The Fringe Festival is upon us, and though it won’t be the citywide event that we’re used to, there are a lot of amazing virtual programs to choose from as well as a number of in-person events. One of the great aspects this year are the number of programs accessible to folks for free or at a nominal fee. Top among them is a tribute to the work of the Finnish artist Tom of Finland. Put together by Casa de Duende, “States of Desire” is a video showcase of work from artists around the world and right here in our backyard. We spoke to one of the contributors, Brian Spies, about life in rural PA and their connection to the iconic Tom of Finland artwork.
I understand that you’re from the middle of the state.
Yes, Williamsport. That’s where I still live. I stay looped into Philly cause that’s where I went to grad school. But I grew up in Williamsport, the home of Little League Baseball.
Did you play little league growing up?
Yes and no, I’m 6’8” tall, so I’m very big and always have been. As a result, everyone wanted me to play sports. I also wanted to play sports, but unfortunately, I wasn’t very good. I spent hours in middle school at my neighbor’s basketball hoop practicing but I had no talent for any of it. In HS I went out for football and they took me but then they wanted me in the weight room anytime I wasn’t in class or at practice, but I was more interested in art and doing drugs. I’ve been sober for almost 18 years, but back then that was my focus in life.
From what I read, it sounds like you had good cause to want to self medicate.
Yeah, I’ve struggled with mental health issues since I was a small child. I’ve been in therapy since I was 6. And my parents were in therapy about me for two years before that! So I’ve been the cause of therapy for the vast majority of my life. I had a lot of struggles trying to function in a world that didn’t have a lot of interest in understanding what I was going through.
What’s was the manifestation that led your folks to seek therapy so early?
Acting out, a lot of aggression and a lot of depression, anxiety, self-harm. My mom tells the story of when I was a baby, going to the park for a picnic and they set me on a blanket. When we were finished they put me on the grass to fold the blanket and the mere difference of the grass versus the blanket on my skin would throw me into a fit. When I was 8 I started having auditory hallucinations.
I saw that you did a piece for one of my favorite places, the Eastern State Penitentiary, featuring audio clips of what you experienced.
Yes, that actually got me back into photography even though it was an audio exhibit. I created a sound collage installation that was part of the audio tour. What’s cool about ESP is that when you submit a budget for a project there, in addition to a list of supplies, they make you include an artist fee. That money bought me my first large format camera. It’s an amazing place with an incredible crew.
For sure, and they still have your piece online. It was interesting to hear what it might be like for someone struggling with that type of mental health issue.
Thank you. Like I said, from year 8 until around 30, that was my 24/7 reality. We really struggled getting medications that would address it. Then when I was 30, I started seeing a doctor who finally figured out a way to get it under control. A lot of the problem is managing side effects vs benefits.
When you hear stories like yours, it makes you a little more empathetic and not so quick to roll your eyes at the parents when you see a kid in a store having a meltdown.
Yeah, I think having dealt with this all my life has made empathy and compassion always at the forefront of my thinking. When I was 16 I got heavily into Buddhism after an intentional drug overdose. It’s been a core part of my life ever since. I was raised Catholic, I was an altar boy and I appreciated the rituals, but never connected to the doctrine.
Can you talk about being institutionalized at such a young age?
Twice. The first time was when I was 10. I actually spent my 11th birthday in a psychiatric hospital, and then again when I was 13.
What took it so far that they felt it was necessary?
In both cases my parents just didn’t know what to do with me. They were at their wit’s end, and doctors and advocates around then told them that this was what was best for me. Luckily they didn’t always listen. Because the first doctor advised them to build a padded cell for me at home and to lock me in it. What’s funny is that I did not know that until fairly recently. I remember us buying the materials but I thought we were buying stuff for an art project! It was industrial strength plexiglass and I thought we were going to paint on it. Until about 5 years ago when I said to my mom, “What did you guys do with all that plexiglass you bought for that project we were going to work on?” And I learned that it was supposed to be for a cell!
So many kids who act out end up in the juvenile system. How were you able to escape that?
My mom was a nurse, so there was an acute understanding that there was something psychologically and biochemically wrong with me. They knew that it wasn’t just that I had a bad attitude. My dad was an accountant, but he was very much on board with that as well. They never threatened to call the cops or told me I was going to go to jail if I didn’t straighten up. Everything was framed in the context of “Brian needs help.” As a kid of privilege, I was able to go to an institution for help rather than a jail which would have made the situation worse. I also have Tourettes Syndrome and my parents were very active in an advocacy group for people with Tourettes. They’re the ones who recommended the 2nd place, but unfortunately it was hell on earth. The Eastern State piece is about my experiences there.
When did you get involved in the art world?
I started making art very young. I read your story about Susan DiPronio and how whenever she was bored, her parents would chase her away and say, “Go read a book.” Mine were the same, but it was “Go draw something.” I thought I was going to study philosophy in college but I didn’t get into a single one of the schools I applied to. So my parents told me to just take a few classes at the community college. I ended up taking classes in painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography, which I fell in love with. They didn’t offer a degree in photography so I transferred to another school nearby, Lycoming College, where my dad and grandfather went. Unfortunately, after I graduated, I could no longer borrow the school cameras, so I kind of meandered for a while. Spent some time doing graffiti in New York, and that led to my first big exhibit. Around the same time, I did a few shows in California and then I just stopped making art. I just got overwhelmed. Then after about a year, I lost my grandmother on my mom’s side very suddenly from ovarian cancer. I spent a lot of time with her growing up and we were very close so that sent me into … what I call my year in hell. A lot of bad stuff happened that year, but at the end of it I started painting which led to me going to MICA in Baltimore and then PAFA here in Philly where I got my MFA.
