Forrest Lawson’s series Closeted is an ongoing sculptural body of work exploring what it is like to come out as gay. Now more than ever, the struggles of the LGBT community need to be heard. Lawson uses his art as a way to inform outsiders of the struggles faced by gay men and start a conversation. The materiality of his works range from sculptures made of cut up Bible pages to collected samples of human blood. Lawson effortlessly connects all the pieces in his series by creating conversational sculptures about experiencing homophobia first hand and the insecurities that stem from it.
Jenn Allen: These pieces in your series Closeted seem very personal, did you have reservations about making art that can expose you as a gay male?
Forrest Lawson: I am gay and creating these pieces is my way of coming to terms with the way I came out of the closet and coming to terms with my identity. The way that I did come out of the closet was not by choice. A lot of the pieces expose elements about showing people that it was a process and I’m okay with it now. The first piece I ever made was difficult because I hadn’t made a lot of friends at UCF at that point and I hadn’t talked about my sexuality openly. It’s not something that just comes up in everyday conversation, but we talked about it during the critique and I remember at the end of it everyone patted me on the back and congratulated me for it. At that moment, I thought, “I don’t think I did anything too heroic or valiant in any way.” But it comes off that way because it is so personal.
Your piece O- is specifically your blood?
I assume you have O- blood type?
And one of the issues that is brought to attention in your work is that you can’t donate blood.
Yes, that was one of the biggest things after the shooting. Wanting to go, wanting to help, and not being able to, just adds more salt to the wound. It sucks.
O- blood is accepted by all blood types, and people with O- can only receive O-, which makes it the most valuable blood. And you get turned away just because you had to answer the FDA’s questionnaire.
All because I’ve had sex with a man since 1977. From the O- piece I created the Better Blood piece, which is the 30 individual donations that I got. I created a questionnaire based on the questions that the FDA actually asks. I wanted to highlight in that piece how easy it is for the straight community, and other people, to get past the boundaries, but as soon as a gay man answers that one question they’re excluded. There was a girl who participated who had sex I believe six times in the past twelve months, with six different partners, and she was still allowed to donate blood.
And it’s specifically gay men? Are lesbians allowed to donate blood?
Lesbians are allowed to donate blood as well as straight men and women.
This is something that I’ve never considered and I love that you are drawing attention to it. This is an issue and it is preventing you from doing things that everyone else is allowed to do just because you can’t answer “no” to one question. You’re being discriminated against.
Yep. It’s tough.
What was your “FDA” process for finding those 30 people? Did you reverse discriminate against them?
I did actually try to see if I could discriminate against them during the process. I talked to Ryan Buyssens a lot and his hope for the piece was that when you actually go through the process that straight men and women feel the same discrimination that the gay men might feel. I was trying to find people that would actively be denied or rejected. That was part of the piece; I had to reject people simply based on the questions. I pretty much had to accept all of the blood, except for the blood from the gay men that I had asked to donate.
And you said that one woman had sex with six different partners in the past twelve months?
Yes, and she had not been tested. That’s the whole thing, the testing process. Regardless of how many partners she had, she was unknowing and still was able to donate. It’s the same with straight people and gay men; sometimes you don’t know you have anything. You could not know for a long time and be asymptomatic. But even if you are tested they will still deny you just because you are gay.
They test all the blood anyway.
Exactly. And they find out in, I think it’s three days.
This piece, Better Blood, made me stop and really think about it, especially after the shooting targeting an LGBT nightclub. All these people have been coming out to support the LGBT community, and some are completely unaware that you guys can’t help yourselves.
God, it has been one hell of a week. Going from the beginning, it was anger, resentment, and fear. Then it blossomed to gut-wrenching, whole body grief. I didn’t leave the house for a few days. Then I had talked to my grandfather, who has not always been the most accepting, but he said, “Look how many people came out to support you. Look how many people are here, they’re here for you.” Even though I can’t donate blood I know that people are. I had planned on one day going in, trying to donate blood, and lying – which is a felony – but the line was so long. I even tried to see if there was an appointment to be made, but it was 14 days out. That immediately made me question my place in the community. It was very weird because I almost got to let go of a few of my resentments. As angry as I am that I can’t donate blood, I know that people are helping and that people do support us. It’s been a weirdly, kinda poetic grief. It’s hard to understand.
Yeah, it’s been almost a mixed blessing, but I don’t even want to use the word blessing because that’s too optimistic. I also tried to donate blood and I plan on doing so in the next couple of weeks, but now, when I think about it, donating blood is a privilege.
It should be seen as that because it’s not afforded to everyone.
I think it’s especially important after the shooting to remember that inequality does exist and it is still an issue. I really like how you approach this issue as more of an education. The way that you display your pieces is very educational. Some artists, when they approach controversial themes of personal identity and themes along those lines, they sometimes are approached with a violent feel; your work does not feel that way to me. It feels very educational and accepting that this is the way it is. Did you have this in mind when you were deciding how to display them?
