If you so much as dabble in Wesleyan’s art and theater scene, you probably recognize the name Gabe Gordon. He’s the brains behind Art House and Swerve(d), among countless other projects that have helped foster an artistic community on campus. But Gordon is more than just a name on a playbill (or several). He spoke to The Argus about his painting thesis, his after-college goals, and his very raunchy idea for a play.
A: So, when I think of Gabe Gordon, I kind of think of someone doing a lot of projects that are very creative and involved. But what do you think of?
GG: I think that’s fair, and I appreciate that, ‘cause I think I seek out doing a lot of creative projects. When I think of Gabe Gordon, I think of the one out of 500 white dudes with beards and glasses who is different because he has the biggest eyes out of all of them. And that’s what makes me special. That’s what makes me me. But yeah, I think that if that’s a reputation I have, I’m really happy to have that. I think that I have been really the most satisfied at Wesleyan when I’ve been engaging with other people on these big creative projects, and a lot of them have been based around theater stuff and a lot of them have been visual art stuff. I think my absolute favorite memories at Wesleyan have been sort of the moments in the process of working on these big projects where people have come together and done things with me, which is kind of a scary thing about this year doing a thesis, is that I’m doing a big project that is pretty solitary and very different from a lot of the other things I’ve worked on in the past.
A: What is your thesis?
GG: Well, I’ll try to explain it minimally because one, I’m bad at it, and two, I don’t want to give it away because I want the experience of coming to see it to be exciting in itself, hopefully. My thesis…it’s a very personal and also sort of narrative exploration of kind of the idea of gay paradise…kind of pulled from interests I’ve had both in history and in theory—I was an American Studies major for a while, but I ended up dropping it—and kind of the celebration of the death and life of queer bodies, wrapped up in [the question of]: How do we envision paradise, and what does that mean, and how do we look toward death to find our collective existence in sexual identity?
A: I’m really excited.
GG: Thanks, so that’s kind of the driving idea behind it. It’s a painting thesis, so I’ve been painting.
A: So when you’re painting, how often do you think the phrase “gay paradise” to yourself? Would you say every 10 minutes?
GG: That’s a really hilarious question. Wow, how do I answer that? I’d say it’s on a continuous loop in my head, and I think it’s on a continuous loop in my head either in those terms or in other terms because I think a whole part of this exploration of painting and making artwork is, in its very sort of modernist sense, world-making and creation. And when you are making art that’s sort of about imagining new ideas and new worlds, then these ideas keep constantly fluctuating in your head…so I think I came into this idea of my thesis with this kind of big phrase, “gay paradise,” trying to unpack what that means spiritually, historically, and even geographically. And is that an oxymoronic term? Is being queer in itself a paradisiacal practice because it’s constantly engaged with reimaging and reinterpreting what we’re familiar with? So all these big, kind of lofty, theoretical ideas are I think, unanswerable questions, but questions that I am really fascinated probably exploring for my entire life in my work. So my thesis kind of more specifically narrowed down is thinking a lot about how AIDS and other trauma—disease, violence, suicide—have and continue to affect and define the collective memory and sexual identity of…I mean, everyone, but I guess specifically for me, gay men in America, without being exclusionary to anyone.
A: I guess this kind of is related to what you were talking about, but this is a super hard question. If you could try to describe, why do you think you make art? What do you think you want it to be about?
GG: I can answer that question, I think, in two ways. Relating, I guess, to my thesis, because my thesis is very much about sex and sexuality and gayness, I think, in part, from being at a community like Wesleyan, I think that we’re often taught that our differences don’t matter. That’s something we’re very much told from a progressive standpoint from a young age. It kind of helps to be like, “Our differences don’t matter. We’re all united and we’re the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay. It doesn’t matter if you have parents. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.” But I think that’s totally bullshit…I think it’s highly idealistic to say that those differences can be overlooked and erased when we imagine a sense of unity. But I know for me, it absolutely matters that I’m gay. That defines so much of who I am. It defines my past, it defines my future, it defines my sexual life, it defines my opinions on a lot of things and who I’ve become. That also is totally individual for everyone. I think I’m really, really interested in considering myself a gay artist because I think art is one, a platform for self-representation and self-discovery and empowerment for any sort of people who may not have that in other outlets. But it’s also, I think, the most effective bridge between theory and action and an incredible vehicle for accomplishing so many things both in terms of, on a personal level, building community and trying to answer questions that go beyond, “What do we make art about?” So many of the things that I’ve worked on at Wesleyan have not been specifically about that, but I think that as my thesis, this has been a really exciting kind of capstone experience both in terms of academic and just artistic interest and person implication. On a broader level, I think I have been making art at school because I want to share and I want to be shared with, and getting involved in communities like Art House and Second Stage are ways where not only do I get to be encouraged to share what I can make, but I get to consume all the really amazing talents and projects of other people on this campus. I think Wesleyan as a school was a place that really stood out to me because I saw the stuff that people seemed to be making was the same type of skill, maybe, as at a conservatory or at a BFA program, but it just seemed like it was more about something and it was intellectually informed, and that’s certainly a lot of the interdisciplinary nature of this campus. I just got really excited to be going to a place where people were not only talented but they’re interested in what those talents could accomplish…and I know that’s really a lofty thing to speak about, but I think it really is alive here.
