Images Courtesy of iO Tillett Wright
Chameleon is a word easily applied to iO Tillett Wright, a photography-based visual artist and the guest curator of this issue centering on the theme of apprenticeships. The 25-year-old’s predilection for forging new paths and bulldozing walls—as a photographer, model, actor, writer, and publisher (of the now defunct street art magazine Overspray)—is emblematic of a cross-disciplinary approach to art making that sets her apart from most other artists of her generation. And this has little to do with lacking the patience or the resolve to perfect a single craft, mind you. Continually influenced and nurtured by a long line of creative mentors since birth, Wright simply chooses to keep an open mind and evolve as she sees fit.
During our recent sit down with Wright at her Brooklyn apartment, the artist talked about the bizarre encounter she’d had earlier that afternoon, which sheds light on the recurrent theme of change that’s been constant throughout her life: “I was at lunch with a friend and this waiter comes over to us and says, ‘Ladies.’ Then he looks at me, and goes, ‘…and gentleman. Ladies and gentlemen!’ He got all flustered. I was like, ‘Actually… I’m a lady, too.’ I was wearing a bright pink t-shirt and no bra! That happens to me like 8 times a day in the winter when I’m wearing a giant coat.”
Which begs the question: What are we to make of the waiter’s bewildered reaction here, especially at a time when the elastic boundaries of masculinity and femininity are nearing their breaking points? And in New York, no less? Wright, for one, seems to have the right idea: “I used to feel really threatened by stuff like that. I’d think, ‘I must not be a beautiful woman’ or ‘I must not be feminine enough.’ But after a while, I became proud of the fact that I confound people.” Clearly, Wright is hardly the woman in the throes of an identity crisis. If she’s hard to define—both in her life and in her work—it’s because she intended it.
It was undoubtedly the turbulence of the East Village she endured while growing up in the ’80s that pushed her to adopt a more fluid identity at an early age. Wright was just 5-years-old when she decided to take on a male identity. “When I went to the bathroom, I’d take off my shoes and turn them around so it’d look like I was standing up,” she says. Looking back, Wright thinks it was a defense mechanism. “Things were fucking rugged back then and people fuck with you less when you’re a dude. Every other Tuesday you’d hear about kids from the Salvation Army Home for Boys getting caught raping Japanese chicks on a stairwell on 6th street—it was a common occurrence. It was when I hit puberty that it felt natural to be a girl again.”
These days, it’s the world of photography that Wright is giving a shake with her modern ethos on gender and sexuality. In “Breedings”—a collection of black-and-white photographs that debuted at Fuse Gallery in September—she celebrates the kind of motley crew of androgynous characters you might find swarming the NYC punk underground; young things who aren’t easily categorized based on their looks, gender, and/or sexuality. It’s something the artist can relate to. “I’ve found a world of people who are sometimes gay, but actually, if you dig deeper, bisexual,” explains Wright. “They kind of look like boys and sort of look like girls. I like that they don’t exist in opposition to anything. They simply exist as themselves.”
Although she’s known for taking candid snapshots of people and things that some might consider lewd, if not controversial, it’s never her aim to shock nor does she hand out manuals that dictate how one should view them. Wright mostly photographs her friends and peers, and that injects a lot of honesty into her work, which also carries through in the way that she chooses to approach her subjects. “If I’m at a party, I’m not interested in photographing people posing for the camera with their party faces on,” she says. “Oftentimes, people go to a party to find somebody to hook up with and they’re actually displaying their loneliest moment. It can be an uphill battle finding those rare moments of authenticity, but it’s so worth it. People are at their most beautiful when they’re at their most genuine. I want to photograph life; I don’t want to photograph people performing life. I’m all about the sneak attack.”
As for Wright’s freewheeling artistic approach, which allows her to hopscotch from one career-changing pursuit to the next—she spent 20 years as an actor, two years as a film editor, and just three years ago, she didn’t know that photography would be in her future—it seems to be the byproduct of her stubborn independence. “You can’t tell me that I can’t do something,” she declares. “If something inspires me, I’m going to stick my hand in it. I think that’s the core ethos of everything I do and believe in. How could you grow up watching all of these people doing interesting things in New York and think that you have it all figured out? Different people inspire different desires in you.”
Just how much of Wright’s work across different media was self-taught? “Everything,” she says, but then elaborates: “That being said, I am a constant sponge to people around me, and I’m very, very, very appreciative of older people’s knowledge and wealth of experience. I grew up around these epically creative people who were making these beautiful things, and so I was always not only looking at their art, but looking at what was inspiring them to be the way that they were. And so it just became sort of like a lifestyle absorption.
“I’m constantly figuring out what I can learn from somebody who has more experience than I do in whatever their field is. So when I’m sitting with one of my godparents or something, and having them talk about making a film, or shooting this or that, it’s like I’m sitting in school, you know?”
