Wednesday, May 30, 2007
FRANÇOIS MICHEL BEAUSOLEIL:
Artist Cultivates His Spiritual — And Sexual — Garden
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Photos, top to bottom: François Michel Beausoleil,Beausoleil with his "My Spiritual Garden" painting of San Diego Queer activist "Big Mike" Phillips, Beausoleil with his Mary Magdalene mannequin painting
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Local artist François Michel Beausoleil — who claims to be 43 on his MySpace page but whose boyish features make him look at least 10 years younger — recently exhibited his richly colored, fully realized paintings at two group shows that couldn’t have been more different. One took place at the Rubber Rose erotic store and featured art with sexual themes; there Beausoleil brought some intense male nudes, painted with an eerie combination of machismo and vulnerability, including one striking image of a naked Jesus undergoing crucifixion as a circus act. Shortly thereafter he exhibited at one of Big Tom’s “Artists’ Open Studio” shows at the LGBT Community Center, this time focusing on his religious-themed work and in particular on My Spiritual Garden, a series he’s working on featuring various individuals meditating cross-legged on lotus flowers, a traditional Buddhist image he’s put to some startling new uses in the seven paintings he’s finished so far. He also showed a series of paintings on female mannequins, many of them linking religious, social or cultural figures in unique ways.
Beausoleil’s paintings are characterized by an intense brush style, unusually vivid use of color and especially rich backgrounds, many of them based on places he’s actually seen in his tours around the world. When he isn’t painting he’s working at the manager of the Vagabond Kitchen of the World, a restaurant at 2310 30th Street in the South Park area whose menu is as internationalist and eclectic as Beausoleil’s painting style. Beausoleil’s work can be viewed on his Web site, www.myspace.com/108205287
Zenger’s: Why don’t you start by giving a little of your background?
François Michel Beausoleil: I was born in Montreal, into an extremely multicultural society. I was born Catholic, but my family was not really practicing. They were respectful of the religion, but really open-minded — except for my sister, who was a Jehovah’s Witness. I really experienced the multinationalism of Canada through Montreal. When I was at school I would have friends from all over the world. At some point I went and I traveled the world, mainly the Middle East and Asia.
I’ve been painting since I can remember: painting, drawing or making mock-ups of architectural buildings, spaceships, a lot of things. Even while traveling I would always find time to do something. When I was bored on the beach in Saudi Arabia with nothing to do, I started doing bead necklaces. After a while I got everybody to do them. In Asia, I did photography.
At some point I ended up in Southern California, and that’s when I got more involved with painting than any other form of art. Through all those trips I developed my sense of colors. I love colors. I think that especially came from the Middle East, because stuck inside Saudi Arabia for so long — not in the military, in the private airline business — everything is beige, white and black. When I came out of the Middle East, I really bloomed into a colorist. I really love colors. That’s when I decided no longer to do skin tones in beige and brown, but do them in colors instead. I think the diversity in my paintings shows my traveling.
Zenger’s: So with the background of a multicultural city like Montreal, and your worldwide travels, how did you end up in San Diego?
Beausoleil: I came here to visit some family and friends, and then going back to the lonely Middle East didn’t feel that good, so I stayed here.
Zenger’s: I’ve seen your work in two shows that were quite different selections of your pieces: the one at the Rubber Rose emphasizing the erotic, and the one at the Center emphasizing your spiritual series. Do they intertwine with you, or are they really just two separate sides of your personality?
Beausoleil: My major subject is humanity, being human, the human experience, basically. That means to be in the real world. That doesn’t mean that the spiritual world is not real, but it’s a different world. Those two worlds are the two facets of the same reality. Actually there are three facets; there’s the intellect as well, and that shows in my social/political painting.
I’m exploring the three facets of being a human being and trying to bring it to the world, because I don’t think that you should be ashamed of being spiritual and I don’t think that you should be ashamed of being a human being. And part of being a human is sexuality. It’s eating. It’s a lot of things. So for me they are really complete in each other.