Each of the pieces themselves are surrounded by glass or encased in some way, and that’s meant to be a metaphor for “the closet” and being closed off. It was nice presenting it in that way because it makes it more of a specimen and that’s what brings the educational feel to it. A lot of the pieces are driven by anger, and a lot of it is about resentment towards society and un-acceptance. It’s about being able to come to terms with living in a world where tragedies like the Pulse shooting happen. It was a way for me to push in people’s faces that it was an issue and that it still is, that we have to do something about it.
You said that there is some hate in there, and that is a little bit apparent with all the blood that is used, but it is not in your face or shocking. If somebody is open-minded they can look at your art and come out of your exhibitions having learned something. Rather than just looking at something that is pretty, or something that is interesting, you’re also informing them. I think that’s great!
Thank you. I think it’s nice too. When I say there’s hatred behind it, it’s not necessarily hatred towards any one person. I hate that we have been treated like this and that we’re continued to be treated like this. That’s where it comes from. Probably more so fear than anything.
That’s completely understandable. It’s so sad, especially when the funerals were being protested…
We fought back, though.
Yeah, I’ve been amazed by the amount of people that have come together to be anti-protesters. Hopefully, we start to see some kind of change. The Westboro Baptist Church was the main antagonist of the funerals, and obviously, Christianity speaks out strongly against the LGBT community. Your pieces Convoluted #1 & #2 are sculptures that are made up of cut up strips of Bible verses. Did you enjoy cutting up the Bible?
I did. I really did. I don’t know if it was a relief, but I let a lot out during that process. It’s a very tedious process. I went around town to eleven or so different antique stores, antique bookstores, and thrift shops, and I bought all these Bibles. It had to have looked like I was some kinda Bible thumper. At one point one of the cashiers asked me, “Why are you collecting old Bibles? What are you going to do with them? Are you a person of faith?” I was like, “Well… no. Not to be too crass, but I’m going to cut them all up.” For the rest of the time that I was at the counter, she was completely silent and I knew that I offended her, but it got to the point where I needed this and a lot of the anger in those pieces is directed at Christianity in general. I grew up in a Christian household that wasn’t very accepting.
I did as well and I can understand where that is coming from. Honestly, the only issue that people have with gay people in general and with the LGBT community is that the Bible says that it’s wrong. If the Bible didn’t exist this wouldn’t be an issue, but someone would probably find some kind of issue with people being different.
People would be really pissed off that somebody is eating shrimp. It’s a very cliché argument to talk about all the contradictions in the Bible. Those pieces were intended to expose the contradictions and the hypocrisy. It was very satisfying, to say the least.
You chose, what was it, six specific Bible verses?
I believe it was nine, but they were all specifically related to what the Bible has explicitly said about homosexuality.
Were the verses in the Old Testament, New Testament, or both?
Both. Only two of the quotes are from the Old Testament. I read up about a mistranslation of “Thou shall not lie with mankind, as with womankind” and the theme of the passage was about adultery, it was basically saying, “Don’t lay with other people. Just don’t cheat.”
Those two pieces are the only ones that don’t have to do with the human body in some respect. The rest of them are literally made of part of you or part of other people, molds of body parts, or consumables of some sort. I find it really interesting that you are using the body as a symbol, and I read into the blood as a life force. They all seem to be about life, with the exception of your piece Placebo.
That was the first piece that I had done in the series. I had found a diary of someone who had gone through gay conversion therapy. That’s where the driving force behind the piece was. He was unsuccessful at the therapy and his journal ended abruptly. The red pill at the end is to symbolize his life force. I have a lot of the participants in my pieces use their blood to symbolize moments in their life or to contribute to a life that they still have, and a life that they still have to live with.
Limp Wrist is also about specific moments, recalled from five different people. How did you choose the five participants for that piece?
I actually just chose the five people that I knew best at the time. Two of my coworkers, one of my classmates, and my partner and I. I asked each of them to think of a moment where they had questioned their safety or self-worth. I want it to evolve into a continuous series. It’s my hope that one day I will be in a gallery space and I will be able to fill it with hundreds of wrists and be able to share everyone’s stories. It’s a universal struggle that we all go through. The process of coming out and coming to terms with us being gay, and our families coming to terms as well. There’s always a singular struggle that we have to go through. There’s one moment in our lives that we lose our breath. It gets knocked out of you, and from that moment on you have to actually continue to question your worth. That was what I could talk to those participants about and that’s where it came from.
I love that you had them sign in their blood.
I wanted them to sign it in their blood and I also wanted it to be a metaphor for that moment of drawing blood, pricking them in one way or another.
You also do casts of your teeth. Is it one single tooth?
It was actually my four wisdom teeth, so it wasn’t actually a tooth that got knocked out as a kid, but it signifies it. It is all different casts of the teeth. That one, at the moment, applies most to the shooting at Pulse. That was about gay hate crimes in 2014 alone. When I researched all hate crimes, 57% of the LGBT community hate crimes were against gay men. I figured out that there were 961 gay men that had died in that year alone. I don’t know what I am going to do for my tribute to last year/this year.
I am looking forward to seeing, in the most solemn way. I think what you are doing is extremely important and it’s making waves. Like I said, I find it educational, hopefully, others do as well.
I hope so. It’s always been my goal for people to sit back and realize that shit’s not happening.
Forrest will be showing at Gallery 247 at FAVO on the first Friday of October.
You can see more at: ForrestLawson.com