An Interview with John Paradiso by Paul Shortt

John Paradiso blends craft, masculinity, and sexuality in fiber artworks that address male identity. His work confronts viewers with beefcake men, pansies (men and flowers), and found text to challenge conventional notions of masculinity. The heavily stitched figures in his work often stare back at you, opening themselves up to the viewer’s gaze, presenting both the labor of the male model and the labor of the artist. In addition to his work as an artist, Paradiso runs the 39th Street Gallery at the Gateways Arts Center in Brentwood, MD.

According to Paradiso, “My work is an ongoing exploration of identity. It is influenced by the impact of the AIDS epidemic during the 80’s and 90’s and growing old. At times, the work is a statement about my experiences navigating a sex–positive lifestyle among a prevalence of sex-negative messages. At other times, the work is my way to honor my feminine side while striving to be more masculine.”

After moving to Washington, DC in 2001, and reflecting on past visits to the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall, ACT-UP’s first political funeral, and the march on Washington for LGBT rights (In the 1990’s), Paradiso was inspired to make quilts that spoke of survival and sexual liberation. This became the MEN WORKING series, which led to his SOFT PORN and PAPER QUILT/COLLAGE series. Together, the three series combine images of men and masculinity, using working methods that are considered traditionally feminine, such as sewing, embroidery, hand quilting, and scrap-booking.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to meet John and later was the artist-in-residence at 39th Street Gallery. I followed up with him with a recent studio visit.

Can you talk a bit about your history and your previous work with the HIV and AIDS community? How did this impact your work?

I came out in 1984 when I was 22 and became part of the HIV hotline, prevention, and PWA (People with AIDS) buddy program volunteer. I volunteered and worked within the AIDS/HIV community all through the 80s and 90s.

During those years many friends had died of AIDS related illnesses, my boyfriend in the early nineties was a Person Living with AIDS and I was the studio/personal assistant to the painter Robert Farber. (My ex is still living but Robert died in 1995.) All these experiences and more were definitely represented in my work.

Can you talk a bit more about your art practice then and how working for Robert affected your work?

I was making photographs about sex and risk and medication, everything that was going on in the community during this time. Working with Robert reinforced many of my fears and anxiety. Robert, from the day I met him felt he was running out of time, and that has a profound effect on the workday. I started to incorporate my photographs in assemblage type found objects and many of them were clocks.

What was it like for you being an artist during the AIDS epidemic?

It was more about being a young, very sexually active gay man who happened to be an artist during this time. I was so excited to finally be out, to be out in the world, to be free to have sex with men, but terrified at the same time. It was very exciting. Sex was so wonderful and really discovering my identity to its fullest was so consuming that I made visual pieces to talk about that experience of both ecstasy and fear.

What lead to the shift away from photography to using found images?

I only ever use the media that is right for what I am trying to talk about in my work at any given time. Found imagery, found objects, they were the materials that felt right. But, I should also admit, that when I was making photos, I was in them, I was naked, and I was young – so vanity I’m sure plays a part in it.

How long have you been an artist and where did you grow up?

I feel like I always knew I was an artist and considered myself one. But, I do not think I really started making art until the early 1980s, in my 20s. I grew up in Albany, NY.

In your work you combine masculinity, sexuality and craft in a way that subverts traditional craft norms. How long have you been using a craft dialogue in your practice?

I guess it officially started with my first completed quilt in 2004. It is a way for me to talk about the fluidity of masculinity visually and by using tools seen as less masculine.

How has your worked evolved since then?

My work has evolved into several series; the quilting has evolved into paper quilts, which reference quilts but are collage. My embroidery work grew out of the process of quilting and my other collage work grew out of that.

Can you talk a bit about those materials and their importance to you?

The work for me is about fluid masculinity, which honors my feminine side while I strive to be more masculine. When I was young both my grandmothers were extremely creative and did embroidery, knitting, crochet, clothing, etc. I was always in awe of their work. As I age it makes sense that to follow their lead.

During the Obama years there was a lot of progress made on gay rights. Do you think this had any effect on you art practice?

I do think the repeal of DADT and Marriage equality have had an effect on my work. But I cannot point to it directly. I will need to look back at some point to really see if it is there.

What brought you to Maryland?

My partner took a job in DC and we lived on Capitol Hill for two years. When we realized we might be here awhile, we purchased a home just over the DC line in Brentwood, MD. It was affordable and Tom grew up in Prince George’s County. We didn’t know it was an arts district until several months after we moved in; that part was luck.

Can you talk a bit about the recent show you co-curated in response to the Pulse nightclub terror attack?

It was important to do something in response to this tragedy and a call for artists to respond seemed like a good idea. The submission went national (all by word-of-mouth) we received work from as far away as California and about half the artists were from outside the DMV area.

Although this exhibition had a heavy theme, it was quite beautiful. The work was well received, it was special.

How do you balance managing a gallery with your own art practice?

I live and work in the Gateway Arts District. There are hundreds of artists and many run art-related venues and are working artists as well. It’s a way of life out here. The best part is, as a visual artist, all the programming I do at the gallery I would attend anyway. I am inspired and energized by the artists I work with and the art they make.

Luckily for me the 39th Street Gallery is not a commercial venue and I am able to manage it as a part-time employee. Although we do sell a reasonable amount of works, our goal is to be a resource for artists and the community.

This however makes my personal art career part time as well. But I work on my art everyday. The gallery is two doors from my home and my studio is a block from the house, so I save time by not having a commute.

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Author Paul Shortt is a visual artist, writer and arts administrator. He received his MFA in New Media Art from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his BFA in Painting from the Kansas City Art Institute. He was formerly the Registry Coordinator and Program Assistant at Maryland Art Place. He is currently the New Media Curator for Arlington Cultural Affairs in Arlington County, VA and lives in Washington, DC.

Bio: John Paradiso earned a BFA at the State University of New York (Purchase) and his MFA at the State University of New York (Buffalo). He is a mixed media artist and describes his work as metaphorical and based upon such issues as identity, sexuality, health, and love. He has work in private and public collections including the Kinsey institute and a portfolio of seven photographs in the National Picture Collection at the Library of Congress, (AIDS portfolio), and the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.

John has served as a health educator and caregiver in the HIV/AIDS community for over twenty years where he developed educational programs and provided peer-based counseling. More recently he was a an Artist-in-Residence at the Washington Hospital Center working with adult cancer patients, their families and caregivers. He currently works as the Gateway Community Development Corporation’s Curator of Programs at the 39th Street Gallery, Gateway Arts Center in Brentwood, MD.

For more Info on John visit his website: www.john-paradiso.com