As told to Sarah Fisch
Elder on his chartreuse couch by Ansen Seale.
Gene Elder has a message for you.
The veteran San Antonio artist, activist, archivist, writer and raconteur died of complications from colon cancer on April 28 at the age of 69.
Born and raised in Dallas, Gene Elder moved to San Antonio to attend Trinity University and never left. You may have known him from the early ’70s, when his River Walk MUD Gallery sold pottery, or in the ’80s, as an early manager of the reclaimed tire warehouse that was to become Blue Star.
Younger readers might have noted his striking Volkswagen Rabbit “art car,” or chatted with him as he manned the wine station on First Fridays at the then-Joan Grona Gallery. If you were lucky, you may have been included on his expansive email list, in which case you learned about holistic healing, UFOs, the foibles of city government, San Antonio historical arcana, which operas were going to be aired on KLRN, Netflix documentary recommendations, remembrances of local LGBT history and, in the past year, detailed and tongue-in-cheek health updates.
His last email, sent April 20, was a photograph of the young Gene in drag as a ballerina. His second to last was a poem.
He knew he was dying. He made it a project.
Gene Elder was a born conceptual artist. His body of work included low-key posing in front of the Alamo as a stealthy participant in hundreds of family vacation videos, a project which was written up in the Wall Street Journal (he gave it up when larger-scale VHS cameras gave way to smaller digital ones, as it became too hard to see where cameras were pointed and insinuate himself in-frame). He worked as writer, choreographer and Fall Fairy dancer in the 1973 ballet Fairies Fiasco and authored the incendiary and tender Anita Bryant Prayer, which he wrote on the occasion of the singer’s anti-gay agenda visit to San Antonio at that time. In 1984, he curated a time capsule for the San Antonio Museum of Art containing works by 100 San Antonio artists and 10 poets. When speaking about the time capsule — which remains in the museum’s lobby and is intended to be opened during SAMA’s bicentennial in 2181 — he joked that he was automatically included in every exhibition the museum mounted. “I am so glad I did that,” he wrote in his journal. “I can’t believe I did do it!”
He was also the longtime keeper of the HAPPY Foundation LGBT Archives, a collection of personal artifacts, writings and objects left by men who died during the first years of the AIDS pandemic, and founder of the MUD Underground and its perhaps most tangible cause, Political Art Month.
Elder at the Happy Foundation.
I met Gene in 2008, while writing a feature for the Current on the late Arthur “Happy” Veltman, arts patron and founder of the legendary gay bar San Antonio Country, and later the Bonham Exchange. That interview led to a 10-year collaboration over lunches, brunches and coffees on a series of articles, blog posts, videos and an interview of me for his long-running column A View of Reality From a Chartreuse Couch (many of which can be found online at outinsa.com
Gene was beyond eccentric. He was utterly unique. He taught me an immensity of San Antonio cultural heritage that I couldn’t have learned from anybody else.
In the past few months, Gene worked to get his affairs in order. He called me in November of last year and proposed this article. Subsequently, I had a number of long conversations with him by phone. Far from being morose, he treated his passing as a matter of practical opportunity. In so doing, he noted some concerns and possibilities for artists who may or may not have pondered their own mortal legacies. The following are some reflections and advice I am honored to bring you, direct from the source. Although this intro has changed since I read it to him a few weeks ago, he personally approved this message.
MUD Underground Trust Fund
I have stipulated, I wrote this in an email to Ronald Geyer, that pertaining to my estate — I don’t want to just give it to somebody, because who would you give it to? — that I want it to be a joint custody between the Southwest School of Art board and the McNay board, and that they would then decide who or what committee, at their discretion, could carry on with distributing the money. I feel that that made the most logical sense, if there’s enough money there. I don’t know what’s going to be left in my mutual fund, there may be $10 left. I think the SWSA and McNay have the most responsible contemporary art-thinking boards.
I really would like for the MUD Underground Trust to continue, so I am offering this idea to the community.
Back when I started Political Art Month about 10 years ago, there was sort of this attitude of “we don’t do political art.” Well, they damn sure do now! Everything is political — Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, Guernica — the politics are what makes it significant art.
I think it would be easy and fun to raise funds for the MUD Underground Trust. You know how people like to do fundraisers. MUD Underground doesn’t want to narrow it down to just liberal art or Republican art, we’re about the art. The people on the boards of the opera and the symphony — those are rich Republicans, not rich Democrats, for the most part.
So I, being a responsible person, wanted to leave a will, because if you don’t have a will, the state, when it goes through probate, just gets everything, and it makes it complicated for anybody to carry out anything. In other words, it’s being considerate of the people who’re going to have to clean up the mess that you’ve made in life. You’ve left some kind of instrument for them to work with.
And I think that for artists, it’s an interesting topic to think about and to write about. Linda Pace was an artist. Marion Koogler McNay was an artist. Robert Tobin was an artist — well, he was an actor in his youth. They had great wealth, and they knew that they had to do something with their estates, and they acted responsibly by setting that up so that the community could benefit from it. They wore two hats really well. And then you have someone like me, who is a general citizen in the community, who is going to die and leave a big mess. All their artwork — what happens to that? They’ve left no request, not even “do I want to leave my painting over the fireplace of my best friend?”
