paté conaway
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interview by jeff abell

I realized I could embrace the parts of me that are male, embrace the parts of me that are female, yet be neither of both. I mean, I have male genitalia, I don't consider myself a straight man, and I don't consider myself a woman. So I'm probably that "third gender"--that lovely balance of all that falls between the cracks and grows up.

Top: Paté Conaway, Knitting for My Soul, February 2002. Photo by James Isberner. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Above: Legs like butter! Cocktail paper-plate dress, 1997. Courtesy the artist.

Paté Conaway, Untitled (Franken-Barbie Series), 1995. Courtesy the artist.

If you've ever tried to change the clothes on a GI Joe, it's just insane. It takes you a half-hour just to get a shoe off. Mine had this little jumpsuit--it was an astronaut--and it just sucked. Now he's wearing a little teddy, and with his muscular legs, he's very lovely.

Paté Conaway, The Adult-Child Abecedarium, artist's book, 1999. Courtesy the artist.

Why would I live small? Why would I not invest in my full potential? I think a lot of the way we're educated is about clipping our wings. With the Abecedarium, I'm taking us all back to when we were kids and totally challenging your truth. A is not an apple, B is not a ball, C is not a cat.

Paté Conaway, Knitting for My Soul, February 2002. Photo by James Isberner. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

I ended up creating a scarf that's 5 feet wide and 33 feet long, and it's still growing--I haven't completed it. But to me, it's about not completing it. What I love is that I can use it as a metaphor for what we weave, what we create as our lives, and what happens when we make mistakes.

Paté Conaway, Knitting for My Soul, February 2002. Photo by James Isberner. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

When I opened the drawer and saw that pair of knitting needles, I could have easily abandoned the whole idea, because I remember what was going through my head. I heard this little old woman's voice saying, "You can't do that! You're gonna lose some fingers!" But I had a choice to make at that point, and I chose to follow that gift or dream that had been given to me, that image of the
big needle.
 I was thinking about how I first met you--

When you first met me? OK....

I threw a party, and you were there, dressed in a green plaid, pleated Catholic schoolgirl skirt, and a white blouse.

Yes. I still have that skirt. And I still wear it, occasionally.

Well, I'm afraid that's become an indelibly etched image for me, in part because there was a lot of significant fallout from that party. For example, I know Terrence Smith debuted shortly thereafter as Joan Jett-Blakk, and he often cites that evening as being one of the things that helped prompt his transformation.

Actually, I remember going into your bedroom, and every time the train went by, I would scream. It was very therapeutic.

It was certainly memorable.

It's interesting--I don't remember that as being a turning-point evening for me, yet I do remember it as a period when I hadn't really decided to invest in myself as an artist. I was just experimenting and being crazy. I definitely had my Catholic schoolgirl craze going; I would tend to go to parties wearing that skirt...and it didn't have to be Halloween, per se. But I did a lot of genderfuck at that time. Now, when I look back on it, it was incredible street performance.

Who was your compatriot back then? Because I remember you were typically with somebody else at that point. You were part of this dyad of performance craziness.

Well, I was hanging with Arnae Hartmann--Arnetta--whom I call my sister. He/she lives in Portland now. But I got involved with the Radical Faeries at that time, and it was wonderful; we would have a gathering every month, and we would wear incredible drag. It was never like we were dressing as women--we would wear a dress, but at the same time wear a pair of boots. We never wore wigs and rarely wore makeup. So there was always a balance. In hindsight, I realize it was a time when I was really able to experiment with, and fully embrace, the idea of being radical, or the self as being radical. I could embrace the parts of me that are male, embrace the parts of me that are female, yet realize I'm neither of both. I mean, I have male genitalia, I don't consider myself a straight man, and I don't consider myself a woman. So I'm probably what Harry Hay talks about as "third gender."

As we're talking, it's been about a week since Harry Hay passed away. [eds. note: Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society in 1950, providing the theoretical underpinning of the Gay Liberation movement. The gay spiritual and activist group Radical Faeries considered Harry their Wise Elder. He passed away on October 24, 2002, in San Francisco, at the age of 90.]

Yes, it was last Wednesday.

I know a lot of us have been thinking about Harry over the past few days.

