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The Art of Coming Out: "Nate & Me"

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Self portrait (Matthew Pillsbury) contemplating Wapiti, Museum of Natural History, 2004

As many of my gay brothers and sisters know, coming out is not an easy process. Some of us come out at a very young age, some during our early adulthood and then there are those who struggle with this process and come out much later in their journey. Artist and photographer Matthew Pillsbury didn't come out until the age of 30 -- and when he did, it was both painful and exciting. After years of marriage, Mr. Pillsbury met and fell in love with Nathan Roland and subsequently left his wife and came out as a gay man.

Through a beautiful and provocative exhibition of black and white photos entitled, "Nate & Me", currently on view at the Sasha Wolf Gallery through April 20, 2014, Mr. Pillsbury shares his journey and newfound sexuality with the world. Even though Matthew shares a great deal of his coming out process through these amazingly descriptive photos, I couldn't help but dig a little deeper.

1) Why did you feel it was important not only to document your coming out experience, but most importantly to share this process with the world?

I didn't set out to document my coming out experience. It was only now that looking back on it I see much of the work I made at the time was a reflection of what was going on in my personal life. I was married so my coming out caused a lot of pain and anguish to my wife, our families and our friends. I see that anguish in pictures like self portrait contemplating wapiti. The weight of the emotions are literally slumping my shoulders and I feel like the animal is calling out to give me courage. Simultaneously I was also experiencing the excitement and relief of finally being able to live my life openly. My excitement of meeting Nate is also visible in my work -- I started making pictures of him -- often naked or while having sex with him as a reflection of my own desires. In making these pictures I was also wanting to make the relationship permanent and assert to myself if no one else -- that this mattered and I was no longer ashamed. There's an obvious societal respect and power given to your married spouse that was certainly unimaginable for gay couples even as recently as 2004 when I came out. Besides assuaging my own desire to photograph him, making these pictures was away of establishing his role in my life and sharing it with the world.

2) Did you ever have second thoughts about this project either during or after?

If i had any fears it would be that in sharing this work being gay would become the defining attribute of my work. I think many gay people struggle with how important being gay is to their identity. We are seeing actors and now athletes who don't want to be known as "the gay athlete" or the "the gay actor" but merely as accomplished people in their field who also happen to be gay. I certainly don't think that being gay is the most important aspect of my work as an artist or even my identity as a person but it's a big part of both and I'm excited to share it more publicly.

3) Has your ex-wife seen these photos and if so what are her feelings?

I don't know... She was justifiably very hurt by my actions and we are no longer in contact.

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Nathan Noland, Grand Hyatt Tokyo, CNNJ, Tuesday, February 7th, 2005 5:08-5:23AM

4) How does your partner Nate feel about your private life being made so public through your work?

Nate and I broke up five years ago. We remain very close friends and collaborators. While our relationship is no longer romantic or sexual in any way he continues to work with me. He was very comfortable with these pictures being shown and I think is flattered by the attention. The picture of him shaving is in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum while the one of him playing his game boy in the collection of the MFA Boston. He likes thinking of his pictures sitting amongst their treasures. I am very fortunate that my partner, Ferratti Valerio, has not only welcomed Nate's ongoing role in my life as a friend and collaborator but was also comfortable with me showcasing this work that documents our romantic and sexual history.

5) What do you hope the audience will take from their intimate experience of your work?

I'm often reluctant to talk openly about what my work means to me. I think that all good work is open to many interpretations and I'm more interested in hearing what other people have to say and what the work means to them. Much of my work has addressed the growing role that technology is playing in our daily lives. With this show I'm highlighting that many of the photographs are also a highly personal look at my life. Looking back on when I started making these pictures I was in the closet and had never had my work shown. Ten years later I have had many shows and am openly living my life as a gay artist. If anyone living the closet looks at this period of my life i hope they are inspired and see that it does get better when you start living openly.

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Sitting on the High Line, 2011

6) As photography continues to claim it's rightful place in the art world - what kind of collector are you expecting to gravitate towards this work? Or is this even something you think about?

Over the past decade I am lucky enough to have gained some devoted collectors. Besides supporting my work they have shared ideas, appeared in photos themselves and propelled my work further by facilitating my projects in London, Venice, Paris and currently Tokyo, where I am beginning a new series of work in March. However, in making the photographs I only try to please myself. I'm often surprised by the pictures that have proven popular and confused that others have never found their audience. I don't think it would be productive to try and anticipate their reactions.

7) As this series "Nate & Me" only consist of 11 photos will this be a conversation you plan on expanding through your work??? Or is this the last time we will be seeing Nate?

The show is an edit of my work that showcases these 11 pictures but there are more photographs of him taken over the past decade. As we continue to be friends and work together, I anticipate that you will continue to see more pictures of Nate for years to come. And of course more pictures of Mr. Ferratti.

All photos courtesy of Matthew Pillsbury