March Feature Interview

Tegan James
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COVER_TeganJamesTegan James, founder & editor of GALA Magazine | LGBT Artists as the featured March interviewee.  Tegan is a visual artist whose artistic focus is primarily through the use of tile art and canvas paintings.  Tegan considers his work to be mostly abstract expressionism. To add to the diversity, Tegan is transgender, and interested in seeing how his gender identity will come out in his art.

It is Tegan’s intention to share the wide range and depth of his emotions –whether raw or lighthearted —  on canvas or tile art pieces; and it is his  hope that you will examine each piece, each swirl, each stroke, each scrape and be moved, be touched, be inspired — to go on and create in your own unique way.

JRK:  Can you give Diversity Rules readers an idea of who Tegan James is — where you are from and all that good basic information?

TJ:  Born and raised in central New Jersey, I’ve resided in the small town of Metuchen now for nearly 20 years.  I was given the name Christine at birth and recently had it legally changed to Tegan, a more gender neutral name. Tegan is a Welsh word, a sort of term of endearment. 

I was known as a tomboy. I had great pride in that title – it was the closest to being called a boy. I enjoyed a variety of activities, mainly sports related. I admired my younger brother and wanted to participate in anything that he was involved in. We played on the same baseball teams, took flying leaps like wrestlers off the tops of dressers onto our mattresses (sorry, Mom!), and rode our bikes through mountains of mud.

I was interested in playing piano, although I still haven’t taken it seriously. Maybe that time will come soon. My creativity showed itself in my writing and in my poetry. I didn’t know it to be creative – I just knew it to be a way of life, an outlet for my feelings.

One of my favorite things to do when I was younger was to form clubs with my brother and our friends. I didn’t really care much what the club would be about – I really just wanted to organize the club and then create a newsletter. Back then, I’d cut out photos from magazines and paste them onto loose-leaf paper. Then I’d make copies at the library, staple them together, write different articles about our club and what was going on. It’s been a lifelong dream to have my own magazine company.

As for painting, I never imagined I would be sharing paintings of my own with the world.  I believed painting was something that other people did. I felt I had no talent. I could not paint. I didn’t know how. I would envision paintings in my head, but it never really occurred to me to create them. 

I started painting only a few years ago. I was in a really dark space in my life. I was tired of writing the same words and phrases over and over in my poetry.  Poetry wasn’t allowing me to express my emotions completely. My emotions were much bigger than my words.  I needed to paint what I was feeling – I needed to put it out there in color. I began painting and then I would destroy the canvas afterwards. Sometimes because I felt embarrassed – who was I to think that I could paint? And sometimes because I just felt the paintings weren’t good enough.  Luckily, I learned pretty quickly to stop destroying my art.  The first time someone looked at a painting of mine and was able to read it, I was in awe. My art made sense to someone other than myself. That was the first painting I gave away. And there was such satisfaction in the process that I continued to paint.

As for my family, I have four awesome children who I’m super proud of. They keep me entertained and busy. They’re all creative in their own ways. My oldest is a fantastic artist who enjoys drawing and painting, and is also making her way into the world of tattooing.  My middle daughter has a beautiful voice and enjoys singing, as well as working on hair and makeup. My son’s goal is to be a famous paid actor

in Hollywood (he’s already stage managing in theater for a local theater company at 16 years old!); and my youngest is coming into herself – she enjoys singing and gymnastics.

I’ve held various jobs in different fields, but the consistent areas in my life have been computers, art & entertainment, and magazine publishing.

JRK:  You are the founder and editor of GALA Magazine | LGBT Artists.  Can you tell us about the magazine and why you started it?

TJ:  Yes, I would love to! Creating my own magazine has been a lifelong dream of mine. About seven years ago, I realized I needed to stop dreaming about it and turn it into a goal. I also realized that it wasn’t going to just happen to me or for me – I had to make it happen. It hasn’t been an easy process, but I’ve loved every single second of it.