Harry was a mentor, a friend, and part of my community. I had been doing work with him for the last decade; I would go to Wolf Creek, Oregon, once a year, and we would look at what it means to create community. Harry was big on asking, as gay men, "Who are we? Why are we here? What's our purpose?" Working with him, I started asking those questions of myself: "Who am I? What's important to me? Who's my community--who supports me in being me and, conversely, whom do I support in being more themselves?"

The Radical Faeries really seemed to emerge in force here in the late '80s.

Right; it was 1988 or '89. It's interesting to talk about my early Radical Faerie days, because that was an arena I fell into; it was an accident. I met Arnae, and the next thing you know I was going to this party with this group of men, and it was a place where I could truly be myself. I felt like I had found home.

And there were so many other things happening at that time--Act Up and Queer Nation--the level of activism was very high. There seemed to be a new sense of self-identity among Chicago's gay and lesbian community, and a real attempt to translate that into a visible, tangible community.

Definitely. I can't necessarily talk for the group, but I can talk for myself. It was shortly after I had moved to Chicago from California. I was following a partner, and we broke up right when I got here. But I decided to stay. I was going through such personal changes, going through this breakup and looking at who I was. Then all of a sudden I met this group of people who were very accepting, and I blossomed. I remember thinking at the time, "Let's dress the way I want to dress, let's act the way I want to act." I was really pushing the extremes. In life, if we want to find the middle road, we first have to find some extremes, and with the Radical Faeries I took that extreme--which I needed to do.

What kinds of things were the Radical Faeries doing?

Well, we did a lot of what I see now as street or guerrilla theater. One time, a group of us went to high tea at the Drake Hotel. I had a friend who worked at a salon on Oak Street, and at the time I had long hair, down to my shoulders. So that day, I came into this upscale salon wearing a prom dress, a pair of fishnets and boots, and a leather jacket, and had him trim my hair. Then he set it in curls and did a full flip for me--you know, a Marlo Thomas kind of thing. It was lovely. I have photos from it, and it's just hilarious--here I am with a goatee, and my hair all curled on the top and flipped in the back, with a veil.... Anyway, we all got together at one of the galleries down there and then walked over to the Drake as a group. And we were afraid--we were ready to be kicked out; we were ready to even be arrested--because one of their policies is that men need to wear ties to high tea. I suppose women must wear dresses, although I guess you could wear a pantsuit--we didn't really look into that. I just knew, as a man, that I definitely wasn't wearing a tie. I was wearing this lovely pink prom dress that was very low-cut, and I have a hairy chest, so it was obvious I was a man without a tie...

Doesn't a hairy chest count as a tie?

Not really! Maybe a sweater. Anyway, it turned out that the Drake treated us wonderfully, and we just sat there, having high tea. My favorite part was when this man walked by. He looked at us, then looked away, and then did a double take. And as he did the double take, he walked into a potted palm tree. So we were definitely making a scene. There was another event we attended at the Art Institute--a little cocktail hour with a harp player--and we noticed that the women would smile at us, and nod, and love what we were doing. They could see the parody in it all. But the men were absolutely stone-faced. They wouldn't look our way; they were intimidated, like something was up their butts. Which it probably was! But we would just keep pushing it. I remember Arnae was dressed as the "Winter Princess"--he had all white on, and this very 1970s bonnet with these big fuzzy balls--and all of a sudden he said, "I'm going to break into an interpretive dance." So he got up and started dancing. It was one of those things, again, that was humorous and a parody, yet at the same time was serious. Arnae's a dancer--his medium is movement--so he was quite talented in what he did.

I'm sorry I wasn't there for that.

I know! But I enjoyed the wall that came up when people saw us in drag. Well, it's "drag," but again, it's genderfuck--we're not trying to be women, we're not trying to hide that we're men--we're that lovely balance. We're all that falls between the cracks and grows up--that's the metaphor I love.

You say that while you were involved with the Radical Faeries, you weren't quite investing in yourself as an artist yet. When did that shift take place?

