At the request of some friends and relatives I’ve changed all the names in this delicate story. George and I exhibited in the same gallery in a provincial town. Coming and going, we met on occasion, and once at a party we discussed the progression of style and how other people appropriated ours. A sensitive, idealistic, intense guy, George could do anything — portraits, still-lifes, ships, abstracts. He was very creative. I think George was the most popular artist in that gallery, perhaps also because his wife, Megan, worked there.
One afternoon at home Megan received a phone call from the family doctor. He told her that George had just been in and asked if it was possible for him to become a female. The doctor wanted to know if Megan knew anything about the situation, and, after five years of marriage, if she was concerned. As this was all fresh news to Megan, she packed up George’s stuff and when he returned home that night he was encouraged to check out.
George moved to the other side of the country — to Toronto. A year later, Linda returned to the provincial town. That’s when things got interesting. Linda was smooth, attractive, and except for her lovely coiffure, apparently quite hairless. She continued in the same successful footsteps as George, barely modifying his style. Sales even picked up, as Megan, now married to someone else, kept on selling George/Linda’s paintings. Everyone was confused. Only the signature was different. Linda even continued with George’s hobbies of boatbuilding and astronomy. Linda preferred women to men. She tackled murals and other ambitious projects. Last week we received the sad news that Linda had died.
Apart from the possible economic angle, which in the George/Linda case is unlikely, it looks like styles and learned processes become hardwired in the human psyche and may be difficult to reprogram. Even a catastrophic event may not send style packing. In short, you may be able to change your mind about a lot of things but not how you make art. This is worrisome and may explain why some artists have trouble growing, developing or modifying. On the other hand, the condition describes the core nature of creativity — how strong, how ingrained, how wonderful. George and Linda were marvelously flexible in life, while their art was imaginative and inspired as well as persistent and stubborn.
PS: “The finest people marry the two sexes in their own person.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Esoterica: Particularly at jury-duty time, friends and I have often speculated on whether a painting was done by a man or a woman. These days, the whole gender thing is a minefield. “Masculine strokes” are everywhere, and lots of them are made by women. More to the point, delicate embroidery is being done by guys. It’s a mug’s game. I don’t go there anymore. Especially after knowing both George and Linda.
by Dennis Alter, Philadelphia, PA, USA
We each have many people inside us, don’t we? I take comfort in knowing that Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive during daylight hours and a sublime poet after work. Some of us can live both of our lives simultaneously and others must choose. It’s more heroic to choose.
by Julie Duschack, WI, USA
This was a really interesting letter, but perhaps Linda’s style, hobbies and subject matter didn’t change because she was completely happy with those? I will admit that with such a life altering event I would assume that you’d see some radical changes in her art, but perhaps that was the one area that she felt completely herself and no change was necessary. I understand that you’ve withheld the names because of the family’s wishes but I really would like to read more or see her art.
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by David Millard, Bothell, WA, USA
Robert, I’d be curious to know how long Linda produced work before passing away, and whether there was a different response from his(her) marketplace and critics. Did gender perception affect the marketability of her(his) work? It would be interesting to know.
(RG Note) Thanks, David. You can actually read her story here. She was a woman for about 28 years, but many of the last ten were not kind because of her advancing Alzheimer’s. Further, she was one of those vital, busy people who loved a life of variety, so my feeling is that she was distracted from her painting for much of that time. Her work continued to be collected when she cared to make it. She died at age 68.
Old gender game
by Paul Carlson, Denver, CO, USA
I always enjoy your essays and find them full of interesting ideas. But the essay on George and Linda puzzles me. Why would you expect a change in artistic style just because George had a change of sex? For that he would need a brain transplant. The parts of G’s brain that were involved in his/her sexual identity were surely different than those involved in his/her artistic inclinations. When Walter became Wendy Carlos she continued on the same artistic path. In effect, George was always Linda. Walter was always Wendy. Outward appearance changed, and surely it was dramatic, but the interior life had not changed. Now it was congruent where before it was not.
As to the point about women’s artistic style vs. men’s artistic style, this is an old game and I’m glad you dropped it. I happen to be a pianist, though that isn’t how I make a living. Many years ago, decades now, it was possible to argue whether or not a person could tell from a recording if the performer was male or female. It was pure sexism and humorous sexism at that. And of course you can’t tell; it’s a matter of interpretation/choice in relation to the music at hand. So with visual art. But for anyone who harbors such ideas, your essay is a good lesson. Thanks for what you do.
Both sides now
by Marianne Wunderli, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
When I was just a very little girl, I wanted so badly to have been born a boy (so I could beat up my big brother). So I became a “Tom-boy” instead. As a teenager I joined the Academy and enjoyed drawing the human form — especially females — mostly rather rubenesque with all the wonderful hills and valleys.
Yet I married a male but for the wrong reasons. I gave birth to three wonderful — yes, you guessed it — girls, and after 25 years of being a wife, I left my “job” and enrolled in a prestigious academy in a foreign country, and resumed my love for drawing and painting.
