interdisciplinary, multimedia publications that explore, trouble, and traverse intersections of queer experiences, past, present, and future. From a variety of perspectives, and with an emphasis upon the US South, this series, edited by Eric Solomon, offers critical analysis of LGBTQ+ people, practices, spaces, and places.

“If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time I would... It makes me weep to feel the history of your flesh beneath my hands in a time of so much loss.” —David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (When I Put My Hands on Your Body), 1990

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” —Toni Morrison

Introduction

At ten years old, visual artist Forrest Lawson remembers being bullied on the playground of his Fort Myers, Florida, elementary school. Other boys targeted him with a particular pejorative word mostly used against gay men. Lawson's teacher would observe this bullying, eventually reporting it to his parents. Late one night, Lawson remembers his father pulling him aside, asking him about what was going on at school, and giving him a directive that has come to shape how he understands his ethic as an artist: “Stiffen your wrist, otherwise you’ll have to learn how to fight.”

“Although it took many years to process this statement personally in terms of my own coming-out as a gay man and my relationship with my father,” Lawson says, “I’ve realized that my artwork is how I’ve learned to fight. It’s how I fight back in the ways I know how for myself and for others. I consider my work as activism, operating in a mode promoting social justice and change for all LGBTQ+ people. My wrist might not be ‘stiff’ in the way my dad intended, but I think my artistic mission is mighty.”

Now twenty-nine, Lawson is pursuing a MFA degree in Sculpture and Fine Arts at the University of Georgia. He first began exploring art as an undergraduate student at the University of Central Florida, where he received a BFA degree. Lawson has shown his work in numerous group exhibitions, and in 2019 he was honored with the Grand Prize of ArtFields in Lake City, South Carolina. From June 2–27, 2020, his work was on display in “Eros, C’est la Vie,” a show “celebrating queer artwork and artists” at Gallery 110 in Seattle. Gallery proceeds from this show will be donated to Gay City in Seattle, and Lawson will donate his personal proceeds to Black Visions Collective. Through October 31, 2020, Lawson’s work will be featured in “Existimos (We Exist),” which “brings a community of queer artists voices out of the shadows to transgress, transfigure, transpose, transform, and transcend the limitations of a binary world where queer becomes a verb and not a noun.” In our wide-ranging conversation, I asked Lawson about growing up gay in Florida, the origins of his artmaking, his artistic influences, moments of shared LGBTQ+ trauma which motivated much of his art, how he’s learning to integrate queer joy and other positive affects in his subject matter, and how the current pandemic has shaped his artistic exploration of loneliness. We end our conversation remembering and honoring the forty-nine lives lost at the Pulse nightclub shooting in central Florida.

Convoluted Beginnings: Heterize, Placebo, "Closeted"

Convoluted #2, Orlando, Florida, 2016. Photograph by Forrest Lawson. The Convoluted pieces (2016) were displayed at Faith Arts Village of Orlando (FAVO), a faith-based gallery space. They were initially created to be a conversation starter for the viewers and the faith-based community for which they were created. Lawson states, “These pieces didn’t get as much conversation as I would have wanted from this community in their first display setting.” Courtesy of Forrest Lawson.

Solomon: We might as well begin with Florida. According to 2018 data from the UCLA Williams Center, LGBT adults comprise 4.6 percent of the adult population in your home state of Florida, which is statistically tied with Georgia as the highest percentage of any “southern” state. And this number, of course, reflects only those who disclose. While sixty percent of the state is protected against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in private employment, housing, and public accommodation through local measures, there is currently no statewide law, and the June 15, 2020 Supreme Court decision specified only employment discrimination nationwide.1As Skyler Swisher wrote in an article for the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2019, sixty-eight percent of Floridians support LGBT anti-discrimination laws, which led some to hope 2020 would be “the year for Florida to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination.” Yet, one attempt, the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, died in the civil justice subcommittee in March 2020. There’s no statewide ban on conversion therapy and twenty seven percent of LGBT Floridians live below the poverty line. The seesaw potential of queer progression and regression is not unique to Florida, but I wonder if you have observed that 60/40 split, that separation between 60 percent of the state, which does protect LGBT people, and the other 40 percent. Could you tell me about your background growing up gay in Florida?

Lawson: Florida certainly isn’t unique in this, and an exception to this rule is hard for me to imagine. I was born and raised in the part of Florida that I would say is proud to count themselves among the 40 percent that don’t protect LGBTQ+ people. The area is also considerably below the median income line with a large blue-collar work force. The scarcity of work as well as an ingrained preconception about queer people contributes to many being unwilling to disclose their sexuality. Self-preservation. But it’s also true that a significant part of my work and practice actually comes from how I grew up in my very conservative, “southern,” working-class household in Fort Myers, a little-known town between Naples and Fort Charlotte in southwest Florida. I was raised in a very "non-progressive" environment, I guess is the best way to describe it. I grew up in the closet like most southern people do, and that contributes to the direction I’ve taken with my work, especially with the beginning. My practice started with me exploring shared feelings and traumas in the closet and how to create a sense of solidarity within a community that I did not yet have access to in any concrete sense. Because I grew up in such a small conservative town, I didn’t really have a visible queer community of my own; there wasn’t a large group of people that I could gravitate towards to seek mentorship. What I did have was the church, within which I felt I constantly had to negotiate my own identity as a child. I continue to deal with the daily onslaught of Christian pushback as a queer adult. And I think you see that in my art.

