"I feel like I am on my way somewhere really exciting,” explained transfeminist painter and illustrator Ketch Wehr, whose latest exhibit, aptly titled “Split + Growing,” is on display at the Bureau of General Services — Queer Division. This new body of work explores the artist’s growth as well as the experience of coming into one’s own — literally, coming into one’s self.
Wehr met with Gay City News to discuss his latest exhibit, his artistic journey so far, and the challenges that lie ahead.
“Split + Growing” features 13 pieces — which took him about three months to research and execute — of gouache paintings on a rough toothed, heavy-duty paper complete with undefined edges, tape marks, and additional paint marks added post-framing. The series comes together as a beautiful expression of color that gives viewers an intimate glimpse into the artist’s world.
Compared to previous work, which relied on symbolism and allegory to tell stories about other histories not specific to him, Wehr has gone deeper and more personal with this exhibit, shedding light on experiencing life with a cognitive condition known as synesthesia. Diagnosed at a young age with color synesthesia (also known as grapheme), he perceives letters and numbers with strong color associations.
One of the pieces that best drives home the synesthesia theme is also one of the exhibit’s seemingly simpler paintings — illustrating the word “queer.” Titled “Subsuming (Or: When You Have No Words,” this powerful piece stands out in demonstrating the beauty and power of language as a tool for identifying oneself. Queer is used here to embody multiple facets of the artist and is, at once, empowering and elusive. The composition is comprised mainly of a vibrant red-orange, which Wehr has always been drawn to and can be found in multiple pieces in the exhibit.
Two of the pieces Wehr is most proud of are “Grounding I” and “Grounding II.” Though he used his partner as the model in both, the artist described their creation as part of the ongoing process of becoming more aware of himself.
“You think you know where you are going to with something and it surprises you,” Wehr said of “Gounding I.” “And this surprised me in a lot of really fun ways."
Experimenting with format, the artist is pleased that the piece captured that moment of release.
Wehr has a longstanding history of illustrating animals, something he said is a legacy of a childhood in which he could often be hyperactive. The depiction of animals, he explained, particularly the wolf, conveys the struggle he has waged in his life with impulse. A portrait of a wolf entitled “Instinct” is a particularly powerful homage to his past and an animal-like nature he continues to experience as authentic.
Portraits of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars” and of Ian McKellen may seem a bit far afield in this exhibit. Wehr described the two as role models he had growing up that represented different interpretations of masculinity. Having always identified as somewhat of a sensitive nerd, the artist explained that the two men — especially McKellen, whom he described as bold yet endearing — challenge the concept that a man need be either strong or sensitive.
Wehr draws on both strength and sensitivity in shedding his unique color on what is often perceived as the black-and-white concept of gender transitioning.
“Being a trans-masculine person, there are parts of me that were always somewhat masculine, but I think being a kind of feminine boy, it was a little more difficult to pull apart,” he said.
Gender, for Wehr, is about more than just being masculine or feminine — and the idea that he could be both played a major part in his transition.
“I think that it’s a lot easier to be comfortable with the different parts of yourself when you’re grounded, when you’re centered, when you’re in a place where you feel confident and comfortable,” the artist said. “And I think transitioning, medically and socially, and just growing up in a lot of ways, like everyone does, is very comforting.”
Wehr considers “Split + Growing,” on display through May 25, a success, a nice jumping off point into his work. He is currently at work on a piece for a group show that the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History will stage at the Public Library on 42nd Street. He is also hoping to produce work for additional solo shows later this year.
For the latest on Wehr, visit ketchwehr.
KETCH WEHR | “Split + Growing” | Bureau of General Services –– Queer Division, 83 Hester St., btwn Allen & Orchard Sts. | Through May 25: Wed.-Sun., 1 p.m. - 7 p.m. | bgsqd.com