August 10, 2016 News » Cover Story

Saving Robert McClain's lifelong body of art — and the story of a life half-lived on the edge 

A pathless land

click to enlarge ROBERT MCCLAIN
  • Robert McClain

Robin Schneider got the call one day in June 2015. A friend was at a garage sale and found some paintings. He wanted to know if Schneider, a local artist who produces under the moniker "Art by BAMF," had any interest. Sight unseen, Schneider figured it was at least worth picking them up to salvage the frames. His friend later arrived at his home with a dozen oil paintings of muscled men, all shaved and coiffed in 1970s best, some in various states of undress.

His interest was piqued.

Schneider and his girlfriend Heather Seymour drove to the garage sale, run by Schneider's former co-worker José Benavides and his son of the same name. Schneider says that the Benavideses were helping get rid of some art from the home of their recently deceased neighbor, one Robert McClain. Anything they couldn't sell would wind up in the dumpster. Schneider and Seymour got their first glimpse at the whole collection — and were stunned.

"We couldn't fit them all in our car — and then we got the documents to match ... it was some guy's life story. It was crazy," he says. They ended up leaving, over multiple trips, with 230 paintings, which they temporarily loaded into Seymour's home.

Each was meticulously named, dated and cataloged. Then there were the journals — boxes upon boxes of McClain's journals and diaries, dating to World War II. There were hand-written notebooks, typewritten journals, letters, photographs, sketches, poetry, typed and bound attempts at a memoir, and more. The man clearly had lived an extraordinarily well-documented life.

"McClain wrote two hours a day ... every day," Schneider says. "We didn't read all those documents ... but what we did read through, we were blown away by."

McClain was gay in an era when that wasn't widely accepted. The mustaches and haircuts date many of his paintings to a few years after the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which launched the Gay Pride movement in New York and across the U.S.

"His family didn't want [his art and documents]," Schneider says. "His brother is a priest ... and he was totally against Robert's lifestyle." So over the past year, Schneider, Seymour and the Benavideses have worked with Adison Quin Petti of Colorado Springs Queer Collective to figure out what to do with the collection. Petti reached out to Jon Khoury and former Indy arts editor Edie Crawford at the Cottonwood Center for the Arts. All parties involved agreed it was prudent to get part of the collection on display as a tribute to McClain's life and art.

The exhibit, titled An Artist's Story Found, opened July 30 and closes on Aug. 20. Khoury says the response so far has been huge, drawing many people who don't usually go to art openings.

"There was a cohesiveness to all [the] pieces, but of course we wanted to get the best of the lot and tell the fullest story possible," he says. "When you have a body of work that significant ... you tell the story through curation, and that's what good curators do." Ultimately, his wife Karen selected 27 of the paintings they felt most faithfully represented McClain's mindset.

"Seeing how much Robert McClain wrote, how many letters there are back and forth, that to me is the part that's the most interesting," says Petti. "I don't know if survival is the right word, because I haven't read all of the journals. I don't know if it felt that dire. But my sense is that, at times, it did. So to document a life, almost out of necessity, it shows to me the extent to which his identity was not readily available or readily reflected in the community and the world around him."

Indeed, during the 20th century, though countless LGBTQ lives have been lived, most of their stories will be lost. It's easy to look at statistics and lose the humanity behind them, and numbers aren't as good for helping someone accept themselves or come out.

But through his art and his writing, McClain's story will endure.

Petti recalls something said by Sexual Minorities Archives curator Ben Power Alwin in 2007: "The most important, powerful, impactful, long-lasting thing that you can do as a queer or trans person is to save your letters." Petti says. "To your lawyers, your lovers, your family, your employers. Because our own histories and our own stories have been censored and edited and cut from the page so many times. Or ultimately, they get reappropriated so that there's nothing left but this shell that's not so much about the individual lives or loves or contributions anymore ... I think for queer and trans folks, there is a particular meaning to being able to document your own evolution, your own existence in the world."

click to enlarge ROBERT MCCLAIN
  • Robert McClain

Robert Warren McClain was born in 1931 in Colorado Springs, but he grew up in Denver's Park Hill neighborhood. He describes his mother, Belle Jay, as "a lady in the best sense," a teacher and nurse until she married at age 27. His father, Raymond, a skilled golfer and man of his word, served as a Navy ensign in World War I. Robert had two brothers: Charles, who was nine years older, and William, four years older.

