Beyond Blood: Exploring the Ties that Bind Us To One Another

by Leona Baker

ONE AND THE SAME

Photographer Jason Hanasik introduces us to his "families."

What does family mean to you? Most of us would answer by first ticking off a list of those folks related to us by blood or marriage: parents, spouses, children, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins.

But 23-year-old photographer Jason Hanasik contemplates the question quietly before offering, "To me, family consists of the people who help us consistently along on our journey, providing insight and offering assistance through moments of transition."

Hanasik is slightly built and dressed in jeans a red T-shirt covered loosely by an unbuttoned, well-work dress shirt. 

He's giving me a guided tour of his exhibit Family Matters 1&2 currently on view at the Contemporary Art Center (now called the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art) in Virginia Beach.

The first half of the exhibit consists of images of Hanasik's "real" family: his father Jeff, his mother Jackie, his sister "Jen Jen," and an assortment of extended relatives — mostly women, including the family matriarch Ellen...or "Nana."

The second half is made up of pictures of Hanasik's other "family" — his friends and acquaintances in the gay community, with whom he says he found comfort during his journey into acceptance of his identity as a gay man.

After graduating from New York's Purchase College and traveling across country, Hanasik says he landed back in his hometown of Virginia in 2003, out of money and bored.

He decided to join the Hampton Roads Men's Chorus, where he met the people he would come to consider his alternative family — this family headed up by its own matriarch, Michael "Momma" Curtis, HRMC's president at the time.

"Momma" appears in quite a few of the images, as does his partner and chorus member, Steve Fazzio and HRMC founding director Stuart Stanley.

"Choral singing is like a selfless thing, " explains Stanley, "because you have to give yourself over to the group — if you do that over time, people are bound to form bonds."

And these "families of choice," he says, are common in the gay community.

"For whatever reason, if people are estranged from their biological family or they are physically separated from their biological family...for whatever reason gay people find themselves orphaned somewhat socially, they connect together in pods and social groups."

Hanasik was on of those people.  And for him, the timing was crucial.

"This has been the best experience I've had because I have so many questions."  he says. "I mean, I can read all of the literature I want, but I still feel like I'm alone a lot of time.  I mean, my parents can't help me with this.  They don't know, they don't have any idea what to do, what to say.  So these (men) have been my role models.  Other than the sex part, there's a whole other of the (gay) community that you have to understand to move through, just like straight communities where you're learning, but you're taught through books and TV shows and stuff like that."

On the surface, the body of work in Family Matters 1 & 2 sell well as a thumbing of the nose at the traditional notion of that much overused catch phrase of the recent political season, "family values."

Religious conservatives would like to legally define the parameters of the nuclear family as husband, wife and children.

Hanasik would like to open our minds to the possibility that the definition of family lies not merely in those with whom you share more nebulous set of connections marked by love, caring and share responsibility.

By baring the soul of his alternative family with equal attentiveness and sincerity, the artist invites us to explore that possibility.  He encourages us , too, to enter into a dialogue about our extended community as family.

While exploring the pictures that line the zigag of hallway leading into the Chihly-splashed atrium where Hanasik's exhibit ends, I pondered those issues.

"How many of us really fit into the Mom, Dad, 2.5 kids family model?" I wondered.

Growing up, I always felt like the odd girl out because my parents, high school sweethearts, were still married. More than half of my close friends and acquaintances were the children of single-parent households, divorce and blended families.

Then there are foster and adopted children, many of them of differing ethnic backgrounds than their guardians.  There are gay parents and extended family members raising children that aren't their own.

And then there are those families we choose — our churches, workplaces, community groups, support groups, and life-long friends. Our blood relatives are bound to us by science, but in an equally significant way, it's these other families that define who we are.

Family Matters 1 & 2 is running concurrently at CACV with Pepon Osorio’s Trials and Turbulence, an installation exhibition that tackles the shortcomings of the American foster care system.

Choosing work that touches on potentially tough issues, says CACV Executive Director Cameron Kitchin, fits in to the center’s overall mission.

“What we’ve been doing – we have very much taken on the position that museums are the new town square,” says Kitchin, “That they are a safe place for social dialogue...that they can act as common touch points for social issues.”

Hanasik says he experienced a slight snag in that dialogue when, after his show went up, he was told by a CACV docent who leads tours of the exhibits for students, that only the first half of his exhibit – Family Matters 1 (his blood relatives) – was being shown to those students.