If you go back to that period in the late '80s, I had my artwork all over my house, but I wasn't able to own my own power and call myself an artist; I was too afraid to do that. So it wasn't until about 1992. I had a spiritual breakdown; I hit bottom. I woke up and realized I had everything that was "supposed to make me happy." I had a nine-to-five job at a hospital, I had friends, I had a place to live, I had money in the bank. I didn't have a husband at the time, but so be it. Yet I realized I was miserable, and I didn't really know who I was. At that time, I met some people who were investing in themselves as artists--they were taking baby steps--and they invited me to a support group. So I went to this meeting where they had us do a writing assignment in which we took an inventory of the type of art we did. As I was writing, I began thinking, "Gee, in a way I do performance, and I do some poetry and sculpture, and some drawing"--I ended up with this huge list. I realized at that moment--and I remember crying--"Oh my god, I'm an artist." Once I had that affirmation, it became a matter of, "How do I invest in this gift that I have?"

What kind of work were you doing then?

Well, I had collected dolls--I had a lot of Barbie dolls--and I was fascinated by how these dolls can carry weight or importance. People who collect dolls usually love them to be in their original boxes--they want them to be pristine. Anyway, I had just read Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, and the whole idea of that story was about shifting the hierarchy so that the freakier you are, the higher up you are. It's told by an albino midget who's kind of on the border; she's not as weird as her brothers and sisters, who maybe have flipper arms or are Siamese twins...

It's an amazing book.

It is. But I was playing around with the idea of what we give weight to. What's precious? I had all these dolls I had been collecting as a joke, and years before I had gone to a flea market and bought a doll for a dime. It basically had a head on a box, and then these wire things where its arms had been ripped off. It still had a cord you could pull, but the doll no longer talked. It went rrrrrrrrr--like a record skipping a groove--and its mouth would move, which made it even more creepy. I wish I still had that doll; I don't know where it went. But I realized I had already adopted that premise of Geek Love. I had shifted the hierarchy so that this was what I saw as valuable, not a brand-new Barbie or a 1965 Barbie in its box that you can't touch. You know, I want to be able to change its clothes, and frizz its hair out--

--and play with it, which is of course what it's designed for. It's not supposed to be a collector's item, but something for a little girl to act out her fantasies with.

And that's exactly what I wanted to do--I wanted to be that little girl, and act out my fantasies. When I was a kid my sister had Barbies, and when my family saw me playing with them, they said, "This is not right." So they got me a GI Joe, which I still have. Now if you've ever tried to change the clothes on a GI Joe, it's just insane. It takes you a half-hour just to get a shoe off. Mine had this little jumpsuit--it was an astronaut--and it just sucked. Now he's wearing a little teddy, and with his muscular legs, he's very lovely.... But to get back to what I was saying, I started using the medium I had, which was these creepy dolls. And I was fascinated by the Barbies. They come through the manufacturer and they're all the same; how could I make them special or interesting? So I ended up in what I now call my "Franken-Barbie" phase--I would take two of the same Barbie doll, cut them in half vertically, and then glue them together to make Siamese Barbie or Siamese Ken dolls. The creepier they got, the better. That was kind of my start. After that, I began really looking at the performance I was doing. I had done Drag Queen Medea with Randy Eslinger, and I think that was kind of the turning point for me. I thought, "Let's begin investing in this. What do I have to do to show up for my art, and show up for myself?" I actually auditioned at Second City--and the first time, I didn't get in--so then I ran back to my visual art for six months. I was vacillating between these two media; I would get too close to being successful in one, and then switch and run to the other one. I actually still do that, but the distance between them is becoming less and less. If you look at my last piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art, it was a combination of sculpture and performance. The sculpture stood on its own, but what brought it to life, in my view, was that I was there, making it.

Your description of running away from one thing to the other is telling, because I think you're right: some artists go right to the edge of distress and then run away, rather than work through that distress to achieve a higher synthesis of self-concern with their medium.

Yeah, I've dealt with that a lot. For example, last June, I finally rented a studio. I teach at Columbia College one day a week, and work two days a week at a hospital, so now I have all these free days in which to be making art, and a space to do it in. And I watched myself go through a crisis because of it--or a transformation, I should say. It was uncomfortable; I would go to my studio--which meant it was time to work--and then ask myself, "How do I work?" I had to confront my preconceived notion about what it means to be a "working artist." No one can really tell me what that looks like. I can have models, or ask how you work as an artist--I'm constantly asking my students this question. But ultimately, I'm the only one who can really truly answer it, if I'm being authentic.

