Two Letters to Forrest Bess
October 27, 2018
Non-binary trees now. Trees in transit. Or trees with inexplicable appendages and holes. Or maybe the trees aren’t conforming. Decades into their growth, the trees are told gravity isn’t quite real, or gravity’s not quite what it was thought to be and now, trees, you can grow however you like, you can grow up, they tell the trees, but also sideways and downwards and diagonal. Oh, Forrest, we’re starting with trees.
Forrest, I love your paint, those paintings, their layers and layerings, their motion and textures, the colors and the shapes, the driftwood frames and the knock-off wooden frames. I love the horizon lines and the skies and the landscapes of bays and water and grasses. I love your visions and your commitment to making those visions visible for others. I look at them and think about you, your body, your fishing body, your cyborg body, but also about these lands, waters, and bays where you lived and where my blood has lived for generations. I think about the Karankawa peoples who lived and live on those same shores, almost eradicated in multiple waves of colonizers who arrive to these lands, devastate local populations, terminate languages, and then prattle on about “lost languages” and “lost peoples.” No one was lost, Forrest, so many of us either killed off or made to feel like our existing was an offense. Or like our suffering was an affront to their well-being. Or like our joy flew in their faces.
I wish we could sit down and have a cup of tea. Or a beer. I’d have a beer with you.
I first found your paintings and your writings five years ago in a show at the Menil Collection in Houston. Your spirit has stayed with me, your quests and longings, your imagination and your practice of writing, and your own bodily experiments. This is a strange letter, Forrest, because it is open: not only for you, but also carbon-copied to the world at large.
Despite the impersonalness, I wanted to write back to you. Back to the letters you sent all over. Constantly. You were an inveterate letter writer when you were alive. You sent letters everywhere: to Eisenhower and Carl Jung and various sex and gender researchers. Your letters are part of your archive. Your letters are being read today by multiple people in reproductions in coffee table books. There are articles, essays, videos, and more. Everyone reading your paintings and your writings has their own relationship with you. And I have only seen the writings and fragments that have filtered out of the archive and into books in that slant way.
I love that you left the shore at Bay City, Texas, and you went to Houston to live for a while. You wrote in a letter that you “found protection in numbers with people I thought were my own kind - but for some reason or other I was too ‘butch’—too rough for them—I was an oddity and I didn’t fit. I wasn’t effeminate enough.”
You were too butch for the Houston scene. You left.
How did you learn to be “too butch,” Forrest? How did we learn to be “too butch,” Forrest?
A very queer people still afraid of gender performances declared off-limits for us. So the fear of performing femininity in my own body is real. I’m usually paralyzed by it. I imagine you were too. You were “too butch” for the Houston 1950s queers.
Oh, how we re-institute trans and homo phobias constantly on our own bodies and on the bodies of our own.
Of course, you never heard those words of phobia, Forrest. There is a much larger vocabulary now about these embodied questions than you ever encountered. This is part of my question, Forrest. How do I write a letter to you with these words that I have now, when you had an entirely different set of words? What are the vocabularies of our meeting? What words can we use when we meet?
The questions seem parallel. The questions you perhaps were asking and the ones I am too: how were we taught to live this way in these bodies assigned male? What were all the millions of decisions and enforcements that led us into manhood? And how do we get out?
Perhaps, there is but a partial archive of your writings, Forrest. From what I have learned from essays and YouTube videos, your thesis is lost, your journals and books are lost, we don’t even know how many paintings you made.
Your life was full of challenges, Forrest, but I don’t see your life as a sad life, as some critics have thought. I don’t know, maybe it was sad to live queer in a bait shack out on the Gulf Coast near Bay City. But I imagine it was also quite beautiful on some days. So many of your paintings are a testament to beauty.
Those first days of fall when a cool, humid wind blows through and everything grilling under the summer sun perks up a little bit, begins to re-green and re-grow. I mean isn’t every life a sad life? Isn’t anyone who takes the time to think through their body—to grapple with the strangeness of these flesh sacks assigned through no intervention of our own—necessarily going to end up a little emotional? How can this living not be an emotionally overwhelming experience? I can’t imagine otherwise. Especially this living queer and in-between and in-transit on this sinking coast of shifting silt and sediment.
I think you were reaching for something else, reaching for another way of existing in your own body, another way of being penetrated by the men you loved, another way of relating to your bodilyness, updating it, actualizing it. I can understand your urge. I can understand or relate to your disquiet with the confines of your overly-butch body. This body trained to exclude softness, to exclude any care for the delicate fragility of the body and its parts.
“There was a whole crazy queer scene in Bay City, Texas” says the scholar Mark Turner in a talk on YouTube.
