Interview: Kerry Downey & Rachel Harper

Kerry and Rachel met when they were 13 at an arts middle/high school in South Florida. They fell in love when 15 and both went on to be teaching artists at art museums in Chicago and NYC. Kerry recently produced an artwork based on letters written to one another while teenagers.

K: How does your experience dating me in high school and being queer affect the work you do now?

R: I love this question because I know it is impossible for me to really trace all of the lines and layers of influence that you have had on my becoming who I am. Your influence, and our relationship, is at the core of the way I understand art, since I first came to understand interpretation then. I don’t know if it was more because you were a poet, or more because being very truly in love is so illuminating.

My eye is drawn to the word “dating” in your question This word really perplexes me because there was certainly a moment when our relationship turned into a romantic one, or when we acknowledged that we needed to categorize it that way, but we had been quite deeply in love with each other for a long time before we were “in a relationship.” We were socialized to think we needed categories. I remember the conversation we had around our first kiss, after which we assured one another that we did not want a sexual relationship. Do you remember that conversation? I remember slamming into a wall of doubt about being queer, and I remember moving through it. I hit queer walls like this in teaching, too– and I think maybe they are always about the problem of categories or fixed definitions.

K: We were lucky because our high school experience allowed us to move from best friends to that queer space of something else quite fluidly. I remember getting some taunts on the bus or on the train (especially when sharing space with the other high schools) but for the most part our arts high school was a refuge, a safer place than most where there wasn’t an intense pressure to define our love. I also remember there came to a point in my youth when it was an important political statement to say that we were girlfriends. It was about visibility and acknowledgement. I’ve moved in and out of this need to articulate the frame of my love an/or gender identity my whole life. On one hand, queerness as a concept allows for exceptional forms of fluidity. On the other hand, my life demands recognition. It is through visibility and recognition that our rights and subjectivities are formed.

As a person who clearly does not register as either gender (androgynous, genderqueer, gender non-conforming), I am always slipping in and out of recognition. My art plays with this dynamic as well (between form and formlessness). When I’m teaching kids there’s that burning question I was hammered with all through my youth: Are you a boy or a girl? Falling in love with you made all of this anxiety drop away. Even though it was a heart-wrenching time, it built a foundation of self confidence that being me was a worthy and desirable thing. When the question of my queerness of gender arises when teaching, I find myself not wanting to answer. I like not fitting into a category and watching the students wrestle with this. They hit the wall instead of me. They have to do the work to overcome it. It takes courage and sometimes my face gets red.

What similar “queer walls” have you hit while teaching?

R: I like your phrase, “They hit the wall instead of me.” Although, it sounds like there is also some important way that you both come to it together. My experience of similar moments is something like the inverse of what you’re describing. First of all, I am a queer person in the 13th year of a committed relationship with a cis male. This is a position that most straight people are unfamiliar with, and some gay people say makes me straight. But I am not straight. Secondly, I expect that I look like a cis woman, even though I sport short hair and “boyish” clothes for the most part. So these conditions mean that I am constantly passing for straight and cisgender, and benefiting from the privileges that come with these.

The wall comes when I say I’m queer and people naturally expect my partner to be female or trans; I don’t feel obligated to explicate what exactly makes me queer, but I am aware of the ways my identity defies resolution in the dominant discourse of gender and sexuality (which can deal pretty well with the L,G, & B, but not as much with the T or the Q). Theoretically, this identity position is just fine with me. My art investigates this kind of liminal space, and permeable planes of transition. But in the practice of teaching, I sometimes want to be a more comprehensible model for my students, and even for myself.

So, I want to go back to something I wrote earlier, about the ways I think about the educative dimensions of our relationship. I often wonder what made the time we spent together a time of such growth for me. When I look back on those years in school, I certainly think I learned much more about the world through our love than I did in classes. The content of school seems almost peripheral to that learning. What do you think about that? I know school was becoming increasingly important to you during the time we were close.

K: Love became a source of wild inspiration. I read everything through you and was hungry for more. I also had something to prove, to you, to me, to the world. I think you’re right that the content of school was peripheral but my love for learning you was connected to my love for learning: poetry, novels, words, music, painting, even sometimes trigonometry or geometry’s cold logic became a necessary balance to the pungent drama of youth. I wish more high school teachers understood that this is an age when we especially learn through the social, even if dysfunctional. When I teach Teen Programs at MoMA, my classes often involve social experiments. Like blindfolding students, having them hold hands, and leaving them alone in the open gallery of Flux Factory (arts collective in Long Island City, NY). They have to make sense of the confusion and their own agency together. They are alone together. This was what high school felt like for me. Middle School was far darker. I was not alone with anyone. I was alone.

