By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Not Hiding Anymore
ConnectSavannah Import Default Image
It’s unlikely that Matthew Shepard ever thought his name would become a symbol to others.

At the age of 21, Shepard believed he had his whole life ahead of him. But in October 1998, the University of Wyoming student was robbed and attacked by two men because of his homosexuality.

Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson beat Shepard brutally and tied him to a fence, where he was found 18 hours later. He died on Oct. 12, after five days in a coma.

Almost immediately, artists responded to Shepard’s death with works commemorating him. Melissa Etheridge wrote the song “Scarecrow” as a tribute, referring to the fact that Shepard’s body was mistaken for a scarecrow against the fence when it was found.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin also wrote a musical tribute, “American Triangle.” Two films about Shepard were made: The Laramie Project and The Matthew Shepard Story, and sculptures and other artworks were created and dedicated to his memory.

Painter and photographer Nicholas Wozniak also was moved to create artwork to honor Shepard. His painting will be included in an anti-hate art show that will open Jan. 8 at The Sentient Bean and hang throughout the month of January.

“I did the painting after I saw a news report about the beating and killing of Matthew Shepherd,” Wozniak says. “I tried to combine two-dimensional watercolors and pen and ink and incorporated some wire into it to give it a three-dimensional effect. I added straw that was made of paper.”

Everyone who sees the painting immediately recognizes what it is about, Wozniak says.

“I tried to make it so it wasn’t too graphic,” he says. “I wanted people to look at it, not turn away.”

Wozniak returned to Savannah recently, and the painting came with him, packed in a box. “I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design from 1993 to 1996 for undergraduate school,” he says.

“After that, I went to graduate school in Richmond, Va. The last five years, I’ve been teaching art and photography. Last year, after seven years of being away, I decided to come back. I fell in love with this city. My first priority was to set up a photography business and second to see if I could acquire a job teaching at SCAD.”

The photography business is now a reality. Wozniak is originally from Connecticut, where he learned to shoot pictures at an early age.

“When I was a kid, my godmother gave me a little Kodak camera,” he says. “I started taking images of my dogs.”

After returning to Savannah, Wozniak decided to unpack his painting. “I pulled it out of the box and hung it on the wall,” he says. “It has a message for me that is very personal. I thought maybe somebody else should see it.”

Wozniak began calling local galleries. “The ladies at The Sentient Bean were the most responsive,” he says.

Kristen Russell and Kelli Pearson, co-owners of The Sentient Bean, encouraged Wozniak to organize an entire exhibition. “We try to limit art shows to issue-based shows rather than one artist’s work,” Russell says.

After looking at the calendar, Russell saw that January was open. It seemed an appropriate time for a show with an anti-hate message.

“People are making New Year’s resolutions and wanting to change,” Russell says. “People are working to resolve problems and get to know one another.”

Wozniak sent out an appeal for entries. Although the turnout has been somewhat disappointing, he hopes that the show will become an annual event that will grow into something much larger.

“Maybe it could be a month-long observance, or an event at Forsyth Park, a Savannah-type thing,” Wozniak says. “It could be an anti-hate month that would encompass everyone -- all races, genders and ages. Maybe we could have speakers come to talk about coming together.”

Wozniak realizes it will take time for his idea to take root. “I had forgotten how conservative and fundamentalist and close-minded people can be,” he says.

Although several artists committed to the show, only half actually produced work. “I thought once people were committed, they were committed,” Wozniak says.

Christie Cummings is one of the artists who did follow through. “I think it is important to make art that affects people,” she says. “Now more than ever, to change the world we have to change ourselves and put ourselves out there.”

A native of Indiana, Cummings came to Savannah 11 years ago to earn a master of fine arts degree in painting from SCAD. “One thing led to another, and I stayed in Savannah,” she says.

Although she works in a chiropractor’s office, Cummings is still very much an artist. “I could draw before I could walk,” she says. “I drew on walls and on myself. My parents laugh about it now. It’s hard for me, even in the office, to pick up a pencil and not doodle. I’m always creating, always doing something.”

The painting Cummings entered in the show is entitled A Peace Shield, and it is done in oil pastel on canvas.

“I’ve studied different world religions and am especially interested in Native American history,” she says. “My mother’s father’s mother was a full-blooded Cherokee. At one point, I realized all the symbols I had been drawing all through my life were actually ancient Native American symbols.”

A Peace Shield represents a medicine wheel. It was inspired by a woman known as the Peace Pilgrim, and Cummings has compiled a photograph and information about her to include in the show.

“She lived from 1908 to 1981,” Cummings says. “She came from an affluent family, but realized she didn’t need material objects. She gave up her name and her home. From 1953 to 1981, she walked across the country promoting peace. She walked 25,000 miles, back and forth across the country. She walked until she was given shelter and fasted until she was given food. She felt we would gain world peace only when everyone had achieved inner peace.”

Cummings obtained a booklet written by the woman that also included a photograph of her. “When you look at it, you see how peaceful she is,” Cummings says. “It affected me so greatly when I read her writing.”

Cummings believes an anti-hate art show is needed. “I’m always amazed at how art work will affect people,” she says.

“Someone may come to the show and see the Peace Pilgrim’s smiling face and change somehow,” Cummings says. “Already the people who have seen it say it affects them in a positive way.”

Wozniak believes next year, local artists will be more prepared and ready to participate in the show. He himself has put a second piece of art into the show.

“My second one is not so powerful as the first,” he says. “It’s just a photo of my dog with text. It’s simple, but I think it is effective.”

