Our monthly “Quick Chats” with SAGE participants offer a first-person perspective on our community. This month, we spoke with Rubin Gonzalez, a 59-year-old artist whose wide-ranging interests include sculpture, jewelry-making and painting. Despite his struggle with cancer, Rubin is staying active. Recently, his work has been on view at the Casa Frela Gallery in Harlem, and was included as part of the Harlem Art Walking Tour.
I was hoping to get help with computer skills, and I met Reyno Francisco [a SAGE social worker] and he was a helpful and very positive person. I like people who express an emotional connection to their job—he did that. Then Tom Weber [SAGE’s Director of Care Management] contacted Lawrence Rodriguez, who owns the Casa Frela Gallery, and he wanted six pieces of my art!
That’s fantastic! When did you start making art?
My art comes from poverty. I was ten when my dad died, and I was one of ten kids. I didn’t have toys, so I said ‘let me make my own.’ I carved an elephant out of soap in grade school, and the teachers at my school started buying them. So I said ‘ooh I can make money doing this!’
My brothers used to tease me and call me ‘big head’ and ‘martian’, etc. But then I realized I have something they didn’t have. My artistic skills got me noticed. So I kept pursuing it.
You’ve done many different kinds of art, is that right?
Yes, I’ve done sculpture and painting and I’ve cut glass and cast silver. I’ve also done upholstery, made my own clothes, jewelry, and leather bags. My teachers always told me to specialize, and I said “No I can’t, I love everything!” People tell me, “Your work is good, but it looks like ten different people did it!”
My “Harlem Heroes Collectibles” was my first attempt at a business. They were wearable art representing Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.
I also did a series of self-portraits at age 40—me and me alter egos—me as a white guy, me as a Black guy, as a martian, as a cyborg, and as an Aztec king.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I’m an optimistic artist. I work with what I have. Garbage, to me, is like art—I see something different in objects than other people. At Casa Frela I am showing sculptures based on Native American and African American tribal headdresses. It was a challenge to replicate them in miniature.
And what does this show at Casa Frela mean for you?
This is like an answer to a prayer. I am very interested in my legacy, since I’m living with terminal cancer, and my partner of 29 years, Rafael, passed away in May. To give myself purpose, I’m focusing on preserving my artwork.
You’ve struggled a lot recently. I’m so sorry about the loss of your partner. I’m really moved by your strength, and I can’t wait to see your show!
Thank you!My legacy is my motivator right now. I want to give my artwork a home, and make people happy.
SAGE offers hundreds of programs every month, throughout the country. Our monthly “Quick Chats” with SAGE participants offer a first-person perspective on these programs, and a little more insight into the remarkable people who make up our community. This month, we spoke with Natalie Kenvin, a 72- year-old Chicago resident who has been a SAGE participant through Chicago’s Center on Halsted for about four years.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Natalie. When did you first become aware of SAGE, and how are you involved?
About four years ago. I walk through the door [of the Center on Halsted] and all pretenses are gone—it feels like a second home. I’m part of the Senior Action Group there. I’d like to see a little more activist presence, so I’m building a link between the Center on Halsted and local activist communities. I’m trying to get people more involved with the Jane Addams Senior Caucus [a senior activist organization in Chicago].
What kinds of issues are you working on?
Well, through the Jane Addams Caucus we are trying to get an ordinance passed to better regulate federal housing money in Chicago, to improve access to housing for low-income seniors. We have more than 13,000 people waiting for low-income housing in Chicago! When Cabrini-Green [the Cabrini-Green Public Housing Project, now demolished] came down, everyone was promised housing. But they never got anything. People who are not people of color, and who are middle class, don’t have this problem.
That’s amazing! Housing is such a critical issue for people across the country right now. Can we get to know you a bit better? Where are you from originally?
I was born in Philadelphia, but my family moved frequently. We lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Canada, and Michigan—Detroit. It was an intellectual family but also one that was violent.
