Make it better
West Newton artist’s work draws from his experiences coming out as a gay man brought up in Mormon society
In two of the stark black-and-white prints in Daniel Embree’s exhibition at an Arlington gallery, a man kneels, praying, searching. Shoulders are bent, body folded.
In the two remaining pieces in the display, Embree depicts a man in a suit, but this time he’s standing straight, adjusting his bow tie, celebrating with a glass of champagne.
The monotypes tell the story of a life not lived long, yet full of transformation. Six years ago, Embree was a student at Brigham Young University in Utah, a lifelong Mormon desperate to rid himself of his attraction to other men. Now he is living in West Newton with his husband, who also graduated from BYU. And his work, which explores his transformation, is attracting attention.
Embree’s piece “Fear and Trembling’’ recently won third place in the Expressions Monotype Guild of New England exhibition at the Zullo Gallery in Medfield. And four of his monotypes were chosen for a juried show, “It Gets Better/Make It Better,’’ at Arlington’s 13FOREST gallery.
Embree came to Boston on a circuitous path. When he graduated from a Chicago-area high school in 2004, he was recruited by several art schools, including the Art Institute of Boston. Embree visited Boston and fell in love with the city, he said, yet he was afraid to move here because Massachusetts was the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry.
“At the time, I was in the closet, I was trying to hide, I was trying to change and so I chickened out,’’ he said. “I became scared that if I came to Boston, I might succumb to temptation.’’
Instead Embree enrolled at Brigham Young, a school affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his parents’ alma mater and the place where they were wed. Embree was especially drawn to BYU, he said, because the university offered counseling to students who had same-sex attractions and wanted to rid themselves of these desires.
Mormons believe that homosexuality is wrong, as is any sexual relationship outside marriage, and that those who feel same-sex attraction should resist and redirect those feelings, according to the church’s website. Marriage between a man and a woman is important for raising children, Mormons believe.
Carri Jenkins, a spokeswoman for BYU, cited the school’s honor code in response to questions about how it responds to gay students on campus. Jenkins said the school’s counselors try to help students with a range of concerns, including same-sex attraction, “if that is what the student desires.’’
At the beginning of his freshman year, Embree said, he began seeing a counselor, hoping to turn himself into a straight man. Trying on his own to restrain his impulses, he pictured himself getting beaten by baseball bats whenever he saw a man he found attractive, he said.
“It was not good for me,’’ Embree said. “I just became very unhealthy, very depressed. I think of myself as having a very cheerful countenance, but while I was in therapy I was really just dark. There was one point in time, the summer after my freshman year, where I was suicidal.’’
As many Mormon students do, Embree left his studies for two years to carry out a church mission, spreading the word about the religion in a Los Angeles neighborhood. When he returned to campus, he was astonished by the presence of anonymous blogs written by gay BYU students. When he realized one was written by a childhood friend, Embree began to think that maybe being attracted to men wasn’t a moral failure, that it was how he was made.
He began chastely and secretly dating men and eventually met Michael Barber, the man he would marry. They kept their relationship secret until they both had graduated.
BYU’s honor code states that homosexual behavior, including not only sexual acts but “all forms of physical intimacy that gives expression to homosexual feelings,’’ is inappropriate and, like all violations of the honor code, can result in expulsion from the school. The honor code notes, however, that a student who simply experiences “same-gender attraction’’ is not violating the code.
Embree said by the end of his final year at BYU, he was less secretive about being gay. Still, when he and Barber were both done with school, they decided to leave Utah.
They chose Boston, the city where Embree felt he had unfinished business, and moved to Massachusetts without jobs or a place to live.
“It kind of became our promised land,’’ Embree said. “My ancestors were Mormon pioneers. They started out here in the East. And they got persecuted because people didn’t want them to live the way they wanted to live. So they crossed the plains in their covered wagons and ended up in Utah.
“And then 200 years later, that’s where we were and we wanted to live a certain way and that wasn’t cool. So we packed up everything we owned into our U-Haul trailer and we hauled it in the other direction.’’
They found an apartment in West Newton. Barber found a job in publishing. And Embree is creating a name for himself in the art world. The 13FOREST show will close tomorrow, but owner Marc Gurton said the Massachusetts Avenue gallery will continue to sell Embree’s work.
“It Gets Better/Make It Better’’ was the first juried show hosted by the gallery; Embree’s work was chosen after a national call for submissions. Gurton said he was impressed with Embree’s work, as well as his personal story and the way he and Barber found themselves in Massachusetts, searching for equality.
“He’s a fantastic artist,’’ Gurton said. “His work itself is very strong and very powerful. The way he limits the palettes makes the images very powerful.’’
Embree said he is resolving, through his work, his path from Mormonism and BYU to life as a married, gay, East Coast artist. But he said he expects that, eventually, his work will broaden.
“Ten years from now, I don’t want to be the gay artist,’’ he said. “And I don’t want to be the gay Mormon artist. And I don’t want to be the former Mormon artist, or the artist who criticizes religion.
“Ten years from now, I just want to be an artist who’s creating work with universal themes that people can connect to.’’