From an early age, Robert loved books and reading. He lived across the street from a public library, which only fueled his love for words, and when he was 9, his Aunt Mabel bought him a diary. After the family moved back to Colorado Springs in 1941, Robert joined the press club at North Junior High School, writing stories in installments. In 1944, at 13, he printed a poem in the Viking Herald, a piece titled "Purple Mountains" that described his undying love for the mountains. His father's reaction was less than sunny — a quick rundown on the basics of poetry, then nothing.

Robert characterizes his father as a sharp-minded man and a people person, but with "a macho side that was uncomfortable with my interests in writing poetry, knitting and crocheting, and exploring the arts." The two had a difficult relationship, especially toward the end of his dad's life. Raymond was forced into retirement by an office closure and found himself cut off from other people. Robert says his father became angry and depressed, closing himself off in attempts to tough his way through his situation.

The McClain family moved to Bay City, Texas, after World War II, just in time for Robert to start high school. His disinterest in football in a place "where football is king and can be played year round" made him an outcast. He described teachers whose spelling gave away their lack of education "the minute they wrote something on the blackboard." To cope, he self-taught from books and wrote constantly — journals and stories alike, including three novels he describes as "impressively complete," though they were never published.

In 1948, he followed his father and brothers' footsteps and attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. High grades in German earned him the opportunity to spend his junior year in Ludwigsberg, in West Germany, an opportunity he took enthusiastically. After graduation, he found himself with no clear career path. He spent two years in the Army, trying to get his G.I. bill and open up grad school as an option. In 1956, he started a career in teaching, eventually working at both Wasson and Mitchell high schools. He taught English, Social Studies, German and, after teaching himself, Russian.

Despite a few emotional attachments and short-term romances, Robert never found himself sexually attracted to women. He recounts an incident after his Army service when he stole a gay porno mag from a convenience store. He used it once and destroyed it, ashamed of himself. He writes that while the theft was uncommon, he would continue to buy, use and destroy gay porn for some time.

His frustration with his sexuality increased in 1965 when he was baptized and confirmed into the Episcopal Church, following his brother Bill's lead. Through religious orthodoxy — "bordering on a form of fundamentalism," he writes — he suppressed his attraction to men. He began to walk the same path of self-repression and self-conversion beaten by countless Roy Cohns and Ted Haggards. But rather than doubling down on misery, McClain still tried to express and understand himself.

click to enlarge ROBERT MCCLAIN
  • Robert McClain

In 1968, he took up oil painting, teaching himself from books. While some of his subjects included wildlife and landscape, mostly he painted men. Due to the subject and his fear of being thought gay, he kept his hobby secret — even from some of his subjects.

"Except for a few that were friends, pretty much all of these guys were from ads and magazines," Crawford says. Khoury notes that one of Robert's teaching colleagues reached out to him on hearing of the show. Despite working together for some years, he never knew Robert painted.

After the 1976-77 school year, Robert resigned his teaching job. His mother had been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, and his father had lost his hearing and vision. He cared for them, all the while continuing to paint and journal daily. He wrote often about feeling fuzzy-headed, unambitious and depressed. Still, he kept painting, convincing himself that art could be a career, though the idea of art as commerce made him uncomfortable.

In his writings, he also struggled with a complete lack of understanding about his sexuality. Certainly, he knew he was attracted to men. His entire concept of being gay was longing for beautiful men he could never be with. Though he wanted sex, he couldn't bring himself to risk it. He was a virgin until he came out.

"Homosexuality is still a taboo whether it's being talked about more now or not, and it is difficult to find a writer that can successfully deal with the subject without reducing it to pornography," he writes. "To me it is still a mystery. I can see in it an arrested stage of development when one considers the narcissistic aspects and I can see it in the aversion to the responsibility of a family, something that heterosexual marriage clearly involves. But in my case I feel there is true love and idealism involved. With my aversion to force, I cannot see forcing myself to like something that I don't just naturally take to. I don't force my feelings toward the beautiful males that I see."