When I hit adolescence we were living in a run-down area in Detroit, but I was going to a kind of snobby girls’ school. During that time I really exploded sexually, and my grades started to slide. So my parents took me to psychologists who gave me two diagnoses: depression and gender confusion. I ended up being hospitalized in a state institution. I remember a psychologist saying, ‘I bet you spend all your time playing basketball with the boys!’ I was totally uninterested in basketball!
But then I caught a break. The psychologist changed and the person I got was a wonderful man. He layed off of the ‘gender confusion’. I had taken a test to see whether you were gender-confused and I saw the result [in my file]. It said “Patient is Pathologically Female”! It had questions like, “I like to wear flowered dresses—true or false?”
[Natalie and I both cracked up at the thought of this]
My parents would visit and they’d get so upset. The doctor said to me, ‘you’re not going to see them and you’re not going back to that—you’re going to college.’ I went to Wayne State in Detroit.
And you went on to have relationships with women, men, or both?
With women and men. When this came up, I thought I must be the worst person in the world. That I must be crazy—‘I’m attracted to women and men!’ I thought of it as a pathology. I married a man early on and when that began to disintegrate I began relationships with women.
Are you in a relationship now?
No. I wish! I have a girlfriend but she doesn’t want to make it a sexual relationship. When she said that I thought ‘Oh dash it all!’ She is a lovely, positive, life-loving woman. She’s my age and came from a background like mine. We are both bisexual. When we first met she said ‘I have something to tell you—I’m bisexual.’ And I said ‘me too!’ we laughed and high-fived.
And what about work—are you currently working, or are you retired?
I taught English; my degrees are in Comp Lit. I won an NEA award for my writing [in 1995]. I've worked less since I’ve been ill in recent years but now I’m feeling better and having a bit of a renaissance.
You are doing amazing work! I wish you the best of luck. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your story, Natalie!
--Posted by Kira Garcia
SAGE offers hundreds of programs every month, throughout the country. Our monthly “Quick Chats” with SAGE participants offer a first-person perspective on these programs, and a little more insight into the remarkable folks who make up our community. This month, we spoke with Dorrell Clark, a 62-year-old retired train operator who lives in the Bronx with her wife. When she’s not at SAGE, Dorrell also dabbles in dance and acting.
Thanks for talking with me Dorrell. How long have you been coming to SAGE?
Oh a long time—for over ten years. I participate in the women’s meeting in Harlem, also Fabulous Fridays, and the bereavement group, which is a great support system. Recently I also went to the Saturday Cool Out gathering. We talked and shared old pictures—it was a joy! The programs are gratifying to attend because you’re in your own place—you’re safe. It’s always good to be with people like you because they know where you’re coming from.
So, what do you do professionally?
Well, I’m a retired MTA train operator.
That sounds fascinating! Did you enjoy it?
Absolutely! I loved it. The best thing was that every day I went to work I learned something new. I was a work train operator. We worked with the people who repaired tracks and stations.
In your opinion, how has being LGBT changed since you came of age?
I identify as an aggressive. Back in the day, if you could pass as a male (and I sometimes do), people wouldn’t bother you. Even today people call me sir until they look close. But nowadays, it doesn’t matter. Women walk down the street holding hands, and no one bothers you! Back in the day you couldn’t do that—you’d get harassed.
Most of the time, no one disputes that my wife and I are married. But she has been sick and at the hospital recently, there was this one nurse who looked at me and said “Who are you?!” and I said, “I’m her wife.” The nurse answered, “Well, I have to ask her,“ meaning my wife, who confirmed—she will tell you she’s my wife before I tell you I’m hers! But then the nurse asked her “Do you feel safe?” as in, “Do you feel safe with her?” That hurt—the cancer had put her in the hospital, not me. But in general, things are better than they were.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, Dorrell!
Thanks for calling!
--Posted by Kira Garcia