Turner also quotes you as writing around 1950, “I am a peculiar type of homosexual. There it’s written.” I’ve written sentences like that ever since I was small. With shifting nouns at the end of the sentence. It’s a common sentence that affirms and then quickly notices what has been affirmed, and probably squirrels those sentences away where the sun don’t shine. If I can admit it to myself, if it can be written, then I can move forward somehow. Or perhaps not quite move forward, because I don’t believe any of us are actually moving forward; we’re lingering, twisting, re-turning endlessly.
You moved to Houston for protection with your own kind, but you came to believe that you were an oddity, you weren’t effeminate enough. Though I imagine or I surmise that in the 1950s, the only ones brave enough to be living in public in Houston were the nelly queens, the drag queens, the shapeshifters, and gender-crossers. Butch queens weren’t identifiable, and thus invisible or married to women or off on their own manly trips. I don’t know exactly what you found or didn’t find or even what you were looking for. But we do know that what you found was not enough to keep you, to hold you.
Both Mark Turner and Robert Gober tell the story of when you were a soldier in the Army, and you “messed up once” and ended up getting bashed. And you decided then to be more clear with people about your sexuality and your gender. You said you wouldn’t get a lead pipe bashed into your head again, that you wouldn’t be blackmailed for being homosexual. So you found new ways to live. To live on your own with your dreams and the bay and the Gulf waters. As you wrote and Turner quotes, “There was no reason to declare to the whole world that I was queer, though should I be asked, there would be no reason to lie or hide anything.” You thought of yourself as queer, which means so much to me now. That you identified with this word. Clearly, you weren’t using the term in its contemporary reclaimed fashion, but well it seems you were reclaiming the term yourself, on your own, or who knows, maybe you had other friends in Bay City or in Houston or San Antonio who reclaimed these words, re-purposed these words made to scare, to terrorize us.
Today, Forrest, there’s a plethora of words. We have emerged into a sea of vocabulary, a vast multiplicity of terms. We still use words like “homosexual” or “queer” but also words like “non-binary” and “gender non-conforming” and “trans” tout court. So many words proliferate.
I think you were finding ways to be comfortable in your own body, in ways that felt life-affirming to you. I can’t be sure.
I am not sure if today’s queers are any more liberated than you were.
And I am not sure if my so-called-Texas-soaked settler family gave me many more options for myself than you had. I still haven’t written about my own experiences of bashings. It’s just too much, Forrest.
In your paintings, you said you sought to discover “what I am” and not “who I am.”
“He will not be a nice boy and conform,” you wrote.
All these not-nice queer and trans children day-dream through the centuries, asking far too many questions.
Here in Texas, let me tell you, Forrest, they’ve made you into a great Texan artist, an example of a perfect landscape or abstract painter or they’ve made you into a figure that is representative of the art of this state that was once a nation. And yet, my sense is that the locals want your ideas and your gender and your sexuality to be downplayed, to remain in the background or, if seen, as overly odd and frightening, distorted and strange. They don’t want you and your body to take up too much space. Rather, they want your paintings to be the stars.
In the Menil show that I saw—as well as in Robert Gober’s 2012 installation of your work at the Whitney Biennial—there was a Polaroid picture of your genitalia in one of the vitrines, a picture of how you had operated on yourself to create a cavity below your shaft and above your intact testicles. I can’t help but think of the many Trans 101 sessions I have been in; each one repeating the doctrine that the curators should never have shown such a sensational image, that your body was your own and that viewers have no more right to see your genitals than to see the genitals of any other artist. Imagine walking into the Surrealist exhibit at the Menil and seeing images of the penises of DuChamp and Magritte and Picasso.
Writing in The Texas Observer about the Menil show of your work, Kelly Klaasmeyer actually sees two shows, one of painting and one about you, and that portrait of you “makes the paintings difficult to look at.” She thinks that this focus on you and your body is borderline exploitation, a sensationalizing of “the difficulties of [your] life.” She also describes seeing a father having to explain the Polaroid image to his son, and she’s worried about her own young children seeing a “Polaroid of a mutilated dick.” This is where I part ways with Klaasmeyer.
I don’t see this photo as representing any kind of mutilation. I see it as your own record of your body, your attempts to move into your own specific body, to really inhabit it, to experiment with it joyfully, and to make it more livable for you. I see it as connected to the thick strokes of your painting, their physicality. You asked Betty Parsons at her gallery for years to exhibit the photo of your operated genitals next to your paintings. Though she refused, Gober made your wish come true. And this dream was repeated at the Menil. I was moved by this dream that was once deferred and then later realized. I saw the union of your gorgeous paintings with this photo and its attendant letters as something deeply beautiful. I read it as a brave gesture toward the beauty of an intervened body, a body that sought to escape the strictures of the natural.
