Damon Arhos is a little obsessed with a particular shade of lavender. The hue appears again and again in his art, functioning, he explains, as a shorthand for the gayness he is exploring in his work. Walking into his Takoma Park studio, the most eye-catching work, even during the overcast day I visited, is a lavender neon text piece entitled “Advice for the Ages.” The script, which Arhos had made at Lite Bright Neon in Brooklyn, immortalizes something that the artist, friend and mentor René Treviño said to encourage Arhos when he was fretting about making a work that was “overtly gay”: “Just be your own faggoty self!” Initially concerned about using the “other F-word,” Arhos has talked at length about it with other members of the LGBTQ+ community and says he feels supported in his decision to adopt the phrase as his personal mantra. He explains that “gay people get that it’s about being yourself” and sees the work as a constant reminder to continue to push himself to accept the artistic decisions he is making, even if they sometimes feel beyond his comfort zone.
Arhos’ studio is a happy space of zoned messes. On one table, parts of a sewing project await his return, while another has collage and stencil bits laid out. Paintings in various stages of completion hang on the walls, and his computer with video editing software is tucked around the corner. His interdisciplinary practice, he explains, laughing, is essentially “doing a bunch of a lot of things but not doing a lot of one thing.”
A recent graduate of MICA’s low residency Studio Art MFA who now teaches at Bowie State, Arhos works across many modalities at once, letting his ideas about gender, sexuality, and his childhood in Texas dictate the media in which they will be expressed. Growing up in the 1970s in Austin, Texas, hunting and fishing were pastimes Arhos’ father expected him to adopt. Arhos’ work now plays with pieces of hunting culture, combining rifle ads, camouflage, and taxidermy with glitter and images of Victoria’s Secret runway models to pose questions about the constructs we place on gender identity.
His Greek Orthodox upbringing continues to have a large impact on his practice, too. Arhos frequently makes work that addresses the ritual, rich textures, and repetitive aspects of the religion. His video and installation work “Velvet Stones” documents the laborious process of sewing 100 river stones into lavender velvet covers. Arhos thinks of rocks like “individuals or little people, or maybe empanadas” and celebrates the minuscule differences between the objects wearing the same uniform. He hopes to continue the series by sewing one or two everyday and, in the spirit of the late influential artist Felix González-Torres, give them away. Arhos and I talked about masculinity, the lingering romance of New York City, and RuPaul’s cultural heft.
SUBJECT: Damon Arhos, 51
WEARING: Navy blue GAP cotton pullover shirt, black Polo by Ralph Lauren jeans, black-and-white Mizuno Wave Sonic low-profile running shoes
PLACE: Takoma Park, Maryland
Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read?
Damon Arhos: Just Kids by Patti Smith. I initially chose to read the book because I am such a fan of both artists’ [Smith’s and Robert Mapplethorpe’s] work. Yet I didn’t realize how much perspective it would provide me about my own life. Somehow, their journey together helped me reframe how I viewed my own evolution into adulthood. I noticed myself having such compassion for both of them in so many moments. I was so touched by their love for one another—how, in many instances, it was just enough for them to be together. I reached the conclusion of the book while I was riding the DC metro downtown, wearing my sunglasses in a tunnel, sobbing through the gravity of its sobering circumstances. Yet I believe these also were happy tears—recognizing that love is an imperfect, powerful, wonderful thing.
What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What was the best?
The all-time worst came from a family member, who once told me that I should never show anyone vulnerability. Strangely, I just finished the audiobook The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown. In it, Brown says, “We associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty. Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.” It is so fascinating to me that today, my life and career are completely defined by my creativity. And in a sense, this terrible advice was in complete opposition to who I was then and who I am now. I feel fortunate to have figured this out. And the best advice? “Be yourself, Damon!”—which more recently came from one of my former faculty mentors from MICA. In my career and in my life, I sometimes spend too much time over-analyzing and not enough just going with my instincts. I like to remind myself that I’ve developed my instincts over a long period of time, and that ultimately, my gut is just as important as my brain.
“Advice For The Ages,” neon, 2019. Photo by Dan Meyers.
If you couldn’t live in Baltimore/the DMV, would you live in either New York City or Los Angeles? Another city?
New York. Definitely. I had the opportunity to live in New York when I was in my 20s, spending two consecutive summers living in the Village. I developed strong relationships with friends and relatives who live there, relationships that I have maintained to this day. Of course, the city has changed a lot; yet it still excites me in so many ways. So much to do and see, and so much art! I go up as often as I can, which usually ends up being about four times a year. I always call myself an “East Coast Texan.” I was born and raised in Austin, and feel like Texas always will be part of my cultural identity. Yet I also feel so at home in Baltimore, DC, and New York—cities that all have such dynamic energy of their own.
Did you have a favorite toy as a child? Do you remember what happened to it?
