Paint, Paper and Permission…
By Geoff Gehman
For three decades Bill Hayward has been photographing people expressing themselves with black paint, paintbrush, sheets of white paper and permission to do anything and everything. He has documented a naked poet’s antlers, a magazine editor’s manifesto about her sexual abuse, a fashion designer’s Pope-in-a-sauna costume. It’s all part of his mission to encourage the magical elements that society tends to discourage: imagination, mystery and profound play.
Hayward’s fellow players have included actor Willem Dafoe, Native American activist-author Russell Means and detective Anne Marie Moloney, who helped bury 23 New York Police Department colleagues killed by the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. His sites have ranged from his Manhattan studio, site of the “Bad Behavior” project, where creative types explored their alter egos; the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the multi-media site of “The Intimacies Project,” which explored the motion of emotion, and Bunker Hill, one of many historic sites for “The American Memory Project,” which explored how Americans adapt to, and adopt, their heritage. The whole series of nearly 500 portraits is called “The Human Bible.”
This out-of-the-box expedition emerged from a box. In the late 1980s Hayward felt creatively cornered as a photographer of celebrities (Bob Dylan, Ronald Reagan) for celebrated magazines (Interview, Fortune). “I could dress you, I could light you up, but it wasn’t fulfilling,” he recalls. “It had nothing to do with you, and everything to do with me.”
Hayward satisfied his soul by creating a sanctuary for conversational collaboration. In “The Human Bible” he pursues his passions for painting, poetry, music, dance and justice. He honors the ancient power of matriarchy, an older sister who taught him to chase dragons, and his own cosmic curiosity. He learned to appreciate diverse places and diverse people as the son of a Texaco administrator, who moved his family 15 times before Hayward graduated from high school.
Hayward, 69, discussed his photographic odyssey during two phone interviews, during breaks from directing the film “Asphalt, Muscle and Bone.” He came off as a literary philosopher, a creative outlaw, an accidental therapist. “If you’re in process, you’re alive,” he says. “If you’re not, you’re just occupying space.”
Geoff Gehman: Do you have rules and ratios for choosing your collaborators? Do you seek a healthy balance between sexual orientations, ethnicities, body types, well-known folks and not so well-known folks?
Bill Hayward: I guess subconsciously I do. What I really want are people who can go with me to the heart of creativity, the heart of consciousness. This process is not about coming in with a thought in mind, although that can make the process better. Actually, the less I know about you, the better. The whole process is built out of conversation and rambling and wandering. Over an hour or two or three or longer something will surface that’s surprising. And then we’ll use that epiphany as the context for creating the setting, for expressing unexpected truths of self… One of my favorite collaborators was poet Mark Doty, who worked with me on “Bad Behavior.” He told me: “You know, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be an animal with antlers.” So I said to him: “Okay, here’s your chance.” I first shot him with painted antlers and his clothes on. Then he said: “If I’m going to be an animal, I can’t have my clothes on.” So I photographed him with painted antlers, naked… I know it sounds corny, but it was such a pure moment of enlightenment. He was saying: Here I am; this is how I am; this is my presentation of myself.
GG: Why are you so concerned about diluting the dominance of patriarchal society, about leveling the playing field between men and women?
BH: I think we all suffer, women and men, from this great imbalance of yin-yang, plus-minus, whatever you call it. Men are afraid of women, period, and they work very hard to erase them from history. Some men denigrate the vagina, calling it “cunt.” Why would you denigrate your birth home? Why would you denigrate the body and blood of your mother? And yet everyone knows that mothers are so important, especially in times of great stress. One of the people I photographed right after 9/11, for “The American Memory Project,” was Anne Marie Moloney, a detective who was in charge of burial functions for her colleagues in the New York Police Department. She was one of the first people on the scene at Ground Zero and she told me: “I remember two things very distinctly. One thing was that the streets were just strewn with shoes. And the other thing was that everyone was trying to get hold of a cell phone, if they didn’t have one, to tell their mothers they were okay.”
GG: Is your work a sort of tribute to your sister, who taught you to climb trees, look for snakes and generally chase the dragons of adventure?
BH: I’d say so. My sister Janet, who is six years older, taught me to paint, to draw, to be curious. If she told me there were elves and dragons in the hills, I’d say: Let’s go. You know, in ancient times in China dragon smoke was synonymous with imagination. You could ride dragon smoke from world to world to world. It was magical. I’m still looking for that kind of magic; I’m still looking for dragons… Women possess the creative mystery that men feel the need to strangle. A good example of women exploring possibility took place during “The American Memory Project” at Bunker Hill in Boston, a pivotal site during the American Revolution. There was this young woman, an eighth grader at the time, who went off in a corner to tear paper while I was doing something else. An hour or so later I turned around and she had fashioned this incredible gown out of the paper. She had also put tape across her mouth. It was her way of imagining herself at age thirteen or fourteen during the 18th century without any say, simply because she was a female.
