Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho! It’s time for Pride and I’ve got to go!
Okay, I admit, I’m not one for chants, and “Ho” rhymes with so many things that I think my head will explode if I hear one more chant using it as a base. But that’s me being jaded, and if you think about it, those chants often pulled us together and helped us channel our anger against whatever form of discrimination we might have been fighting at the time. Sexism, homophobia, racism. Like many of you, I’ve taken to the streets to yell my lungs out and make my feelings known. Sadly, with more than 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced across the US this year, many of the areas where we thought we’d progressed are in danger of slipping from our grasp. Health care rights, marriage and gay history in schools are all things that might be in jeopardy in the near future. It’s important to look back to see where we’ve been to help shape where we are going. Fortunately, there are a myriad of ways to do that this Pride month, and some great events where you can just forget everything and just have fun!
One special program is “Gone and Forever”, a collaborative artist-made funeral that will remember and honor individuals lost in the early AIDS pandemic in the city of Philadelphia, those community members who were often abandoned in their dying or death. The event consists of a musical and spoken memorial ceremony at the William Way Center, a street procession, with urns carried to The Church of Saint Luke & The Epiphany, and blessings over the memories of those lost by a multi-denominational group of faith leaders led by Reverend Jeffery Haskins. The event was conceived by this week’s Portrait, artist and author Alex Stadler (@alexstadlerartwork).
Hello, Alex Stadler! So I know that you lived in Philly and are now in Maine; where are you originally from and what was it like there?
I grew up in a town about 20 minutes north of New York City. It was the suburbs in the ’70s, and it was a beautiful little town near the water in Long Island Sound. A place where Jews and Catholics were allowed to buy property, where in lots of towns they couldn’t. So it was very mixed when it came to religion, but as far as race was concerned, it was pretty unmixed. It was pretty much one black family that we all knew. I was lucky enough to have parents who both worked in communities with much more diversity. I think they understood that they needed to get us out of Larchmont and into the world.
Did you have siblings?
Yes, my dad was married and had 3 kids when he met my mom, he left that family and joined ours, so there are 6 kids altogether.
What’s a fun family tradition?
We all really liked shopping for fruit. All 6 of us liked to go to farmer’s markets to pick out fruit and we’d sit around and talk about it. Even when we disposed of my father’s ashes, the one topic that we all could go to town on discussing was produce! We all bake so all 6 of us talk about pie crust, dough, and the best fillings.
What was a favorite book as a kid?
My favorite, and the book that taught me the idea of spirituality, was “A Wrinkle in Time.” It taught me that something that could be seen to be very small, could actually be, in a different context, something very large and important.
I’ve never read it, but the movie didn’t grab me.
Yes, the movie doesn’t even approach the poetry and beauty of the book. It’s a shame, they had great casting and great promise, but it just doesn’t come together. The book is really good though and part of a trilogy you should read.
Sounds good. When did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be an artist. I can’t remember ever not wanting to do that, as much as I understood what that was. When I turned around 6 or 7 I figured out that there was a job you could do where you got to write the story and draw the pictures and I very much wanted to do that. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design (I regret it now) but that’s where I met Chris Bartlett who is now the Executive Director at William Way. We were both involved with ACT UP in the ‘80s.
Nice. When did you come out? What’s your story?
Let’s see… I remember the phone rang when I was 11 and it was my sister. She was about 18 and had a boyfriend but for some reason when I picked up the white princess phone in the kitchen, and my sister said, “Hi Alex, I need to talk to dad and Charlotte” I thought, “She’s going to tell them she’s a lesbian.” I knew it absolutely, like there was a sign in my mind. When I was 13, I had a crush on a very handsome boy from Iran, who wore black leather suits. I thought I should tell my parents how I felt, so I did.
What was the first activist oriented thing you can remember doing?
When I was a junior in high school I took the bus to DC to go to a Pro-Choice rally, that was in 1984.
I think I was at that rally! Who imagined that we’d have to start the fight all over again in 2022.
I know! I also got somewhat involved in ACT UP when I was in college. It was an acronym for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.
Which circles back in a way to your project, which is to honor those who died during the AIDS epidemic. What do you remember of that time? I remember working at the 2/4 club, which is now Voyeur, and losing so many of my young co-workers who would be there one day and gone the next week. It was, “Hey, where’s the bar-back?” “Gone…AIDS” It was so sad and scary.
I wasn’t in the thick of it, I was born in 1968, but my whole romantic life, any experiences or feelings I had from about 14 up, were shadowed by that disease. I was probably 10 years away from that generation of young people who were in their late 20’s and had to perversely go to funerals every week. I do remember being on the subway in NY city and seeing the faces of young people, mostly men, and thinking, “That person’s not going to last the week.” The ruined body and gaunt face that you would see of a young person who looked about 150 years old.
Haunting images. Getting back to your art, what was the first thing that you did that made you say, “Okay, I can call myself a professional now.”
I did a little bit of drawing for Baby Gap and I saw a design of mine on a kid I didn’t know walking down the street.
So cool!! What was the first book you published?