I had two favorite toys—a stuffed Bambi and a Bert hand puppet (a la Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert). The former was a gift from my mother. When I was in graduate school at MICA, I actually reproduced Bambi’s image in large-scale collage (like 8 feet tall) and in pink paint in an attempt to symbolize my identity and my relationship with popular culture. For Bert: My father worked for the local PBS affiliate in Austin, so we constantly were watching that channel—which, of course, featured Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, The Electric Company, and ZOOM, among others. I am not really sure where the Bert puppet came from, but he was my constant companion when I was a child. I remember camping him out in my mother’s medicine cabinet at one point, just to see what her reaction would be. (That was a HUGE mistake!) I still have Bambi and Bert, who both look quite fabulous for their ages.
What is the art supply/business-related material you should buy stock in, you use it so much?
Acrylic gel medium. I cannot get enough of the stuff! I use it for so many projects, and actually buy it in gallon-sized buckets.
Who do you admire? Why?
I truly admire Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s parents. Matthew was a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was murdered in October 1998. This heinous crime stands as one of the most high-profile hate-crimes committed against LGBTQ+ people in American history. Last fall, I was fortunate enough to attend the Matthew Shepard Foundation gala in Denver, an event that raises money for this nonprofit founded by Judy and Dennis. I was there to install a large-scale portrait of Matthew that I created for my 2017 MICA thesis exhibition, Targets and Trophies. The foundation exhibited the portrait at the gala, and we then moved it to their national headquarters where it hangs today. During the gala, I met Judy and Dennis, who have made so many impactful achievements via the foundation that they created. These two people literally have changed lives for the better after suffering one of the most devastating losses any person can bear. I have such admiration for their dedication to their cause, to making sure that the voices of hatred and bigotry are silenced forever.
What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for?
Filling my bird feeders and my bird bath. I can see our backyard from my home studio—so, I am fortunate enough to experience the fruits of my labor at any time. I have two books sitting on my desk: A Field Guide to the Birds by Roger Tory Peterson and Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Bruun, and Herbert S. Zim. A pair of binoculars sits next to these two. Also, I was visiting Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle not long ago and found The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman—which is such a fantastic book! My father and grandfather were into birds, too—so, I always think it’s heredity.
What is the most rewarding aspect of being a professor? Did you always know you wanted to teach?
It is so rewarding to help someone get excited about something that they may not think is so interesting. I teach an art history survey course for non-majors: the one that starts at the beginning of time and progresses to the present in one semester. In addition, that class covers all of the history of art worldwide! Such an impossible task. Yet I absolutely love the challenge of making the history come to life and making it relevant in the present day. The best feedback I can receive from a student is that they have a new appreciation for art—that they actually want to visit museums and remain engaged after my class ends. This is what drew me to teaching. It took me a while to figure out that this was my calling. Despite the challenges, I really find the work very gratifying.
What’s the best local snack food?
I must admit, the food that I love the most is Tex-Mex. It’s one of the things I really miss about living in Texas! So, truthfully, I haven’t found something out here that I crave as much as queso, enchiladas, tacos, salsa, etc. I realize that these things are readily available in Baltimore and DC—it’s just that, as a good Texan, I am very particular about my Tex-Mex. For example, my go-to for salsa is ordering it online and having it delivered to our house. I buy cases of Hell On The Red (actually labeled as “party dip”—hot please!—not mild) and have the salsa shipped from where it is manufactured in Telephone, Texas. I kid you not—it’s great stuff!! Visit: www.hellontheredinc.com and order some, too.
Do you consider yourself an artist? Have you always? Was there another career path you could have pursued?
I do consider myself an artist. I had another career in high-tech when I began working. I always was thinking about art, volunteering in the arts, taking art classes, all while I was working full-time in that industry. This was the foundation for the leap that I took in my 40s—going back to school to earn my MFA in Studio Art. That decision changed my life. It made me quite comfortable answering to others that I am an artist at social gatherings and, often times, getting the quite predictable, “OK, but what do you REALLY do?” I once had someone tell me that I needed to get a “real job”—and remarkably, it was someone who worked at my bank. I consider my life as an artist and educator one of the most rewarding anyone could have. I often think there are so many diverse opportunities that exist within the arts (in curation or nonprofits, for example), and that I may pursue the future.
Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What is it? How did you get into that?
I don’t really do it anymore (although I’ve often thought of taking it up again recreationally)—but, when I was younger, I was a competitive figure skater. I did it for nearly 10 years—practicing before and after school, taking all of the tests, competing in competitions, etc. I still have my skates, patch jacket, and some frightening photos (one of which a friend printed on a coffee mug). I really loved skating—and the sport taught me some great life lessons about hard work and dedication. As I mentioned before, last fall I attended the Matthew Shepard Foundation gala in Denver, and the guest of honor was 2018 Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon, who was one of the first openly gay athletes to compete at the Winter Games. It was a really exciting moment meeting someone who had such a successful skating career. I admire him for living his life with authenticity and courage.
Whose work would you want in your home or to wear on your body? Specific piece?
