The outside walls of the circus tent are painted with many images and words, none more appropriate to describe this man as “The Amazing Spencer J. Harrison in his titillating incomparable achievement.”
His achievements are numerable. He has been an anti-homophobia activist for the past 16 years, speaking at schools, churches, police stations and hospitals, but this past year he has taken on a unique mission: he is Canada’s first-ever academic to paint a PhD dissertation — and he’s doing it on a 19-foot wide, 15-foot high circus tent, which he titled Freak Show, a metaphor for his life growing up a gay youth.
“That was my nickname in high school,” says Harrison, now 48, speaking to Samaritanmag at a Starbucks in Toronto’s “gay village” on Church Street. “I was called that affectionately — and negatively. People didn’t call me fag; they called me freak show.
“So I’m painting this tent as my dissertation. The outside images are the negative ways that gay men are assumed to be, interwoven with images from Barnum & Bailey freak shows to talk about how bizarre some of the ideas are that people have about gay men. And then you step inside and I’m painting the story of my life, growing up from age three to about 15.”
Since October 2009, Harrison has been the artist-in-residence at Toronto’s Georges Vanier Secondary School, working eight hours a day, five days a week painting this enormous canvas both inside and out, panel by panel, on a flat surface. He has also had an open-door policy at his workshop, where students can come and go, ask about his art and about being gay.
“We think gay rights is over; problem solved, right? And that’s why kids are still being bullied in high school and jumping off bridges. That’s why in the high school where I’m the artist-in-residence, more than 40 kids have come into my studio and come out to me. Not one of them is out in school because we imagine that everything is fine now, but it’s not. It’s not.”
After the initial exhibition at Georges Vanier Secondary School — for parent-teacher night Nov. 25 but also for the public Friday the 26th to 30th from 1-5 p.m. at 3000 Don Mills Road — next year Harrison will defend his project as an oral exam and submit a written component. Then, once he has earned his PhD, he plans to launch a website to gather lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-gendered, queer (LGBTQ) youth stories and invite them to share their experiences and build a safe, accepting community.
He will also travel the Freak Show tent across Canada, first to a LGBTQ youth camp summer retreat, in Edmonton and Saskatchewan.
“I want to tell my story of living a happy life as a queer youth,” says Harrison. “I want the tent and the web site to be places that are catalysts for other LGBTQ youth now to tell their stories.
“I don’t think we, as adults, have what is needed to help those queer kids out. I think they have what’s needed and I think all they need is to have a sense of community that will allow them to hold on and be in a place not where they think it gets better after four years of high school abuse, but that gives them the energy to say, ‘You need to back off, buddy.’
“My goal is to get LGBTQ youth communicating with each other, creating a history, leaving behind an archive, and being each other’s supports — and not jump off bridges.”
Harrison’s own story began in Peterborough, Ontario. At age 5, he remembers telling his parents he had fallen in love with a boy at school who could throw paint across the room. They told him boys and girls love each other. “I responded by saying, ‘You told me to treat everyone the same,’” recalls Harrison. “But I got the message loud and clear that if I was different it was not okay, and not okay to talk about it.”
Still, his parents were encouraging and supportive in all other aspects of his life. And why wouldn’t they be? Harrison excelled at everything he pursued: theatre, science, wrestling, art. “I was smart and interested in anything,” he says. “I wanted to know how the world worked.”
In high school, when another kid revealed he was gay, they kissed, but Harrison was not interested in him romantically and the two never spoke again. He would keep his sexual preference to himself until after graduation.
“If you can imagine a school where the thought of being gay was so far from people's minds that they called me freak or freak show because they didn't really have a word for what they thought I was, than I think you have an idea as to how safe it would’ve been — or at least how safe I thought it would’ve been [to come out],” Harrison explains.
“In some cases, I just was below the radar and people didn't notice and I also think I just wasn't prepared to take the risk. It’s similar now as to why the students from the school where I am artist-in-residence don't come out — fear, and perceived or real danger. On another level,” he continues, “I feel I was too pissed off to come out. None of my straight friends were coming out as straight.
“Lastly, I’m not fully sure I believed it. Remember, this was a time where there were no other examples of gay men for me to see to fully know what I was dealing with. Everyone in my rural city was in the closet and there was no one on TV or in other media and no Internet. For a period of time, I thought I was the only one; I thought I was the freak show.”
At 19, he came out to his parents and a group of friends. “By 20, I was out to most everyone I knew,” Harrison says.
At Kingston’s Queens University, he had a painting and sculpture studio and intended to go into art restoration, but after first year he transferred from general arts into Fine Arts. The first in his family (he has two older sisters, one adopted) to earn a university degree, he then undertook a Masters in Canadian Heritage and Development Studies at Peterborough’s Trent University.
He has held a number of jobs, from waiter to university administrator, but was always active in the studio — and always exhibiting. In 1994, he began working on a body of artwork around gay-bashing, for which he conducted interviews with people who had been bashed and interpreted them into visual art. Three months into that, a local high school principal invited him to do an anti-homophobia education presentation. “I had been working for an AIDS organization at one point as well so I was already known,” Harrison explains.
He was soon asked to present at other schools and eventually became viewed as an anti-homophobia expert, expanding his speaking engagements beyond schools.
“This particular project [Freak Show] started over the course of a conversation eight years ago and not ‘I want to go and do this as a PhD,’” Harrison says. “I had some ideas about what the project would look like and what the project was about.”
To collapse all his interests — an artist, an academic, a university student recruiter, a public speaker, an activist — into one, he decided to pursue his doctorate in Adult Education and Community Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies and Education at the University of Toronto, which has a centre for arts-informed research.
