Family Portrait: Vega

There’s Cher, Charro, Madonna … and then there’s Vega.

He may have a single moniker, but he has several talents. Vega is an architect, a poet, a painter, a graphic artist and a photographer. In addition to his full-time job as an architect, he also owns Vega Press and has published eight books: “Men Of Color,” “A Warm December,” “The Tranquil Lake of Love,” “Postscripts,” “Milking Black Bulls,” “In Our Own Image,” “Phoenix Rising” and “Into the Light,” along with two calendars and a line of products including T-shirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, greeting cards and underwear. With several new projects in production, he is publishing his first new book of prose and photography in 13 years, titled “VisionQuest.”

PGN: That’s quite a résumé. Where are you from? V: I was born in New York but I went out of state to go to college. I wanted to leave home so that I would have a chance to explore my sexuality. I mean, I always knew who I was and what I wanted; I just didn’t know how to get it! [Laughs.] To be honest I still don’t!

PGN: Any siblings? V: No, and I blame my parents for me being so introverted, because I was very lonely as a child. I could have used a sibling or two. I’m still introverted, even though if you ask my friends, they’ll tell you I’m lying, that I’m very outgoing — but it’s all an act. When I’m around people, I make them think that I’m comfortable with them, but it’s just a pretense. If I have to do a poetry reading, I can psyche myself up to do it, and do a good job, but I’m exhausted afterward.

PGN: So what was baby Vega like? V: I loved staying inside and watching TV and old movies. I think like a lot of gay kids, I identified with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and a lot of the old stars of that era. Unfortunately, my parents were always trying to push me outside to play with the other kids! I hated it. I tried to let them know that I was very comfortable inside the house watching TV or reading or painting.

PGN: What was a favorite show? V: “Dark Shadows.” I used to run home from elementary school to watch that. And anything with Bette Davis in it. I liked movies with strong women. Oh, and musicals: I loved watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance all over the place. I liked the beach-blanket-bingo movies too, but always wondered where the black people were!

PGN: Favorite toy? V: I had this Godzilla-type toy that I liked. My grandmother did domestic work for a lot of very rich families. One of the families were the Mattels, as in Mattel toys. One year they came up with this toy and my grandmother brought it home to me for Christmas. I also used to have a lot of stuffed animals. One day when I was still in elementary school I came home and they were all gone. My mother decided that I was too old for them and threw them all away.


PGN: What did your parents do? V: My mother was a nurse and my father, well, I might as well say it, he was an alcoholic. I don’t ever remember him having a job. We lived in a house with my grandparents. My aunt and uncle lived on the top floor, we lived in the basement and my grandparents had the first floor. I was the only child in a house full of adults.

PGN: Do you think you were more mature as a result? V: I think it helped me develop certain ideas about what I wanted. I knew from an early age I wanted to go to college and I started telling them how it was going to happen. What loans we needed, etc. I was very sure of what I wanted to do and I guess that came from hanging around adults.

PGN: What do you remember from high school? V: Oh, the captain of the basketball team was my bitter enemy. He’d get his cronies to tease me while he sat back and laughed. I hated him with a vengeance. Kyle Phillip Michael Benta. After all these years I still remember his name!

PGN: And where did you go to college? V: IIT. I went to the Illinois Institute of Technology to study architecture. That’s what I still do.

PGN: What’s a favorite project? V: The last few years I’ve been designing schools, which I find very rewarding. I’ve built homes and office spaces, but there’s something about contributing to the education of young people by providing a safe and inviting atmosphere for them that’s very rewarding.

PGN: What’s the most difficult part of doing architecture? V: There are so many decisions you have to make based on so many factors, the hardest part is deciding which things you want to prioritize. Is it the size of the place, is it the money? You have to decide which of the many variables is most important on a particular project. Once you have that, the project creates itself.

