Some artists are seemingly born with the urge to create. For others, like Steven Beckly, the interest in creative pursuits comes a bit later. Raised in a traditional, Chinese-Canadian family, he was initially on track for a PhD in Psychology. But shortly after finishing his bachelor at U of T, a switch went off in his brain and he began to question everything he thought he knew about himself.
“I started to ask what I really wanted, whether being a researcher was how I was going to spend the rest of my life, or if there was something else,” he says. “So I took a year off to think about what the next step might be. Art was something that was constant for me in a way but I didn’t fully know what being an artist really looked like or meant.”
During his break from academia, Beckly began two important, intertwined relationships; the first with his camera, and the second with his current partner. His early explorations in image making were largely tied to his blossoming romance and it became the primary subject of his work.
“Creating became a way of opening up to who I was,” he says. “The relationship was really incubated through the process of looking at it photographically which then opened up a lot of ways of looking at myself and my identity. My sexuality wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind until I started making art. Since my work was so much about intimacy and relationships I had to confront those aspects of myself through art making.”
Beckly is one of the contributors to ArtAttack! A mainstay of the Buddies calendar since 1981, the evening does double duty as fundraising event and debauched party. Beckly’s offering is a composite photograph, created with two images stuck together; a photo of shirtless male friend from the back and a detail shot from a Henry Moore sculpture at the AGO. The piece is part of a larger process of exploration he’s engaged in as part of his MFA thesis at the University of Guelph.
“The idea that no photo is an island is an important philosophy in my work right now,” he says. “I was interested in using the figure as a starting point to look at the body as a site for intimate exchange. The piece works within the conventions of portraiture but messes with it by disrupting the viewing of the singular image.”
At the same time he’s progressing in his work, he’s also working on his relationship with his family. Still connected with Chinese culture’s deeply held beliefs about marriage and children, his parents struggle somewhat with his orientation, though they’ve apparently made remarkable progress.
“We’ve agreed to a way of functioning together that’s fairly untumultuous, but there’s definitely some work to do on that front both from myself and from them,” he says. “It’s not something I think we’re ready for right now, but it’s definitely coming in the near future.”