Solomon: So much of your work speaks directly to the intersection of faith and sexuality in places such as Fort Myers, which resonates with many other spaces and experiences for queer people across the South. Two of your first pieces were titled Convoluted, and they feature a series of biblical passages often used to condemn homosexuality.2Bible passages included in Convoluted’s web: Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Mark 10:6–9, Romans 1:26–32, Romans 13:8–10, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11,17–20, 1 Corinthians 7:2, 1 Timothy 1:8–11, Hebrews 13:1–5, Jude 1:5–8. It is my understanding that you cut those passages out of a King James Bible in order to “convolute” them and symbolize how some people bend, misconstrue, misinterpret, and mistranslate biblical teachings in the present in order to align with their socially conservative worldviews. That all biblical teaching and meaning making is a convoluted process. Is that what you were envisioning for these two works?

Lawson: That’s exactly how I imagined the pieces would be interpreted. Art and religion can both be misinterpreted, and with the Convoluted pieces I wanted to make sure what I was saying was “on the nose,” more or less. As much as it came from a place of frustration, the process became somewhat cathartic. When I was growing up, I tried to research as much about specific Bible passages mentioning homosexuality as some sort of defense when the subject was inevitably brought up around the dinner table. There are several passages that refer to Jesus helping heal a man’s servant, and looking back at the Greek and Hebrew translations, the word is also used to describe a same sex partner. I made the mistake of asking a pastor about it, thereby confessing my lack of faith, and his response was disappointing to say the least. He dogmatically insisted that the Bible was not open for interpretation. Not getting answers from faith leaders, I turned to art. The Convoluted Bible pieces were the first major breakthroughs that I had in thinking that I could be an artist and take this path. Like you said, they’re about the mistranslations and miscommunications of Bible teachings. I grew up in a Southern Baptist setting so it was all about how preachers and pastors and Sunday school teachers would miscommunicate many of the core biblical teachings in service of a political endgame that I did not recognize as “Christian” in any sense. Convoluted #1 and #2 are deeply emotional pieces for me; they helped me begin to understand how art could serve as a way to unravel many of the misguided teachings that surrounded me as I grew up as a queer person.

Solomon: Beyond the Convoluted pieces, interrogations of how faith meets sexuality continue to permeate your work. Heterize (2019) merges religious dogma with a convoluted history of pathologizing homosexuality as a “disorder” in need of a “cure” or “fix.” While I think the “Return to Eden” will be familiar to every queer reader who has been taunted with the “It’s not Adam and Steve” line of argument at some point in their life, what was the concept behind Heterize and do you see it as an extension, expansion, and/or revision of your concerns in Convoluted?

Lawson: I see Hetereize as both an extension and an expansion of Convoluted in that it extends my exploration of faith while expanding to discuss medical science’s responsibility to queer subjects.

Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder up until 1973, and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) didn’t officially rule reparative therapies as an ineffective strategy in “changing” sexual orientation until 1998. Dr. Robert Spitzer, one of the key members of the campaign to de-pathologize homosexuality in 1973, published a study in 2003 that many interpreted as an argument for homosexuality as a choice, that homosexuals can change their orientation.3R.L. Spitzer, “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation? 200 Participants Reporting a Change from Homosexual to Heterosexual Orientation,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 32 (2003): 403–417. It added fuel to many churches’ fire in maintaining and extending their “conversion” practices, using established and “credible” scientific applications alongside spiritual exorcisms rooted in the rhetoric of shame and damnation. All to “fix,” “cure,” “convert” gay and lesbian people.

Heterize is based on my research of churches and organizations that practice conversion or reparative therapy at this intersection of faith and interventionist “medical” treatment. Reparative therapy is still legal in 29 states (2020) but has been widely discredited by the APA and is proven to be detrimental to the mental health of LGBTQ+ individuals who are forced into or even willingly participate in conversion therapy. These conversion centers operate from some of the same misguided principles I explored in the Convoluted series. They promote sexual and spiritual purity, accepting only procreation as divine decree and sole purpose of sexuality and homosexuality as a perversion of that decree. All the while they ignore some of the basic tenants of Christianity. This is why I list “Hospital for Ideological Reform” on a box of Heterize: bigotry under the guise of medical science.

But, again, a box of Heterize also confronts the responsibility and culpability of medical science in conversion therapies. Apomorphine, primarily used to treat Parkinson’s disease but has also been promoted as a treatment for alcoholism and heroin addiction, and the hormone Oestrogen are used in conversion practices to subdue libido as well as induce vomiting at the onset of perceived homosexual arousal. That’s why I list them as supplemental ingredients on the Heterize box. Heterize is meant to confront the absurdity of conversion therapy with its own level of absurdity. Think what it would be like if you could take a pill or inject a drug developed by science to change aspects of who you are, and that your spiritual home taught you that was your only option. It’s an absurd thought when you stop and think about it.