GG: “The Intimacies Project” addressed what you call “the impossibility of love.” Do you mean romantic love? If so, why is romantic love impossible?
BH: Let’s just say love, period. I think it’s much healthier to start out with the notion that love is an impossible endeavor. I mean, what’s more difficult than a relationship? Nothing. Where do you get instruction? Nowhere. It’s either you’re married or you’re not, and if you’re not, there’s something wrong with you. We refuse to acknowledge that there are other ways of having a healthy relationship—like honoring imagination, history and mystery… Some people come into a session and say: I don’t write, I don’t draw, I don’t paint, I’m nobody (It’s like Emily Dickinson said: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”). I’ve had people in tears at the fear of actually creating something from scratch with a stranger. They become less fearful when they see it’s all play, and there’s no judgment involved, and it’s a secure space. A lot of people start by saying “I don’t have anything” and end up saying: “I’d love to do this once a month.”
GG: Has anyone done anything inappropriate during a session?
BH: Nothing is inappropriate when people are allowed to go into a deeply personal space. People are so suffocated, so malnourished in their souls, that they don’t realize they have this sensibility in them. It’s all about permission. If you want to go ahead and pour paint on your head, go ahead… I make myself vulnerable to an unknown process, too. For me it’s a battle between freedom and control. I’m telling people they can do anything while at the same time my head is saying: You’ve got to know what you’re doing. I just tell myself to follow the gesture rather than the idea. I get a lot of inspiration from painter Francis Bacon, who talked about the importance of making a brushstroke and finding where it goes. The point is, if I knew what I was doing, why would I bother doing it?
GG: Have you been shocked by anyone?
BH: No one has shocked me yet. I certainly wasn’t shocked that a fair number of people in the “Bad Behavior” series were naked. Some people believe I encouraged them to be nude; that’s just not true. It’s hard for non-believers to believe that there’s a reason people want to get naked: to express all of themselves; to be truly risky. You don’t make any progress unless you risk… I have been surprised in profound ways. In 2002 I photographed Russell Means, the Native American author, performer and activist, for “The American Memory Project.” We met at a hotel in Santa Fe during a meeting of tribal leaders from all over the country… He decided that he didn’t want to write or draw anything, that he just wanted to stand by blank paper. “This is enough,” he said. “I’ve been surrounded by white my entire life.” It was perfect. Here was this big, linebacker-sized guy with these long braids in these Bermuda shorts, looking bad-assed—but bad-assed in a good way.
GG: Have any of your collaborations significantly changed the lives of your collaborators?
BH: It wasn’t as much about changing their lives as acknowledging their lives… Although some people have traveled a path they wished they had traveled for a long while. I’m thinking of Atoosa Rubinstein, who at the time I photographed her in 2007 was editor-in-chief of Seventeen magazine. She gave me a page a month to document young women who had encountered very rough times: a teen prostitute; a LGBT girl harassed in high school; a girl with AIDS… Atoosa’s piece was about being abused as a child. She wrote about being scared in her room and not being able to cry. She repeated “Save Me” over and over and over again. I photographed her by her statement, holding a wadded piece of paper as if she’s protecting a child in a blanket. After our project, she realized she was not where she should be in her life and left the magazine.
GG: Has “The Human Bible” significantly changed you?
BH: I don’t think I’m that different, although I think differently. I have a greater appreciation for how difficult it is to catch your breath standing under the waterfall of culture. And I understand the greater need to orient our cultural ship toward sexual balance, to engender a kind of genderlessness. Men are always looking for an excuse to send more people into battle. Women are more interested in preserving peace by figuring out why our enemies are mad at us.
GG: Do you consider yourself a sort of therapist? Is it a role you seek or even embrace?
BH: I certainly don’t think of myself as a therapist, although it can be construed that way. Therapy is an ongoing process, and this process isn’t like that. I’ve never done more than one session with anybody. The longest I ever worked with anyone was from about 4 in the afternoon until 3 o’clock in the morning. My collaborator was a fabric designer who cut pieces of paper, painted them, and then pasted them on her body. The session took so long because we had to wait for all those painted pieces to dry.
GG: And yet you don’t mind therapeutic hand holding: encouraging, cajoling, saluting the struggles of siphoning the soul.
BH: Sure. Look, there’s nothing harder than going down into yourself, continuing to unfold the great mystery, knowing you never will. What I’m doing is allowing people to go places they’re not usually allowed to go. The great thing about this whole portrait process is that it goes anywhere and everywhere… Still, I have to admit it’s fulfilling when people recognize the process as a form of therapy. In 2001 we had a reception for the release of the book “Bad Behavior” in a SoHo gallery. At one point most of the guests had left and I saw a woman taking a long time looking at each image. “You know,” she told me, “I’m a Jungian therapist. You’re doing the same thing we do in therapy, only you’re doing it faster.”