GALA CoverGALA’s original mission was to give voice to unseen, unheard and undiscovered artists – to be that outlet that artists seek when they don’t know where to start in getting themselves and their art out into the world. I know what it feels like to experience those feelings and that fear (whether real or imagined) of not being good enough. With GALA, here is a safe space – a starting out point. 

I didn’t know what type of magazine to create. My initial thought was to create a gay and lesbian focused magazine for artists. I came out as bisexual 19 years ago when I was 18, and then as a lesbian several years later. I didn’t know too many lesbian, gay or bisexual people. I wanted to know, to understand, to learn who I was. I needed someone to look up to, a mentor of sorts.

My first girlfriend introduced me to Melissa Etheridge’s music (laughing). I was floored. I was in awe. A lesbian public figure, a lesbian musician! Who else was out there? I googled every genre of lesbian artist, but 19 years ago – there weren’t very many gay, lesbian or bisexual artists coming up in my searches. I wanted to change that.  And so the idea of a gay and lesbian magazine for artists was born.

I hadn’t understood what transgender meant; and while I had initially come out as bisexual, I felt conflicted about the label; so when choosing the name for the magazine, GALA stood for Gay and Lesbian Artists. The magazine, to me, wasn’t about me – it was for “them” – the gay and lesbian community. I hadn’t yet understood the difference between sex and gender, so I knew I fit in there somewhere, but I just wasn’t sure where yet.

One artist, a transgender woman, wrote to me and asked if I’d be willing to open the magazine up to the entire LGBT community, and so I did. I had no idea several years later how important that decision would come to be for me personally.

JRK:  You claim to be a visual artist – mostly abstract expressionism.  What is “abstract expressionism” for those who are not versed in various art forms?

TJ:  Simply put, it’s a school of art referred to as action painting. The emotion put into the painting matters justtegan_James_circles (502 x 600) as much as the finished piece. My abstract art has been likened to Jackson Pollack and William de Kooning paintings.

JRK:  In your artist statement on your website you state that every piece that you create is based on love.  Can you explain how your love expresses itself in your artwork?

TJ:  Somehow love finds its way into my paintings, either through painted hearts, or the word “love” – but most of my paintings are created to express my feelings surrounding love in various relationships with family, friends, children and animals, a love for art and music, a love for humanity, a love for spirituality, a love for the idea of love itself, and finally, self love!  I have a tremendous amount of love in my heart. And the best, easiest and safest way for me to share it, is through my art.

tegan_james_color_of_loveThe very first canvas painting I had submitted to be on display at Trenton’s Art All Night event was ‘Colors of Love’ – created with an abstract background and a large heart right in front. I was so thrilled to have that be my first piece out there like that. And when a friend had called to let me know that it had sold, I was in shock. I cried. Not only had I been ‘seen’, but I’d been understood. Someone else got me. And took me home. (Laughing)  That’s what I want others to experience and to feel. Everyone deserves to feel that way, just the same as the next person.

JRK:  As life happens we are faced with many trying situations.  You have stated that due to some of your life situations you are inevitably stirred to create darker pieces — leaving your grief on the canvas and thus releasing the sadness from your soul.  Can you explain this a bit further?

TJ:  Gosh, you know, I wrote that shortly after my sister’s fiancé passed away. Sometimes, there are just no words to describe the depth of the pain – what I felt to lose a friend who struggled with addictions as I have in the past – to know that I wasn’t able to help him – that was hard. And what I felt and still feel to watch my sister go through her stages of grief – that’s incredibly heart wrenching.

Several years back, I painted a canvas black with a blue swirls and drips that I titled ‘Solo’.  I was in the depthstegan_james_solo of my depression, nearing my bottom in my addiction and I felt so alone. It was Christmas day. My children had left to spend time with their father’s side of the family. I was living on my own for the first time, and I was full of fear. I remember my plans were to begin packing away the holiday decorations and clean up the house. I had taken out a bottle of Windex and sat it on the counter. And next I took out a bottle of wine. The rest of that day and night was horrific. The Windex bottle never moved from the counter.

JRK:  Tell us about your journey in terms of your gender identity and how it is impacting the art that you create?

