Thank you for visiting my fundraising campaign for The Family Connection, a memorial art installation in honor of my grandfather James Burton Rehnberg.
We buried my Grandpa Jim one month ago.
Baptist pastor, World War II veteran (218th Counter Intelligence Corps), preceded in death by Grandma Doris, his wife of sixty-five years.
Five months ago, Grandpa Jim told me he is gay.
Sitting over photos of my husband Bradford and I at our wedding, my ninety-year-old grandfather proudly celebrated “the balls it takes” to live openly. He told me about the love of his life, Warren Johnson, a boy he played music with at church. He told me God loves every part of us. He told me he would trade places with me if he could. He told me he loved me.
I put picture of Bradford and me in his suit coat pocket and a red rose on his coffin.
The Family Connection examines my relationship with this complicated man.
In order to mourn Grandpa Jim, I will create a memorial installation, a eulogy that directly links our paralleled experiences as gay men and members of the Rehnberg family. It seeks to answer the following questions:
How do I process my feelings toward a man whose legacy of religious shame, sexual repression, and fear of one’s true self shaped my own path? How do I reconcile my experience as a young, privileged, openly gay man with his?
The installation consists of two sections:
The Shrine- An assemblage of photos, mementos, and writings encircles a charcoal portrait of Jim drawn in honor of his high school graduation.
Left as offerings to his memory, these objects function as artifacts from his ninety years of life. Symbols of grandpa’s past intermingle with my possessions. Groom sculptures created for my wedding stand next to photos of Warren, Jim’s first love. His war medallions dangle before candles and scattered red roses. A pink light illuminates his army memorial flag. A favorite leather vest hangs neatly off to one side.
86 Nichols (or Mama’s Boy, Sissy)- An 8’ x 12’ replica of Grandpa Jim’s childhood home stands against a wall, luminous and imposing. Upon entering this structure, participants view a short film in which I deconstruct a Bible my grandfather gave me as a child.
The house looks storm weathered, a crumbling symbol of Grandpa Jim’s formative childhood. Here, Jimmy, the baby of eleven siblings lived with his sternly religious mother, who once beat him for wearing his sister’s face powder. His brothers called him Mama’s boy and sissy. His father died early. Built from reclaimed materials at a small scale, the structure feels fort-like, a temple of youth built from the remnants of the past. Shafts of interior light slice through gaps in the siding. Through a small glass door (alternative, wheelchair accessible door is available as well), a black room awaits viewers.
* I based my design of 86 Nichols on a vintage paper Mache model that Grandpa Jim gave me before he passed away.*
Within this darkened, tomblike space, a short movie plays on a loop. Set to Perfume Genius’ “Dark Parts,” this footage represents a private ritual. Clothed only in a jockstrap, I rip and crumple the pages from a Bible Grandpa Jim gave me in kindergarten. Eyes closed, my face revolves atop flannelgraph trees, the inverted seasons of life and death. I dance on the paper wreckage of my grandfather’s legacy. I embrace and exhibit my body, celebrating a sexual freedom Grandpa Jim never completely knew. I exorcize my religious-based, shame-filled inheritance.
The Family Connection, named after the Sunday school curriculum my grandparents taught together, binds my grandfather’s queerness and personal identity up with mine. It explores both our intimate bonds and vast disconnects. It reconciles my heart to his.
Love to you.