PGN: How did you get into the arts? V: I started drawing in the first grade. My father had some innate abilities that I think I inherited from him. Throughout high school I drew men and women and then, when I went to college and explored my sexuality, I began to look for images of African-American men together. I found a real lack of positive images, so I decided to create my own. I did pen-and-ink drawings and paintings primarily, and they were featured in a lot of gay magazines, such as Blueboy, BlackOut, In the Life and Advocate. It got out there a little, but a lot of times I felt that I was the token black gay man they would go to for illustrations during Black History Month, but that my work wasn’t out there for the rest of the year like I wanted it to be. So I decided to publish myself. PGN: What was your first book? V: “Men of Color: An Essay on the Black Male Couple.” When I would go to gay bookstores to find images of myself, the only thing I would see were pictures of black men in porno magazines. I wondered, where is the literature, where is the poetry, where are the artistic images I want to see? There were some things left over from the Harlem Renaissance, but they were mostly written word. So my first book was a multimedia compilation of photography and illustrations and paintings, along with poetry and other literature. I wrote the poems myself. The pictures were a lucky chance. I was in California and I stumbled upon two gorgeous black men who were lovers. I got up enough nerve to ask if I could take their pictures and happily they agreed. That first book was pretty crude — the pages were numbered wrong — but I made it happen and that was the start of Vega Press. By the time I got my second book going, “A Warm December,” I’d met some other writers and photographers who I was able to include in the anthology. Later on, we began to put out T-shirts and mugs and other products with black images. It’s tough because a lot of black men don’t have the same spending patterns as their white counterparts, and there’s that whole down-low thing where they might not want to be seen with images that would peg them as gay. We have had some success with our calendars, though.

PGN: Where can people find your books? V: I’m currently developing a new Web site, but in the meantime the books are available on Amazon.com and you can go to cafepress.com/vegapress for the posters and cards. We even have a teddy bear.

PGN: So what was coming out like for you? V: It’s a tough question because you have to be in to come out. I never broadcast it, but I never hid it either. I didn’t act on it until I left for school, though. As far as my mother was concerned, I’d been engaged to this girl. I’m almost sorry I didn’t marry her because we were so emotionally compatible; I don’t think I’ve ever been that emotionally connected to a man. [Laughs.] Men are too competitive. Of course the problem was I just didn’t want to sleep with her! A little while later I moved to Chicago and had a lesbian friend, who my mother met. She said to me, “Why don’t you marry Sephonia?” I responded, “I don’t think it would work, Mom. Sephonia doesn’t like men, but I do.” So that was my coming out to her.

PGN: Give me three favorite scents. V: Vanilla, peppermint and strawberry.

PGN: Which literary character resembles you? V: I saw a movie one time called “The Dresser,” about a guy who works for an actor helping him get ready for the stage. The guy seems to have a thing for the actor, who pays him no mind. I think that’s the story of my life. Unrequited love!

PGN: If you could bring someone back for 15 minutes, who would it be? V: My grandmother. She was a very kind, loving woman. She raised me; she was the one who waited with a candle in the window until I came home. I talked to her every day until she passed away.

PGN: What’s your most unusual possession? V: I have a pair of torn boxers that I like to wear because they make me feel sexy.

PGN: What’s the most provocative photo you’ve taken? V: I took a picture of a guy in a parking garage in Atlanta. He was, shall we say, very well endowed and he was wearing fishnet briefs. I was going to use it for the cover of a calendar, but it was a little too much!

PGN: What’s on your plate right now? V: Well, right now I’m in Florida. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and had to get out of town. I was going to relax, but there are so many beautiful men here in Ft. Lauderdale, I’ve set up some photography sessions.

PGN: What has you on the edge? V: Work is very stressful right now. On top of that, I’m black, single and almost 55. I’m having a panic attack because I think I’m fat.

PGN: So you’re having a mid-life crisis? V: I’m almost 55! [Laughs.] I’ve already done that at 35, and then had a follow-up at 45. I guess this could be a third.

PGN: Before I let you go, how did you come up with the name Vega? V: I had a friend visiting me and I was telling her that I wanted an artistic name to distinguish myself. As she left she called out, “Tata Vega!” playing on the name of the singer from the ’70s. I decided to use the name Vega, but I used it as an acronym: V for Victory, E for Empowerment, G for Gratitude and A for Assessment, taking daily stock of what you’re doing. It sums me up.

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