“They are researchers who don’t want to finish a degree and put it on a shelf; they want to have it be really accessible to the population that it talks to,” Harrison explains. “In most cases, there’s some kind of artful practice in either your information or your gathering or your analysis or your dissemination. And in some cases in all levels of it. It’s almost always interested in human condition and bettering the human condition. It attracts activists.”
Harrison proposed Freak Show, this giant indoor tent that would tell his story.
“You need to find a group of scholars that feel your work is new enough and scholarly enough and will affect change,” he says of the process. “So the committee is chosen and they accept the proposal; you meet the ethical requirements of the university; there’s some sort of comprehensive exam requirement, then you complete the dissertation.
“The project is a negotiation between you and your faculty until they feel that it’s ready to be examined as a PhD dissertation. You actually go to an oral exam. Though the committee will be there, they’ll also bring in an external scholar who is an absolute expert in the field, whose job it is to make sure you haven’t just made friends with your faculty. To prove that, there are oral exams, an interrogation.”
When Harrison approached the faculty of Georges Vanier Secondary School to do his PhD dissertation there, there were questions and requests on both sides.
“The superintendent [of education] wanted to know how violent the images would be on the outside of the tent. That was his largest concern,” says Harrison. “And the very first meeting he made it very clear, ‘I don’t want to direct you what you are doing.’ I showed him images from an earlier project so he knew what the quality of my work.
“I’ve been an artist-in-residence in a Catholic hospital; I’ve done it in two different universities. I’m conscious of my audience. It’s a really racially diverse school; a large portion of the students have been in Canada less than five years, some of them less than a year. There are probably 60 languages spoken at that school. It’s really culturally rich.
“So what I promised to the school is that I would be an out queer person that people would see ongoing, but also hopefully change the perspective. It’s a really strong theatre, art and design school. They’ve got an incredible art program there and this makes it very clear: What does an artist do with their day? ‘Oh, he’s here working again?’ ‘Oh again?’ ‘Oh, he’s here eight hours a day? Five days a week?’
“It shows a reality — where does art really come from? So there were those two things, and what I talked to the principal, the lead art teacher and the superintendant of the school about was also to program me into any class that you want. I’ll come and talk about any aspect of it from the art making to human rights.”
So Harrison did what he has been doing for almost two decades — he gave his anti-homophobia talks to assemblies of grade 10s, 11s and 12s.
“A lot of people get my presentations,” says Harrison. “I think they come away thinking a whole lot of new things that they haven’t thought about. But I think there’s still kids who don’t want to come into my studio because I’m a fag and they don’t want to catch it and they don’t want to come into my studio because they’re self-declared homophobic and they don’t want to have a conversation about it because their religion tells them that I’m wrong.
“When I was in high school, someone like me wouldn’t have been allowed to talk to the student population. You wouldn’t get to do those assemblies,” he muses. “I think there have been a lot of changes over the years. When all the media hit about the American kids that had committed suicide, my studio was packed and it was packed with queer kids who weren’t out to each other, who were on an emotional rollercoaster. Now they want to see the art and ask some questions, but mainly they want to come in and be in a safe place to talk about it and not to me, but to each other.
“So in my studio, I had a week where they there was no getting anything done because there were 40 or 50 people in the studio every class because they wanted a space to have a conversation about some really topical things. I think the media very recently has been helpful. I think there’s a long way to go. I think high schools are difficult spaces.”
Director Fern Levitt (Little Rock Nine, Gorbachev’s Revolution) — whom Harrison met on a Holocaust education trip to Poland and Germany with the Canadian Centre for Diversity Studies in May 2009 — has been filming his artist-in-residency for a documentary. “They’re in my studio every week filming, sometimes more than once a week,” says Harrison. “They’ve conducted interviews within the school and with members of the school population and they interview me all the time.”
Freak Show has to be seen, but Harrison describes his images and intentions well.
He has been painting the walls on a flat surface in his studio. “It’s painted on a wet surface so it also slides because they are memories. I want the viewer to have to work at it and see that there are parts of it that you don’t get to see, but over top of that I’m painting images that come from early childhood and growing up.
“I’m actually blocking out a bunch of the text because I want you as a viewer to not be able to read the story and be frustrated because I want to talk about how frustrating is to have to have two stories — to have to have the story that is the reality of my life and the story that I had to lead to safely navigate a rural community, where if you had a boyfriend there was going to be implications.
“So how do I talk about sex on the outside of the tent without actually just talking about sex?” he says, bringing up the obvious question.
“There are two acrobats who are relatively famous part of the freak show, and there’s a image of one of them whacking the other one on the ass with this big board,” Harrison says. “It’s comical to look at, but then the text is chosen from somewhere else and it says ‘the sensation of all sensations.’ So it’s a bit tongue in cheek and then you realize, ‘Oh, they’re talking about anal sex here.’ So it’s not blatant, but it’s really clear what I’m talking about.
“When you step inside [the tent], for the under-paintings I wrote the history of my life between the ages of about 3 and 15 — three being my earliest memories and 15 being when I started to really deal with what my orientation was.
“So if you were to go and stand in the tent, you could read the story from start to finish.”
Because the exhibit is indoors, the circus tent can’t be pegged into the ground, as it was intended, so with the help of his nephew he came up with a way to stand it up, and it requires the help of two dozen students — a community, if you will, as required for a PhD in Adult Education and Community Development.
Harrison has already done more for the LGBTQ youth community than most and with this PhD dissertation and his planned web site and national tour, he will reach even more kids outside the big cities — likely where it is needed most.
“I think a lot about the fact that I wasn’t one of the kids who jumped off the bridge,” says Harrison, “and that I grew up in rural Ontario where it wasn’t really safe, and that I had an absolutely amazing childhood and period of youth. Yeah, there was some of that harassment in it, but I’m tired of only hearing the negative stories.”