What I wanted to say — that within every human being lies the genes for either sex. Most people lean either to what they were brought up to be, doing what is expected of them; or the imbalance of hormones drives them to rebellion and frustration. No wonder some go to the extreme of actually have their physical sex changed! Some compromise and become “bi-sexual.” Most of these people have become great artists, musicians, actors and politicians, because they have the advantage to see a problem from both sides, have the generosity to be kind and gentle to both sexes.
I am glad to know that Megan had enough love for George to accept him in either gender and remain friends. Was it Walter Whitman who said, “There is more love in friendship, than there is friendship in love!”
Finding your voice
by Carl Nelson, Seattle, WA, USA
Your recent post reminded me of a quote I’d recently read in the Writer’s Chronicle by poet/teacher Jon Anderson: “Don’t you understand that when you find your voice you’re stuck with it?” Nothing brings this home to me like listening to Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan until I tire of them. I move on; they can’t.
Deliberate style change
by Marge Drew, Ormond Beach, FL, USA
Only thing George changed was his sexual identity to become Linda. There would be no reason ever to think that the brain had changed. George after all was always Linda.
George had just changed in physical gender organ ways to Linda… well he was really Linda all along the way; born a George, raised a George but Linda and her brain was trapped inside of him. George always painted as Linda. It was recognition of who George really and truly always was. No changes were made in the thinking; so there would be no change in style. Not even sure how there could be a change unless Linda decided to go into a different style direction and deliberately worked on a style change. Her style that she developed as George was selling and the need for income was still the same as Linda.
I do have a local female friend who decided deliberately to change her style and actually has done just that with success! A change from realism plein air painting to very strong stylized abstract works of art. The difference between her and George/Linda is that my friend wanted to change her STYLE of painting and deliberately set out to do that. For her to set aside all that she was doing had she decided to change her sexual identity at the same time nobody would have known that she was the same artist.
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Grateful for insights
by Judith Demaestri, Taylors, SC, USA
I just need to express my gratitude for the wisdom you choose to share with me every week. I hope you understand this. At this time and space in my life, you are not the priority (maybe you should be but that does not make it so). In my life, as I am struggling very hard just to endure, the same as many humans are doing, this inhumane way of life. Your insights have a way of penetrating through the dense lava and causing it to flair into flame.
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From the sex change capital
by Kathleen Kelly, Trinidad, CO, USA
No big deal to us artists (over 160 of us) who live in and around Trinidad, Colorado, the sex change capital of the world! It’s common to see tranies or changers in our local gallery and around town. Why would the art change just because some fleshy parts were rearranged? Dr. Marci Bowers (previously known as Mark) who was Dr. Biber’s patient is now the local sex change/ob/gyn in Trinidad. Dr. Biber, now deceased, was THE pioneer in sex change operations and trained Dr. Bowers in the procedure. Changers BUY art in a big way. Marci is a delightful diva and loves to dance with my husband. We just take it all in stride.
Cross dressers and transgenders
I am a genetic female heterosexual artist who is married to a male, heterosexual trangender artist. Social scientists still do not have good stats on the percentage of trans people among us. It is an enormously complex subject but one I am qualified to comment on from my educational, professional, and personal background. I am also an art instructor.
I know dozens if not hundreds of transgendered individuals. They are the same person in terms of their personality in either girl mode or boy mode (or sometimes something in between.) The variable factor is gender but core interests, including painting style remain constant. They have the same chance at improving or not improving as the rest of us. The gender path throughout their lives can be so fraught with difficulty that they are distracted from other important developmental tasks, but essentially transgender individuals are more or less endowed with natural talent as the rest of us. They will improve or not improve just as the rest of us change over time for a myriad of reasons.
Many people who are transgender are called cross dressers. They do not seek permanent gender reassignment with surgery. This person is usually a heterosexual male who is neither gay, nor a drag queen performer. He is genuinely transgender and identifies as female part time. This is not optional behavior for them but a specific condition. Cross dressers are by far the most closeted of all gender minorities. He often is forced to be secretive with almost everyone but his closest transgender friends. It is a lonely place to be.
Transexuals are probably better understood in our society. They may be male to female or female to male. This person often but not always seeks gender reassignment and chooses to live full time as their chosen gender. They may or may not be heterosexual. Sexual orientation and gender identity are separate issues and are better understood when considered separately.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Marjorie Tressler of Waynesboro, PA, USA, who wrote, “I just checked my calendar and it is the end of April, not the 1st. Are you serious!?!?!?! ….Strange.”
And also Rene Roustan, who wrote, “Robert Genn, you are indeed wonderful! How tastefully you handle so much of real life, and how much you can teach in a page of your script.”
And also Linda Bean of Bothell, AL, USA, who wrote, “Imagine my amused surprise at seeing this letter title in my email box. I am Linda and George is my husband. The only similarity is that we are ‘marvelously flexible in life.’ ”
And also Carmen Beecher, who wrote, “This is the strangest post you’ve ever done, and completely fascinating!”
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