The text explains life from a dog’s point of view -- that a dog doesn’t see black or white, it just sees people. A dog doesn’t care if people are gay or straight, it just loves them.

Such issues are of paramount importance to Wozniak. “I am gay,” he says. “I’ve found some people just can’t get past that,” he says.

“Since I’ve been back, I’ve heard people who can recite Bible quotes and text, yet continue to be hateful and closed-minded,” Wozniak says. “It’s just not about sex and same-sex marriage, it’s about everything.”

For a time, Wozniak was afraid to tell others he is gay. “I did not come out of the closet until I was in my early 30s,” he says. “Growing up, I heard comment after comment made by other kids about ‘queers’ and ‘fags.’”

He even heard it at home. “My mother was very open-minded, but my father and grandfather were close-minded,” Wozniak says. “I heard their racial and sexual comments. I didn’t dare tell my father that I was gay.”

Wozniak knew early in life that he was gay. “I knew when I was five years old. You just know. It’s a part of who you are,” he says.

“I would read about hate crimes, and realize it could be me who was beaten with a tire iron and dragged behind a truck,” Wozniak says. “It made me more cautious. I am more aware of what could happen. It’s always in the back of my mind.”

Although change has come slowly, it has come. “As time has progressed, a lot of young people have started at 15 or 16 what I started in my 30s,” Wozniak says. “I can only see that as a plus.”

But there are still issues that need to be addressed. “Young gay males commit suicide at three times the rate of others,” Wozniak says. “That right there is a huge problem.”

Gays are also forced to listen to world leaders such as President Bush and Pope John Paul II say homosexuality is wrong.

“I’m a Catholic myself,” Wozniak says. “But I can’t be part of a church with that kind of mindset. I’ve always thought what someone else does in their personal life behind closed doors is no one else’s business, unless it is illegal.

“One book I read was about what the Bible says about homosexuality.” he says. “When that text was written all those years ago, it meant something totally different that what we read today.”

Over the years, Wozniak has heard the unkind remarks made by others about gays. Because he is athletic and masculine, many people do not realize he is gay unless he tells them.

“When my students would put two and two together and ask if I was gay, I would say, ‘What does that matter?’ None of them could answer,” he says.

“As a teacher, I’ve seen and heard things the students say and seen how they are like little clones of their parents. I’ve tried to break the stereotype.

“Over the course of time, when kids ask me about it, I’ve been able to change some of the ideas in their heads,” Wozniak says. I take pride in the fact that as a teacher, I educate on all levels.”

Although art lessons are particularly valuable to students, they often aren’t appreciated by adults. “In public schools, when there are budget cuts, art is the first thing to go,” Wozniak says. “It is important to teach these kids to shoot a camera instead of a gun.”

He took his own painting to the high school where he was teaching. “When some of my students saw it, it started conversations,” he says. “Those kinds of conversations can open closed minds.”

Misconceptions begin at home. Wozniak thinks parents should be the guiding force in their children’s lives -- in a positive way. “It’s at home where people learn to be hateful,” he says.

Hate can be long-lasting, but it can be overcome. “As children grow up, they can make their own mind up as to what is right or wrong,” Wozniak says. “It’s not until college that they start to break away from their parents. They start experiencing for the first time real hardship and real freedom. They start making their own judgment calls and establishing their own belief systems.”

When Wozniak created his Matthew Shepard painting, people began asking him if he was gay. “I don’t lie about it any more,” he says. “It’s taken me a long time to get to this point.

“I look at that painting and think that it could have been me or any gay man or woman,” Wozniak says. “For being gay, we can be hated to the point of being murdered. It is in the back of everyone’s mind who is not straight. It could happen anywhere.”

Others agree an anti-hate event is a good thing. “I’ve talked to long-time residents who say it’s an idea that’s long overdue. But I don’t want to keep it just a straight and gay issue. It’s also a black/white thing, a Hispanic thing. We have to realize these issues are here,” he says.

“I more or less sat idle most of my life. I no longer want to sit on the sidelines and do nothing. I really have high hopes that this exhibit will turn into something done on a grander scale.”

Creating such art is healing for the artist. When Wozniak created his painting, it helped him handle his own grief over Shepard’s death. “It was a little bit of art therapy and it brought some closure for myself,” he says.

“I’ve only cried twice while watching the news. Once I cried as a teacher, after the Columbine shootings, when I heard about the teacher who sheltered his students and took the bullets himself. The other time was when I heard about Matthew Shepherd,” Wozniak says.

“Part of me was thinking as a teacher about someone in his 20s, about a short life that was extinguished, and not having the chance to do anything more with his life. We will never know what an impact he could have had, what he could have achieved.”

Although looking at images of hate crimes may be hard, it can produce results. “I have seen a photograph of the fence he was tied to,” Wozniak says. “It’s a graphic yet powerful image that moved me and made me think.”

Russell says Wozniak’s dream of developing the show into a much larger event is viable. “I think it could happen, but it depends on a lot of factors,” she says.

The show must get larger for it to be a success, Russell says. “It’s the holidays, so we kind of knew it would be difficult to get people interested,” she says.

“I’m hoping if we spread the word, other artists will come forward,” Russell says. “We would accept more work throughout the month, and I would love to see more work come in.”

It’s been said that we fear what we hate and hate what we fear. It might seem simplistic to say that people who commit hate crimes are afraid, but it is true, nonetheless.

“The only way to get past it is through education, by letting others see the people they fear or hate are not demons,” Wozniak says. “It has to start somewhere.”

The anti-hate art exhibition opens Jan. 8 at The Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave. Entries for the show will be accepted throughout the month. Call 232-4447.