DON’T MISS: Out, Outside

By on October 4, 2017

Artist Luke Zender (Photo: Sydney Bryan)

Sticks, stones and self-acceptance on display at the Art Association.

What do you call a bundle of sticks in Britain?

Ask local artist Luke Zender and he’ll tell you that word for a bundle of sticks–faggot–is the same word he grew up being called growing up in Wyoming. He’s now grown to embrace the term, and the bundle, in his first public visual art exhibition.

Zender’s first public art exhibition, on display at the Art Association starting Saturday.

His medium is no accident. Zender grew up gay in Wyoming, and while his sexuality isn’t his entire identity, it’s often the first thing people notice. For a while, he tried to tone it down. After moving back to Jackson six years ago, Zender said he traded his “quirky, flamboyant, queer self” he had nurtured in Los Angeles for a more masculine-presenting person in anticipation of any judgment or negative energy.

But over the years, Zender said he has grown to realize that his queerness is exactly what he needs to put out into the word.

“It’s my responsibility to be that beacon of light, be that person. I need to hold space or that in Wyoming” Zender said. “If I had someone like me [growing up], I would have been so much more comfortable in my own skin.”

Zender knows what it’s like to be uncomfortable in his skin, after all. He battled self-doubt and “crippling insecurities” about his identity, he said, and he was the “weird kid” in middle school—“everyone thought I was a girl,” he said.

Wyoming is hardly a nurturing place for queerness, Zender said—even a “blue bubble” like Jackson (smoking weed and skiing all the time do not a liberal make). Zender says he still sees a lot of ignorance among the young “liberal” crowd here.

“They’re not cultivating authentic, honest, healthy relationships,” he said.

The state that bears the violent legacy of Matthew Shepard had hardly done much to atone for its queer community. Gender identity and sexual orientation are still not protected identities under Wyoming anti-discrimination law. That means LGBTQ people can still be discriminated against in housing and employment. Jackson has adopted local ordinances to protect its queer community, but the culture still pervades.

And dating?  Hardly fulfilling. It often requires “some sort of seedy ap,” Zender said. Real relationships are few and far between.

But while the Cowboy State birthed many of Zender’s demons, it also helped him outgrow them.

After hip surgery years ago, Zender, a professional dancer with Contemporary Dance Wyoming, was limited in his mobility. To stay active and entertained, he started spending more time outside, hiking around his backyard in east Jackson.

It was on those hikes that he began to truly heal. Outside, Zender had the time, space and solitude to process what he had gone through.

“[I was] identifying all my traumas and shames, especially around being a queer young man in Wyoming,” Zender said.

And he began playing with sticks. He turned those sticks into shapes and structures, and it “codified into its own meditation in a way, to represent what I’ve gone through.” 

He found a certain catharsis in connecting with nature in such a tangible way.                        

So he turned his catharsis into art. The pieces, six years in the making, are simple, sharp, angled.

A black box, Zender says, represents “that whole in the heart we all have.”

A pink triangle is particularly powerful: pink triangles are how Nazis identified gay people in concentration camps.

Like Zender’s medium of choice, the violent term for a bundle of wood, Zender wanted to reclaim a symbol of hate and turn it into one of strength.

This is Zender’s first visual art show, but he has not abandoned his performance arts background. His opening Saturday includes a performance art piece meant to be an “abstracted, abbreviated” representation of his transformation over the past six years—the patience, endurance, and vulnerability he has learned to embrace.

And vulnerable it is. The whole performance takes place in a six-by-six foot box filled with dirt, and he will wear only underwear.

But such visibility, Zender says, is the only way to truly communicate his identity to the world. There’s no need to protect anyone, Zender said, from identities that might challenge their belief system, especially when those beliefs are “built on years of oppression.”

His sexuality is “an integral part” of his body,” and transparency is the “best way to connect.” If he isn’t open about his story and his identity, people will write it for him. Zender also wants other queer people in the state to know that their traumas are valid, but they’re also “not your fault.”  PJH

Zender’s exhibition, “From the Ground Out,” will be on display from Oct. 7-14. The opening reception is Saturday from 7-9 p.m.

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