Editor's note: The transgender subject of this column prefers to be addressed with plural pronouns ... hence, "they" instead of "he" or "she"; "them" instead of "him" or "her"; and so on.
Lucas Stiegman was raised with the hope that, one day, they would take over the family farm near Thawville in Iroquois County.
"My dad needed my assistance because there was a lot to farm," recalls the 22-year-old who, instead, became an artist in harmony with their feminine side.
"I helped him growing up, and I gained enough knowledge to function in that world and be self-sufficient at it. I know how to use a gun. I know how to use power tools. I know how to pitch a tent."
But Lucas also knew that their instincts were pulling this future farmer of America elsewhere — both in matters of a life's calling and of personal identity.
"I was aware of not being like others around me. In addition to being queer, I was dealing with mental health issues that are common with a lot of queers dealing with society and expectations. That's supposed to be what happens to anyone who is queer ..."
They didn't yet have the precise language to express what they were feeling.
Unsurprisingly, things weren't going so great at Iroquois West High School, during which time Lucas' gender identity issues were acknowledged personally, but kept bottled up socially.
"I did a lot of drawing ... primarily what would be called realistic drawing. I didn't know what art was by definition. And I was drawing things I thought were interesting ... not yet related to my identity."
Drawing and Nintendo video games "were what what my safe space was at away at home on the farm as I was dealing with school-caused anxiety. I was lucky to have had that."
At school, "I wore the mask of comedy to deflect conversations about all of this, which is something that made me more socially aware as a person.
At home, Lucas eventually came out to mom and dad.
"Obviously, they were taken aback a bit. But they gradually began to understand."
At the end of the day, "They were more worried about how the world would treat me."
They also accepted the fact that Lucas would not be taking the reins to the farm that had been handed down through several generations.
"I knew I wanted to pursue art. When I came to college (Illinois State University an hour away from the farm), I always knew if I didn't understand art, I could do it."
It was at ISU that Lucas' gender identity began to flower through his involvement in various campus-based LGBTQ advocacy groups and organizations.
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They finally found their voice as it could be conveyed through their art, which began to move from realistic drawing to a form of photography that they describe as "focusing on the dichotomy between the beautiful and the grotesque to enable a sense of comfort to be found within the discomfort."
"These groups gave me a lot knowledge, and they gave me the language to understand things I'd always known but was unable to express."
Bringing their sense of art and identity into full fruition was attending the Creating Change Conference in Chicago two years ago at the age of 20.
The National LGBTQ Task Force-sponsored event was comprised of workshops and discussions on various social just topics.
"I met other queer people, networking and sharing experiences and being able to walk outside of a hotel dressed however we wanted and not thinking for a second about how people perceived us. It was a really interesting feeling."
A subsequent ISU study trip abroad to Florence, Italy, "gave me sense of the ability and confidence I didn't have growing up. I could embrace my voice and be unapologetic first, then queer and an artist after."
That impact of Lucas' awakening are about to be unveiled to the public in his solo exhibit, "Pink, White, and Blue," opening Sunday afternoon in Bloomington's Jan Brandt Gallery, 1305 Morrissey Drive, with a reception from 2 to 5 p.m.
"I am blown away by their work, and I have personally learned so much from having Lucas as my intern," says Brandt, who has collaborated with the artist on an installation piece in the show.
"Being a transgender artist is a pretty brave life journey for Lucas," she adds.
A representative piece in "Pink, White, and Blue" is titled "Americana," with Lucas photographed front-and-center in full, unapologetic transgender comfort.
It was shot and staged on a patch of the family farm near Thawville, with the camera operated by "my assistant," mom herself (Lucas composed and directed the shot, but it was she who clicked the shutter, they proudly note).
The prevailing colors, embodied in an array of retro-kitschy lawn ornamentation and Lucas' own clothing and makeup, match up with the exhibit's color-coded name.
Like much of their work, "Americana" evinces what Lucas describes as a "representation of fear as more of an abstract anxiety ... of being on the outside looking in at America, and not fitting the American model."
During the shoot, "Mom didn't like what I was wearing, but she's an artist, too, who paints, so she at least has an understanding of this type of art. Though when I was dressing, we did find a hiding spot so that dad wouldn't see us."
All told, "My parents are proud of what I'm doing," says Lucas. "Dad has seen my work ... he doesn't always understand it, he's a farmer more than an artist.
"But they are both always supportive."