But, he says, the problem was quickly remedied with a flurry of apologies.

“I got like three phone calls in one day...They were really good about it.”

And, says Kitchin, it was most likely based on a miscommunication.

“Our docents always select individual artworks,” explains Kitchin, clarifying that they are unable to give attention to all of the work in the center in one visit.

“We hold fast to the principle of artist freedom,” he says.

Nevertheless, the incident underscored, for Hanasik, the importance of making the work.

Gesturing around the pictures in Family Matters 2, he tells me, “I don’t see any sex.  I don’t see any kisssing.  There’s hugging that goes on in one picture.  It’s just...I’m interested in the fact the we are not seeing alternative families.  We’re not seeing the other couplings that go on to help us get from one place to another.  It just so happens that I chose this vehicle as my alternative family...What would hurt me the most is that I know for a fact that you have students coming through this thing that go home to that double family portrait ever night.  They go home to gay parents.  Whether or not the museum agrees with that or not, they would be only adding to the fact of why this whole picture was made in the first place.”

But Hanasik’s pictures are really about more than agitating the conservative establishment’s prescribed construct of the family bond.

Beneath the surface – and you don’t have to scratch very far – lie themes of isolation, miscommunication...or utter lack of communication...and yearning for things that cannot be.

“At first,” he says,” I was only interested in gender identity and socio-economic class status.”

But the act of making the images quickly evolved into a way for him to explore the dynamics of the relationships that surrounded him.

“I can’t always tell how I feel about somebody until I photograph them,” he explains. “And so, this becomes a therapy for me.”

In one picture, Hanasik’s mother sits on a stairwell looking into the camera.  His father rests nearby with his head and hand draped almost poetically over the stair rail in a gesture of wanting towards his mother.

“There’s a triangle going on with the viewer,” he says, turning from the picture to me and back. “And I’m trying to figure out the picture myself. And then I was like, well, this is normal.  My mother’s 6 foot, my father’s 5-feet-11, so all these gender gender ideas that everyone has these hang-ups about, I never had...it was my mother who had the size 13 shoe and was like, ‘if anybody messes with me I’m just going to...you know, like, don’t worry about’...My mother was always the dominant person.  And my father was not weak, it was just...he let her do that because she’s always been...that’s her personality.”

He takes me from image to image in Family Matters 1, offering the stories behind some of them and the things he discovered about himself and his family while creating them.

The results, he says, are portraits of the kind of frictions that we all experience with our relatives.

“We don’t have problems – I mean this is normal stuff going on, you know, it’s just not Leave it to Beaver.”

In both sets of pictures, the subjects often stare into the lens with dour expressions, something Hanasik causes the misconception that they are all angry or upset.

“The things that has probably been the most disappointing about this show is that everyone thinks (the people in the pictures) are depressed.  And I’m like, you do not walk through life,” –he plasters on a fake smile – like that. We’re told to do that in pictures. And so, this is just life.  This is what it looks like, or at least what I think it looks like.

The people in the pictures may not be depressed, but they are in many cases isolated, whether by the artist’s design or their own.

This could be a tell-tale sign of Hanasik’s self-professed love of photographers like Diane Arbus, but certainly the feeling of isolation is also a reflection of a certain truth – that we all live in our own heads. No matter how or with whom we surround ourselves, there is always a longing for a deeper connection that often seems just beyond our reach.

In one particularly striking image in Family Matters 2, chorus member Steve Fazzio sits shirtless on the bed inside his RV, the narrow confines of the kitchen compartments in the foreground creating a claustrophobic tunnel of separation from the viewer.

In another from Family Matters 1, labeled “Ellen at her Birthday,” Nana sits decked out in party dress, seemingly alone as the rest of the family chat and goes about their business without her.

Although taken primarily with a large format camera, most of the images have a softness about them, muted colors, and a slight dust of imperfect exposure that , in this case, seems to add to their air of everydayness.

“I don’t really consider myself a real artist,” explains Hanasik.  “I’m not too particularly interested in it.  I’m more interested in sociology and psychology than I am in anything else.”

Hanasik continues to explore both in what will become Family Matters 3, a documentation of his unconventional relationship with his best friend.  And he has begun work on project that touches on questions of sexuality in the military.

"Beyond Blood: Exploring the Ties that Bind Us To One Another" originally appeared as the cover story for the 3/29/2005 print edition of Portfolio Weekly: The Alternative Voice of the Seven Cities.