For me, too, it’s the freedom of being a human. That’s why I don’t believe in religion. I’m more spiritual. I think you have to go inside of yourself to discover all these things, and you should not count on anybody else’s experience. You have to live your own experience, whether it is about eroticism or about spirituality. For me, being independent and being my own self is really important. Some people think I’m Buddhist, but I’m not Buddhist. Others think I’m Catholic. No, I’m not. I’m just me.
Zenger’s: On your MySpace homepage, you mentioned Buddhism and Shintoism. I wondered how you discovered Eastern religious traditions, and what significance they’ve had for you.
Beausoleil: I’ve always been aware of them, even as a kid. But I don’t know why. Actually, Egypt was my big thing when I was a young kid. I discovered different religions through studying art history, because at one point in history all art was religious. Through studying the art of various religions, I learned about their symbolism, and through my travels I’ve been to the temples, I’ve visited a lot of sites, and they’re all related.
I chose this symbolism of Buddhism in my spiritual artwork, especially the lotus and the Buddha, because for me it is a more positive symbol of enlightenment than being nailed on a cross. Both symbols are actually at the same level of the same idea, but when you’re nailed to a cross it’s because somebody else has put you there, whereas with the lotus, it’s beautiful and it’s your own choice.
Zenger’s: One of the paintings of yours that most impressed me was the picture of the crucifixion as a circus act. What was the inspiration for that?
Beausoleil: All the TV shows and all the Christian shows, and just the fact that people read the Bible and push on me only what they want out of it. It’s like freedom: everybody is equal and free, or nobody is equal and free. You cannot take some passages of the Bible and say, “That’s what it’s supposed to be,” and forget all the others. It’s either the whole or nothing. That’s why I find the whole thing about believing in Jesus has become such a circus. It’s not so different from the beginning of Christianity during the Roman Empire. We’re actually going through the same turmoil.
Zenger’s: I noticed just by looking at your bookshelf that you have copies of the Bible and the Koran in French. How much have you read in those books, and how has it affected you?
Beausoleil: I read a lot, but the Koran is kind of tough to read — even in French, in my own language — because it’s all in poetry, and so it’s not as interesting as a story. But what is interesting is that when you read both, you realize that two different people talking about the same story, but with different angles. You even have some people appearing in one book that are not in the other, so if you only read one, you don’t get the entire story. I’ve found I still have to read the Torah to get the entire story, though!
Zenger’s: As I understand it, the Torah is simply the first five books of the Old Testament in the original Hebrew, and the rest of the Old Testament is a history of the Jewish people in ancient times.
Beausoleil: Yes, but even in the Bible that part has not been translated totally the same. The King James Bible actually, omitted the fact that God in Hebrew is actually plural and gender-neutral. In the Bible it’s been translated as masculine and single. There’s a lot of translation from the Torah to the Bible where you lose some of the fineness of the Torah.
But I’ve not only read those books; I’ve also been reading through some archaeological findings about the Torah and some of the other books as well. We’re beginning to discover that we always said that we’re the only religion with only one god, but at the beginning there were two in the Torah. There was a God and his wife.
Reading the books is important not because I’m religious, but because I don’t want to be one of those people talking about a book without ever having read it. They talk about it from what others have told them. And for me, those people are irrelevant. You have to make your own experience. Again, that’s my point. It has to be from you, not from others.
I also have the Book of the Dead from Tibet, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Mahabarata. I’ve got books from Asian religions as well. I don’t know everything about it, but I have the Apocrypha, the books that were not put into the Bible, because that gives you a bigger idea of everything that was going on. I even have Mao Zedong in French. It’s interesting.
Zenger’s: So how does all of this affect you as an artist? How does it channel through in your work?
Beausoleil: It makes it more rich, in a way, because the more experience you have, the more you can express on the canvas. It seems to be simple when it looks at the pieces, but I want to express real diversity. Especially in my lotus/spiritual pieces, it’s more about the diversity and how everything is inside of you. It’s for everybody. Everybody can attain enlightenment, or at least attain a certain level of spirituality. And the world is for everybody. I guess I’m speaking like a true Canadian, a Social Democrat! Everybody should have his own space.
Zenger’s: Although in the last elections, both Canada and France chose leaders who seem, at least from here, very much like Bush.