It's a scary question.

Very scary. And also, talking about that point of discomfort in making the work, am I willing to let myself go through that? Do I have a community that supports me, so I can pick up the phone and say, "I'm blocked this morning; I'm living in fear"? Or do I brave it on my own?

Holly Hughes once said, about one of her works, that when she performed it right, she felt like she had no skin. So she often wouldn't do it right, because she couldn't stand that feeling of being out there and eviscerated on some level. I think encountering that, and being prepared to work through it, is one of the major hurdles that sends a lot of artists screaming back to secretarial jobs.

Yeah. When I was doing my thesis work at Columbia College, I was in a letterpress class where our assignment was to create an abecedary, an ABC book--you know, "A is for apple, B is for ball, C is for cat." And I knew exactly what I was going to do; I knew I was going to play with the truth, and make it an adult book in child form. I mimicked the little Golden Books, so it's 6 inches square and has silver trim on it, and the first page says "A is for apple"--with a drawing of an orange. It just goes downhill from there. When I was working on the piece, I was playing around with certain images, and I had the feeling that people could look right into my soul--that I was naked, and everybody was going to know my business. I took it to a group of people who were supporting me to get their reactions--like they were a little focus group--because I needed support to choose those images when I was feeling extremely raw and vulnerable. But I'm grateful to be reminded of that uncomfortable feeling--and as an artist, there's a lot of it, because I'm expressing myself. A range of issues and emotions comes up with that. I may feel vulnerable or uncomfortable, I may want to run--or it may totally be my ego.

To me, The Adult-Child Abecedarium was a very funny parody of self-help psychology. It was very popular with my psychologist friends, by the way...

(laughs) Oh, I love that!

How much of it was meant as that, and how much of it was based on your own experience?

Well, there's definitely autobiography in it. But I was basically looking at how I was--how we are--taught. I remember when I finished my master's in audiology, and I went to work at a hospital in California. I was trained to test hearing, and they sat me down and made me watch an instructional video on how to plug a three-pronged electrical cord into a wall. In one sense I could understand it--they needed to do this in case somebody mishandled a plug and got electrocuted, so if they turned around and sued, the hospital could say, "Well, we showed him this video on how to plug it in the outlet. We don't know why he was standing in a pool of water." But another part of me was thinking, "Why am I being shown this? Am I not being trusted as a professional? Don't I have enough common sense to do these things--or not do these things?" It inspired me to look at how we as humans take simple things and complicate them with jargon, or with instructions that are unclear. I played with that with the ABC book, and again with Training Session #1735, which was a video on how to tie your shoes. I gave myself conditions: do not mention the word "shoe," do not mention the word "shoelace." So "shoe" became "lower distal extremity protective device"--I asked a physical therapist to help me on that one. The video is 12 minutes of this burdensome jargon, and in the end, I never really show you how to tie the shoe. So my viewers wind up squirming in their chairs. But that's what I want--I want them to say, "Oh my god, this is bullshit!" and be able to laugh at the parody of it, but at the same time recognize they've watched videos like this, and maybe start thinking differently about how we are trained or taught things.

There is this sort of play with education, and very simple activities, that seems to run through your work. As an audiologist you've worked in training or teaching situations with hospital patients who are not necessarily operating at full capacity. Do you think some of the instructional aspects of your work come out of those experiences?

Definitely. There's an edge to that. I went to San Jose State in California, where they had a wonderful art program, and I was constantly hanging around the art department. My boyfriend at the time was a conceptual artist, so I was always on the fringe. But I was studying speech pathology and audiology--to me that was making a compromise, because I figured I was patient, and I could work with people with disabilities. When I graduated, I remember my father said--and I can't believe I'm quoting my father--"It's under your belt; you don't necessarily have to use it." But as it's turned out, so much of that education, and my nine-to-five work history, has fed my art. It's all source material, which to me is a spiritual thing. If I can take on those things in life that can be crazy and negative, and really look at them in a humorous way, I can overcome them. I think that's more of the source of those works. For me, The Adult-Child Abecedarium is a book of healing--it even says so on the back! It was making fun--but it was more about spiritual economy: "Why would I live small? Why would I not invest in my full potential?" I think a lot of our school system, and the way we're educated, is about clipping our wings. With the Abecedarium, I'm taking us all back to when we were kids and were given these books, and I'm totally challenging your truth. A is not an apple, B is not a ball, C is not a cat. Nothing in that book is what it's supposed to be, until you get to the very end.