Not surprisingly, Wright credits her father, Seth Tillett, as one of her life-long mentors, who gives us a feel of what her unique art-fueled upbringing was like: “Arto Lindsay once held her onstage as he played a guitar solo. She could fall asleep next to Dougie Browne’s drum kit during a gig, completely oblivious to the thundering noise. Growing up in the avant-garde theatre scene, she lived at rehearsals, slept in blankets in the wings, found herself in many plays, toured in Europe often enough, and lived with us on the road as in a circus family. iO has always been something of a circus kid; raised by and closely observing the outrageous characters around her, all the while inventing her own act. She didn’t come to the arts. She came out of the arts.”
Later iO entered into a more formal apprenticeship with documentary photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn. “When I first met her I was like, ‘You are fucking 45, and you ride your bicycle every day, and you are so rad!’” iO recalls. “She would run around with one camera strapped on her and another camera strapped somewhere else, just gung-ho, living life, like fully alive and thriving. I looked at her and I was like, ‘You are fucking bad-ass.’” “iO was pretty young at this point, and a real city kid—lots of street smarts, and mature and smart beyond her years,” Cheryl remembers. “And very ambitious in a youthful, refreshing way.”
iO spent three years assisting Cheryl, running errands, shooting and editing. “Basically, if you get work with someone that has a small operation and you become their sidekick, you are exposed to their whole world from the inside out,” Cheryl explains. “If you pay attention you can learn a lot [of things] that probably took that person a long time to learn themselves. Knowledge comes from experience, and opportunity usually comes from connections. If you can learn from other people’s experiences and apply it to your future aspirations, it’s a great education.”
The education wasn’t lost on iO. “I learned a lot,” she says of that time. “How to never grow old; how to be completely devoted to your craft; how to be resourceful; how to be subtle on a shoot and not stick your camera in somebody’s face in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, but to approach people with care, tact, and genuineness. And to be [doing it all] on the fly, you know?”
Filmmaker and family friend Sara Driver is another influential figure who emerges from Wright’s impressive stable of mentors. Driver, who has known Wright since she was a tiny bundle wrapped up in blankets, fondly recalls their first meeting: “I directed her mother, Rebecca, in a play with the Jazz Passengers at La Mama when iO was around 5—she was also in the play. iO would sit on my lap and watch her mother rehearse. After the run of the play, a few members from the Jazz Passengers would give her music lessons. I knew she was a contender from the first moment I saw her. She definitely landed on our strange planet to do something and be someone.”
Driver might be right. In the belief that art may serve as a powerful unifying force during times of confusion—the puzzled waiter being the perfect embodiment of said confusion—Wright works to direct the will of the masses toward the world’s transformation. As rulers, religions, military strategists, and political theorists have made the habit of trying to change the world throughout history, an uncommon number of artists have often laid plans to do the same—not only to change art itself, but also human consciousness and perception. “I do have the inclination to want to change the world and find acceptance for my people,” says Wright. “People in this country are generally unaccepting of things that are weird or things that they don’t understand. The tendency in this country is that if you don’t understand something, you bomb it or shoot it. I want the world at large to no longer treat us like freaks. I want people to feel good to be a woman on a Thursday and a man on a Sunday.”
Thumbing through her relatively short 25-year history, much of her self-determination and wildness of spirit appears to be the consequence of, at least partly, growing up around a parade of impassioned creative types—not withstanding the East Village itself, which she describes as having been both “fucked up” and “intense.”
As it turns out, Wright’s next move is as hard, if not harder, to predict than the future landscape of America. It appears that she’s ready to adapt again, expand her arsenal and continue to display a multiplicity as an artist that defies a singular interpretation. “My primary focus is to continue moving forward in a fine art setting,” she says. “I have indie filmmaker friends and family so I’ll hopefully find a way to collaborate with them where I can act again. I’m working on a screenplay right now. I’m also writing a book and just started a band. I’m on a rollercoaster so all I can do is hold on. I don’t know what’s coming next.”
Indeed, the rollercoaster that she’s riding on doesn’t seem to have a direct course, and whether or not all the pieces in her intricate puzzle add up, one thing’s for certain: she continues to play by her own rules. Wright’s father, ever the wordsmith, sums it up rather nicely: “She was then, and is now, resistant to any of kind categorization. She’s always changing, but her core is identical—that’s her. She has a healthy understanding of the ubiquity of ‘performance’ in life; the extent to which people play themselves, their gender, their race, their station or profession, or else the person they wish to be. She has experience with this. She’s at home in it and respects it. The result is someone who’s present and genuine, openly and enthusiastically making herself up as she goes. She hides behind nothing. She puts people at ease because she’s at ease.”