Sunday, October 11, 2015

Becoming Shannon

Becoming Shannon by Judy Takács
Not fitting where you’ve been put might kill you or force you to build the wings you need to fly.

In many ways, for Shannon it did both.

Shannon is a sweet, funny, beautiful, chatty, passionate, bold, truthful, realistic, candid and outspoken woman. She has a dramatic way about her, loves jewelry with all its symbolic qualities, and she’s an incredibly talented artist and illustrator.

And she’s fun as hell.

Though we only met once before, we spent the better part of a very fun snowy Pennsylvania day together in the makeshift art studio of my Holiday Inn Express room, where Shannon posed for Chicks with Balls.

We talked non-stop and I became educated about how Shannon built her wings to fly…from where she was put.

Shannon, the sweet fun woman I just described, was put…born…into a male body and was in the process of transitioning from being Michael to becoming Shannon.

Picture it ladies. You are you, with all that is wonderful about you; your sensitivity, your desire to chat, to slow down and understand, to logically organize and plan, to care, to think deeply, to multi-task, to enjoy being pretty, to have fun with jewelry, clothes and shoes that are expressive, colorful and specific to you. And yet, people keep throwing you a football, putting you in a dark suit, challenging you to man-up and fight, expecting stoicism and silence…and your body is wrong; profoundly so.

You are existing in a body that is not your own. You are a woman in every way, but your body doesn’t match your soul. This was Shannon’s life. She knew she was a girl as young as age three, but her body was that of a boy.

One of the results of years spent in the wrong body in a world of misunderstanding, was that Shannon developed a severe bulimia addiction. Bulimia often manifests itself when the victim is powerless in other ways to exert control over her life. Bulimia gives its victim control over at least her own body. And exercising that control takes over and becomes a way of life. The details of how she managed this addiction are astounding. It became a full-time job, and Shannon is very open with how many times a day she purged (sometimes 10 times a day), and how she arranged her work and life around this addiction. It was an addiction in every sense of the word. It cost her teeth, many years of her life…and almost cost her life; with her weight dropping below 80 lbs. at its worst.

It wasn’t until she was a young adult that she saw a news special on gender reassignment. It was like being blind all your life, and then discovering therapies to help you see.  Or like being wheelchair-bound and then finding a medical procedure that allowed you to walk.  She didn’t agonize over the decision. As with many important paths in life…falling in love, choosing a career that moves you, being handed your new baby, saying a final goodbye to something painful … it’s obvious when it makes itself known, as if the answer were there all along.

If the decision was simple, the process of gender reassignment was immeasurably difficult. In fact the pre-process is often the gate at which many are turned back.

As it was, Shannon (then Michael) spent another almost 15 years struggling with the medical condition of inhabiting the wrong body, as well as with her bulimia, before actually embarking upon the epic journey to “Becoming Shannon.”

In order for a doctor to even think about beginning the hormone therapies that are part of gender reassignment, Shannon would have to break her bulimia addiction.

She actually surprised herself with how completely she was able to give up binging and purging. The prospect of becoming female within her sights, surely gave her the strength she needed to become healthy enough to withstand the procedures and therapies to come…and to exercise the control over her body that purging could never give her.

In addition to a therapy of female hormones, which act like puberty and menopause all at once, there are physical procedures that make your male body become female. Permanent Laser hair removal is painful and extensive and breast implants were yet to come.

I will now address the question everyone wants to know; will Shannon be having the “other” surgery?

This is a question that should not be asked, and it goes beyond mere privacy.

There’s a vast social movement to discourage discussion as to the status of the genitalia of transgendered individuals.  Their public acceptance in the gender they have become may be in jeopardy if it is known that they haven’t had the surgery for the genitals…sadly, opportunities and excuses for prejudice and mistreatment are plentiful for those who are looking.

Another common question is, “Why can’t he just be gay?”

Contrary to misconceptions, gender transition is not about who you’ll be having sex with or how it will be done, it is about how you’ll live your life true to who you are. I never asked Shannon if she was interested in men or women…at this point it was very much beside the point.

So, the day she posed, Shannon was well into the process of reassignment, but was not too near the end either. This is a very vulnerable time for those going through it, and their privacy should be respected. Even Caitlyn Jenner only came public with photos of herself once the surgeries and procedures were complete and she looked every bit the beautiful woman she had become.

Shannon, however, was brave enough to pose during this transition time. She felt this was an important outreach activity; She’s always been very open on facebook and in life about her struggles and triumphs while becoming Shannon. I’m honored she saw posing for Chicks the way many other women have; as an empowering step for her.

The ball Shannon chose was the classic “blackball” …like those used by organizations with secret voting processes to keep someone from joining. She said that she had felt blackballed her whole life.

My paintings of her were complex and challenging because I was so compelled by her image. I realized that even though this was not a commissioned portrait, I wanted to present Shannon to be as beautiful as she really was. And, because she was transitioning, she had to look as beautiful as the woman she was becoming, but still acknowledging the physical appearance of the man she was. The portrait had to toe a very tricky line. And, there are only a few examples of trans women in art to draw inspiration from, Janet Bruesselbach’s extensive series was one of the few I found out there.

Shannon’s jewelry and hair offered their own complexities. The small brush has never been my friend, and the wispy tendrils of her curly locks, along with the delicate filigree of her jewelry from India put this painter through the ringer.

Because of her unique challenges, I painted a smaller portrait first (above), focusing on her likeness, spirit and her joy. The double portrait (below) posed a greater challenge with so many elements at play. She holds the black ball she chose to pose with, and I also added a huge reflecting black ball to symbolize her giant lifelong struggle. The Barbie™ Pink background is the color her childhood had been missing (ladies, and mothers of daughters, you know what I mean). And, anecdotally, when I decided, months later, to add the giant reflecting black ball in my painting, I set up a scale model still-life to paint the reflection from, using an actual Barbie Doll from my youth.
Shannon, A Double Life by Judy Takács
The paintings are called, Becoming Shannon and Shannon: A Double Life.

Watch for further developments… I am working on a third portrait in my Shannon Series, and it may just be ready in time for my solo Chicks show at the Tri-C Gallery East, which opens October 29th!


Mark your calendars, the Chicks are returning to Northeast Ohio!


Opening Reception:
Thursday night, October 29th from 6:00 to 8:30
Show dates October 29 through November 24th

Cuyahoga Community College Eastern Campus
Gallery East
4250 Richmond Road
Highland Hills, Ohio
Gallery East is the first building on the left when you enter the campus from Harvard Road.

Gallery Hours:
Monday through Thursday 10:30am to 3:30pm


And don’t forget if you haven't already, give my new facebook page, Chicks with Balls: Judy Takács paints unsung female heroes…a quick “like!”