My first children’s book came out in 2001. I was about 30 when I realized they were going to publish my book. It got me to feel, in a small way, that this was my job. It was called “Beverly Billingsly Borrows a Book,” and it deals with anxiety. My mom was a learning disabilities teacher and my dad was a child psychologist, so almost all my books are about some kind of emotional intelligence. It was my way of being a part of the family business! It’s about a kid who has an overdue library book and becomes so panic stricken about the repercussions that she can’t return it.
As a gay man without kids, what made you go that route? [Laughing] I say that as a lesbian without kids who put out a children’s CD of music.
I’ve loved the medium since I was a kid. Especially reading authors like Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak, or Ellen Raskin, people who both wrote and illustrated their work. As a kid I was really into Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the Bayeux tapestry, even cave drawings, anything that used words and pictures to tell a story. I love it. You can make a whole world when you do that.
And you can make a world of difference as well.
Well, I tell students that you can create a world that works the way you would like the world to work. I always tried to just write a funny story [laughing] and it would always end up with a kid with a problem. And in my books that usually had parents who gave them good advice and things got better.
We’re now facing “Don’t Say Gay” in the schools. Were there concerns as a gay man writing for children back then?
Oh sure! I was told right from the beginning not to mention my partner in my bios, and I didn’t for the first 5 or 6 books.
You’ve done so many things. How would you describe what you do?
I’d say I’m an artist first, I work in oil paint on canvas and in clay, I’m an author and illustrator, and on occasion I’m a curator. Those are the top 3.
What’s the craziest job you’ve done?
Whoopie Goldberg needed a ghost illustrator for her Christmas sweaters. She had all these crazy ideas for the sweaters and would come to me with these pencil scribblings scrawled on a piece of paper and I would translate the ideas into cartoons so they could be embroidered. Figuring how to make farting gingerbread men cute was one of the craziest things I’ve done. One of my concerns is that I wanted diverse figures so there were gingerbread men of every hue, from clouded honey to toasted cocoa!
So cool. So how did the William Way project come about?
Chris Bartlett and I were sitting in the stupid IHOP, Chris loves it for some reason, and he told me about the work of a Philadelphia Funeral director who during the AIDS crisis was one of the few who would accept the bodies of someone who had died of AIDS. And the fact that many people went unclaimed, when the families rejected them. I thought about all the people who were left alone both before and after death, and I wanted to do something. There are so many tales of what happens to the soul when we don’t bury our dead properly, how the spirit is in a state of unrest and I think the flip side is that we are also in a state of unrest until we have properly taken care of the dead. It’s a way to begin the process of grief for us as well as absorbing the facts of the death and helping that spirit move on. So I thought, okay, we need to do what the queer community has done for so long and take care of our own.
Eerily reminiscent in some ways of the Covid epidemic in some ways, in that people were afraid and folks were dying without their loved ones able to be there to say goodbye.
Yes, and just like with the AIDS epidemic it was because of the way we treated underprivileged people and people of color. We once again made the fatal error that the disease was something that happened to other people and through that lack of compassion we botched this one again. The numbers were higher than they needed to be and the trauma was greater than it should have been because, once again, we had a president who did not want to publicly acknowledge the disease and, like Reagan, because he refused to name and talk about something he thought was unpopular, expanded the reach of a fatal disease. So yes, it was weird to get the grant for this project pre-covid and to watch this ugly echo of the past.
Indeed. But back to this event, what can people expect?
Joy, and beauty. It will be a celebration of lives. We have amazing artists who are participating, from composer Kinan Abou-afach who will be contributing music, to the textile artist Liz Collins who has built the shrouds, and costumers Claire Fleury and The Henry are involved. I made the urns, and we’re going to be reciting the poems of some of the people who passed so that they’ll have a presence as well. I’m so excited to have people participate in the procession from William Way to the church, it’s going to be very moving. The urns will be carried in the air on liters, like Cleopatra on her throne with music all around. Also I want to get this out there, please, if anyone has a name that they want included, please send me a message, I will write the name down on a piece of paper, say that name aloud and burn it. We will include the ashes in the urns that will be carried during the memorial.
I love that idea.
Yes, and I’ve been getting wonderful and heartbreaking stories along with the requests, including a man telling me about his boyfriend who just wanted a haircut when he was dying and no one would do it. It’s such a tiny thing and yet an enormous thing.
Back to you, how did you end up in Philly?
I was visiting my friend Jane, and she took me to the Italian Market and I got 3lbs of pencil thin asparagus for a dollar! Then I had a cannoli at Lidos, the first cannoli of my life, and in my mind, like when my sister called on the phone, I got a message in my head that said, “You will live in Philadelphia and be happy.” And so I did.
What did you have on your walls as a kid?
I once found a big movie poster for “The Last Metro” starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in a junk pile. I dragged it home on the train and put it up on my wall. I think she’s probably the most beautiful woman that ever was.
Ever been attacked by an animal?
Yes! I was bitten on the face by a Cocker Spaniel when I was 6 years old.
A show that you enjoy watching in reruns?
The Cher Show.
And what are you up to now in the great state of Maine?
I’m here with my partner of many, many years Andy Baker. He just retired a few years ago but he was the COO of the Philadelphia Zoo. He’s been extraordinarily helpful with this project. I’m also working on a series of large scale paintings of rainbows and clouds, and I’m working on a comic book memoir about my mom and her death.
For more information on Gone and Forever, please visit www.waygay.org.com/remembrance/.