Placebo Triptych, Orlando, Florida, 2018. Photograph by Forrest Lawson. Courtesy of Forrest Lawson.

Solomon: Heterize might merge a faith-based critique with a more clinical form, but it’s not the first time you’ve thought about injection/ingestion as treatment within your work. Both operate strongly as a sort of interactive component, one in which viewers would not necessarily directly participate (inject/ingest), but they would feel that artistic invitation implicit in the work itself. I’m thinking here of your works around Placebo, which on one level examine the self-medication many queer people deploy (drugs/alcohol) to cope with the world around them. Each door in your Placebo Triptych, for example, features a different substance, geltine capsules (pills), a white powder, and syringes as if the person living inside each door is composed merely of the substance.

Lawson: Yeah, the Placebo Triptych (2018) is the culmination of various experiments with the idea of how queer people ingest daily words of hatred and devaluation and the accumulation of those daily homophobic micro-aggressions often become the foundation for a profound self-loathing that can often only be “treated” by filling the void with other “pills”: drugs, alcohol, substances. A placebo by definition has no value therapeutically, and I wanted to play off that idea for queer people navigating self-actualization. That just as you can’t be converted or fixed via the intrusion and twisting of religious ideology, there’s nothing that can numb you to the pain of getting beyond where you’ve been to become who you are meant to be as a fully embodied person in the world. Addiction is a problem in the LGBTQ+ community, and I wanted to confront that directly with both the Placebo Triptych and Daily.

Open detail of Daily, Florida, 2017. Photograph by Forrest Lawson. This is one of the pieces in Lawson's "placebo" themed pieces. Each drawer corresponds to a day of the week in which the viewer-as-subject ingests fifty-two "pills" of the larger internalized homophobic narrative. Courtesy of Forrest Lawson.

Solomon: I know you’ve said the Placebo pieces represent the “cyclical futility of trying to escape the shame of being gay,” and the text in Daily in particular is based upon the journal of a man who underwent reparative therapy who described all the pills he had to take in a day. I wonder how you think of your own “gay shame” journey and the closet structure that figures prominently in much of your work. Could you say a bit more about how you navigated your understanding of sexuality in a place like Fort Myers, where you said earlier there were no visible queer networks and mentors for you? Was there a day when you just decided “I’m coming out”?

Lawson: I didn’t have a real sense of community in Fort Myers, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one there that I perhaps didn’t have access to. I didn’t really know of other queer people growing up, and the ones I did know of were through my parents who advised me to keep my distance in their stigmatizing vein of thinking about “deviant” sexuality that did not fit their ideal Southern Baptist man. I came out of the closet the day I graduated high school. But I had “come out” as an artist so to speak much earlier. Becoming an artist wasn’t an option for a very long time despite my having always been creative. As I child I was bullied and in an attempt to become “one of the guys,” I would draw erotic female figures to see if I could get the approval of my straight counterparts. I did that for a few years, maintaining a straight macho façade while continuing to draw and practice my art. I never took any art in high school because it was considered a very “gay” thing to do, and I had to avoid that perception to protect myself where I was. But then, I graduated high school, came out, and went to college in Orlando. I started by majoring in architecture, and I think you can see that structural and conceptual idea of form in my work. Architecture morphed into allowing me to think about how to blend my artistic life with a professional practice, but during my second year, I realized I was having a lot more fun making things, making objects, rather than the strict conceptualization of space and how people maneuver through it. But it’s interesting because now I’m coming full circle and beginning to research more about queer spaces and how we navigate them both in terms of accessibility and as terrains for intimate and affective encounter. The room that we’re able to take up.

Solomon: Wow, that’s powerful: “the room that we’re able to take up.” I want to come back to that idea of how your work is taking a more spatially aware turn lately. But first, you said you were bullied a lot growing up, and I think two of your art projects reflect both the experience of growing up being bullied and being closeted. “Smear the Queer” is a game many children enact on the playground: the target is the person holding the ball, who is labeled the “queer,” who must be “smeared” or tackled. The goal for the “queer” is to run and avoid being tackled. At least that’s what I remember from playing it as a kid. Your Smear the Queer speaks to the bullying many LGBTQ+ youth experience, but I would argue it also helps us understand the symbolic function queerness performs in our cultural consciousness: the one who must first be identified then “taken out” is the queer. The queer doesn’t fit. You used casts of your own teeth in the piece? A wisdom tooth at the center surrounded by other teeth jockeying for central position? Were you thinking about wisdom tooth extraction as a kind of metaphor for queer removal when you worked on this piece?

Smear the Queer, Florida, 2016. Photograph by Forrest Lawson. Courtesy of Forrest Lawson.