You have worked in a lot of mediums, how would you currently describe yourself?
I’m a photographer, definitely. I incorporate some film, but mostly photography.
I looked at your website, I noticed that you mostly use yourself as the subject matter.
Yes, my primary body of work has been self-portraiture.
You do a lot of different characters, that must be fun.
Yup, I focus a lot on gender roles and gender archetypes. I recently did a series on the cowboy or cowgirl, as the ultimate masculine American stereotype and I’m working on a series right now called Camera Rouge which has to do with the body and desire and sexuality, things like that.
Growing up in what James Carville called “Pennsyltucky” what was your coming out experience like?
Well, I came out as bi in front of the entire class and parents on senior night in high school. It went well. In fact, a friend who went on to become a mechanic — so we’re talking a rural, country guy — walked up onto the stage (I’d come out as part of a poetry reading) and congratulated me for coming out. He was the guy that no one would dare fuck with, so no one fucked with me either. As my life has gone forward, I’ve come out as non-binary and I’m prone and known to rock a skirt or dress and full face of makeup around town. But I’m 6’8” and 350 pounds so no one is going to mess with me. They might stare or point or laugh, but they’re not going to approach me. They know if they tried to start something I could kick their ass and it wouldn’t be difficult. The flip side is, because of my size, I’m not someone who can hide, so everyone in town knows me. That can be good and bad, but the good tends to win out.
Tell me about the Tom of Finland project.
It’s a compilation from several artists and a tribute to the sexuality of Tom of Finland. It’s woven together into a 40 minute video. My section is from my piece that I did over the summer and it’s basically me performing a go-go dance in the Cowboy/Cowgirl getup. I worked with David Acosta and Casa de Duende before and when I heard about the Tom of Finland thing it felt very in sync with what I was doing this summer, so I jumped at the chance.
Did you know Tom of Finland before this?
I’ve been a fan for a long time, since college. I love his work and a lot of my early work was inspired by him.
What intrigued you about his work?
For starters that visual, sexual arousal component to it, beefy guys with big dicks! That’s what got me interested, but there’s also this idea that, well, before I came out as non-binary, gender roles were always something that I struggled with. Even as a kid I was always dressing in a very feminized way. Not in women’s clothes, but I would take men’s clothes and femme them up. I used to hate the nursery rhyme that said boys were snakes and snails and puppy dog tails and girls were sugar and spice. I wanted to be sugar and spice! For a long time I didn’t understand it, but T of F took that masculine archetype and ramped it up to an 11, and it was compelling to me because I was attracted to it, but it also allowed me to see the humor in that kind of hyper-masculinity. Even when my work is at its heaviest I still try to incorporate a little humor. As an adult I’ve relied on humor to get me through. Especially since as a child people were always saying, “Smile, Brian. Why aren’t you happy?” But I wasn’t happy and I didn’t understand the value of humor. I took everything personally. When I finally started to laugh at the pain and the absurdity of everything around me, it made my life so much easier. The fact that he took bastions of masculinity, bikers, cowboys, etc. and twisted it, inspired me and was something that I folded into my own work.
What’s a misconception that urban folks like me have of the country? I think we expect a sea of Trump signs and a lot of homophobia but we probably don’t give enough credit.
It’s a lot more cultured than you might think. You will see Trump signs, but you’ll also find a thriving queer community and a thriving creative community. Last year we had a Fringe Festival here and they brought in drag performers and artists from all over the world. It was incredible. I’m talking to you right now from my studio which is in an old pajama factory. The sets for the Doris Day film, “The Pajama Game” were inspired by where I’m currently sitting, and the whole building is filled with different types of artists. Much to my dismay and disgust, Trump will win this county, but there are enough of us on the more liberal side that it doesn’t feel as intimidating as it might. When shit happens, there’s a community that comes together.
And I guess in a small town, you get to know people personally, beyond the politics.
Yes, I wish it would inform the politics a little more. I mean my neighbors have signs and are voting for Trump but I’ll be standing there in a dress hanging out with them and we get along fine. I don’t know why they don’t take that respect for me into the voting booth.
Did you have any posters on your walls as a kid?
Yes! In high school I became a huge movie buff so I had big movie posters featuring Alfred Hitchcock and films from that era.
Who is your ICE (in case of emergency) on your phone?
My father, because I know he’ll answer the phone! My mom has struggled with chronic pain since I was a kid. She was in 2 car accidents and is disabled so she sleeps most of the day. But if you need to call someone at 3am, she’s the one to call.
What color annoys you?
Grey! I watch a lot of home design shows, I’ve become obsessed with them and it drives me nuts that everybody in home design is painting everything grey! My sister wants to paint the inside of her house grey and I’m like, “Don’t do it Jenny!”
Something that intrigues you but also scares you?
Oh, falling! It’s a reoccurring dream/nightmare. That and drowning. And I love the water, even though I almost drowned twice. The first time was at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom on a trip for the altar boys at our church. The wave pools were so crowded I kept getting knocked down and couldn’t find anyone from my group. The second time was in California. I was 14 and we went to a beach that said: swim at your own risk. So we did and I got caught in a riptide that took me so far out my mother and sister looked like dots on the shore. Thankfully a surfer saw me, got me on his board and brought me back to the beach.
Wow. What’s a wish you make again and again?
I don’t do wishes. And I don’t make resolutions, I’ve learned to just ride the waves and things that are bad will pass and the same thing goes for things that are good.
A motto or favorite quote?
It’s a song lyric from Leonard Cohen’s The Anthem. It basically says that there’s always a crack in life, but that’s how the light gets in. I love that sentiment.