A friend of mine living in Albuquerque posted about an art project s/he recently completed, and I messaged hir to find out more about it. What follows is an interview with the artist, Harley Kirschner, in which we touch on toxic masculinity, safety, artistic processes, and a whole lot more!
Kam: How did you get involved in it? Did you propose the idea?
Harley: I work at Winnings coffee shop again, after a few years in plumbing and pipefitting , unemployment, self employment and other jobs. We have artists do murals in our bathrooms and it was time for a new one.The need was expressed and I jumped on the opportunity. I got free reign over what I wanted to do and as a trans artist who is getting into what I like to think of as oversized zines, naturally I created a zine installation about using public restrooms as trans in a public restroom.
Kam: Is it related to your plumbing career, your art career, or both? Can you elaborate on that?
Harley: My plumbing career collapsed which I now see as a blessing. However, in that collapse, after living stealth 24/7 I really collapsed emotionally. Everything about my art and my loud trans non-binary self is because I failed at fitting the mold of what a plumber or pipefitter or man is supposed to be. Trying to be someone that I’m not almost killed me as I was terrified and disassociated all the time. I do share my experience with how bathrooms were such a huge part of that in this installation. However, although I would usually put my name on my story, due to the location being my place of employment and coming to embrace myself as non-binary and using mixed pronouns when I feel safe, I felt too vulnerable. I thought about censoring my story but felt the content was important so I chose to leave off my name.
I found empowerment in taking a bathroom and making it my own and a safe place for trans people after my experience in the plumbing industry which has rules (which are laws under the guise of safety… Most are.), about gendered bathrooms. That was one issue that I always had issues with myself. My experience in the plumbing and pipe fitting industries was heavy industrial for the most part so I did very little in bathrooms and actually very little with water. Mostly, I piped refrigerant and coal. I still use some of my skills in doing irrigation.
When my plumbing career fell apart and I started talking about it in zines and about how toxic masculinity makes me want to kill myself, I started getting recognized for my art and it was very clear to me that where my art had been lacking in the work that I had been showing wasn’t in the technical sense but rather in the voice. I knew that if I wanted to achieve what I wanted with my art, to make trans people feel beautiful, I had to use my own voice and make it loud. I had been very scared to do that. Partly because it was incredibly unsafe in my plumbing career and partly because I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself. When I had nothing to lose career wise and my sanity and breath depended on taking up queer and trans space I knew that taking the steps to enhance my literary voice would give my fine art real value.
Kam: What are your goals with the project? What would you like people to get out of it?
Harley: To make Winning Coffee Company the most queer and trans friendly coffee shop in Albuquerque. To take back bathrooms after they made me feel so unsafe. To embrace the diversity within my community by feeling the love and support of not only trans people but of all the people who love my work. I feel that it is very new to me to feel the amount of love and support around being trans from cis people that I do and I would like to offer that same safe feeling in a public place in Albuquerque for all trans people. I am very lucky to have such great supportive coworkers that helped make this happen, including making the bathrooms gender neutral (a few years ago) and helped me paint the walls.
Kam: Do you see ways to expand on this? Other places or other ideas?
Harley: I would like it to be an ongoing conversation. As the installation deteriorates and get tagged (unfortunately a given with the Winning’s bathroom-nothing offensive just disrespectful in general) I would like to replace the paper with different stories. People are encouraged to contribute any stories they have about using the bathroom as a trans person. I have thought about doing this bathroom in other spaces but am too busy artistically to take on another project right now.
Kam: What did your artistic process look like for this?
Harley: I used matte black paint on all the walls but chose to keep the ceiling white and paint the door white so it didn’t create a feeling of being trapped. There was a metal frame that used to have an advertisement poster in it. The advertising company closed but the frame was still there. It reminds me a lot of the welding that I was working with at the job that I reference in my story so I chose to keep it and decoupage the plexiglass that it holds. It works very well with the symbolist element of my work. I wallpapered large photocopies of stories and photocopied collages of images related to being trans and using bathrooms. I incorporated images from my time in the union, including an image of my shadow where I look like I’m holding a gun and I’m going to shoot, an image of a sign that says “ouch”, and images from one of my textbooks. My favorite part is the dictionary words “restricted” followed by “restroom”, nothing could have been more appropriate. In my photocopied collages I incorporate transfers to overlay images. There is a grainy quality in oversized prints that I find particularly appealing.
Kam: Anything else you wanted to add that I didn’t ask about?
Harley: Thank you very much for asking me to talk about my work on your blog. Your writing has always inspired me and I hope that my voice will be as touching to others as yours has been to me.
Last night, I talked “off the record” with a reporter from the Washington Post, on the phone. Completely surreal and surprisingly fulfilling. It’s ironic that just a few days ago, I wrote about a difficulty in sharing who I am with others, and then suddenly I’m talking to a big time newspaper about core beliefs and feelings, how I got to where I am, how I navigate daily life, etc.
I was at work while we talked. The phone call was scheduled ahead of time, so I just cleaned a little faster than normal so I’d have more time toward the end of my night. I kicked back at a teacher’s desk (shhhh, don’t tell) and waited for the call. I even wrote myself a pep talk on an index card so I wouldn’t psych myself out too much. It’s still in my pocket. It says, “Anything you have to say – big or small – is worthwhile and interesting. Talking to people is a huge part of her job. Let her do the work and steer things, but also give yourself space to say everything you want to say.” We ended up talking for about 35 minutes, which was starting to feel a little long. I think I was being pretty verbose (maybe even actually eloquent at times), contrary to my fears of not being able to answer clearly or not elaborating enough.
The reporter is currently talking to a lot of people who identify as non-binary. Who live in between, and how they negotiate that. She’ll be narrowing it down to one person, or a couple of people, to then go and spend time with face-to-face, get a real sense of how they go about their days. If you would like to talk to her too, you can! Let me know, and I’ll send you her email address so you can share a little about yourself first. Or, you can read more details here.
I got a good vibe from her, but I definitely have some strong reservations going on at the same time. She’s open to, and flexible with, issues of anonymity, so that’s certainly a good sign. On the other hand, I worry that even if we were to connect well and I felt understood, that wouldn’t mean the article would reflect what I think it should be saying. I’d have no control over the final product whatsoever. But, I feel like I’m at a point in my life where I could handle that. Even if I were to not feel too good about it, I could move on from there and still feel like it’s worthwhile to put myself out there and be a voice for this community. I’m getting waaaaaaay ahead of myself here though. I might not be the person they’re looking for, in the first place.
I’m just pretty proud of where I find myself these days. A year ago, for example, I wouldn’t have even comprehended doing something like this. Now I feel like it’s doable, and not nearly as nerve-racking as I’d imagined.
Thanks to Micah for telling me about this opportunity! You keep opening up doors to new possibilities!