Despite growing up in Philadelphia in a religious family of six that “encouraged self expression,” Zen Browne left home at age 17 after coming out as a gay woman. Decades later, Browne’s work is now on display at Bowdoin, documenting the painter’s journey of becoming a man.
“They couldn’t take it when I came out,” said Brown. “It wasn’t okay, to be gay or lesbian. But I don’t believe in sad stories. Pretty much everything that has occurred [in my life] has served as inspiration for me. It made sense that I couldn’t stay at home, because I needed to express myself and become who I am.”
A form of that same self-expression comes through in Browne’s artwork, a portion of which is now on display in the Blue Gallery of Smith Union, and will stay there until February 28. The show, entitled “Obscure Identities: A reflection on men of transsexual experience through painting,” displays paintings by Browne depicting both friends and people he has come to know since beginning the project, all of whom have undergone the sexual transitions from female to male and now consider themselves transmen. Browne’s work with these paintings directly parallels his own transition.
“The reality is that I always had this sense of myself as being androgynous. I identify as two spirits, both male and female in one body—that’s how I feel. That’s my identity. I’ve always felt a strong connection to both my natures, but I did not feel that connection in terms of my body. I felt much more comfortable moving more towards male physical expression,” said Browne.
Browne’s series of paintings of transmen started in conjunction with his own transition nine or 10 years ago.
“For me, it was a very personal process of getting acquainted with my own transition and with people like myself,” he said. “I’ve always painted from experiences. I felt a need to put my situation into a visual mode, so I would have something to reflect on—to literally see reflections of myself.”
Additionally, the idea of transitioning to a male was not something Browne had ever heard about when he was young, and the term “transgender” did not even exist yet.
“I didn’t transition [to a male] until I was a full adult,” added Browne, “but it had been an inner journey for so many years. Until I was 39 or 40 years old I didn’t know it was possible [to transition] because that conversation just wasn’t in my environment.”
It was not until one day when Browne found himself in a queer bookstore in New York, looking at a photography book called “Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits,” by Loren Cameron, that he considered transitioning from female to male.
“I picked up that book, and it was finished,” said Browne. “I just knew; I was looking directly at myself. I put it down, after several hours of staring at it, and I was doing it. I thought, I can’t let this train pass me by. Those were my people. That was a real turning point for me.”
As his own personal journey began, Browne joined support groups for people going through the same transition. He started telling his friends and members of the group that he was an artist and was interested in painting them.
“I went [to the support groups] not just to enlist sitters, but also to participate as someone who did need that support and wanted to learn more about my own community,” said Browne.
Browne likes to look at his work on two levels. On one level it creates a dialogue about transsexuality and on the other, it demonstrates how an individual can be portrayed. Browne is particularly interested in how people will react to his work when they see it displayed.
“Looking at a person’s physical identity, you don’t always know what their innate identity is,” said Browne. “What changes when a person is looking at a picture of a man and then they find out they’re actually viewing a transsexual man. How does that change the viewer’s observations? That’s where dialogue is possible.”
According to Browne, just because you can look at someone or at a picture of someone “doesn’t mean you have experienced that person’s identity,” and that doesn’t mean you should assume you know all about that person’s gender experience.
“That’s something that’s very important for people to understand,” said Browne. “Society around gender is so based on trying to find a category for a person’s identity.”
In addition to using his paintings to add to what he called the “visual vocabulary” surrounding transsexualism, Browne also hopes the paintings offer something to those who modeled for him.
“I want to show you who you are now, not who you were 10 years ago, and not what you looked like in that other body,” he said. “I’m a painter, and I just simply wanted to do a painting that reflects the individuals portrayed. These paintings are evidence that we’re here. Each person expressed masculinity very differently…the only thing we had in common, really, was being transmale.”
Additionally, Browne didn’t ask his models to pose for him in any specific way.
“Why? I wanted to see not artistic expression, but portraits rendered in a natural way. I wanted to show more innate identity, just what it looks like everyday to be a transmale.”
A lot of people, said Browne, focus on the physical aspect of transsexuality, asking questions like, “What operation have you had?”
“That concerns me,” said Browne. “There’s a huge reservoir of wisdom that doesn’t get asked about. People focus on physicality, but these paintings are about humanity, about being human, about being whole. No one can be defined by a surgery, or anything cosmetic.”
Browne will begin painting women who transitioned from being males this summer.
“Ultimately, the idea is to have a full body of work of men and women,” said Browne. “It’s been a very, very deep journey on a lot of levels.”