A: I completely agree. Would you say that’s different from where you’re from? Also, where are you from?
GG: I’m from Shaker Heights, Ohio, which is an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. I don’t think it’s quite different from where I’m from in a lot of ways. That’s a really great question. I went to a big public high school, where students were encouraged to do really well in school but also participate heavily in the arts. Because it was sort of a big public school and no one was really there specializing in anything, it provided a pretty solid environment for people to be able to express themselves in really free ways. A lot of places describe themselves as a bubble, and Shaker Heights is definitely one of those places. Shaker Heights is a really interesting place because historically, it was one of the first planned suburbs in the nation. Because of that, it was an inherently very exclusive institution. Jews weren’t allowed there, Catholics weren’t allowed there, blacks weren’t allowed there, until about the 1940s, and that totally disintegrated, and now Shaker is one of the most statistically diverse communities in the country. So that’s something that we pride ourselves on in a genuine way but maybe also a misguided way. To be this really diverse Midwestern suburb is sort of our pride, which is an interesting thing. Every association that the Midwest cares about, being the heart of America, is tied to all these other associations of being very not multicultural or diverse. So I went to a place that was really much about embracing that and for a community like that, I think we were really open to being engaged in discussions about what that meant, about racism in the classroom, about heritage and background.
A: What do you think you’re going to do [after college]? Or is that too scary?
GG: It’s very scary! In terms of practical visions for the future, I have many and it seems very undefined right now. I would love to get a band of my friends from Wesleyan together and start a theater company and live together for the rest of our lives. I would love to be a teacher at some point. I would love to travel. I’m working on an application for a travel fellowship: it’s a year-long artistic research fellowship where I would get to continue certain ideas that fluctuate in my thesis. I really don’t know. I’m excited. I think that when I think about my future it will take certain things for me to make sure I am happy, but I don’t think it will be hard for me to be happy where I end up.
A: What do you think those things are [that will make you happy]?
GG: I really want to be able to find an artistic home. I don’t think that has to be found in New York City or big places that already exist. I lived in New York this past summer. It was really fun, and I was stimulated every minute by how much was going on, but I also felt very swallowed up in this giant sea and very lonely and depressed, and I think sometimes being a bigger fish in a smaller pond can be a little more satisfying because you logistically have the resources and the spaces, it’s more affordable to live, and it’s easier to maintain stronger connections with people…I’ve always had big-city dreams, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the most powerful experiences of my life have come from small communities.
A: How old were you when you first realized what sex was, and how did you find out?
GG: I remember, I think, when I was like, 10, asking my mom how our gay family friends had sex, and she told me, so at that point I was definitely aware of what sex was. Going to summer camp, you are full of all of these fantastic tales of adolescent fucking that are just so absurd and probably not true. It was really funny being on the counselor side of this job because one, I just didn’t have many of these tales to tell people, and I also had younger campers…what you learn at summer camp is not really what sex is, but you learn these ridiculous stories that start to formulate in your head as to what sex is or can be. You hear them because you’re hearing them from people who have these tales and want to tell them.
A: Did you have any really funny misconceptions about sex?
GG: I definitely did not have any idea of the distinction between testicles and bladder. I also didn’t know the difference between the urethra and the vagina—did not figure out female anatomy until quite late in the game. I also bought into those weird rumors about what happens if you masturbate too much or don’t masturbate enough…I have this idea for a play that I want to write about tittyfucking because when I learned what that was in seventh grade, I think it was one of the most peculiar sexual practices ever. Just the image of it was absurd. And there was this girl in my high school who kinda got notorious [because] she did that a lot. And I have this idea for a play…sort of based off my experience of that, because in seventh grade, kids are sort of starting to get into their sexual likings but not to the point that they’re really having full intercourse yet, just weird shit like that, like titty-fucking is this cool new thing. There’s this boy who’s got gynecomastia and because of that he doesn’t have any friends, so he thinks the way to get into the cool crowd would be to let guys tittyfuck him so they could say that they did it, and one of the jockey seventh graders ends up getting emotionally attached to him because he lets him do this sexual thing.
A: What are some things you’ve done?
GG: I’m really proud of Art House, and I hope that it continues and thrives and even expands in the future. I also feel a need to emphasize that everything that I have done that I accomplished that person might know me for have been purely collaborative ventures that were not just my mind and my vision—that they’ve been done by the teamwork of my amazing friends, and every single [person] I live with, I think, is a brilliant artist and thinker, and it is the most satisfying community, to have a home in. Not everyone at Wesleyan seeks out community, but I’m really glad that’s where my path’s fallen. I’m probably not as representative as a Wesleyan student should be…I’m not athletic, I don’t have that side to me. The plays—Library Project, and Trees, and [other] Second Stage productions I have done—have been my favorite things because they’ve been so collaborative. Shout out to all the homies who are really awesome; it was really exciting to go to a place like Wesleyan, where I felt like I’ve been starting to engage myself in these social justice ideas. That just exploded in front of me, that all these people were so fascinated and passionate about talking about these things… I’m really thankful that I’ve been able to be around people who talk about it more than I do and are going to do bigger and better things than I can. I hope in the future I’ll be able to have a Wesleyan-esque home where I’ll be able to maintain an artistic practice, have a creative community, and feel like difference can be made through people around me.