Thursday, June 05, 2014

Transgender artist Justin Tanis speaks about the artist's experience and the religious experience...he of Graduate Theological Union

Justin Tanis (left) greets Religion Writer Peter Menkin
at Pacific School of Religion 30 May, 2014
 by Peter Menkin
Both teacher and artist, Justin Tanis is a man who was once a woman. That is he is a transgender man. Or rather, a public transgender man who here will speak of the religious and artistic experience. He is doing this by writing his response to three questions posed to him in Word, in writing. He responds in a manner emphasizing the social action side of the religious experience as it enters the political realm. This seems in line with the tastes and general viewpoint of Pacific School of Religion and even San Francisco Bay Area’s sense of religious experience as expressed in their world. Homosexuality is a widely popular theme in the San Francisco Bay Area and Justin mirror’s its popularity in his statement.

It seems to him unnecessary to mention he is transgender for this piece since it deals with the artistic experience, but this Religion Writer believes that his is a public stance as transgender and so as it is a necessary component of his public persona and purpose it is mentioned here with verve, by quoting from this statement from his official biography published by Berkeley, California’s Graduate Theological Union. Dr. Justin Tanis teaches at the Pacific School of Religion, part of The Graduate Theological Union located in San Francisco’s Bay Area in Northern California. The Statement:

Justin earned his M.Div. degree at Harvard Divinity School and his Doctor of Ministry degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary. His dissertation was published in 2003 by Pilgrim Press as Transgendered: Ministry, Theology, and Communities of Faith and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award that year. That book was also the first in the CLGS book series. He has also contributed chapters to the Queer Bible Commentary and Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible. An artist and photographer, Justin has had a lifelong passion for the arts. His scholarly interests include the theology expressed by LGBT visual artists, which is the focus of his PhD studies here at the GTU.

Justin has served congregations in Boston, Honolulu, and San Francisco and spent nine years as a denominational executive, coordinating leadership and educational programs in twenty-two countries. He has brings with him a long history with grassroots activism, including ACT-UP and Queer Nation in the 1980s and serving as spokesperson and media coordinator for the Hawai’i Equal Rights Marriage Project in the 1990s. Justin’s work also includes advocacy for LGBT rights in national non-profit organizations. He was the Community Education and Outreach Manager at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in Washington, D.C. and later served as the Director of Communication for Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, based in San Francisco, which advocates for equal employment rights for LGBT people.


Dr. Tanis is an Ordained Minister in Metropolitan Community Church, Los Angeles, that serves Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Persons. He tells this reporter by email (subsequently) that this is no longer the case, he is not ordained any longer, but gives no reason for his loss. For the past years he has been attending the Unitarian-Universalist Church as a Lay Person. So he tells this Religion Writer.

Justin can be reached at this email address:






1.     Will you go into detail on your sense of the artistic experience and whether it is a religious experience solely when you are at work on a work of art? What medium as artist do you work in? Is the artistic experience the same as the religious experience?

Art contains possibilities that can awaken us to new insights, perspectives and emotions, just as religion contains that possibility. We can have these experiences when we are looking at art—whether we gazing at something which is sublimely beautiful or being challenged—or when we create it. The art work doesn’t have to be explicitly religious to do arouse spiritual emotions or thoughts in us. I think about Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica, which shows the horrors of war. One reason I’m drawn to it is that it connects with my religious convictions about the importance of working for peace as a person of faith. It troubles me, as it was created to do, and that can motivate me to take further actions to end violence in our world.

Art can also show us the sublime, the intensely beautiful or intimate and re-connect us with the Divine, with the earth, or with other people. It gives us a glimpse through artist’s eyes of what is so sacred or valuable to them that they have invested their energy and time to create these works. Art can expand our understanding of humanity and the world we share. Religions at their best, I believe, help us to increase our compassion and commitment to the common good. They show us how to treat one another as we long to be treated—art can give us greater understanding of how others see the world and how they live, love, and move and are.

As an artist, I work in photography and drawing. Both of these media allow me to take details of our world, often things that other people may pass by without seeing, and bring them into view. I love things like architectural details, like crazy carvings on a building, or the pattern of a series of windows. I’m fascinated with how humans interact with animals, both real animals and the images we make of them. And I love landscapes, going for a hike and just taking pictures.

When I’m working on a drawing or finding the right angle for a shot, I find myself in a very present place, not really thinking about the world around me but very focused on one thing. It is a spiritual practice that reminds me to be fully present and to be looking out for the wondrous and miraculous around me. I think the artistic experience is a type of religious experience, with possibilities for increasing our sense of wonder, of faith, of compassion, deepening our spiritual lives.

We can also think about applying the ideas of art to our faith. The great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel replied to an interviewer’s question about what advice he would give to young people and he replied, “… remember that the meaning of life is to live your life as if it were a work of art.” I first heard that quote years ago and it has always stayed with me. It adds such depth to our lives if we think of them as something to be formed and crafted. Our spiritual lives benefit from our creativity, skill, and attention, from our work to make them as beautiful and reverential and powerful as a masterpiece of art.


2.     Will you discuss some of your art and tell us a little of your background. You were speaking of the non-academically trained artistic sensibility? That is telling me about the untrained theologian who is artist who has something to say as artist? Talk more on this subject.

