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Trisha van Cleef

An Artist Out and Proud

Welcome back Through the Looking Glass, my friends. Today I’m here with Trisha van Cleef, who is a rather exceptional person in our community; she is a completely out crossdresser. I mean she lets it be known that she is Paul Whitehead, the professional artist famous for the surrealist album covers he designed for Genesis in the 1970s. And, get this, Paul Whitehead lets it be openly known that he is also a crossdresser named Trisha Van Cleef.

A: Trisha, first off, let me express my admiration for you. The only real way we make progress as crossdressers or transpeople is for each us to make ourselves known as human beings in the ways that we can. And you certainly have! You are the first man I have ever known who openly declared, "Yep, I’m a crossdresser" -- and you’re a public figure. How was it that you could make this move without grave repercussions? And why did you want to?

T: Are you kidding? I can't POSSIBLY be the first that you know, what about Eddie Izzard? And lots of others come to mind.

A: Okay, then only one I know personally. Well, aren’t you just a kick in the panties?

T: Thank you for the appreciation, yet it’s a little strange - sitting where I am in the unfolding drama that is my life, to see who and what I am as something unusual, it's my life and welcome to the show.

How is it that I could out myself without any negative repercussions? Two answers to that question. First, I have always believed that the truth will set you free, and believe me I don't say that in a trivial, fortune-cookie way, I believe that it is all a matter of energy, a bad intention behind an action will lead to negative results and a positive intention will lead to success and - as in the case of me outing myself as a crossdresser - a positive outcome and freedom from fear, paranoia and deceipt - three aspects of human life that I despise with a passion. Second, I asked other crossdressers, whose opinions I respected, what was the possible downside to me coming out and I got a unanimous response, "There is NO down side," and I believed them, "but you go first."

When I crossed my fingers and hit the send button on the email invitation that I sent out to everyone that I knew announcing my first "One Man - One Woman" art show, I must admit that I felt a twinge of fear but that was soon replaced with a feeling of incredible liberation, the genie could NOT be put back in the bottle and, I told myself, if any of my friends disowned me because of that they were not really my friends in the first place. You know what? I lost no friends. A couple of my male, soccer-playing, let's-go-down-to-the-pub-and-have-a-pint buddies didn't speak to me for a year or so but I found out that, because of their respect for me as a friend and as an artist with a history and some integrity, they wanted to know what the hell it was all about. Had I become gay and if they spent time in my company could they catch it? I must say that some of my other friends touched me profoundly with their genuine interest and curiosity - especially as it was a type of behavior that was completely alien to them - but they bravely stretched themselves and willingly went to what for them was a very uncomfortable place, i.e., meeting "Paul in a dress."

I have never seen the value in being socially confrontational but having felt within myself a feeling of why me and why the hell do I have this "perversion" in my life to deal with? I felt that I had to deal with it and maybe in the course of doing that I would become controversial. So to negate that outcome I consciously tried to express and manifest my female self as honestly and openly as I could. At the opening reception of my first "One Man - One Woman" gallery show I was Paul Whitehead, the painter/rock-and-roll artist, from 7 p.m. until 8:30 and then came back at 9:00 as Trisha van Cleef. Most of my friends told me that they saw me as something beautiful and playful, definitely not someone to be afraid of. Positive intention - positive outcome. I was aware, of course, that I was probably the first crossdresser that some of them had ever encountered or had a conversation with and I felt a big responsibility to represent not only myself properly but also the whole TG community.

A: Are you really able to support yourself by being a painter without having to paint houses?

T: Yes, although in my career I have painted almost everything possible. I had a business in the 80s painting advertising on the sides of semi-trailers, and I am in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest mural in the world (now gone) on The Vegas World Casino in Las Vegas (now the Stratosphere). I have also painted live on stage with rock bands, and it is because of a history of successfully collaborating with bands and solo musicians - going all the way back to 1964, when I did my first record cover for Fats Domino - that I have been able to support myself without ever having to resort to a day job.

A: I understand that you have a line of art by Trisha van Cleef that’s distinct from your work as Paul Whitehead. Why? Would it be like me writing a line of detective stories by Jack Ablehammer and a series of historical romances by Suzanne St. Germaine.

