DePaul Vera is a fine artist and designer, originally from Kentucky. Here, he talks with masc about conservatism, the craft of collage, crowdsourcing dick pics and campaigning for better HIV awareness amongst gay, Black men.
masc: Hello, DePaul. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me.
DePaul: The pleasure’s all mine, Stephen. Thank you for your interest in my work and reaching out to me for this interview.
masc: Can you give me a little background about your journey to where and who you are today [an easy task; I know, I know].
DePaul: Right. I've gotten better at my elevator pitch, though. I am DePaul Vera, I'm an artist and designer from Western Kentucky. My background stems from southern hospitality which taught me how to be kind to my creative process, in turn, encouraged myself to be open-minded to its various possibilities. Born and raised in a single-mother household, surrounded by a strong community of Black women, moulded me into a Feminist and gave me a perspective of the world that is often underlooked and misunderstood. Today, I use all of my experience as a Black queer and all of my privileges as a male tenfold in the conception of my artwork to provoke change and challenge the status quo.
masc: I noticed in your biography that you visited Barcelona, “where self-acceptance of [your] sexuality and achieving dreams came to fruition.”
DePaul: Barcelona was and still is a fantasy for me. I can't believe I was even there. It was such a fictional place for me for so long that I couldn't dream past the obstacles that stood in my way of making it there but I finally made it right before my final semester of undergrad in 2014. After all the research, the daydreams and wishing, Barcelona left me dumbfounded because even though it was new territory for me, I was the freest as I had ever been. Rated one of the top ten places in the world to be gay was all the confirmation I needed. I mean, public sentiment definitely embedded a sense of acceptance throughout my visit, but ultimately having my guard down truly felt liberating – artistically and emotionally.
masc: How important is travel to your practice and your person?
DePaul: Travel is significantly important for my work, short-term, and long-term, for several reasons. The most important one that comes to mind is perspective. Coming from a strict, conservative background while living in a very small town – roughly 2,600 people – it's typical to fall into the same mindset as those around you. After years of feeling alienated because of my sexuality and otherness, it felt appropriate to seek acceptance elsewhere as opposed to suffering and risk falling into a deep depression. So where do most gays go when they get the chance? California. However, there was just as much judgment and discrimination there as in Kentucky, and unfortunately, this prejudice stung worse because it came from within the gay community. Definitely a reoccurring topic within my work.
masc: Your MFA Thesis Exhibition, which you recently completed [congratulations!] aimed to “highlight [your] flaws, [your] desires and [your] concerns as a Black, Queer man in today's society.” Did you achieve what you set out to do? Of course, yours is a visual language but can you describe how you sought to fulfil those aims?
DePaul: Thank you, thank you! Much love to you for the support. I for sure achieved two of my lifetime goals at once – obtained my master's degree and found my voice as an artist. After learning about America's education structure in middle school, I asked what was one of the highest credentials for an artist and set my goals up there. Art was always an outer expression of my inner thoughts but I knew my work could surpass that, however, it wasn't until graduate school that I began to even decipher what that work looks like let alone how to make it. The more work I made opened up my flexibility and eagerness to jump from concept to concept and from technique to technique to find the right medium for my message. This constant push and pull, of course, often changed my message but eventually forced me to distinctly establish my voice and opinions on concerns and topics that I had ignored in the past. Such things as Blackness, oppression, American politics and sex education. Once I accepted myself and understood what it means to be a Black man who is also gay, was I then capable to deconstruct that into a visual language strong enough to handle my message of Blackness.
masc: How and why did you come to settle on the medium of digital collage? Where does your primary source material for these pieces originate?
DePaul: The vast realm of Tumblr has been my Holy Grail since middle school. Subconsciously, I started collecting images and organizing them by extreme means. Countless folders properly labeled by body type, body parts, locations, colors, textures, and so on. For years, I have kept these external hard drives and honestly had no intention of sharing them with the public. In my mind, I saved these images because they were either attractive, sparked a memory, or would later inspire a composition. Fortunately, there came a point in my creative process where rendering two or more images together wasn't successful, so much information was lost and I just wanted the images to speak for themselves. Suddenly, images I had saved a decade ago were falling in love with my most recent saves. I feel destined to unite these images that add insight into topics that are either misrepresented, overlooked or both.
masc: Collage is an intensely timely medium, in the extent of what can be communicated and with a sense of urgency through its ad hoc appearance. Maybe, most importantly, good collage – yours, I mean – draws the viewer in, disarms them entirely with the familiar, the sensual, the erotic, and then delivers a stinging piece of sociocultural commentary. Tell me about the themes in your work and how you address them.