Beausoleil: Actually, they didn’t choose them. They did not choose the opponent. That’s what happened. Especially in Canada, s that was mainly the fact that they were not happy with the previous government so they chose the other guy. And the same thing in France.
France is not as homogeneous as it seems to be. Outside of Paris, France is more prejudiced. Why are the Muslims in Europe revolting more and more? Because they cannot find jobs. They’ve been there for generations, and they still have a hard time making it economically. There’s a lot of bad things about America, but in the job market everybody is integrated here. That’s why I think it’s more peaceful here than in Europe.
Zenger’s: One thing that struck me is you said you lived for a while in Saudi Arabia, which I understand is a very fundamentalist Muslim society and very anti-art.
Beausoleil: That’s why I had to do bead necklaces!
Zenger’s: I was wondering how long you were there, and how you managed to survive in such a repressive society.
Beausoleil: I was there for intervals of three months at a time for three years. I don’t know how long in total, but I was there for quite a long time. It became more of an internal search, since there was no outlet for the external. It’s the desert, you’re not allowed to drink, no movies. Everything that is social is basically illegal. Everything that is fun is illegal. So you really do a lot of soul-searching, because you don’t have anything else to do, and it really pushes you to go inside of you. That’s why I think thousands of years ago that was one of the spiritual centers of the planet, before the Prophet took over. That flatness, that weather that is constant through the year, and that stillness of everything, it really makes you go inside. It’s like the winter, even though it’s the opposite — it’s really warm.
Zenger’s: One thing I’ve noticed that is different in your work from a lot of other artists is your backgrounds are very rich. You’re not just interested in putting a figure or two against a very plain backdrop. You really pay a lot of attention to detail in the backgrounds as well as the foregrounds. Why is that?
Beausoleil: I don’t know. I’ve always been like that, since I can remember. Because everything is important. After you’ve done bodies and people, it becomes repetitive, so the background is another challenge.
Zenger’s: I was wondering if that was a physical reflection in your work of where you feel people belong, where they come from.
Beausoleil: I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it. But for me it’s just as important, because the way I paint is the objects surrounding them are a reflection of the people, so yes, they are as important as the people. Like if I put a melting ice cube in some painting, that was a comment about not signing the Kyoto Agreement. If I put in a gun, that’s a comment about violence and about the person who’s the subject of the painting. That’s to give another sense of diversity as well. For me diversity, in many ways, is one of the most important things, and the most amazing thing about us in the universe.
Zenger’s: One thing, living in San Diego, a lot of the diversity here lies in it being a border city, being right next to Mexico, at a time when the immigration issue is being very hotly debated and contested in the political world. I was wondering if you’d done any artwork influenced by our proximity to Mexico and the whole question of immigration, the culture clash and what our two cultures might be able to learn from each other and derive from each other in a positive way.
Beausoleil: I’ve been talking about both cultures without really talking about the problem of immigration. I’ve been talking about machismo in Mexico in one painting. I’ve been including people from all the different cultures, but not really in the context of immigration. It’s not that that’s not a concern, but I have a mind that is open to everybody, and I’m sure that at some point in our history those borders will disappear. It’s just a matter of time.
The problem with the immigration issue is that both sides are kind of right. The ones against it are right in that they did something wrong, they broke the law. And the other side says that’s true, but there’s another law, the law of humanity, of economy and of survival. So they’re both right. We just have to decide what’s more important.
Zenger’s: Why don’t you tell me about the “My Spiritual Garden” series?
Beausoleil: It’s a series about illumination. Illumination is a big word, but for me it starts by awakening to the perception that we’re all linked to each other, to our environment and to the universe; that we are bigger as a whole than we are individually; and that the only way to achieve it is through helping each other. That’s actually how people start to awaken to it, and I want to show that it is for everybody: every race, people from every religion.
It’s what equalizes us. It’s when you get to that point of spirituality that you understand that everything that is facing you is a reflection of you as well. That’s why I choose the Buddha on the lotus: because that’s the best, most positive image of illumination. I like the idea of spirituality being like a flower that is opening. But I still say that we have to acknowledge that we live in the real world, and the laws of the real world are science. We can change the real world, but only as a group, not as a person. Actually we can as a person, but we have to reach the group to change things.
