It’s a special moment when a person’s art makes you step back and say, “Whoa, what the fuck happened to this dude when he was a kid?” Jared Buckhiester’s illustrations and photographs tell the story of that kid. But the tale he weaves isn’t one of pain and suffering, and he doesn’t wallow in clichés, despite growing up gay in a suffocating Southern Baptist community near the North Georgia Mountains. At 27 years old, it appears that he’s already fully digested the reality of his identity–not surprising, since he’s labeled himself queer since age 5.
Buckhiester relocated to New York in 1995 to study at Pratt Insitute and much of his early professional work was in photography. His photos have been on display at Rare Gallery and Steuben East Gallery (both in Brooklyn, NY) and published in Nylon Magazine, Mass Appeal, and Intervista. His subjects range from beady-eyed suburban misfits and lonely houses in the middle of nowhere to over-the-top prom disasters (think a sequined gown with train patterned after the American flag) and Deep South shitkickers at tailgate parties. The documentary style of his photos suggests an emotional distance from his subjects, but one look at his drawings and you feel as if you’ve accidentally walked in on something that you shouldn’t have seen.
In his black-and-white sketches, Buckhiester reveals moments of his past with a sense of humor and playful eroticism, spinning a possibly damaged childhood into a world of dark humor that, in his own words, revolves around the subject matters of “family, adolescence, church, faggots, queers, and Satan.” Whether he is intentionally exorcising demons or just poking fun at the antics of pre-pubescent queers, the intimacy and vulnerability of his drawings hints at a maturity that only a veteran of adversity could know.
XLR8R: Your experiences as a kid growing up gay in the South play a large role, if not the main role, in your art. How do you identify yourself and the work that you do?
Jared Buckhiester: I am a gay Caucasian from Dahlonega, GA. I was fortunate enough to have accepting and loving parents who happened to find comfort and happiness in a Southern Baptist church community. They didn’t really think that their gay son might not find that same comfort and happiness. My work is a combination of elements that are familiar to me. Overall, it leans toward a darker side, but if you have a sense of humor you can find acceptance in each composition.
How did the church’s homophobia affect you?
I went to church three times a week from birth until I was 16. Although my parents were very liberal for their surroundings–when I first told them I was gay at age 11, they asked me, “What do you want to do about it?”–what was said about my kind in church carried a greater weight with me. It definitely shaped how I felt about myself; I guess “alienated” is a good word.
Your drawings are filled with homoerotic innuendo, but nothing about the church. It’s surprising, considering it played such a big role in your upbringing.
[In my work] I have little to say about the Southern Baptist Church. My art is not so much about ignorance as it is about human emotion.
If you depicted violence in your drawings, would you be the victim or the assailant?
I am the assailant, armed with a Freddy [Krueger] glove and buckets of fake blood.
What did you draw when you were young?
Unicorns and dragons, skateboarders and still life; I was very 8th-grade-art-class material.
Many of your characters wear masks, even in your photos. What are they hiding?
They aren’t so much hiding as [they are] being whoever they want to be. If they are hiding something it would be the obvious, those secrets that fill you with so much shame you have to puke.
What role does the absence of color play in your drawings?
There is a sensitivity and nostalgia in basic pencil drawings that contrasts the subject matter. Plus, I have not yet found the colors that will contribute to the work.
Did you ever really get it on with boys in a tent made from a confederate flag, like in the drawing “If You Show Me Yours”?
The tent was from Sears. I don’t think they ever sold one made from a confederate flag. If they had, my best friend’s father would have had it.
You are evading my question about whether you actually got it on with boys in that tent.
Not intentionally. The tent in question was not that tent. It was a Sears tent, and of course we fooled around in it.
Do you ever worry that living in NY will kill the backwoods connection to your work?
Not really. I find inspiration in absurd moments of realness, stereotypes, and people who are parodies of themselves–New York is full of that.
Your past seems to have a strong grip on your present. Do you think your work will eventually break away from your past?
The influence my past has on my present feels very comfortable and natural. I’m sure my work will represent something apart from my past once I feel I’ve said enough. There is a lot of rich material and humor there, so I’m not sure if and when the latter will happen.
Did you decide early on that your art would be your career?
I guess. I really only found the confidence to believe it in the past four years.
Was there anything specific that gave you that confidence?
Just making work, really. I hadn’t drawn for so long, I surprised myself each time I completed a drawing. It is fun, feels right, and people respond to it.
You cite your favorite photographers as Bruce Davidson, Eugene Richards, and Helmut Newton, all of whom were born before 1950. Do you relate better to older men as artists or in general?
Not particularly men, but older artists and art.
If Helmut Newton were alive today and decided that he wanted to go back to doing nudes, would you pose for him in nothing but stilettos and a dog collar?
What would be your dream collaboration with either Richards or Davidson?
To document the daily life of homosexual Filipino guerrilla soldiers.
Say VH1 decided to put a halt to their current reality smut programming and got back to quality shows like Driven: Jared Buckhiester. What would be your daunting moment, when the music fades and you’re suddenly alone, at an all-time low?
First of all, the music wouldn’t fade; it would just blend into a slow ballad by White Lion. I was in the 6th grade and Andrew Roy would no longer talk to me because I had given him a gift on Valentine’s Day. It was an oil pastel drawing of the cover of Hysteria by Def Leppard. I guess he was uncomfortable with that.