You can write anything down and leave something to work with. I wrote mine so that it was very readable. I did it as a Fluxus art piece. I consider it my contribution to Fluxus. I say that on the front page of the will. I think my appearances in front of the Alamo were in that tradition. They kind of deliberately didn’t make any sense.
All the artists in this community, at whom I am aiming this article, aren’t thinking about writing a will. [They’ve] never thought about writing a will [and] don’t know how to go about writing a will, because they can’t afford a lawyer. And they don’t understand that they can write their wishes down, at least, on a piece of paper. I believe it’s called a “holistic” will. Just put it down in their own writing. It would be good to give Chuck Ramirez as an example. It would be interesting to find out which artists have written a will. You could take a survey.
If you do have a substantial art collection, do you want to leave it to somebody?
If you’re married, you’ll probably leave everything to your spouse, or say, do you want to leave this or that piece to your grandchildren? What about your art supplies?
What do you wanna do with your life of being an artist? Are you going to be a big nothing at the end, with no one understanding anything? There should be a movement of artists aware of their legacies. This is not just for visual artists — poets, actors, everybody! This is what I did, and I did it in my own wording.
I just look at everything as an opportunity to think creatively.
I think Happy was an influence, he died in 1988. I wrote the mission statement for the HAPPY Foundation: It is dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, collecting Gay-BLT history, encouraging contemporary art and promoting ballroom dancing. In other words, it’s an open-ended mission. It’s not just confined to one mission. When you’ve started a nonprofit dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, you’ve thrown open the door to everything and anything, if it’s that abstract.
So potentially I’ve set it up so that future board members of the HAPPY Foundation and MUD Underground, should they continue, have a lot of possibilities. It doesn’t have to be Gay-BLT history, it could be about any aspect of contemporary art and ballroom dancing. It’s open to committee decisions.
Elder (far right) and fellow Fall Fairies
This is a personal responsibility. Don’t just think of it as some dry legal thing that you have to do. I suspect you have to have anything legal notarized with witnesses, as opposed to a holistic will. I had gotten to the point where I wanted to direct my resources to something and I thought that political art was a needed area of observation in the community — that we weren’t thinking in terms of politics within what’s “contemporary.”
Everybody’s got some politics, whether it’s the civil rights of the Chicano movement or artists against AIDS, or women’s rights. I want to encourage artists to think politically. I watched the San Antonio art community grow since the ’70s, getting healthier and stronger and more interesting, and the artists that are growing up here are just amazing me with the kind of talent they have. And I just felt that, as an older artist, I had to make my contribution and that was this: Don’t forget the politics of what you’re doing.
Regarding my intentions for the archives, it is my job to collect history, it’s somebody else’s job to make sense of it. I consider making the archive one of my artworks. The HAPPY Foundation is Happy’s will, not my will. I’m just an employee.
I absolutely think people are afraid to confront their own mortality. They don’t want to think about it. It’s scary. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And everybody thinks it’s really far away.
I absolutely believe in an afterlife. I read about it all the time. I’m looking forward to it. Listen, I’ve been really good, so I get to review my life and see the good things that I’ve done, and the bad things that I’ve done, and learn from it. And I get to see my guardian spirits and the people who have died of AIDS that I wanted to see again. And I expect to see Happy. His spirit has always been around and I’ve called upon it. I would love to keep in touch from the other side. I’m envious of these people who can have these communications and I think it goes on all the time. It’s not that mysterious. I think spirits may have moved on from politics to a higher work, but people on the other side are concerned about us [who are] still here and influence a lot of changes the best they can.
Back when Anita Bryant was in the news and planning to come to San Antonio, a lot of artists were pissed off and wanted to prevent her coming to town. And I thought well, no. Bring her! And I wrote the prayer. I consider it my personal declaration of independence.
There should be a group of lawyers that should form a committee that artists could go to [for advisement]. It doesn’t have to be complicated — lawyers available for free consultation. I traded a piece of artwork for my will. And, in my case, it was not complicated. My physical artwork is to be sold, with the money going into the MUD Underground Trust. I’m leaving my body to the body farm, and I don’t want to accrue additional expenses. I don’t ask for any particular funeral or memorial ceremony.
When I had to rethink it, there was no MUD Underground Trust. I had not created it. So that even though I had designated someone to be my executor, executrix actually, they would not be able to go to my bank and do anything because they were not the MUD Underground Trust. So I had to go back and make sure — and this involved signatures and notaries and filling out forms — and put everything in their names so that they could get access to it. It was a good idea, but I hadn’t finished the job. I caught that, luckily, in time. That was an enlightening and educational thing for me.
I’m grateful for this blessing, that I have this much time to tie up all these loose ends and go through my life like an archaeological dig at least one more day, to get something out of these dusty drawers.
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