Lawson: I don’t know if I can claim I was thinking about wisdom teeth and surgical extraction specifically, but I was definitely thinking about how I was being excised from my social group and using teeth as a symbol for that. This piece started out with my own experience being bullied. As I said earlier, so much of my background informs my art. For me specifically, I was a quiet, very emotional young man, and I liked to play house with girls over football with the boys. I made other young boys uncomfortable because I wasn’t the ideal representation of a “man” (especially within my Christian private school), and unfortunately, I became a screen on which to project their own misguided ideals of proper masculinity. The wisdom tooth is extracted sometimes because of the perceived misalignment it will cause, even if the tooth is perfectly healthy, and I think this becomes a great proxy for the queer experience. As such Smear the Queer moved beyond my personal experience with bullying and evolved into a response to the number of reported hate crimes in the US. In my research I found that of the reported hate crimes committed towards the LGBTQ+ community, 57 percent of them were towards gay men. In the piece, I use 961 teeth to represent the approximate number of deaths that occurred in 2014 as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Yes, the teeth are cast from my original tooth and are arranged around it in the center of the composition. Dyed wax is used to symbolize gums and to represent the shared identity of the victims, connecting each tooth and creating a singularity and a metaphor for the shared struggle. If I thought about excision, it was in the sense of how a hate crime cuts a life short and I wanted to include those 961 teeth to reflect the sheer numbers of hate crimes against LGTBQ folk each year. Of course, one is one too many.

Solomon: Your Limp Wrist cast series also represents how a singular experience can be displayed alongside other singular experiences in order to form a collective, quotidian pattern of bullying and homophobic violence. The wrist cast pieces were featured in an early show of yours under the title “Closeted.” One of the most striking casts is from the subject “David” whose brother told him that he was “worthless.” Others in the series feature similarly jarring language “sharpied” on the cast. Can you describe how you curate the pieces in this ongoing series and how they work in your exploration of the closet?

Lawson: Yeah, the Limp Wrist pieces were probably the most successful works I did as an undergraduate at UCF. In an attempt to reach out to other queer people and form a community, I started taking on participants within my work, trying to figure out how I could mesh my historical references with theirs, and how each of us could independently grow from the process. The Limp Wrists began as a way for us to explore the role of language in making queer people understand our worth as perceived from a member of the straight majority. The written content on each cast represents the most memorable moment when the subject felt someone they loved “drew blood,” or tried to wound them with words that targeted their perceived difference. As such, each cast also features a drop of the subject’s blood to illustrate queer resilience: that we can be wounded to the point of needing a cast, but if we keep going we can become stronger. For example, on my cast I quote my grandpa who I overheard talk about the “nasty shit” on TV, by which he meant gay stuff. That moment made me understand how he perceived queer people, even the one who sat in the room with him and shared his blood. It’s about what we LGBTQ+ folk endure when we are still in the closet to those around us or even to ourselves. We put up with a lot of casual verbal violence even from our kinfolk.

I thought a lot about language and go back to Merle Miller, “it’s not true, that saying about sticks and stones; it’s words that break your bones.” In Limp Wrists, I wanted a way to express how much of what we hear around the thanksgiving table, in front of the TV, in church sermons, and with our “friends” is internalized and becomes a brutal reminder of our social status. It’s a common experience of most queer people I’ve asked. There is always a moment, something that is said either to them or unknowingly about them, that changes their perception of their self-worth. Sometimes it’s from the people we least expect, which is often the most damaging. I hope that one day I’ll run out of arms to cast, but I think these pieces are important to illustrate our queer resilience. I was inspired to create the form of a cast and “sign” it in blood after reading the Queer Nation manifesto, which was handed out by ACT UP at the New York Pride Parade in 1990:

“How can I tell you. How can I convince you, brother; sister that your life is in danger. That everyday [sic] you wake up alive, relatively happy, and a functioning human being, you are committing a rebellious act. You as an alive and functioning queer are a revolutionary. There is nothing on this planet that validates, protects or encourages your existence. It is a miracle you are standing here reading these words. You should by all rights be dead.”

Better Blood Memories

Solomon: I wanted to ask you about family—brothers and sisters—not so much your own family background but how you think about the queer kin with whom you share artistic DNA, if that makes sense. I can look at your work and see so many possible influences. First, how would you describe yourself as an artist? How do you think about your work at this stage in your career as fitting within a certain tradition?

Lawson: I’d say my art begins with a clear sense of concept that then shapes the form of the installations, something akin but not limited to the post-minimalist school of sculptural thought. I don’t have a concrete or specific school of thought surrounding what I do in my practice, but if I were to describe myself it would be an interdisciplinary multimedia artist. I would consider myself more of a sculptor. Two-dimension has slipped my repertoire of talent.

In terms of contemporary influences, I look a lot at Jordan Eagles, a California artist who works a lot with blood and did pieces in the Keith Herring museum. His Blood Mirror is probably one of my favorite pieces. I know I mimic a lot of his thought process and artistic instincts in my own work. Ai Weiwei is another artist who’s driven me to more of an activist place in my work. I’ve been talking with social justice professionals about how what I create are not just objects but have a more tangible function as reflective pieces for social change or disruption. Otherwise, I feel like I’m making the work just for myself, which isn’t the purpose of what I do.

