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A Gay, Black UNR Student Finds His Voice Through His Art

I remember when I first met DePaul Vera.

I can’t tell you anything about the art exhibit on display at the Sheppard Gallery that evening in the fall semester of 2015, but I can tell you that DePaul was sharply dressed, even sporting a bow tie. A black man wearing a bow tie in Reno. I must have flashed back to my years living in Boston and Philadelphia where that was a common occurrence. But not in casual Reno. He was someone I wanted to meet.

I was excited to hear he was an MFA student at the University of Nevada, Reno. I also was fearful how a black, gay man from western Kentucky would be treated, both on campus and out of the university bubble. With a big smile and even bigger personality, he was energetic and eager to delve into his art. He said his goal was to find his voice and discover, through his art, his mission.

“I just want to assert my existence in a white society,” DePaul said during our interview.

But his first show didn’t do that. His first exhibit was drawings of white men in the pop, comic-book style of Roy Lichtenstein. Nowhere in any of those drawings did I see an image like DePaul. He got backlash from his professors, some saying it wasn’t art and others calling it pornography.

DePaul said his committee chair, Paul Baker Prindle, began to challenge him to find his blackness.

“Paul asked me why is a black, gay man from the South only drawing white bodies,” he said. “I don’t know, Paul. Let me figure that out.”

Prindle challenged DePaul to learn African American history to have a better understanding of who he was. So, DePaul began to read an assortment of books, including James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, Stuart Hall, and Tracy Morgan.

“It wasn’t until I accepted my race and identity that I could finally find my voice,” he said.

In his next show, I began to see his voice, especially his Southern Baptist roots. “Hereafter” was a collection of collages of male nudes that included black silhouettes. I was critical of the sloppy cut out work and the grammatical error in his artist statement, but this exhibit was a good move in the right direction toward finding his identity.

It was evident to me that Prindle was a strong, positive influence.

One of the things that has been meaningful to me as the Chairperson of DePaul’s MFA committee is that he has come in to an awareness–a deep awareness–of what it means to be Black and Gay in our world,” Prindle said. “To see a student–any student, but especially students of color–become self-aware and to connect that awareness to the formation of their research practice and their life practice, is so satisfying and meaningful. Seeing DePaul come into his own is worth more than gold.”

After this body of work, DePaul began the conflation of the blackness, homosexuality, and the civil rights movement. And then last summer there was the deadly protest by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which included a widely-publicized UNR student. DePaul said he had to make something. The result was the hauntingly beautiful archived image of the Ku Klux Klan, with their arms extended, standing in front of a burning cross. But DePaul manipulated it, adding a naked black man facing them while holding a beach ball. It’s a self-portrait.

“How would I embrace the Klan?” he said. “It’s about to be on!”

And it was about to be on with his art. Using images from his collection, he fused black and white men with social and political issues.

Another moving image is of an interracial male couple embracing on a bed, with the words “Let Freedom Ring” tattooed and the back of the white man. Now, I can hear DePaul’s voice!

Now, it’s time for DePaul’s thesis exhibition – “My Soul to Keep.” It will run from April 16 to April 26 at Student Galleries South, which is in the Jot Travis Building.

He said we’re going to see his black identity and history surrounded by the societal perimeter he has had to navigate. Looking back over the past two and a half years, DePaul said he had no idea what he was getting into and if it had not been for Prindle, he would have left.

“I can’t imagine anyone else on my committee being able to handle this content,” he said.

Prindle said he applauds DePaul for the “audacity of the installation and his bravery in tackling overlapping social/cultural topics and values that can be very messy and hard to sort through.”

“His work today is tackling incredibly challenging content that I think is so useful to our society’s continued development,” Prindle said. “He is sharing his observations and struggles with a community who are engaging with him and his work in part because the work is so good and in part because he is so generous with his viewers. We need more humans in this world who are willing to be vulnerable and open to dialogue.”

