Council of Elders
With a series of portraits of gay men, artist Ghee Phua celebrates long-term survivors
by Hank Trout
These portraits of gay seniors are oddly unnerving.
Individually, each of these portraits of older gay men draws the viewer in with its reverential softness and warm muted colors, making us wonder what stories lie waiting to be told behind those aging eyes, what scars life has left on the subjects. At the same time, each portrait also holds the viewer at bay with harsh slashing lines and abrupt angles, reminding us of the natural ravages of aging awaiting us all—a daunting mirror for some, a premonition for others.
Arranged closely together in a row in the gallery at Strut, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s Castro Street building, the eleven portraits (and one self-portrait) seem to form a Council of Elders who, while not passing judgment, not exactly, are poised to share the lessons of a life lived fully, eager to instruct and nurture those to come after them, to mine their own past for nuggets of wisdom to pass on. One cannot help being awestruck by the strength and dignity and intelligence in each of the faces painted here.
Artist Ghee Phua, a native of Singapore who now lives in San Francisco, explained the genesis of this Portrait of Gay Elders series. A few years ago, the Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco’s long-published weekly LGBTQ newspaper, ran an article about the alarmingly high number of gay seniors who have contemplated or actually attempted suicide. The article highlighted the depression, invisibility, loneliness, and rejection that plague many LGBTQ seniors. Ghee was deeply moved by the article.
“Despite being younger than the men in the article, I had experienced many of these same issues in the community,” Ghee said. “It occurred to me that here was an opportunity for me to use my art as a positive force to address social issues.” During an appointment with his caseworker at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Ghee mentioned that he was thinking of painting a series of gay seniors and selling them as a fundraiser. His SFAF caseworker referred him to Vince Crisostomo, the Program Director of the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network [A&U, September 2016], SFAF’s social support group for men over fifty. Through 50-Plus, Ghee was able to recruit the eleven men whose portraits make up the series.
Like Ghee himself, most of these men—not all—are fellow long-term HIV/AIDS survivors. Diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1991 at age 21, Ghee took his doctor’s advice six years later and went on full-time disability in 1997. “I decided then to pursue my passion for art by taking classes at City College of San Francisco. When I moved to New York City with my lover, I also studied at the Art Students League for about a year and a half.” Since returning to San Francisco, Ghee has continued painting at least a couple of hours every day. “I paint a lot of self-portraits, when no other models are available,” Ghee said. “Painting self-portraits allows me to experiment, to try new techniques.”
One of the most striking aspects of these portraits of elders is Ghee’s use of sharp straight lines in each. These lines sometimes seem to be as soft as blades of grass, caressing the subject, like the green lines in the shirt worn by subject Mario Galande or what might be foliage in the background in the portrait of Joel Hoyer. Sometimes, though, they are more like angry red slashes, thumb-nail scratches that draw blood and leave scars on the faces and necks of subjects like Jack Bossard and Richard Jones. Often, the lines criss-cross, forming thorny barbed-wire-like borders between the subject and the background, as in the crossed lines along the shoulders in the portrait of Bartholomew Casimir. Ghee explained to me that his use of these lines developed from observations he made while painting self-portraits.
“I was looking at many of the self-portraits that I’ve done over the years, and I noticed that the lines on my face, my wrinkles, especially on my forehead, had changed as I got older, the angles of my face changed. So I started paying more attention to those lines and angles. And I started incorporating sharp straight lines more freely into my portraits. For me, each of those lines is a story, something the model has brought to the sitting, a story that I’m trying to tell.”
Those lines fill the backgrounds of these portraits as well. “After thinking of each of those
lines as a story I was painting, I realized that our stories don’t exist just inside us. We affect the environment we are in—our stories fill the space around us. So I started using the lines in the backgrounds of the portraits too. They are the stories we bring with us, the stories we share.”
For many of the subjects in this series, those lines evoke stories of pain and grief. “I told
Ghee when I sat for him, ‘You’re painting my pain,’” said activist Jesús Guillén, who sat for Ghee during the mornings, when his neuropathy strikes at its most vicious. That pain is indeed visible in each portrait—but so are the subjects’ strength and resilience. “I really learned respect for all of the models,” Ghee told me. “I learned that growing older does not mean that a person has nothing to contribute. Painting these portraits reinforced my Asian upbringing in the belief that my elders have a lot of life experiences and wisdom to share. I learned that while the physical aspects of aging are not easy, the attitude of the individual is most important.”
If you think you detect the influence of Lucian Freud in these portraits—in their coloration, their angularity, their intensity, their refusal to be “pretty”—you’re not far off the mark. Ghee has listed Freud, along with Egon Schiele and van Gogh, as artists whose work he loves and has been influenced by.
Acknowledging that painting is a very meticulous, painstaking process for him, Ghee explained why the Portraits of Gay Elders series took three years to complete. Each sitting lasted three hours, and each portrait required at least fifteen sittings, quite a commitment of time and a potentially grueling schedule for both painter and models even with frequent breaks. The men who posed, though, were eager to cooperate with Ghee.
“When I first heard about the project, I jumped at the chance to pose for Ghee,” seventy-
one-year-old activist and long-term survivor Harry Breaux said at the March 10 artist’s and models’ reception at Strut. “I know I’m going to go the way a lot of men have gone before me,” he explained. “It’s very important to me to leave something behind. Posing for this portrait was one way for me to do that and, importantly, to represent all those men who didn’t make it here to have their portraits painted.”
The respect is mutual. “Given that most of the models are long-term HIV survivors, they are role models for me. I see them living healthy and productive lives as elders with a mostly manageable disease. That gives me hope.”
Continuing his love of portraiture with a purpose, Ghee plans a new series of portraits of elder LGBTQ leather folk in San Francisco.
The proceeds from the sale of paintings in the Portraits of Elder Gays series are shared equally among the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, the model, and the artist; if a painting does not sell, Ghee will give it to the model. Ghee is available for commissioned portrait work. You may contact him at [email protected].
Hank Trout edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-six-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Among other articles that he contributes to A&U, Hank Trout pens the For the Long Run column. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.