What Are We to You, Florida, 2020. Photograph by Forrest Lawson. Courtesy of Forrest Lawson.

Solomon: Yes, I can see Jordan Eagles for sure in your work. Part of the way my mind works is through connection: always seeing references and ways to synthesize because I think all works of art are ultimately in conversation with other works of art, and we scholars tease out those connections in writing about them. That intricate weaving is something a writer I admire, the late Douglas Crimp, does wonderfully.4Douglas Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002). In viewing your work specifically as a queer viewer, I also see traces of many other artists I love. Speaking of Eagles and blood mirrors and a desire for the work to have more purposeful connection, your use of blood as artistic material fits within a certain queer artistic tradition. One of my favorite artists is David Wojnarowicz; he fuses image and text in a way that is perhaps comparable to you as well. I teach portions of his memoir Close to the Knives, and it’s always eye-opening for students. In one of his final artworks before he died of AIDS complications, he superimposes writing over a photograph of human remains. Part of it reads, “If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time I would… It makes me weep to feel the history of your flesh beneath my hands in a time of so much loss.”5David Breslin and David Kiehl, David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 270–271. I can see this sense of connection through loss in your return to shared LGBTQ+ traumas throughout your work. Your use of blood also seems to echo the subversive political aims of Félix González-Torres, whose work was interactive, conceptual, three-dimensional and often deceptively political. His 1991 billboard depicting an empty unmade double bed with imprints remining on the pillows, produced a year after he lost his lover Ross to AIDS, makes a powerful political statement. He writes, “It was ruled that the bed is the site where we are not only born, where we die, where we make love, but it is also a place where the state has a pressing interest, a public interest.”6Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Practices: the Problem of Divisions of Cultural Labour,” Art and Design 9 (1994): 91. See Joan Gibbons, Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance (London: I.B. Tauris, 20017). Despite the power of the imprint, Ross is no longer in that bed with Felix. However, the state, following the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision, remains obliquely in that bed.

Detail from Felix Gonzalez-Torres' Untitled, Seoul, South Korea, 1991. Courtesy of Flickr user Paul Keller. Creative Commons license CC by 2.0.

Your blood works provide a ruminative and reflective political ethic similar to González-Torres. When you see the blood in your work, you do not initially know from whom the blood flowed just as you cannot discern immediately from González-Torres’s work who once occupied that bed. And you’re making a statement about the state’s continued role in regulating a particular population’s ability to donate blood.

Do you think about the history of negative connotations associated with queer blood, which stems largely from that “time of so much loss” in the 1980s–1990s, when you and I were born, during the artistic generation of Wojnarowicz and González-Torres and Herring, who you mentioned earlier? How intentionally political are these blood works for you?

Forrest: You’re right. At this point, blood has become a universal instrument or material in my work. My first projects with blood, O-Negative and Better Blood, were to expose the discriminatory FDA blood ban that I think is an unnecessary and dangerous holdover from the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I had thirty gay participants donate a slide of their blood and I made a book alongside that blood that had the FDA questionnaire that excluded gay men from donating. From there, I shifted to blood prints and blood slides in Biohazard and my current project What Are We to You. In all of this, I’m working with abjection and aesthetics, bringing the disgusting and gross into a beautiful shape and environment. It works well in a vein of subterfuge in that people get really close to it and often not until they read the fine print or the title tag do they realize that they are that much closer to queer blood. It makes people really confront very quickly their own bias and stigma. What does queer blood actually mean? What does anyone’s blood actually signify, for you, the viewer, standing this close to many other people’s blood who just so happen to be gay or bi or lesbian or trans (which you only know if you read the fine print)? Generally, I use blood as a means to impart our shared humanity while politically invoking the FDA ban, the legacy of HIV/AIDS, and the still-common association of queer blood with the infectious and the contagious in the minds of many viewers. I’ve tried hard not to use blood in any shock value way or as a way to jar people. The goal has been one of enlightenment, of introspection, of recognition, and in some sense, of communion with those who’ve gone before who were gone too soon. To memorialize.

Solomon: Yes, it’s a kind of blood memory like the Rilke quote: not until the memories have turned to blood within us can we understand them. Something like that.7For the connection between Rilke and González-Torres’s work, see Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed, “Remembering a New Queer Politics: Ideals in the Aftermath of Identity,” If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012): 175–215. The full and correct Rainer Marie Rilke quote: “And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not until they have turned to blood within us, to glance, to gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.” I go back to the inheritance of loss we all live with as gay men. I do think those years of loss are in the DNA of who we are, of how we navigate the world. How we remember and honor those who died. How the pain of the past can be instructive for our present. It’s contemplative, but I wouldn’t say your use of blood is shocking. My friend Jesse Peel describes a moment after his 1987 HIV positive diagnosis when he cut his finger and realized the blood which pooled in the cut “was poison.” He states frankly, “that’s a real mind fuck."8See the Touching Up Our Roots oral history about his life: In the Eye of the AIDS Storm: The Saga of Dr. Jesse Peel, directed and produced by Dave Hayward (2010), DVD. Touching Up Our Roots: Georgia's LGBT History Project. Georgia State University. Jesse Peel’s realization is shocking! But Forrest, I don’t find your use of blood shocking at all. Is it a “mind fuck”? Perhaps. Because you are asking reflective, metacognitive questions of your viewer. But the way you use the material of blood is so precise, ordered, neat, adding a degree of symmetric beauty to what some may view as the materially abject. There’s something about using a substance that has been historically vilified as infectious, as less-than, as something that needs to be quarantined and cured, there’s something about taking a substance that has that much chaotic weight historically and then shifting it into a register of order where you put the interpretive onus on the viewer not on the person from whom the blood came. It’s powerful re-signification. How are you thinking about your queer bloodwork and the revision of the FDA blood ban in the context of COVID-19?

