Artist Maurice Cassidy spoke to GCN about his upcoming spoken word performance of ‘Searching for Secret’, coming to Outhouse in Dublin on September 23.
I grew up in Dublin in the 1970s and graduated from Trinity in 1981. I paint portraits utilising oil on paper. My subjects are drawn from my immediate surroundings. They are the people I care about: Family, loved ones, and friends. Inspired by Lucian Freud, my paintings are an autobiographical account, an attempt to create a record.
In 1982, I got a work visa for Australia and headed to Sydney via New York and Los Angeles. I always intended to return to Ireland, but life can take you in different directions – a long-term relationship and a successful business were two reasons I got as far as New York and stayed.
Over 40 years later, I live in Southern California – not a bad part of the word, though the distance from Ireland and family is a significant drawback.
I arrived in New York when the burgeoning downtown art and nightlife scene was in full swing, running into the likes of Divine, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Grace Jones. But HIV/AIDs was also winding its way in the city, and I witnessed firsthand the devastation and cruelty of the disease.
People lost jobs, were evicted, and turned away when they sought healthcare. Funeral homes refused to handle the dead. The Reagan Administration failed to acknowledge the epidemic until over 30,000 Americans had died from the disease.
I was at the first meeting of ACT UP at the LGBT Centre on 13th Street in 1987 and protested on Wall Street and City Hall. I marched on Washington in 1987 and 1993 and was arrested on Fifth Avenue in 1998 protesting the death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man brutally murdered in Wyoming.
In 1993, cobbling together savings and credit card cash advances, I partnered with my boyfriend at the time and opened a gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village.
On September 11, 2001, I was standing on the corner of Christoper and Hudson Streets – about a mile from The World Trade Center – when I witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers.
I saw my adopted city, the city I love, in flames. Even to this day, it is hard to put into words the scale of the destruction, the collective trauma, the deep personal losses, and the human tragedy of 9/11.
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In 2016, I moved to San Diego, California and met a trans woman named Secret. We became close friends, and when she took her own life in 2020, I was devasted by the loss and struggled to understand her decision.
I painted her portrait in the aftermath of her death. Painting someone is an intimate act, and I found myself in deep conversation with Secret. After completing the portrait, I started writing.
Set in the days and months after her death, ‘Searching for Secret’ centres on my struggle to understand Secret’s decision to end her life and, amid grief and depression, remembering her struggle with housing, employment, the hostile stares and judgment of strangers, and a world that would not afford her space to exist.
The realisation that concerns such as housing and employment that I often take for granted are a battle for trans folk that can frequently tragically prove fatal. That was the reckoning I was ultimately forced to confront; the struggle of trans folk could no longer be seen from the comfort of privilege; it became personal.
Once I started reading the piece aloud at open mics around San Diego, I decided to craft it into a narrative or spoken-word piece with the portrait in situ. In doing so, I discovered my voice and how the nuances and complexities of voice, whether tone, inflexion, silence, pacing, or even song, could all inform and communicate the story.
And then there was the physicality I found could be imparted to the piece and how gesture and movement could inform the story. As someone who has experienced trauma, it became a rediscovery and reclamation of both voice and body.
‘Searching for Secret’ is not only about friendship and loss; it also deals with regret and disenchantment: what might have been done differently, what opportunities were lost, what roads were left untravelled, not just in my relationship with Secret, but in life in general, and my choice to strike out and explore the world. The tarnishing of the myth of America, the reality of America in all her madness and contradiction, the ambivalence of wanting comfort and security, juxtaposed against the desire to explore.
Ultimately, it is discovering how art can help us heal and eventually finding hope in a simple act of generosity and realising that in any situation, regardless of how dark or desperate, the choice to be kind is always available to us.
Maurice Cassidy will bring his spoken word performance ‘Searching for Secret’ this Saturday, September 23, at 2pm in Outhouse, Capel Street, Dublin.
Tickets for the Outhouse spoken word event are €10 and available to book through Eventbrite.
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