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A narrative on identity and art by artist, filmmaker, and professor K Pontuti

 I grew up in a small farm town in Ohio at a time where there wasn’t any language around queerness or transness—at least nothing positive. It was also a time without the internet so information wasn’t as easily available. I remember hearing phrases like “he’s really sensitive,” ”…so creative,” “…so sweet,” “…really insecure,” which  later gave way to “he’s a momma’s boy,” “needs toughening up,” “has to learn what is to be a man,” “must be a queer.”

I was quite sensitive, and I could feel my difference although I didn’t quite understand it. I was also creative and became immersed in my imagination through making things. I taught myself to draw by copying my favorite comics – Charlie Brown and Snoopy were top billed in my cast of characters – and some of my fondest childhood memories are of sewing and crafting with my mom. Soon, though, I was steered towards building model cars and airplanes…“boy stuff.” (My sisters’) Barbies were replaced with G.I. Joes.

Like I think many do, I managed by burying it all, and through determination, desperation, and the privileges of a “straight cisgendered man,” I was able to carve out a “good life” for myself as an adult. At least for a while.

Over the years and in hindsight, I remember sensing glimpses of my yet-to-be-recognized queerness through tinglings and fuzzy feelings but mostly just moments of seeing other people living and experiencing life outside of the cisgendered binary and thinking, “Huh…” and sometimes, “That’s beautiful.”

But life’s responsibilities and gendered pathways and norms didn’t leave a lot of room for me to pose these bigger questions to myself. Even though there was an unrecognizable emptiness, anxiety, depression, and

dysphoria  manifesting as eating disorders, self-medication, over exercising, and an insatiable drive to prove that I was worth something, I must have known subconsciously that someday this this slimy, hairy, shitball-of-a-person inside of me would be exposed—and I’d have to come to terms with it all.

A few years ago, as I was wrapping up post production on our film, The Yellow Wallpaper (not ever imagining that I may have been the tragic story’s trapped woman), I fell into a mental health crisis that landed me in the emergency room. I was fortunate to have checked myself in, and even more fortunate to have a supportive partner and family to get me there and back. I started therapy and a long process of excavating the why’s, how’s, and now what’s of why I had forever felt this way (and, of course, this was all happening through the start of the pandemic).

I also started drawing again which was the other thing that saved me. Immersed in the simple act of putting pencil to paper, the ideas started flowing, the dexterity came back, and then it just exploded and everything poured out.

Since then, I’ve been going all in exploring my identity, trauma, and past. Making new drawings and scouring through old ones. Doing more therapy…and lots of shopping.

As might be expected, my artwork explores themes of gender identity, bodily autonomy, mental health, queerness, and trans rights, all from a very personal perspective. The work is very autobiographical and chronicles my transition as it unfolds, in real time. 

This past September, I had my first gallery show in ages and titled it Pray And Be Thankful 4 Everything. For me it was a title that walked a line between irony and authenticity. I was so very thankful for everything, but I was also sick and tired of being told that I should be. The exhibition was amazing on so many levels; personally, professionally, and in an incredibly affirming way. I did as many presentations as I could, especially once I saw the impact it was making.

The show provided a platform to start direct conversations about important topics, but definitely raised a lot of eyebrows at the university. Through it all, I’ve received many notes, read student and faculty-written reflections, and had conversations that have brought me to tears. I’ve also felt the ostracization and distancing that many queer and trans people experience. But the good absolutely outweighs the bad, and the joy and satisfaction of realizing who I am, and why I am, has made it one of the most amazing years I could ever imagine.

When I look back at my younger self, that sweet kid that liked to sew with mom, who had no idea what was coming their way, no language or support for what was happening to them…I get really sad and feel an incredible loss. The loss of a childhood. And to think it was all spun so well that I thought something was terribly wrong with me. 

Now, that sadness turns to anger as I watch people, corporations, even my home state of Ohio, wage war on trans rights (as well as the rights of many others). That sadness turns to rage as I watch the stripping away of the tools, education, and medical care that kids and their families need in order to comprehend who they are and survive. 

I’m sure it’s not easy to be a trans kid today, but I never had the chance to find out for myself, and the alternative wasn’t so easy for me, either. I’m still doing my daily drawing practice, and I funnel all of my sadness and anger and rage and grief into my art where I can turn it into strength, hope, and self-affirmation. Deep down, I know

these are the things that I need, and I’m now receiving, so that I can continue my journey, and hopefully help others continue theirs.

So yeah, in that sense I am truly thankful.

 See more of K’s work on their website: https://www.kpontuti.com/

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