Lawson: It’s really important to what I’ve been doing recently. Before this, I had actually started a national campaign with a professor of social work at UGA, Dr. Jeremy Gibbs, in order to help end the ban or remove the restrictions to something a lot more reasonable. And then, of course, this whole pandemic happened, and we get immense pressure that helps reduce the ban to three months, which is still absurd. It’s an ongoing debate that I’m sure will continue to inform my art.

What TYPE of useless are you?, Florida, 2020. Photograph by Forrest Lawson. Courtesy of Forrest Lawson.

Solomon: And I think that’s part of the ethic of your artwork, to quote González-Torres again: “I do have a political and personal agenda with this work, and in a way they are very interrelated.”9Felix González-Torres, interview by Tim Rollins, Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary American Artists Interview Twelve Contemporary American Artists (New York: A.R.T. Press, 1996), 94.

Lawson: Absolutely. As I say in my artist statement: “Through sculpture and assemblage, my work explores the array of complexities experienced by individuals within the gay community.” It’s both me and the collective; the personal and political are inseparable. Although lately, I’ve been moving more towards a research-based artistic practice, whereas before I would’ve considered my work more emotionally driven, more instinctually responsive to what I was personally living through or seeing around me with my own experience and those of the small community I had in Fort Myers, then Orlando, and now Athens. Since winning ArtFields in 2019, I’m working now on a more national scale, for example, by reaching out to networks of reparative therapy survivors to try to describe a queer experience that I have neither lived nor am fully familiar with.

Solomon: I see that in some of the work you’re sketching during the current pandemic too: that reaching out. How do you connect in pandemic times when connection may lead to death?

Beyond advocacy for abolishing the blood ban and the material conditions of producing and exhibiting the work, which I know have been challenging if not impossible right now, can you say a bit about the ways the current COVID-19 situation has impacted the focus of your work?

Lawson: Much of my sketching and idea invention lately has me thinking a lot about how the current “quarantine” and our experiences self-isolating as a parallel not only to the HIV/AIDS pandemic but also, for those of us who are well and isolated, to the queer experience as a whole, within the closet and beyond. I’ve started this book series. I’m trying to gather narratives of people’s experiences within the closet and to understand how that particular experience may or may not mirror the kind of isolation we are in now, where we are having to sacrifice parts of ourselves and experiences in order to survive in the world. And I envision this project, like the ones I’ve done so far, will bring a sense of recognition through reflection to those who are losing their minds right now who have never experienced this degree of isolation or loneliness before, things that many queer people have been and continue to be all too familiar with, unfortunately so, day to day as many of us have to navigate a culture that devalues and misunderstands us, sometimes with tragic consequences. I’m also thinking a lot about queer people who are isolated in neither ideal nor safe settings, and I don’t know best yet how to communicate with them. But I do want the work to amplify their voices and experiences. The biggest thing I’d like to accomplish in this newer work is creating that sense of shared experience that represents the full spectrum of affective response such “physically distant” experience elicits for us all, gesturing towards some empathy and understanding. Empathy is perhaps the direction I’m headed most of all: what is it like to walk in the shoes of others? What is it like to understand the microaggressions queer people experience if you yourself have not lived them because of who you are? What is it like to experience loneliness in isolation for the first time? Those are some of the questions I’m exploring and finding shape for.

Solomon: Shared traumatic experiences (bullying, homophobic violence, blood bans) have been the organizing principle of your art up to this point. Have you considered adding other dimensions to your work, different layers of queer affective experience?

Lawson: For sure, I’m trying to shift the mindset in order to shift the art as well. I’m working with game pieces and queer-themed board games as an attempt to play off the trope of queer missed childhoods and return to a sense of playful erotic creative whimsy that we as adult gay men can celebrate without shame or the watchful eyes of judgmental figures. I’m trying to blend the happy with the sad as best I can.

Solomon: It reminds me of “Joy” and “Sadness” in the Pixar film Inside Out. So you’re expanding perhaps the rooms that we’re able to take up, as you mentioned earlier? And I’ve been thinking about that phrase because it struck me so. There’s a passivity to the way you construct that phrase, right: “the rooms that we’re able to take up.” In the passive construction of the phrase, there’s a certain admission of powerlessness.

