This is a very special night for me. I’m co-authoring this particular page, together with Shelley Dunn, a young artist from the greater Memphis, TN area. I could write volumes about how much she has helped me in my visual and style transition, but this isn’t what I’m focused on today. Shelley’s most famous painting, featured on the news, even, is named “Be Free.” She has graciously consented to make it available for viewing on this website.
The journey of a transgender girl often begins in a dark and scary fog. She is aware that her mind makes her different from boys, and yet the mirror initially shows an image that looks like a boy. She often feels confused and alone, scared and with good reason. Those who become aware of her situation, whether by observation or by being taken into her confidence, often react in ways that make her situation far worse yet. Her own struggle to find the truth about what’s going on is hard enough even with friendly supportive people who trust her to know what’s going on in her own mind, and who accept her and love her whether she’s transgender or not. Few transgender girls have such a positive environment. Instead, we are isolated, ridiculed, and worse — often we become the victims of physical abuse, on top of emotional abuse. Yet, all we each are, is simply a girl in a very scary situation. A painting of this would show the negatives as a dark and scary fog, writhing out of a corner and attempting to trap and keep the girl in this horrible state.
Our heroine in the story, and in the painting, is the girl who rises up out of the fog, defiantly and proudly. Her face is already turned towards the light that represents the truth about who she fundamentally is, and her body is poised to follow in the next moment, as she turns towards the light, to move fully into its warm glow and the new comforting vision that it provides. By now, only the lower parts of her legs are still in the fog, and she’s about to break completely free. Her attitude and poise convey a joyous rebellion.
The perfect symbolism for this rebellion would be the flying splinters of the chains that she has just shattered. They are still in mid-air, now reduced to golden-colored remnants of that which held her back until so very recently — the shackles are not just off, but destroyed. All that remains of them are little bits and pieces that have no power to hurt or hold.
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The model, as well as the artist, is Shelley Dunn. She represents the girl in all of us who reaches the moment in which she breaks free. Shelley’s painting is the perfect depiction for transgender girls, but she didn’t create the painting with that specific agenda. She was herself rising above things in her own past that had held her back. This painting is about her escape to freedom — and mine, and that of every girl who chooses to rise to freedom.
I have a curious sense of foreboding. This work of art is the painting equivalent of the Statue of Liberty. It might well become the symbol for freedom for many or most of the three-and-a-half billion women on the planet, who understand this struggle only too well, each in her own way. And yet, in the same way as Lady Liberty transcends gender, so does Shelley’s painting, and it can inspire a rise to overcome by all who see it. Certainly the Mona Lisa is a magnificent work of art, and yet … in my opinion, Shelley’s painting is in that category where, perhaps, in 2513, a child is standing in front of that painting in the world’s leading art museum. Her mom notices, and says “Oh, yes! Shelley Dunn,” and then explains the symbolism: the dark, almost-alive fog in the bottom left corner; the gold-leaf objects in mid-air and what they represent; the light; the motion … and the meaning, and how that painting has inspired freedom for the last five centuries.
To quote Shelley verbatim: “Breaking free of the arbitrary rules of acceptable behavior that for years enslaved me/you/us.”
Thank you, Shelley, for having become this golden light for me, and others like me.