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Rising gay artist Jon Campbell: ‘Art is how I discovered my sexuality’

Rising gay artist Jon Campbell: ‘Art is how I discovered my sexuality’

Jon Campbell, artist and singer

I think of artists like instruments. We’re shaped a certain way, designed for particular temperaments, but can also be used in ways that exceed the boundaries of our purpose.

Alone or in a vacuum, we’re obsolete. We need the right air breathed into us in order to make sounds.

When I’m painting the landscape en plein air (painting outdoors), I’m empty.

If I’m doing it right, then there’s no ‘I’ interpreting what I’m seeing. No need for a translator telling me: ‘Tree. Cloud. Grass. Sky.’

In a flow state, a green reflection hits my eye like a drum and reverberates through my unique set of tubes and valves. The landscape is breathed through me, and the ‘I’ disappears.

How I discovered my sexuality

The same feels true for my sexuality.

Art and sexuality have always been intertwined in my mind. I was discovering my sexuality while I was sketching Michelangelo’s heroic male figures on a school trip to Florence when I was 12.

Art and sexuality were awakened in me simultaneously; love, adoration, lust and obsession took on a form.

So it’s not a coincidence that I still feel myself disappearing in the presence of men who inspire songs like The Gayest Picture or Lior; gazing into their eyes, I’m a 12-year-old staring up at the David, tracing the contour of his shoulders so intensely that I’m hardly even there.

Jon Campbell, artist and singer
Jon Campbell. | Photo: supplied

XY chromosomes are supposed to be a kind of oracle in the straight world; blue balloons at gender reveal parties foreshadow bedspreads adorned with superheroes and firetrucks.

When I was five or six years old, I refused to wear any of my underwear because it was all Spiderman and Batman. I threw daily tantrums, refusing to leave the house in any outfit because of the dysphoria I was already experiencing at a very young age.

This feeling would only worsen when I felt totally alienated from boys at school, and opted to sit tentatively as the only boy at a large table of 10 or so girls.

Rejecting gender stereotypes

Trying to squeeze inside of these pink-and-blue-coded boxes did a number on my feeling of belonging anywhere at all — what was this strange instrument I’d been given, and how do I play it?

I found the answer to this question when I was 17 years old and fully immersed in my sketchbook and in music.

I’d spend countless hours alone in New York’s Catskill mountains, hiking, wandering, dropping acid, mapping out the landscape, making drawings and writing poems.

I sketched out my feelings of gender dysphoria and wrote songs about a boy I was in love with. Those drawings and poems reflected a message back to me — my identity would never be realised through language or definitions, but in creative action.

But that message became obscured and lost over time, while I spent the next 17 years seeking an alternative.

Even though I dove head-first into a career in painting, one eye was constantly scanning the periphery for a way out, searching for something more tangible and, I suppose, something easier.

Jon Campbell, artist and singer
Jon Campbell. | Photo: supplied

Francis: The inspiration behind my first single

A lot of artists are prone to self-destruction and I’m no exception.

Thinking about that analogy of an instrument: it’s like if the right air isn’t filling you, the wrong air will find its way into you.

I was gradually winding down a feedback loop of addiction and co-dependence, trying on many different hats — some of which were put onto me and some of which I wore without hesitation.

I was already exhibiting and selling paintings while still in art school, but painting became bastardized in the process, and was tied up with a lot of ego.

All of my eggs were in a pretty unsavory basket. Meanwhile there were entire continents on my creative map left unexplored.

It took many years and many dead end roads before arriving at the same resolution I reached up in the mountains. Those outfits were never mine, nor were the many hats, the pink or the blue boxes.

I’ve never been one thing. Reconciling this plurality of self is what inspired Francis.

In order to take in and paint the landscape, or turn the impression of a man’s eyes into musical notes, I need to remain open. Much like a sponge, without specific borders defining the limits of what I am or what I can hold — otherwise I am limited in my capacity to absorb, and then to ring out.

While writing Francis and subsequently, the album Sirens, all of these seemingly disparate moments in my life and aspects of myself suddenly felt inextricably connected, so much so that it felt like they were occurring simultaneously.

These different paths and locations — Florence, the Catskill mountains — different moments of awakening were congruent pieces of a puzzle, and like my sketchbook, that message was reflected back to me again, 17 years later.

But I’m staying put this time.

Jon Campbell is a singer and artist, based in Berlin. His new single Francis is out now and forthcoming LP Sirens out in September.

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