I think for people who grow up queer, there is this sense that your family, and mainstream culture as a whole, is lying to you all the time. You know that even though they tell you it's an apple, you're staring at an orange.

As a queer kid, a gay boy, I was asked to live a lie. I wasn't supported in being truly myself. So now as an adult, as an artist, I'm really looking at who I am and what I have to give. Those are things that resonate deep in me. And it comes out in the art; my art doesn't lie.

A lot of people probably know you from your 12x12 show at the MCA last year, Knitting for My Soul. What prompted you to start knitting on such a grand scale?

At the time I was finishing my MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Columbia College, I was working as an artist-in-residence at The Presbyterian Homes, a retirement home up in Evanston. It's a wonderful place, and my job was to help people with their creativity. So on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons, I would have little teas for these women who lived there. They would bring in their knitting, and they also did a lot of plastic canvas embroidery, which they sewed into tissue holders and things like that. I went into this job thinking that I was going to show them my art, which I did--I was trying to get them to do papermaking and painting and bookbinding and word-and-text collage, and in some cases I was successful in that. But the majority of the women pretty much had their minds set on doing what they were comfortable with, which I was resisting. The aesthetics of the embroidery, the knitting--the colors and texture of the acrylic yarn--drove me up the wall.

Finally I realized I couldn't get them to do what I wanted them to do, so I said, "All right, I give up!" I decided to ask them to show me how to knit, and this one woman taught me how to make a washcloth. Then one day, while I was putting stuff away, I opened a drawer and found a knitting needle that was about the size of a turkey baster. When I saw it, I immediately had the vision of a 4-foot-long knitting needle, maybe 3/4-inch or an inch in diameter. The next thing I knew, I was at the hardware store and the lumberyard. I went back to the Presbyterian Homes and used their woodworking shop; I was so afraid I was going to lose a couple digits, because I hadn't used a woodworking tool since high school. But I did well; I basically took a regular wooden knitting needle and mirrored or imitated it. Which is a lot of what I do: I tend to find something and then change the scale. Once that was done, I searched around in one of the storage rooms and found this twine that was about a 1/4-inch in diameter--I think you wrap yarn around it and use it to create baskets or something. There was a whole roll, almost 500 yards, and I just grabbed it. So suddenly here I was in this studio in this retirement home, after all the ladies had gone, knitting a washcloth the size of a queen-sized bed. That was my first piece.

Then the search was on for the right material, because I needed better yarn. I was talking to a friend who was an upholsterer, and he mentioned this cotton welting they use to make piping or drape cords. So I went to an upholstery warehouse, and the people there probably thought I was nuts, because I pointed to this shelf of 100-yard spools and said, "I want a dozen of them.... Do I get a discount?" I rolled the material into huge balls that were probably 4 feet in diameter, and on their own, they already hit it--you can have a pair of giant knitting needles and those balls, and to me, the work is finished. But that's how it started. My thesis show then became a combination of my knitting, and reading the Abecedarium, and showing the shoe-tying video. Again, I was playing with this whole theme of how we complicate things. I ended up creating a scarf that's 5 feet wide and 33 feet long, and it's still growing--I haven't completed it. Maybe if one of the geriatric women showed me how to finish a scarf, I would. But to me, it's about not completing it. What I love is that it's become this piece I can get underneath during a performance; I can use it as a metaphor for what we weave, what we create as our lives, what happens when we make mistakes--there's a lot there.

I like the fact that it stemmed from your giving up on an attempt to make other people conform to your process, and then, from your willingness to go their way. I can picture these very tenacious little old ladies with their knitting, who had absolutely no interest in making artists' books with you.

