TOWARD THE END of the film Sex: The Annabelle Chong Story, Chong travels home to Singapore. She seems to genuinely believe that although she's cultivated a high-profile life as a porn star in the United States, her parents in Singapore will know nothing of her career. She's buoyant and cheerful, empowered by her secret. Later, when it's clear that word of her porn star status has spread to Singapore, Chong is in tears, distraught over the "snitches" who told.
Annabelle Chong wants the entire world as an audience--except for her mom and dad. This seems conflicted and naîve, but it's only a more extreme version of a dynamic common to most artists who incorporate self-expression while pushing beyond acceptable social and aesthetic conventions. In the beginning, the question is always the same: how to create meaningful, challenging, personal work despite family expectations of compliance and pleasantries.
One local novelist, whose writing includes homosexual sex scenes, occasional bestiality, levels of alternative spirituality, and other risks, has said of his own parents, "I told them not to read it. Said it was a potboiler to make money. My parents are old. They won't be around long." On the other side of the continuum, I recently met Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, who was in town for the Sex by Sex Worker Film and Video Festival. Scarlot Harlot has been working in the sex industry since 1978 and shouts, "Whore Power!" to anyone who'll listen. Late afternoon, at Gypsy, I asked her how long she's been an activist.
She said, "My whole life. My parents are Socialists." Then she scanned the crowd, saying, "Where is my mother, anyway? She came up here with me from San Francisco." Leigh operates with no gap between her passionate cause, her self-expression, and her relationship to her family.
Most artists navigate an unsteady and evolving, rather than resolved, position between family and creative projects. I spoke with three local artists, all native Oregonians who have chosen to be present as creative people in their hometown, close to family connections.
"There's only two of you? I thought there were more."--Jean-Paul Sartre, from No Exit
Kitty Diggins, also known as Kristin Harvey, is getting ready for a Halloween show at Berbati's. Ghouls, witches, the seduction of fan-dancing, naughty comedy skits and the suggestion of something close to nudity--Harvey is a modern day burlesque and cabaret performer. She's taken years to find her voice.
"My biggest rebellion," she says, "has been to stand up as a creative person." As a child, she felt she couldn't do anything right enough to please her mother and she was plagued by persistent strep throat --a literal loss of her voice. Now she says, "Singing a song and getting out on stage was like getting out of a wheelchair."
Harvey is articulate and beautiful, with long strawberry blonde hair and an angular face. She says, "I see art as a communicative tool, saying things that can't be said otherwise. Burlesque is a humorous commentary on how we view sex."
Harvey's father left town shortly after she was born. Her mother went away to live with her father briefly, leaving Harvey with her grandmother. By the time her mother came back, maybe a year later, her parents were divorced and her mother soon remarried.
"When I was like nine or 10 years old," she says, "I was convinced there was a plot, that my mother and my stepdad were going to kill me or lock me up, put me away somewhere. I didn't trust my stepdad at all. He's a sociopath or something. He lies and makes up outrageous stories. Fourth grade was miserable. I had this constant dread that something terrible was going to happen. When I was 11, I moved out of my mother's house for good. I couldn't take it anymore."
She adds, "One of the reasons I left was because I knew my stepfather couldn't wait to get his hands on me, so I developed a very strong defense when it came to sex and anything sexual. But I was always fascinated by it. I used to do little burlesque routines for my parents when I was like three and four years old. After my life changed, around five or six, I became very inhibited. I was afraid to show any sexual side of myself, because I didn't trust my stepfather. I've had this kind of innate paranoia since I was little. I was always terrified of ghosts and just weird stuff, things that were intangible."
Now those very same things--coffins and ghosts, along with sexuality and communication, have become the source of Harvey's nightclub extravaganzas.
She says, "My mother has lived her life in absolute denial of almost everything."
Along with her own projects, Harvey has worked as a dancer in movies such as the pornographic video Suck It and See, and held two roles in a B-grade exploitation film called Superstarlet AD. Harvey laughs at the mention of this movie. "It's a piece of trash," she says. "I wouldn't care if my mother or father saw it, but I worry more about my grandmother. She's more like a mother to me than my mother was. Why should I care what my mother thinks? She didn't do her job. She has no right to judge me."
She said, "A long while back my mother used to be really critical and not supportive of what I'm doing. Now I think she realizes that even though I'm not making any money at it, I'm more successful than anyone else in the family just in that I've proven myself and I work my ass off. I kind of stay away from the whole family unit, away from the insanity. I think my mother's proud of that. My grandmother tells me that my mother's proud. My mother's just not the kind of person who'd say it. At the most, she'd say, 'Oh, that's great.' That's her ultimate expression of positive feelings."
None of Harvey's family has yet seen her work, though they live in the area.
She says, "But parents are such a weird part of what a person does. You don't want to think about your parents in a sexual way, and they don't want to see you that way, either."