Two friends here in Houston, Sara Balabanlilar and S Rodriguez, made a little button with the words “Tender Cyborg.” It makes me think of you, Forrest.
The Polaroid image has been seared into my brain ever since I first saw it at the Menil. Or rather the emotions I felt and my own bodily experience of it is impossible to forget. I felt a connection to you at that moment. I felt something I might call hope. A raucous mix of pleasure and pain and even some fright at what you had done. I remember feeling faint, like I might pass out, but I didn’t. I stayed for a long time, lingering over the vitrines and their letters and photos and other texts. I was looking intently at these paintings that had also required of me a longer viewing. They’d practically forced me to stop. Something so powerful about them that the paint seemed liquid, ever in motion, oozing.
Those images and his dreams recalled my own dreams in the night. So many dreams over so many years of not having a penis, no testicles, reaching down and finding only a mannequin’s flatness or a slight mound. All those feelings from those dreams of looking down and seeing nothing there: disgust, panic, joy, pleasure, fear, horror, beauty. In the dreams, I’d feel shock and sometimes joy or pleasure but also sometimes disgust with my own body. Often, I was confused about what had happened to my genitals, or I was in a moment where the dream had turned sexual and then, well, the flatness shifted everything. Sometimes, in the dreams, I’d wonder where they were and I’d set out to search for them, for where and how I might have lost them. Where they might be.
Recently, I’ve let it be known that I enjoy it when people use “they” pronouns with me. Over the last years here in Houston, the usage of this third-person gender-indefinite pronoun has become even more common, especially in LGBT circles or in social movement spaces. I’ve gradually come to accept that, if I am to be given a choice, “they” feels best. It feels odd to say this now, Forrest, when I’m almost 40 years old. But I’m going to keep changing. Nothing in your paintings is static, Forrest, why should we be?
Forrest, I wanted to write you and tell you these things I’ve been thinking. I’m not sure where the thinking will take me, but I see you as a fellow traveler, a gender experimenter, an impassioned creator, a soul committed to changing your own self, your own body, your own world. I see you as someone who, like me, faced down a conservative white Texas upbringing. Someone who, like me, dealt with queer bashings and attacks. Forrest, I know the contours of what is eradicated in those encounters, the relentless doubt and hard hypervigilance that follows in the wake of violence and aggression and silence. Your stories about being in the army and suffering those attacks have made me identify with you even more. How do we scramble out of those experience of violence? How do we re-recreate ourselves in ways subversive and also softly joyful? What do we dream about and what are our visions? I identify both with your Gulf Coast life and with your own thesis about your body, the masculine and the feminine. I don’t know, Forrest, I wanted to write you back, even though I am not a Forrest Bess expert, of which there are quite a few. I am but an admirer.
The youngest trees are growing in all kinds of different forms, up and out and down and around, skimming the earth and at ninety degree angles. My heart is full with these younger trees, with their bravery. But those queerly-shapen trees are hardly the first ones. Some old trees bent hard by the continual wind off the Gulf coast. Old oaks in Houston growing horizontally for centuries. We’ve been here, the trees say, listening as they called us impossible. Nelly queens, oaks, drag queens, travestis, butches with fear and others fearless.
I’m thinking about the cypress knees, Forrest: those roots, large and small, growing up out of the surface of the earth. The tallest knee was said to be fourteen feet tall. Scientists have no idea why cypress trees grow knees. No explanations have been able to fully account for their presence. They are unnecessary or at least it is unknown why they grow that way.
The non-binary trees. The non-conforming trees. The trees in transit. The parts continue to escape explanation.
February 27, 2022
Hello dear Forrest,
I’m still thinking about you. I wrote this letter three and half years ago when some friends invited me to write an open letter to someone. Their intention was to publish all these letters on a website, but—as often happens with unfunded, passion-driven editorial projects—this letter was never posted. Recently, I was talking with Alicia Wright, the editor at Annulet, and she expressed an interest in this letter that I wrote. So I am sending it to her now to publish for her beautiful journal.
I just re-read the letter I wrote to you. It still speaks to me, Forrest, and I hope it speaks to you. Like everything, it feels unfinished. I have more letters that I want to write to you. I want to update you on where I am now. But for now, I just finally want to send the 2018 letter to you. Making this letter public feels like an attempt to send it to you.
Also, I plan to print out both of these letters and take them to Bay City. I’ll drive down to Chinquaquin and look for some remnant of you. I’ll find some mud on the bayside and leave this letter for you there. Maybe bury it. Maybe pin it to the knee of some cypress. I’ll find a spot to leave it for you.