My current academic work focuses on the intersections of art, religion, and identity, specifically gender and sexual identity. I am looking at the works of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
Peter Menkin, Religion Writer (left) with transgender
artist and teacher Justin Tanis.
Peter Menkin, Obl Cam OSB, is shown carrying
his iPod and notebook. He wrote and conducted
the interview with Dr. Tanis by email. Answers
were given in writing. Note at the end of this
piece there is a video about art featuring
Dr. Tanis at Graduate Theological Union.
Picture by Terry Peck, photographer and
architect. A team of three came to the
campus of Pacific School of Religion for the
photo shoot on an overcast day, 30 May, 2014.
(LGBT) artists and considering what we can learn about theology and identity from their art. In art history, there is a term for “outsider artists,” those who have learned their techniques outside of the academy or have not received artistic training in a conventional sense. In the same way, I see these LGBT artists as “outsider theologians,” meaning they have not studied religion in universities or theology at a seminary and yet they have embedded original theological ideas in their work. I’m interested in discovering what those ideas are and how they can impact our understanding of theology.

For example, David Wojnarowicz was a self-trained artist who worked from the late 1970s until his death from AIDS in 1992. One of his collages, called Untitled (Genet), depicts the French author Jean Genet as a saint in the center foreground of the image. In the background, we see an altar with an image of the suffering Christ. He wears a crown of thorns but also has a hypodermic needle in his arm and a tourniquet, as if he were shooting drugs. As you can imagine, this was very shocking to some traditional Christians and they used it to condemn Wojnarowicz’s work. But they misunderstood or never bothered to find out what the image actually meant and was intended to convey, and that was very different. 

Wojnarowicz sued the American Family Association (and won) for their use of his images out of context. During the trial he answered questions about his motivation for creating this image of Christ. He testified,

I thought about what I had been taught about Jesus Christ when I was young and how he took on the suffering of all people in the world, and I wanted to create a modern image that, if he were alive before me at that time in 1979 when I made this, if he were physically alive before me in the streets of the Lower East Side, I wanted to make a model that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets[1].

In this way, Wojnarowicz was very much in keeping with classical images of the suffering Christ. He drew upon long established and respected Christian aesthetic traditions to explore the pain and alienation experienced by people in his own day and age.  To me, that is a profoundly theological statement. This isn’t a blasphemous image; it is one that takes Christ’s connection with humanity very seriously. The religious life isn’t always pretty. Images like this can be important to our growth as people of faith because they challenge us to look around us and see where there is suffering and to consider the question of how Jesus would interact with that suffering. The church could benefit, too, by considering how people who are outside of religious institutions are engaging the image and life of Jesus to convey ideas like compassion, as Wojnarowicz does. Art lets us literally see their understandings of Christ, and sometimes that vision is more expansive than that of the churches.

As far as my art goes, I studied graphic design at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and multimedia design at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Drawing I’ve learned through private instruction from a wonderful teacher here in Berkeley, Susan McAllister.


3.     Talk to us some about your work at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California that you do as teacher with Faculty at the Center for Art Religion and Education.

Pacific School of Religion, photographed by Terry Peck
(as are all pictures on this page). This visit by Peter Menkin
and Terry Peck was on an overcast day in May, 2014 at the end
of the month. PSR is part of the Graduate
Theological Union, located on "holy hill" adjacent
to University of California at Berkeley, California.
Peter Menkin's assistant Linda accompanied the two.

I am on the faculty of the Center for Art, Religion, and Education; last semester I taught a course on the Art of Holy Places, in which we considered how people around the world have designated and decorated sacred sites. Through the use of technology, we were able to visit places around the world. Next Spring, I am teaching a course on the spirituality and art of the Arts & Crafts movement, which was a late 19th – early 20th century artistic movement that focused on conveying values of simplicity, beauty, and nature through art. The movement arose in response to the intense mechanization of the Industrial Revolution and I do think that part of the revival of interest in the Arts & Crafts movement stems from our desire to reconnect with those same values in the midst of the speed created by the digital revolution.

I also teach at Pacific School of Religion and am offering a course this fall on Sexuality in Sacred Art, which looks at the ways sexuality as a life force occurs in various faith traditions. The earliest art we know of is related to fertility and abundance, the sustenance of life, and that theme continues through many religions and many eras. Including Christian art. For example, St. Sebastian was a pretty standard Roman soldier saint in his early depictions. When he became known as a protector against the Black Plague, his image transformed over time into a handsome young man with a fair amount of sex appeal. This was in keeping with the idea that gazing on a healthy person, or an image of one, conveyed that vitality to the viewer and his sexuality was part of his vigor. In fact, for someone just shot with a bunch of arrows as the emperor attempted to execute him, he looks quite well by the time we get to the Renaissance, hardly bothered by the arrows at all. His lips are full and red, and he rarely wears more than the minimum of clothing. He inspires us with his vitality, both of his faith and the intensity of his humanness. Sexuality and spirituality are both aspects of looking holistically at human lives.

Teaching art history and art practice at a seminary is incredibly rewarding. Part of what we do is encouraging students to read the images theologically. How is the artist depicting the holy in this painting? Where is God in this image? Sometimes art lets us see the invisible, the unseen. Art can show us Divine attributes in visible form, can express the ineffable. We can consider why an artist shows some things and not others. I also have classes where students can create works of art, which provides them with a different avenue of theological and spiritual expression than they may
be used to. It challenges us to use our  creativity in theology and can free up other ways of thinking and understanding the world.





[1] From the transcript of Wojnarowicz  vs. American Family Association as recorded in David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side (Semiotext(e), 2006), p. 217.

See the Holy: Spirituality in the Art of David Wojnarowicz from CLGS on Vimeo.

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