DePaul will be leaving Reno after he graduates, and I’m not surprised. He said he has found Reno to be as conservative as Kentucky and not much in the gay community.

Perhaps that made it easier for him to focus on his art and find solace in his studio.

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to watch DePaul find his voice and let it ring through his art. I must agree with his final words about this exhibit and make them my final words on this:

“Reno needs to see this. Reno needs this.”

 

Geralda Miller, Curator

 

Public Art: Time-Place-Meaning

It’s no secret that I enjoy going to Burning Man. If the Black Rock Desert dries in time, this will be my tenth consecutive year attending the event. It was the large-scale art installations that were so alluring that I looked forward to returning each year, and still do. I’m awestruck by the massive sculptures – some shooting fire, others are intricately lit and dance with LED light patterns. It’s a playground of spectacular art installations that allow the 70,000 people who attend the weeklong event to become physically or emotionally engaged. While taking a group last week on a tour of Reno’s downtown public art, I commented that I believed Burning Man was a good example of how public art should be. Her response was – is it public art if you must buy a ticket to see it.

I love it when I’m challenged to think critically about something. Right now, I’m trying to understand public art and its meaning. My personal examination began last month after attending a Passover dinner where this was the topic of conversation while enjoying dessert. Our dinner was right after Reno City Council decided to temporarily place the Space Whale sculpture, which is a life-size, stain glass humpback whale and calf that was first seen last year at Burning Man, at City Plaza. The decision caused lots of chatter. I’ve heard and read pros and cons. Many asked why is the city using their money for this instead of using that money for something like repairing potholes. Reno Gazette-Journal newsman Mark Robison wrote a great article that explains that a small portion of room tax must go to public art. Whoever the person was that came up with the idea of using part of the tax money from tourists for the city’s public art, I applaud you! Others complained that Reno has too much Burning Man art. And to those people I suggest you come on one of our downtown public art tours we give and see the variety of public art that’s here. For a city our size, the collection is quite impressive. But back to Passover dessert.

I sat at the table across from Paul Baker Prindle, Director of Galleries at the University of Nevada, Reno. While enjoying my first blackberries of the season, Paul said he’d like to see more public art in Reno instead of outside art. Wait…what? I’d never heard this distinction before and now needed to understand the difference. It’s one with which I’m still trying to grasp. Public art engages the viewer whereas outside art is there simply to look at. Does this mean there has to be physical engagement or a visceral reaction for it truly to be considered public art? I’m reminded of a talk Paul hosted four years ago on public art. Women from Daily Tous Les Jours, a French Canadian design group, spoke about their installation in Montreal called 21 Swings. Twenty-one swings hung in Montreal’s entertainment district. When people would swing, instrumental sounds filled the air. As more people would swing, melodies and harmonies formed. It is described on their website as “an exercise in musical cooperation…thus stimulating a sense of community and ownership of space.” OK, now I’m having a lightbulb moment! Perhaps that’s the true meaning of public art — that which stimulates a sense of community and ownership of space.

I was awakened at that Passover dinner. I think my exploration and understanding of what is public art has only just begun. Paul is sharing books and articles with me on the topic and I now have plenty of reading material. It is with this acute lens that I will walk the Reno streets, examining our art collection. Does Reno’s public art stimulate a sense of community and ownership? Does it express our community values, heighten our awareness or challenge our assumptions? As you can tell, at this point I’ve still got more questions than answers on the topic. (I welcome your thoughtful comments.) What I do know for sure is that the quality of any artwork we have on display in our city must always be of the highest quality. And that doesn’t mean it has to be high art.

The Association for Public Art says:  Public art is a reflection of how we see the world – the artist’s response to our time and place combined with our own sense of who we are.” Who are we, Reno? It’s obvious we’re becoming an arts hub and we’re the gateway to Burning Man and temporarily displaying some of its art. Now, let’s bring art like the 21 Swings here and develop a strong sense of play and community.

 

Geralda Miller, Curator