In the Flesh
Gabriel Garbow Talks to A&U’s Hank Trout About Painting LGBTQ Bodies and Souls in Nature
Artist Gabriel Garbow has been quite prolific for a young (forty-one-year-old) painter, having created and posted online one drawing per day for nearly two years. His subjects have been friends and lovers, young guys, old guys, clothed or nude guys, as he seeks “to make visible and communicate the connection between the soul and body as well as the body to nature.”
Gabriel was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, but his family relocated to Red Wing when he was in the first grade. Red Wing was “a small, picturesque town on the Mississippi River offering plenty of outdoor recreation and sport—none of which appealed to me.” Instead, he spent time in his bedroom, drawing every day, often collaborating with his friend Travis on illustrating stories or creating comics. Inspired by the fantasy art of Brian Froud and Magic: The Gathering, he turned to watercolors. He persuaded his high school English teacher to permit him to submit a set of illustrations of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, with an accompanying essay, as his final project.
With the encouragement of his high school art teacher and his parents, he attended
summer arts camps at Interlochen, Michigan, and the Savannah College of Art and Design. He also attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. However, he dropped out of Pratt. He explained to A&U that “the focus of all of this training had been on theory, [but] my painting technique is almost entirely self-taught.” These days, he lives and works in Sacramento, California, where he and his husband have converted an extra bedroom into “a sunny, if messy” studio where he still draws and paints every day.
Although drawing was his first love, his current preferred medium is watercolors, which he chose for primarily practical reasons. “Watercolors,” he said, “are highly portable and easy to clean up. They dry quickly (sometimes too quickly). All of this works very well for someone who rarely has had the luxury of a studio set-up where artwork could be left out indefinitely to dry. I rarely stray from watercolors these days. They’re just so luminous and versatile. Usually, I set up in the morning, and put everything away by the time bedtime rolls around.”
A large number of Gabriel’s paintings depict attractive young guys in or around water. There is, he says, a nostalgic element to these water paintings. “Having grown up in the snow-bound winters of Minnesota, playing in the water reminds me of vacations and summertime swimming and playing at the beach.” Gabriel also welcomes the formal challenges and opportunities presented by painting water scenes. “There are…practical visual elements of water that lend themselves to artwork,” he says, “the ripples and reflections on water, the deep horizon lines that accompany ocean scenes….” He prefers natural lighting when he paints, especially early afternoon sunlight for the striking colors and shadows that it creates. Besides, painting men in or near the water affords him the opportunity “to show men in a setting where a lack of clothing doesn’t require too much justification.”
“Specific effects of the light are usually where my paintings begin. I may notice a particularly intense patch of pink/orange light reflected on the inside of an arm or torso that just calls out to be painted, or an intriguing shadow that wraps around a guy’s midsection. Pulling off little challenges like that—figuring out how to translate these natural phenomena into a work of art—[is] what keeps me invested in the work and keep me growing as a painter. The subject matters [are] really just excuses to paint light and form and shadow.”
In addition to the technical aspects of painting water scenes, Gabriel also recognizes a spiritual connection to the water scenes he paints. “I’m trying to move beyond just capturing the natural, visible phenomenon. There’s something about water that makes people forget their physical inhibitions, on the one hand, and become even more aware of their bodies, on the other. It signifies communion with nature.”
Then again, he says, “some of my paintings are really just for fun. My patrons like looking at sexy naked men, and so do I!”
A recently completed series of paintings called “In the Flesh” definitely falls into that “sexy naked men” category. Working with the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network—a social network of men over fifty, mostly HIV-positive long-term survivors, sponsored by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation—Gabriel recruited members to pose in the nude for photos from which he created watercolor portraits. “Many of [the ET50+ members] felt that they ‘weren’t getting any younger’ and wanted to take a snapshot of sorts of this point in their lives. Some didn’t think they would make it this far, having lived through the worst days of the AIDS epidemic. Others were simply art lovers and wanted to participate in the creation of something meaningful. One or two may have been indulging their exhibitionist sides, as well.”
He first created pictures from the photos on his computer and then made drawings from those images; the drawings were transferred to watercolor paper, and the paintings were built up using multiple layers of lightly washed pigments. After a private showing of the portraits for the members who had posed, where they expressed their pride in being portrayed with appreciative dignity, the resulting paintings were exhibited at Strut, SFAF’s community center on Castro Street that often hosts art exhibits. “A couple of the men were surprised by how recognizable their likenesses were,” Gabriel said, “but most proudly showed their painting off to the friends they had brought to the show.”
One of the ET50+ men whose portrait Gabriel painted, Peridot Greenman [A&U, February
2018], told A&U, “I took the opportunity to pose nude to show the world, and myself, that I am not ashamed to be an older gay man. For many years I felt invisible, because I had lived through the plague but was not ‘cute’ any longer. Now I am reclaiming my space in the gay universe as an older bear who is proud of my body. I am continually surprised at the revelation that my life isn’t over yet, and that I am still a desirable man at sixty-four.” When he first saw his portrait at the private showing, he experienced “shock that it was photorealism, then amazement at the beauty of it, and the positive reaction from others.”
Having become aware of the AIDS pandemic at an early age, Gabriel has moved past the oppressive fear engendered by the pandemic. “PrEP has allowed close physical relationships to flourish between people with different statuses,” he says, “and allowed many of my HIV-positive friends to be less isolated as a result.” His portraits of men living with HIV, like those recruited through ET50+, grew out of his desire to create frank, honest portraits of “men of a certain age.” Those men, he says, often “want to remember a particularly poignant moment; but just as often it’s merely to state to themselves and the world essentially that they ‘made it this far.’ That’s a pretty moving concept.”
Although the “In the Flesh” exhibition at Strut was Gabriel’s first formal exhibition of his work, he has sold prints of his paintings at Pride events in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Louisville, Milwaukee, and Chicago; he has also had solo showings “in locations that range from the prosaic to the downright unusual—an LGBTQ leather shop/cafe, a sex toy store, a lesbian-owned coffee shop, and even a pop-up event in the main room at The Saloon, a gay dance club in Minneapolis.” Upcoming exhibits include group and solo shows at the Kaneko Gallery at American River College in Sacramento.
Gabriel told A&U, “We all carry the accumulated circumstances of our lives in and on our bodies, and this is what I increasingly seek to communicate in my work.” Capturing those “accumulated circumstances” in watercolors, Gabriel has produced frank but lovely and loving portraits of men, young and old, that honor their subjects and delight viewers. As prolific as he has already been thus far, we can expect even more beautiful work to come out of his “messy” studio.
Prints of many of Gabriel’s paintings, including several more explicit portraits from the “In the Flesh” series, can be found for sale on Etsy and at Gabriel’s own website: www.gabrielgarbowart.com.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.