So I agree, that we learn through our relationships, and this is true throughout our lives, but I might argue that when 13-20, we learn primarily through our understanding of ourselves in relationship to the desires and subjectivities built through peers, particularly those who create, for the first time in our lives, the sweaty goo of lust and empowering feelings of love. It was so overwhelming and hit me so off guard that I made a lot of terrible mistakes. We’re ill-equipped to deal with the forces of hormones. Our learning environment gave us Romeo and Juliet and our culture gave us Nirvana. Our families gave us morals and suburban idealism. Our love problematized all of it. What did school do to support or neglect us?

R: The idea of confusion is such an important one. Schools tend to be uncomfortable with confusion, since it maybe seems contrary to the aim of learning, when educational policy is mostly about making stable sense of fixed facts. The school we attended for 7-12th grade, as a public magnet school for the arts, was a place where there could be some flexibility about the space between real and imaginary, since the arts occupy this space, and the curriculum integrated arts throughout. I think we had teachers who knew that our selves were generated in spaces between– between real and imaginary, self and other, him and her, past and future, and on and on. So many wanted us to build ourselves, and were willing to be in conversation with us about it. I usually felt my deep confusion was wholly accepted, and even thought to be good.

This is to say that I felt loved by our teachers. I think being loved by them enables me to feel love for my students and feel comfortable with the fact that I approach teaching from a position of love– love for who my students are, and admiration for their confusion and liminality. This kind of love, which was modeled for me at the school we attended, makes me patient, open, giving, warm, and all the rest. Saying that I learned how to teach through love reminds me that this disposition I describe is one I took in our relationship, and I think that the pedagogical experimenter you describe above is a position you took with me. Would you agree? You tested me, twirled me, called me into new worlds that you had never seen before either. Especially in the beginning. When I read over our correspondence (the years of letters I have kept, as you have kept mine), I see the hard place you began become softer and softer, and my confusion become richer and richer.

But besides the me or the you, there is the important confusion that opened between you and me, as the space between you and me closed, a confusion of skin in passion, and confusion of eyes in gaze, and confusion of soul in heaven, was not at all confusing, it was a realm of potential. I became a liminal poem from your Holy Palmer’s kiss, I was transformed into a work of art that you were equally making and unmaking.

K: Yes. But this space of potential that our love created, that brought me into a love beyond my family, particularly my mother, and also beyond friendship, certainly into my first understandings of the spiritual, also brought me into existentialism, loss, and forms of confusion that were not all sanctified or supported. I was bereft and adrift at times. Not seeing alternative models of love, radicality of relationships, other genderqueer bodies, or to put it simply, gay people around me was extremely painful. For as many examples of well-modeled love that I can remember, I can also remember an equal or greater number of adults, peers, and siblings who left me feeling isolated and humiliated.

I am grateful that I fell in love and that this love was reciprocated so that we could be given real experiences that challenged and formed us as people. This is stuff not to be taken for granted. I’m reluctant to only cast it all in a nostalgic or idealistic light. It was messy. You mentioned teaching and making art through love now, and I feel the same, but I also teach and make art through loss, examining power, vulnerability, and shame. The love that I share is an attempt to build spaces for real feelings. There is a lot of play and experimentation, a lot of laughter and light, but I’m also interested in creating room for the other stuff that I felt there was not a lot of room for. Maybe this is the space of confusion you speak of. I grew up in a house where my parents gave me a lot of freedom, but it was also an emotionally stunted house, where I was the live wire about to set the place ablaze at any moment. The only place I felt like me was on my bedroom floor making art, listening to music, or alone with you on your roof. That might sound very dreamy, and it was, but it was also suburbia in the 90’s in Boca fucking Raton. It certainly had its limitations.

I never intended to experiment with you. I was searching for “us.” I also remember the conversation about who we were and what could happen between us. My memory has you as the instigator of that conversation. I wasn’t thinking about sex or boundaries or any of that. All I could think about was kissing you again. That was it. Just to kiss you. It drove me crazy. I must have daydreamed about kissing you for six months or a year before it finally happened. And once it did, I just wanted it again, more, always. I think in some ways you were way ahead of me in being able to see some kind of NEXT or bigger picture.

Were you as affected by the lack of queer models or the suburban banality or the white bread heteronormative as me? Your family was more conservative than mine — Lutheran, four girls, patriarchal…etc? You also lived in a gated community. It was all pretty classic Boca, no?


Kerry Downey is an interdisciplinary art and teacher based out of Brooklyn, NY. Her focus is experiential learning, collaboration, and radical pedagogy. She works with diverse populations in the Education Department at the Museum of Modern Art and adjuncts at Hunter College. Her art and various collaborations can be seen at www.kerrydowney.com

Rachel L. S. Harper is an artist and educator in Chicago. She teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is a founding member of ChiQueer, an action research collective focused on queer issues in education. She is co-editor of the forthcoming book, Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexualtiy.

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