"He's spending so much of his own time and energy trying not to feel like a bad person because of who he is," says Crawford. "And he writes in his diaries that he talks often with God, and God says to him 'this is who you are, and you have nothing to be ashamed of.'"

Robert was 48 when he came out of the closet, two years after that passage. On Oct. 30, 1979, he wrote in his journal, "I am nowhere at the moment. I hunger for people, contact and love. I feel too old to be coming out. ... How can I possibly find someone whom I love and can relate to and even consider living with?"

McClain's isolation showed in his paintings. Khoury calls him a highly proficient portraitist, but says that's not why his art stands out.

"The portraits are brilliant because some of them also double as landscapes," Khoury says. "[It's] an indication of his desire to integrate."

One portrait of a cowboy staring into the distance hung on Khoury's wall before the show opened. He described it outright as a landscape piece. The details show a man leaning on a piece of wood, but looking at the whole picture, it's easy to see the distance McClain implies. That distance belies a longing, visible especially in his subjects' eyes.

To rest on a cliché, if the eye is the window to the soul, McClain painted windows full of warmth and hope — windows that were sadly closed to him.

click to enlarge ROBERT MCCLAIN
  • Robert McClain

"It's a very nuanced approach," says Khoury. "In fact, I've never seen it before. So in some ways, it's a trailblazing concept that I guarantee you he's aware of."

No doubt McClain was also aware of the attitudes toward LGBTQ people in the world around him. Three years before McClain went into teaching, President Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted Executive Order 10450, which lumped in "sexual perversion" with drug addiction and immoral and criminal behavior in an attempt to remove deviants from federal employment. This was a direct attack on the gay community, though the idea was that federal employees had to be morally unassailable, lest they risk blackmail. An estimated 10,000 people suspected of being LGBTQ were fired — and, by consequence, outed — between 1953 and 1975, when the order was rescinded.

Thus, McClain's "ability to join the surroundings and the landscape was highly restricted," Khoury says.

Anthony Merkle can speak to that. The 31-year-old Empress XL of the United Court of the Pikes Peak Empire was 15 when he came out to his parents.

"Growing up, it was hard for me. I was raised in a Southern Baptist home," he says. "I was just tired of always wearing a mask." Coming out was difficult. For Merkle, it happened during a fight with his parents. Afterward, he kept to his room for two or three days. His family didn't talk about it or offer him support. But things weren't all bad. Friends he came out to supported him.

"The words 'I'm gay' don't make everything heal and everything fantastic," he says. "It kind of makes it more real." But by focusing on the love and acceptance his friends showed, he was able to move past the fear and sense of rejection.

‘A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it.’

McClain's environment also grew a little more welcoming. In 1973, homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It was no longer a mental illness. Five years later, San Francisco voters defeated the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned LGBTQ people and rights supporters from being teachers, one of the first times voters rejected anti-LGBTQ legislation. Then, in 1979, San Franciscans rioted on behalf of gay politician Harvey Milk, after the man who assassinated him and Mayor George Moscone received a lenient sentence.

"I do feel things have gotten better," says Merkle. "I don't say things have gotten better in terms of laws and legislation changing. Laws and legislation can't change people's minds." But he says that there's more open discussion of sexual orientation and more resources available, which helps. So does a sense of community. Merkle found his connection to the gay community through early Internet chat rooms and services like AOL Messenger.

"[It was important] being able to talk to someone going through the same things and situations, the same family environment," he says.

On March 12, 1980, at age 49, McClain had his first date with Edward Daniels, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel who was married with three children. They met through a gay hotline. But 1980 was a difficult year for McClain. Also in March, his father suffered a stroke and passed away shortly after. Four months later, his mother succumbed to cancer.

Daniels divorced in 1981, and nearly two years later McClain and Daniels spent two weeks in St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, at a gay-owned vacation spot. Their relationship was going well.In 1984, the couple left McClain's family home on the Old North End and moved to a condo in the University Heights neighborhood of San Diego. McClain writes that it was a better place for him to work as an artist and the "climate sounds conducive to year-round activity."

It didn't take long for McClain to involve himself in local affairs. He pushed for turning the site of a demolished trolley barn into a much-needed public park. Ultimately, they were successful, and the Old Trolley Barn Park still exists, green and lovely.