DePaul: Excuse me while I blush a bit. I definitely aim to pull my audience in with attraction, yes, then have their analysis end in contemplation. This decision in my creative process comes from my previous work being very predictable and not having a lasting effect on my audience. Understanding how my work was stagnant provoked me to speak about issues closer to home. So yeah, ultimately, now I am narrating my experience as a Black, queer, male and using pop culture elements to emphasise America's long-lasting encouragement of Black oppression.
masc: In looking at some of your work as a White man, it feels like a mirror is being held up to me, demanding I think harder and do better. What do you hope to stir in the viewer along the lines of race, ethnicity and queer identity?
DePaul: You are correct – I love knowing other's interpretation of my work, by the way – instinctively, I think the opposite of Blackness is Whiteness for this way of thinking has been passed down from generations. However, what I've personally witnessed and experienced for years is the level of Whites' selfishness and unwillingness to empathize with those less fortunate as them. Although this level of White narcissism is in flux at all times, it hasn't caught up with the amount of distress and trauma that it causes Black communities. Therefore, speeding up this process of White empathy and blending perspectives together is what I hope to accomplish with my work.
masc: To what extent is the gay male gaze at play in your work?
DePaul: The gay male gaze is one of my favorite topics, especially with straight men because even through their denial, it becomes very clear just how they fetishise and shame women in the same breath. It's the same. As gay men, [in design work or graphic arts] we're able to instantly turn any man into a sex symbol no matter their sexuality, affiliation or disgust with the gay community. How? Well, just the same as men have stern expectations of what women should look like, gay men have the same expectations for what other men should look like. And if a man meets those expectations [chiseled chest, hard abs, big dick, and nice ass] nothing else matters. My work plays upon these stereotypical bodies to appeal to the masses. However, that decision does not dictate what is attractive to me, personally.
masc: Tell me about EvadeAIDS [pictured above and below]. Currently, here in Ireland, we are in the midst of a HIV epidemic in which PrEP is prohibitively priced, our Gay Men’s Health Service is under real pressure and there is a new HIV diagnosis every 18 hours.
DePaul: This breaks my heart! What terrifies me is that so many people are unaware that the AIDS epidemic is not over! No! What truly terrifies me is how many people who don't care and still think HIV is only gay-friendly or only attracted through anal sex – those poor souls. This level of ignorance sparked the idea for EvadeAIDS, which is an initiative I designed as a starting point for information and resources for gay, Black men to prepare themselves for safe sex and to prevent HIV or treat it. Due to the lack of insight during sex ed classes in my small hometown, I felt it was important to use art and design to bring awareness to STIs to combat boring abstinence-only information for teenagers. I decided specifically to focus on HIV awareness and prevention. This resulted in creating over two thousand artist’s books and package designing five hundred condoms that I gave freely to the public. The books not only reflected the statistics at the time but also visualised that while the virus has no prejudice, the prevention and treatment of HIV is highly racialised.
You create bookmarks adorned with dicks. Tell me about them. They're cute and fun, but your crowdsourcing of “unsolicited dick pics” as part of the process perhaps suggests a deeper issue of consent – and non-consent – amongst queer men. Or am I thinking about this too much? Is it just fun to draw cocks?
DePaul: You do know that sending dick pics is the new handshake, right? Fuck that, if you're willing to send an unwanted dick pic and have the audacity to try to assert your fragile masculinity after rejection, then you deserve to be a prime example of turning lemons into lemonade. Forget Gay4Pay, this is Pay2Gay, O.K. I figured instead of going the easy route and just finding dicks from porn sites and Tumblr, why not add another level of authenticity to my work? Every Dickmark made is genuine and sent to me from my audience who received it from some dickhead [please laugh]. And yes, it is enticing to draw cocks, it has dismantled my biases against uncircumcised ones. The more I draw them, the more I long for my future partner to have one. Keep your fingers crossed for me. Much love, Stephen.
View DePaul's portfolio and support his work here. All imagery and artwork by DePaul Vera.