Lawson: Yeah, and I guess I want to take more of an active control of the narratives I’m crafting with my art, ones that aren’t purely reactionary. Right now I’m shifting in my work to attempt to find methods and forms that celebrate sexuality so as not to exclusively talk about trauma. It’s a reorientation that I’m working through right now. How, for instance, can we build a life against the backdrop of trauma that is still profoundly rooted in joy, in hope, in love, in intimacy? How can art represent the affective register of queer happiness? How can we have the whole emotional house and not just the one sad room? So now I’m stuck in that research mode trying to give those ideas more tangible rooting in my work. I’m looking a lot at queer theory right now, and I’m trying to navigate how best to talk about queer experiences without imparting a sense of total authority on the subject. How are we oriented towards our work? That’s one area of queer theory building off Sara Ahmed’s work Queer Phenomenology that I’ve been thinking through. How am I approaching the work and the themes my work has always been about? How am I “oriented” towards trauma and what “turnings” occur for others to become a part of the work? I know for eight years now my work has been primarily about homophobic experiences—those shared traumas that we as LGBTQ+ folk unfortunately know too closely and the inherited generational trauma that we still encounter from our shared past.

Solomon: And in that reorientation that you’re working through, I know sexuality is making a kind of resurgence in your work.

Lawson: Absolutely. I avoided sexuality for a long time mostly because I had done work in my undergraduate studies that was censored. They were taken out of the gallery setting. I was instructed by one of my mentors that if I ever wanted to establish myself as an emerging artist and make my work pass through that veil I should avoid explicitly carnal and sexual artwork. And I did. But it’s always been an undercurrent. As I said, I started my art as a young person drawing very erotic imagery, and I’m still to this day just drawing penises everywhere, which is both a return to the erotic in my art and that spirit of play and joy that I’m seeking more of in the work lately. And the game pieces are really about the celebration of sex and sexuality—

Solomon: The Joy of Gay Sex if you will.

The Hedonist's Closet, Florida, 2020. Photograph by Forrest Lawson. Courtesy of Forrest Lawson.

Lawson: Yeah! I’ve made these BDSM themed playing cards, and I’m redoing the game Operation in a sex-toy setting. One piece I’m working on now, “The Hedonist’s Closet,” is all about the pursuit of pleasure on hookup apps. I don’t think I avoid sexuality anymore perhaps like I did when I was younger in my work. I certainly don’t do it personally! But within the work, I was always afraid that to be in a gallery setting and have some sort of success that there were certain subjects that were still very taboo. That’s really the direction my work is headed now—still very body centered—but joy, pleasure, sex, life, you know all the “simple” stuff. [Laughs]

Pulse: Remembering the 49

     Queerly beloved,
     we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life
     our story stretched across bloodlines, backrooms, and borderlines 
     . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
     We're tired of being so resilient. 
     Pero, love beats here.

     —Maya Chinchilla, “Church at Night”10Maya Chinchilla, “Church at Night,” GLQ 24, no. 1 (2018), 3–8. https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-4254387.

Solomon: I thought we’d end with a benediction of sorts by considering your works surrounding the Pulse nightclub shooting. I believe your 6/12/2016 piece was how I first encountered your work. This work resonates so deeply with so many of us. In “Church at Night,” Maya Chinchilla responds to the Pulse shooting, asking readers: “Do you remember the names/ of your first gay bar?” I already know the answer to this, but Forrest, what was your first gay bar?

6/12/2016, Lake City, South Carolina, 2018. Photograph by Forrest Lawson. Courtesy of Forrest Lawson.

Lawson: It was Pulse. Although I was closeted until I graduated high school, I was with the man who would become my husband for three years prior to that. As awful as it sounds, we maintained staying in the closet for the sake of our own growth and our own safety back in Fort Myers. Once we got of age and were able to go to nightlife situations, we were able to find more of a community then, but that really only happened after I graduated and was able to move up to Orlando, which is a mostly progressive, liberal, open place where I felt a lot more comfortable. I think a lot of queer people did up until Pulse happened… Orlando was one of the first places in Florida to offer employment and family protections, housing initiatives for homeless LGBTQ+ children (Zebra Coalition, The Center), and a vast number of out and proud queer people. It is still, however, the South, and as much as it appears the queer population is thriving, Florida still has a long way to go. It is still home to churches that host “Make America Straight Again” rallies, pastors who call for government eradication of all queer people, and the Pulse tragedy.

Yes, Pulse was the first nightclub that I went to, but there were many other queer spaces I started to navigate as a terrified nineteen-year-old child trying to explore a more “urban” terrain of queer life. Starting my queer artistic journey in Orlando really helped me understand my place within an intersectional community. Race, gender identity, class, faith-based queer groups, I was able to navigate all of that as I came into myself and into my work. And in many ways, my early twenties in Orlando felt like a replacement for the childhood I feel like I missed out on, in the sense of coming to terms with my sexuality. My twenties sort of acted as my teens, much to my detriment I’m sure…

Solomon: … I wouldn’t say that. I think that’s a fairly common experience that often serves as a misguided stereotype of gay experience: the "lost boy" trope, the boy who couldn’t or wouldn’t grow up, when those who traffic in such rhetoric fail to understand the reasons that might motivate queer people to have such a “delayed adolescence.” And yet, Forrest, it seems to me your life thus far has an element to it that subverts so many expectations: you’ve been together with your husband for a long time!

