By Andrea Poteet
If you spend any time browsing in thrift stores or estate sales around Ann Arbor, sooner or later you might run into John Gutoskey, collecting trash to turn into treasure.
Gutoskey, 49, works mainly in assemblage art, morphing found objects from game pieces to gum wrappers into visual commentary on politics, patriotism and life as a modern gay man.
“I’m very visually hungry,” Gutoskey says. “I like to sort of fill myself up with images when I’m working.”
For his latest work, Gutoskey filled up Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” poems from “Leaves of Grass” given to him by his partner, Peter Sparling, 12 years ago. The poems drew controversy upon their 1855 release for their celebration of “manly love of comrades.”
“His point of view of patriotism was that all men should be affectionate, all men should love each other,” Gutoskey says. “For me there’s something beautiful about that, especially in this age we live in where we keep being presented such extremes of thought, spiritually and politically. There’s something about those poems that really speaks to mankind.”
Gutoskey sells his art at fairs across the country and will showcase it at the 30th Annual Art Birmingham scheduled for May 14 and 15 at Shain Park in downtown Birmingham. He said he used the poems as a catalyst to help him use his art to comment about his sexuality and the lack of gay-centered art he sees.
“I’d go to all these fairs and I’d never see any work about being gay,” he says. “You know, a lot of the artists are gay. I meet them.”
The result was a series called “Whitman’s Men,” showcasing Victorian-era photos of men caught in innocent embraces.
Since he started bringing the pieces to art fairs, the reactions have been mixed, he said. “It’s been very up and down. No one’s really getting in-my-face mad, but people are certainly leaving the booth when they see these pieces.”
Born in Wickliffe, Ohio, Gutoskey moved to Ann Arbor in 1987 to run the costume shop for the University of Michigan’s theater department. Prior to that, he had worked as a design assistant for film and theater in New York City and launched his own clothing and hat label, Head-On Collision, in Chicago.
After four years at the University of Michigan, he left to start his own therapeutic bodywork practice, which he ran for 17 years while focusing on his own art from the home he shares with Sparling, his partner of 20 years.
Drawing on his lifelong love of found objects, Gutoskey began making assemblage pieces and shadow boxes showcasing items that told stories from his point of view.
On one trip to a local thrift shop, he came upon a worn copy of a 1970s board game called The Ungame. On the box was a seal of approval from Dr. James Dobson, who founded the anti-gay group Focus on the Family. Inside was a stack of cards asking questions like, “What advice would you give to a man before he gets married?” and “Describe the perfect family.”
“Here are these cards that clearly have a different intention in their meaning,” Gutoskey says. “I know who this man is and he’s a man who does not like us as gay people.”
Thrilled by his find, Gutoskey tracked down more copies of the game and integrated the cards into a series called “Gay Day” – a play on May Day – featuring pairings of male paper dolls and same-sex wedding cake toppers. When fairgoers ask where the cards came from, he happily hauls out the board game to show them.
Gutoskey said he never meant his pieces to be shocking – they are supposed to reflect the strides toward gay marriage that have been made in his lifetime and force people to think critically about the real issues behind marriage equality.
“I thought if people are going to deal with this, they are going to need to start thinking about it and talking about it,” Gutoskey says. “And art’s a good way to start a conversation.”