TJ:  It seems the more comfortable I am becoming with myself, the more color I am using. I’m creating more body image paintings instead of just abstract work. I painted a large figure last summer – I titled it ‘He.’  It may not be so obvious to everyone who sees it, but what’s included in it are things like the buttons on the tight vest (tight like a binder) are painted on the side that men’s shirts typically have buttons on; a rainbow strip on the belt; the skin is greenish like aliens (because that’s how odd I was feeling having recently come out as transgender). It’s a large figure, bold and bright because I also felt empowered in having discovered this truth about myself. The image is what is typically seen as feminine,  which I painted in how I felt my body appeared to the outside world, but I titled ‘He’ to match what I feel.  This painting was displayed in a window gallery during the Junebug Artfest (an annual street art festival that takes place every Friday during the month of June in Metuchen). The art fest takes place in my hometown, so putting this painting out there only a few months after I had come out was a bit scary and overwhelming, yet so very exciting. I received a tremendous amount of support from that.

JRK:  What are some of the misconceptions about transgender people that need to be dispelled?  How is that achieved?

TJ:  Well, many people aren’t aware of the spectrum of gender that exists. For example, there’s the far left, which is male. And then there’s the far right, which is female. But in between, there’s the rest of the spectrum. And there’s a whole world of us out here who fall somewhere along that spectrum. There’s a wide variety of labels to describe each individual, but it all falls under the umbrella term ‘transgender.’ 

When coming out as transgender, it’s important to understand that we aren’t trying to be different people. We just want to be ourselves, whatever that means to us. We aren’t going to change personalities or our beliefs, our morals, etcetera.  We are the same people you know, just with a different pronoun, or maybe a new name, a new haircut, a new style of clothing. Some of us may have surgery to alter or enhance our bodies – just the same as getting hair implants, liposuction, breast enlargement or reduction, cheek implants. We all want to look good and feel good like everyone else. Some of us choose not to surgically alter our bodies because we are comfortable as we are.

When we publicly (or privately) come out as transgender, we aren’t’ apologizing or asking for permission to be ourselves. We are simply giving the courtesy of sharing our truths. If we are choosing to share this information with you, it’s because we love you, and we trust that you are a safe person who will not judge us. Occasionally, it does happen though. Some of us are okay with it, we get it, and we understand that you may need time and space while you sort out your feelings.  But some of us also have a hard time with being rejected. It’s a change and a process for everyone involved.

Dispelling these misconceptions and stereotypes is just a matter of educating the public and including the transgender community in our everyday lives. Obviously the media plays an important role in portraying positive images of transgender people. Hiring transgender actors and models who fall along the entire spectrum of gender and color, and who aren’t all handsome and beautiful or flawless, is helpful. We are starting to become more visible on television, movies and in magazines – why not start with the full truth of who we are? True beauty shines through from the inside.  Tell our stories from our perspective – we know our stories best. Get us involved. To my transgender family – come out; become involved in getting our stories out there without shame or fear.

JRK:  What are some of the most important things we can tell our youth about their individuality?  What can be done to encourage them to embrace it and be proud of who they are despite a society that sometimes degrades our individuality and creates disrespect and in many cases causes physical harm to those who are different?

TJ:  To ALL our youth – You matter. Every single one of you matter. You are all important. And you are all enough, just the way you are. There is no need to compare you to anyone else. You are here to live YOUR life – that is your job. And nobody can do it better than you can!

Society will continue to degrade our individuality, no matter who we are or what we do. We have a choice to believe them or to believe in ourselves. We must choose to believe in ourselves, and to stand up for ourselves, speak for ourselves. In time, truth will prevail.

JRK:  Do you have any parting thoughts you wish to relay to Diversity Rules readers?

TJ:  Get up right now and go to a mirror. Look yourself in the eyes and tell yourself out loud, “I matter.

Who I am and why I am here is important. I am a good person. I am enough.”

Now finish reading Diversity Rules and then go create something.  😉   I love you.

Thank you, Diversity Rules, for this opportunity. Much love & respect for the work that you do.

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