So I’m painting different people that show their love for the planet and for humanity in different ways. I’ve got a boy who is a vegan, and my point is not to tell everybody to be vegan. That’s his way. That’s how diversity applies. There are so many ways to be enlightened, and everybody has their own way. My way is to paint about it. The way of others is to give money to charity as part of what they do. I want to do people of every level. I would be interested at some point in doing some celebrities, to show people from up the scale to down the scale as well.
Zenger’s: How many paintings have you done so far in the series, and how many do you plan to do before you consider it finished?
Beausoleil: I’ve got seven done, and I’m thinking to do 33. But as the project goes further I may make up my mind to do more. It’s just that I want all of them to be all in one room so that it really, really looks like a garden. The imagery is about the lotus coming out of the murky water, which is reality. We’re kind of blind to our own reality, and this flower of spirituality is moving up, away from that, and has a better view of everything, of both realities. It’s basically all about love.
I want to show as well that Gay people are as involved with the world and with doing good things as other people. One of my subjects is a guy who works for the Gay & Lesbian Center in L.A. and does those shows to raise funds to help kids that are on the street. I’ve got this boy, who is a Buddhist, even though he’s Gay; that’s his path to try to be better towards other people, and the universe. This one is vegan and he’s Gay as well. This one is a Muslim, but he always has an open heart for everybody. There’s Big Mike here, who has been doing Ordinary Miracles and gets millions of dollars to help Gay children who have been thrown out of their homes.
We are as involved as other groups in society. It’s just that we’re involved without being religious. And I think that we should not be involved through religion, because then we’re just pushing one point of view.
Zenger’s: Also, how did the mannequin paintings come about?
Beausoleil: First of all it’s a woman. It’s the body of a woman because for me, the woman is the beginning of everything; of creation, anyway. On that woman’s body I talk about different characters of Christianity, but archetypal characters. I show, too, around the body how to relate to other symbols, other religions, other societies and other people. I’ve got Mary Magdalene, who’s one of my favorites. I connect her with many different symbols and two people in history: with Ashura, who used to be the wife of God in the Torah, in the beginning when the Torah was first done, before they decided to destroy her the same way they destroyed the story of Mary Magdalene; and Hypatia, who came after Christ. She was a scholar in Alexandria who was extremely famous, had a lot of knowledge of philosophy and mathematics, and was the first woman to invent some mathematical theorem. But she was hated by the Christians, who destroyed her because she was a woman and it was not the place for a woman. So those were three women who were really spiritual, and were destroyed because they were women.
I’ve got Jesus as the same story, in a way, as Bacchus, Quetzalcoatl, the Buddha and Kwan-Yin. They’re all similar people. I’m just showing that all those stories have been told around the planet in different cultures. I think it’s just an echo that before history, when we were — before we could write, when humanity was nearer nature, since everything was derived from our experience with nature, that’s how all the stories came out at that time, maybe 10,000 years ago, because it was the same experience humanity had with the environment when they made all those stories. And they kept it up until today in different ways.
That’s why for me, in a way, shamanism is a really important thing to discover, because it gives us the key of the way we were thinking before we could even write or were grouped in societies. It was our first awakening to a certain spirituality, through the observation of nature. I think that’s really the key to why our culture is what it is.
I would like to get my show My Spiritual Garden in a museum or in a gallery. I’m looking for sponsors. I’m supposed to have a meeting with a curator in the next month. And I want to propose them my project, even though it’s not finished. I’m getting ready to go take some pictures of a couple of famous people in Canada and England. In Canada I’m going to take a picture of Alanis Obomsawim. She’s a producer for the National Film Board of Canada’s Indian side, and she actually won a lot of awards of L.A. and Europe for her movies. And she always gives a part of her receipts to help different tribes in Canada. So she’s going to be in one of my next ones.
I’m going in London next fall to take a picture of a Lesbian comedian, Zoë Lyons, in London. She’s really, really cool. She just did a spoof of Cherie Blair, the wife of the Prime Minister of England, and she looks so much like her. She’s so good. At first, I thought she was the wife of Blair, but she’s not. She totally looks like the wife of Blair! I’ve been sending e-mails to a lot of people in London to see if they want to pose as well.