McClain and Daniels also joined San Diego's huge gay community. In a January 1986 letter, McClain writes: "There are something like ninety gay bars and gay organizations in town. We haven't been here long enough to get acquainted with them all, but the weekly Gayzette keeps us up-to-date on the happenings. I belong to the Gay businessman's group (about 200 members) and the Gay Academic Union and we both belong to the Men's Center, a weekly rap group that meets in Hillcrest."

click to enlarge ROBERT MCCLAIN
  • Robert McClain

Spiritually, McClain was drawing heavy inspiration from the writings and speeches of Jiddu Krishnamurti, a speaker and writer born in India who, at 15, was declared the World Teacher by a local theological and philosophical society. A religious organization formed to prepare the world for his arrival, but he resisted the messianic mantle for 20 years until dissolving the society.

At the time, Krishnamurti said, "I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. ... Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others."

These words had a heavy impact on McClain, who cited them in his written works thereafter. McClain had the pleasure of seeing Krishnamurti speak while living in California, shortly before the reluctant guru passed away in 1986.

While McClain's faith and friends brought him joy and wholeness, his brothers never accepted his new identity. Bill McClain was for a time an Episcopal priest, though he left that role to run a sheep ranch in northern California. Robert says he always felt like Bill's kid brother, but his relationship with Daniels drove a wedge between them and ended their familial relationship. Robert made peace with the distance, and later in life, the two brothers grew closer through shared political views. Chuck, the oldest brother, was never close to Robert, being in line with their father's interests in "golf, professional sports, and the good life." Robert only knew of Chuck's disapproval through Bill, though he notes that Chuck was OK with Daniels as a person. There was no reconciliation, and Chuck died in 1987.

During the 1990s, McClain and Daniels remained heavily involved in the gay scene both in San Diego and abroad, making up for the time they lost in the closet. McClain kept pen pals in Germany, Switzerland and Russia.

Through the '80s and '90s, McClain wrote and revised a book called Coming to Terms, a survey of his journals from 1973 to 1977 and the story of his coming out. In 1998, they moved back to Colorado Springs. Around that time, he attempted to get the book published, but he was unsuccessful as of 2003. McClain also noted in 2003 that he had advanced prostate cancer, but the bulk of his writings available from after 1996 are retrospective.

In July 2013, Daniels passed away. He and McClain had been together for 33 years. McClain died in January 2015, and on his obituary page with Springs Funeral Services, one Chaplain Nita wrote, "Dear Bob. We will miss you. We loved caring for your partner Ed and the relationship we developed with you following his death is one we all hold dear. We thank God for your friendship and find comfort in knowing you and your beloved are together again."

Through introspection inspired by Krishnamurti, McClain found himself and was able to live a more complete life.

"It takes true courage to come out and have that with you," says Merkle. "I've always said I don't care how many laws are made, how much legislation is made. I don't care how accepting society becomes ... it doesn't change someone's internal self-being and self-worth, and I think that's the struggle most people have with it ... [Being LGBTQ is] against the quote-unquote norm of society, and when you can't live up to that norm is when you start to question yourself and question everything. A story like this, I think, is always important."

click to enlarge ROBERT MCCLAIN
  • Robert McClain

Merkle calls it a reminder that the struggle to come out has always been there and will always be there. Perhaps the details of McClain's journey can help some sad LGBTQ kid see that he or she isn't alone.

As for the collection, McClain's paintings are on sale, and a percentage of proceeds will go to Colorado Springs Queer Collective, to be dispersed to LGBTQ charities in the region. Several paintings have already sold, and Khoury hopes to raise around $2,500 through the exhibit, a significant sum to CSQC.

Khoury says the collection will be open to show at other museums, in which case the bought pieces may travel with the set, on loan from their new owners. Schneider expressed interest in showing the work in a gallery he's in the process of opening downtown. But Khoury has rolled the dice on a big potential exhibitioner: the Smithsonian.

"You never know with those guys," Khoury says. "Sometimes you hit something and they love it, and sometimes they're not in a position to do anything."

Still, he thinks McClain's story is historical and worth sharing.

"It's such an indication now, when it's being so well received, that there's been a transformation in the city in terms of acceptance."


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