"My dear little Maman, I am writing you a note while I'm finding it impossible to sleep, to tell you that I am thinking of you."--Marcel Proust to his mother and housemate
Marne Lucas began working under the name Gina Velour seven years ago, when she collaborated on the film The Operation with Jacob Pander. At that time, she wanted to separate her identity from the nude actress in the infrared film. Now, after working as a pin-up model, a photographer, an activist, and an actress, she's in the process of integrating her work as Gina Velour with work under her own name.
In talking about her family life in relation to her creative path, she said, "My parents split up my senior year, and it was really devastating. My parents didn't believe in divorce. I was supposed to go to school, then to grad school. My father was a writer. I always thought I was going to become a professor and teach English. When my parents split up it sort of tore the lid off the real world for me. Right out of high school, I wasn't interested in going to college at all."
Shortly after, she met Jacob Pander, the first love of her life. Jacob and his brother, Arnold, are the sons of Henk Pander, a prominent artist. Through her affiliation with the Pander brothers, Marne began her creative and collaborative career.
"The Operation was very outing, very high profile. But I was able to hide behind the name Gina Velour. It took me two or three years to even say I was Gina Velour. I still don't walk around Portland saying 'I'm Gina Velour.'"
She said, "I really have a sense of responsibility toward my family, and my family's name. I have a younger sister who's 21. That's why I was working under the name Gina Velour for The Operation. I didn't tell my mom about The Operation until the day it screened. Then, it was rough on her. She came to see it and laughed through the entire screening, because she was nervous.
"I've been incredibly prolific since my father died. He died when I was 28, so I was relatively young. He drank himself to death. It had been a slow process, but then he found out he was terminally ill. He had pancreatitis. He wasn't going to get better and he knew it. I didn't work [in a bar] for three years. Only now can I do it and it's very temporary."
Marne wears an arrowhead encased in silver on a chain on her neck--a gift from her father. She said, "Really, I'm like the traditional good girl, even though I've made The Operation and erotica. I went to Maui a while ago, and took my dad's ashes to Maui with me. I was born in Hawaii, though raised here. In Maui, I felt like I was home.
"It's really hard to lose a parent because you become as young as you were when you still needed mom and dad, before you could fend for yourself. It's like being really young and really old. Death has made me more serious. My father was 51 when he died. People are like, 'Oh, heart attack?' That's acceptable. When they find out he drank himself to death they're like, that's not so acceptable."
"Why don't you make something pretty?" --Cynthia's Mom
Cynthia Chimienti is a choreographer, dancer, and performance artist. Her work is based in abstraction rather than literal depiction, though it often has an element of narrative thread. She most recently performed in a collaborative piece titled The Last Venue. In the most recent piece, Chimienti worked with the character of a fallen starlet, a drunken and druggy, bleached blonde. More often her work has involved industrial components and earthy, elemental props. A month after the performance of The Last Venue, her father passed away. Her mother died barely two years earlier.
I asked her how her parents, a Southwest suburban Portland couple, had responded to her performance career.
She said, "My art addresses my shadow self. My parents are the type that are in denial of the shadow side. They're more into popcorn, fairy tales, and Jackie O. Perfect world, perfect hair, perfect mothering--that's what they wanted from their lives, but it had almost nothing to do with reality. My mom would say, 'Why don't you make things that are pretty?'"
Chimienti's work often addresses the cyclical elements of life and death, calling attention to the idea that death is always present.
She said, "Once, I created a piece that turned out to be sort of prophetic in terms of my mother's death two years ago. My mother said the performance scared her. To me, the work was more of a spiritual and transcendent look at death. A positive thing. Bones, skulls, fire--you know, earthy things. It's interesting to me that the spirit aspect, the spiritual world, scares people. People don't want to die and they don't want to think about death. My art never really worked for my parents in that way. It was too dark for them." Laughing, she added, "But, they didn't like my dark hair, either, when I dyed it, so I guess it all goes with the package."
Chimienti's mother died quickly once diagnosed with cancer, while her father battled his illness for years. Chimienti helped her parents cope through their illnesses and watched them struggle. Now that both have gone Chimienti says, "In one way, I feel I was waiting for this moment, but still something doesn't feel right about it. The canvas is too white and blank. The inheritance money is a perfect, tangible metaphor for how it feels to know they're both gone. There's an element of relief and a huge loss. For the moment, I feel paralyzed, unable to act. It's an overwhelming nothingness to be starting from. It'll take some time."
I asked if she felt her work would change with the knowledge that her parents were no longer in the audience.
She said, "Sometimes I think that they're all-knowing now, and that makes me feel more under watch. I feel like they're here all the time. They haven't gone away."
Everyone mentioned in this article is over 30. None have yet made the choice to raise children.