It was very humbling. It was so interesting to go in there and encounter their resistance, while I was completely in denial about my own resistance, and my own judgment on their--well, I'm going to call it an art, because I really do see knitting as a language. It's pattern, it's repetition, and it's amazing what they create. But since it's "ladies' work," I know at times people see it--and even I was seeing it--as merely craft. What became so wonderful about it was eating my own words, and realizing these women were making art. But then to say that to them, and have them resist it--to say, "No way! This isn't art!"--well, maybe my work with the big knitting needles was a way of proving it to them. That's the leap I wanted them to make, to have them see themselves as artists. I see that as a goal of mine, to support people in embracing their creativity. You know, when I opened the drawer and saw that pair of knitting needles, I could have easily abandoned the whole idea, because I remember what was going through my head. I heard this little old woman's voice saying, "You can't do that! You're gonna lose some fingers!"

"You'll poke your eye out!"

Completely! But I had a choice to make at that point, and I chose to follow that gift or dream that had been given to me, that image of the big needle. And hey, I may poke my eye out, I may lose a digit, but I want to follow my art; that's my intent. I want to honor those visions that come through my head, whether it's just putting them down on paper, or actually following through and making a 4-foot-long pair of knitting needles.

When I was starting the knitting, I did not see my thesis show, I did not see the MCA around the corner--I had no idea of those things. But I would be working in the hobby shop of the retirement home, and the knitting was like a magnet; it pulled people in. I knew it was successful because all of a sudden--and this is what I love; this is what I think art is all about--a dialogue began. I was asked many times, "Why are you doing this?" That's a wonderful challenge, because I have to stand behind it as an artist and think, "Why am I doing this? What is this all about?" And I was able to say, "It's modern art; it's sculpture." So we've made a complete circle--I've taken their language of knitting, translated it into my language by shifting the scale, and now we have modern art, a sculpture. I guess I would then ask, "Does it make you look at it differently? The next time you see somebody's sweater, will you look at it in a different light?" And I believe so. But very early on, I realized this work was important to me, and needed to get out there some day, in a gallery or a museum. And now I can say it has. I've even sold one--the little baby's cap that I did for my thesis show.

You say "little"--

Right, but it's 4-1/2 feet wide and 6 feet long, and there's a pom-pom on it which is a foot in diameter. Basically, I can put this thing on my head, and it would completely cover me. It's actually functional in a way, if you find a baby that big. That's what I'm looking for, that big baby--as long as I don't have to feed it!

How did the MCA show come about?

Tricia Van Eck organized it. I had sent in slides, and the MCA reps came to my studio, which was actually in my house at the time, to interview me. I was serving tea in my living room, and I presented Tricia with a pair of regular-sized mittens I had made. I remember throwing them on the table and saying, "I want to knit a pair of mittens, except I want the mittens to have a cable stitch"--because I hadn't learned how to do cable stitches yet. And I remember they laughed. But I knew exactly what I wanted to do in the museum space. I didn't want anything on the walls, just something for me to sit on, and then a couple of these 5-foot balls of yarn and my knitting needles. And I didn't want to start the piece beforehand. Of course, the sculptor in me would have preferred to do it in my studio, take it in, and just have the curator display it, period. So my sculptor side was very pissed at me. But my performance artist was just in heaven, because there were a lot of unknowns.

How did viewers respond to coming across an artist who was actually there, working, in the museum space?

What was so fascinating about being at the MCA was that people would come into the gallery and see me knitting, but since they're trained to go to a museum, they'd walk up to the wall and read what the piece was about from the label. After a while, I started asking them, "What does that say? I didn't write that--come over here and talk to me!" And that was transforming, because I realized that part of being an artist for me is not only to share my art, but also to share my process. Maybe it will resonate with you, and you'll go off and do your own artwork. I think that's what people are hungry for. There was a gentleman at the MCA, and at first I thought he was coming on to me, but then he told me he had been in the Navy years ago, and he was fascinated by tying knots. So here we were having this dialogue, this communion over knitting and tying knots. I love that.

And if you meet sailors, you know, how bad can it be?

I know, really--and I've met 'em all!

Paté Conaway is an independent artist living in Chicago. He received his MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Columbia College, Chicago, and is also a graduate of the Second City Training Center. His 2002 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Knitting for My Soul, is documented online at The Adult-Child Abecedarium is in the MCA's Artist Book Collection; copies are available in the museum shop.