As a transgender individual growing up in a homophobic household, the hardships endured by Mike Gardner created lasting emotional scars, which now serve as inspiration for art and a piece created with support from a $500 CREATE! Micro-Grant.
Gardner has since reckoned with the past, its lasting effects, and how it has influenced life today.
“In that reckoning, I found myself moved to grieve and celebrate the circumstances that led me to be where I am now, to rejoice in the fruits of my fight for self-actualization and community,” the senior Studio Art major said. “And how that looked for me as someone who in youth was fraught with self-esteem issues and dysphoria brought on by the sheer humiliation and fear I felt at home [and what it meant to] ‘take back’ my body and revel in its beauty.”
The work of empowerment, embracing identity and physical gender expression, and the influence of the past — these are all factors that have guided Gardner’s process in life and art and have led to the creation of the CREATE! Micro-Grant project, Untitled (Wrath from Beneath the Skin of Wet Mouths), a compilation of mixed media on canvas, including oil paintings and photographs.
“This piece points the finger back at the viewer, at cis people in particular,” Gardner said, “and asks, ‘After a year of uncertainty and loss, who are you to look down at someone’s means of survival, their attempts to seek comfort in themselves, in the world around them? Have you never dreamed, never believed in that dream so much that you’d scale the highest mountain with your teeth and nails to get there? Or crawled across broken glass with bare skin, just to feel grounded in who you see yourself as?’ I feel like that’s the reality of being trans for a lot of people.”
The nude self-portrait photographs used in the piece were taken by Gardner over several months to document the progression of their appearance and the growing distance between Gardner and family members.
These photos are representative of Gardner’s exploration of the body in isolation, of who is deserving of being seen and respected and who exists beyond the margins.
“This piece points the finger back at the viewer, at cis people in particular, and asks, ‘After a year of uncertainty and loss, who are you to look down at someone’s means of survival, their attempts to seek comfort in themselves, in the world around them?”
“I was able to see how people just like me, with no support outside of their friends and allies in the trans community, survive,” Gardner said. “The stigma that they face, of being deviants and abominations, objects only fit for closet consumption, burns like fire in my veins.”
Working on the CREATE! Micro-Grant project, Gardner forged a bond with the piece while exploring different concepts and experiencing personal creative freedom.
“It meant so much to me to win this micro-grant because this is a starting point for me as a professional artist,” Gardner said. “My work was valuable enough in concept to warrant financial support and interest without any portfolio review or competitive interview process, which says to me that the ideas I have and the space I take up are invaluable. That when it’s time for me to advocate for myself as an artist using my work and my ability to express my ideas (in words?), I’ll be someone to look out for.”
“I don’t think I’d have made anything this size or caliber without this grant. It provided me with the funds I needed to survive, let alone work intentionally.”
Without the funds received from the CREATE! Micro-Grant, making the piece would have been difficult for Gardner.
“I don’t think I’d have made anything this size or caliber without this grant,” Gardner said. “It provided me with the funds I needed to survive, let alone work intentionally. I ate off this painting, I paid bills off this painting, bought art supplies, and I put money into the hands of other trans people in need through the beautiful cycle of mutual aid, all from this one piece of work, and that is extremely powerful in my eyes.”