I absolutely would love to have one of Francis Bacon’s paintings in my home. The Hirshhorn owns and displays his painting, Study for Portrait V (1953, oil on canvas, 60 ⅛ x 46 ⅛ in.). My father’s side of the family is Greek Orthodox, so I grew up seeing so many gilded icons, and these had a profound impact on the way I visualize and portray my own portraits. I have always been fascinated by Bacon’s papal imagery, as it seems one-part sacred and another irreverent—a dramatic contradiction that mimics the inner conflicts that I think many of us struggle to reconcile. I believe Bacon masterfully morphed the human form—in a way that many find disturbing, yet that I find quite attractive and engaging. For me, Bacon’s work represents the challenge of continually affirming oneself despite any setbacks. He once said, “The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.” I find a lot of optimism in this statement and in his work.
Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?
When I was really young, I used to go around the neighborhood collecting pieces of wood (stray limbs and sticks that had some weight) and then painting them decoratively with acrylics. Once these masterpieces were finished, I did my best to sell them to the neighbors. I guess you could call it my first foray into the world of art, one that tested both my creative and marketing skills. Those fundamentals remain a part of my life to this day. I don’t know that my wood-painting career was all that lucrative, but it certainly was a lot of fun! I try to maintain this attitude as I pursue my art practice.
If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the show you’d curate or the series of work you’d make.
This summer, I was in the Brooklyn, New York group show WERQ: We’ve Been Doing This Our Whole Lives—one that addressed queer work and labor. I really admire what Executive Director Todd Coulter and his team have created with NOGO Arts, the organization that sponsored it. NOGO Arts promotes and presents work in the LGBTQ+ arts and humanities to explore the diversity of our community and to educate the larger community.
I recently joined STABLE, an organization that fosters an engaged, diverse studio and exhibition environment for artists in Washington, DC. In collaboration with local, national, and international partners, founders Tim Doud, linn meyers, and Caitlin Teal Price created STABLE as a way of strengthening the city’s visual arts community. It also includes affordable, sustainable studio spaces where artists collaborate and develop their own work.
I certainly do have many new series / exhibition themes in my mind, some of which might require a factory to produce! However, for me, the possibility of unlimited funding and time is most interesting when considered alongside the impact of relationships with organizations like these. Ultimately, the goals of my art practice are socially motivated. I know that given boundless resources, I would extend my efforts to affirm the causes I care about.
Do you have a typical day or not right now? Do you wish you had a routine if you don’t or do you thrive on change?
I don’t really have a typical day right now. It all depends upon what studio projects I have underway and what my teaching schedule looks like. I do my best to create ways to make life more reliable while continuing to tackle the unexpected. It seems like I have developed a sense of balance in this regard—and it is important to remind oneself that the other person’s grass is always greener! A good friend told me the other day, as I was fretting that I needed to be more active on social media, that I should remember: “Compare and despair!” As I get older, I am realizing that it is most important to express gratitude for your life on a daily basis, no matter what is going on.
Does your astrological sign match your personality?
OMG, yes! I am a Virgo and being picky and critical can be a real burden, as most Virgos I know typically focus these traits extensively upon themselves! However, these two are assets for artists, as much of your time is spent analyzing your own and others’ creations. Of course, attention to detail can make it very difficult to let anything go. I’ve often had artist friends who tell me, “No one but you is going to notice that, Damon!” My enthusiasm for teaching really fits with the need for interaction and service.
“Velvet Stones,” vintage lavender velvet, thread, and found creek stones, 2018-19. Photo by Damon Arhos.
Is there a show you’ve seen in the last five years that you are still thinking about? Why do you think that is?
Yes, Hilma af Klint’s Paintings for the Future, which I caught earlier this year at the Guggenheim. I purchased the catalog, and look at it all of the time. The 10 works that viewers encountered as they began the exhibition—Group IV, The Ten Largest, clustered together in a single room and produced in a scale that was enveloping— were simply stunning. I was most moved, however, by Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 1—a depiction of a white swan on a black background vs. a black swan on a white background. The two are positioned one below the other yet facing one another so that their beaks touch. I interpret the piece as a visualization of unconditional love, acceptance, and compassion. Alternatively, we’re living in an age when there is so much division and rejection. I felt this dichotomy instantly when I saw the piece and it has helped me further contemplate and adjust my own attitude.
What would your teenage self think of you today?
He would say that I am brave and that I persevere no matter what. As a teenager and as a young adult, I was petrified of myself and of others who would judge me for being gay. Back then, I developed a true self-hatred that was based upon the oppressive, deplorable words and actions of others. Despite many setbacks, I found ways to thrive, mostly by surrounding myself with people who love me as I am. I really admire RuPaul as someone who is himself / herself no matter what, and who consistently offers others positivity. At the end of each RuPaul’s Drag Race episode, RuPaul closes with, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” These are words to live by.
Photos by Suzy Kopf, except where otherwise noted.