Lawson: Yeah, since we were fifteen years old, so fourteen years now. We got married in 2016, the year after it became legal. The year Pulse happened. We were in Orlando during Pulse, and that moment served as a catalyst for so much of my professional and personal life. I specifically reference the Pulse tragedy in my work with the number 49. A lot of my work features the multiplicity of that number. The blood slide pieces in What are We to You, for example, each contain 49 petri dishes of blood spots. I’ve done other projects such as the wrist band pieces in the 6/12/2016 series, which feature interviews I conducted with 49 people who give their narrative reactions to Pulse and their reactions to Pulse no longer being a safe, queer space. And then I included those reactions within a memorial box alongside one wrist band and one name of a person lost that day in June 2016. Pulse is a place that has a ghostly presence in everything I do.

6/12/2016, Lake City, South Carolina, 2018. Photograph by Forrest Lawson. “It was weird that life didn’t pause or slow. That I had to get up. Go to work. Where dreams come true. And fake a smile. Pretend that forty-nine people weren’t just shot.” Courtesy of Forrest Lawson.

Solomon: Some of the written text within one of the memorial boxes reads, “It was weird that life didn't pause or slow. That I had to get up. Go to work. Where dreams come true. And fake a smile. Pretend that forty-nine people weren't just shot.” In your display, this text is positioned between boxes honoring the young lovers Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen and Juan Guerrero, a thirty-two-year-old man and twenty-two-year-old man who were both celebrating June Birthdays and who died together at Pulse. Many of us witnessed Drew's mother Christine Leinonen's public grief in the aftermath. I can still remember waking up that day to the news, seeing her tears not knowing where her son was. It's become memory in the blood at this point, deep in the marrow. And I can't help but think about how Drew and Juan and so many of those lost were our contemporaries. How you and your husband live, how I live, and they do not. And I think that's such a surreal recognition when we encounter loss: how random it seems that some die while we live.

Lawson: It is surreal. But I suppose that’s the purpose of art, right? We make and create. We keep them alive in the objects we craft to remember them. Four years later, we continue to honor them.

About the Authors

Forrest Lawson is an Orlando-based multimedia sculptor. He is best known for his assemblages dealing with issues presented within the LGBTQ+ community. Growing up in Florida, he blends the experience of southern conservative living with his experience as a gay man. He is a MFA student in Sculpture and Fine Arts at the University of Georgia and has a BFA in Fine Arts from the University of Central Florida. He received the Grand Prize of ArtFields in Lake City, South Carolina, in 2019.

Eric Solomon earned his doctorate in English from Emory University and is a visiting assistant professor of English and American Studies at Oxford College, Emory University. His work is featured in Southern SpacessouthPopMatters, and Mississippi Quarterly.

Cover Image Attribution:

Forrest Lawson, What Are We to You (2020). Courtesy of Forrest Lawson.

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1. As Skyler Swisher wrote in an article for the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2019, sixty-eight percent of Floridians support LGBT anti-discrimination laws, which led some to hope 2020 would be “the year for Florida to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination.” Yet, one attempt, the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, died in the civil justice subcommittee in March 2020. There’s no statewide ban on conversion therapy and twenty seven percent of LGBT Floridians live below the poverty line.
2. Bible passages included in Convoluted’s web: Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Mark 10:6–9, Romans 1:26–32, Romans 13:8–10, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11,17–20, 1 Corinthians 7:2, 1 Timothy 1:8–11, Hebrews 13:1–5, Jude 1:5–8.
3. R.L. Spitzer, “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation? 200 Participants Reporting a Change from Homosexual to Heterosexual Orientation,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 32 (2003): 403–417.
4. Douglas Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).
5. David Breslin and David Kiehl, David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 270–271.
6. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Practices: the Problem of Divisions of Cultural Labour,” Art and Design 9 (1994): 91. See Joan Gibbons, Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance (London: I.B. Tauris, 20017).
7. For the connection between Rilke and González-Torres’s work, see Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed, “Remembering a New Queer Politics: Ideals in the Aftermath of Identity,” If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012): 175–215. The full and correct Rainer Marie Rilke quote: “And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not until they have turned to blood within us, to glance, to gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”
8. See the Touching Up Our Roots oral history about his life: In the Eye of the AIDS Storm: The Saga of Dr. Jesse Peel, directed and produced by Dave Hayward (2010), DVD. Touching Up Our Roots: Georgia's LGBT History Project. Georgia State University.
9. Felix González-Torres, interview by Tim Rollins, Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary American Artists Interview Twelve Contemporary American Artists (New York: A.R.T. Press, 1996), 94.
10. Maya Chinchilla, “Church at Night,” GLQ 24, no. 1 (2018), 3–8. https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-4254387.