T: My work - as Paul - is known for being very detail oriented and very surrealistic in content - sometimes requiring months of sitting at my easel painting for 8 -10 hrs a day. The rebellious artist within me often felt the need to explore more abstract and spontaneous ways of expressing myself, not necessarily painting, and I found a great channel for that almost accidentally. I would get up after a long painting session, often very tight and numb - particularly in my upper back and shoulders - and just literally throw paint around on a surface, could be canvas, wood, paper, anything that was around, until I was satisfied with the way it looked. I collected quite a few of these experiments over time and would usually stash them in my storage space never really giving them any credence as serious art. Every now and then I would see one and think to myself, "That's a nice piece of painting," or I would like the color combination and take it back to my studio to reconsider its validity, not in Paul's world of art but in some other alternative world.

One of my great heroes and influences as an artist has always been Marcel Duchamp - a huge intellectual force in the world of 20th century art. Duchamp - as well as being responsible for pioneering some of the most profound and revolutionary changes in the way that art is perceived and created - was also a very playful person, a crossdresser who used a female alter ego, Rrose Selavy, to make less serious and flippant art, the theory being that he could deny any responsibility for the work as Marcel and lay it all on Rrose without critically endangering his "serious" work as a man.

A: Sounds just a wee bit sexist, don’t you think?

T: Well, those were the times and that wasn’t at all his intention. Working as Rrose gave him freedom to basically do whatever he felt like as a creator and at the same time ignore any criticism.

When I started to reappraise my abstract pieces and began spontaneously stretching fabric, panty hose and stockings etc. over them, I took a leaf out Duchamp's book and found a channel for Trisha van Cleef to express herself. It worked wonderfully, giving me the same freedom. Soon Trisha was making objects, furniture, bottles, anything that she put her mind to, while Paul continued making his surrealistic, very technical work, for compact disc covers.

Trisha is not interested in technique or assigning large chunks of time to the making her creations. She gets bored very quickly and produces her art spontaneously and without a rigid goal in mind. It happens in the moment. And if it starts to becomes self conscious or contrived she stops immediately. The results are very colorful, playful and original, they are decorative, non-narrative and definitely not discernable as realistic images - a big contrast to Paul's work.

I soon realized how appropriate this was to the two genders that were at work here, the male side being analytical, cerebral and very concerned with finish and the realization of a pre-conceived idea, while the female side worked in the world of emotion, play and pure beauty - exercising an almost motherly appreciation of the unabashed thrill of creating for the sheer hell of it, each of them being very true to the stereotypical and traditional roles played by each gender.

A: How do you live? How often to you get out?

T: I have a large loft in Downtown L.A. - large enough to have two bedrooms, one for Trisha and one for Paul. Trisha also has her own boudoir (with mirror, make up, clothes, and wigs) where she gets ready. Most of the other people in the building are creative. There are a couple of bands who rehearse there, so no problem staying up working and playing music until the wee hours."We" get out as often we I can.

A: Where do you like to go?

T: Anywhere - nowhere is off limits. It depends on how much hassle I feel prepared to deal with. Movies, restaurants, clubs, museums, obviously art gallery openings. That is always a revelation. You would think that "arty" people would be the most open-minded and liberal on the planet. But you should see some of the looks I get when they realize that I am a crossdresser.

I don't go out much in the day mainly because it's too uncomfortable for me. Here is Southern California, the sun makes the wig, too hot and blasts right through the makeup, revealing who you are and you start sweating. I only do it if it's an occasion when I am obliged to be Trisha or to support a TG friend's endeavors.

A: Why no special interest in our tranny nightclubs?

T: In the beginning, when I used to cautiously venture out, they were the only places to go, safety in numbers etc. I still check out any new "tranny" club that opens, but I don't really enjoy myself except for the dancing. I love dancing my ass off. I really don't like the tranny chasers; on the whole I think they’re creepy. I have made lots of TG friends from the clubs but only a few have made it into my complete life permanently. Most of my really dear friends know me equally well as Paul and Trisha, and that's what I want. I don't feel comfortable segregating Trisha, neither does she with Paul. Naturally she has her own life and interests and looks very different but the person inside is the same; I don't become some other person when I put women's clothes on.

A: Well, that’s all for today, folks. I’ll be back with Trisha van Cleef, the artist concurrently known as Paul Whitehead for part two of our interview next month Through the Looking Glass.

Alice N., M.D.