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The Million Year Mensch

Copyright © 1998 by Jeff Hengst

This article appears in Vol. 1 #3 (Summer/Fall 1998) of Men's Voices journal.
 Men's Voices: So men can find their voices and speak their truths


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Jeff Hengst, Mud Man 4

Even though my name is Jeff Hengst, I have become known in Seattle as "Hengst": painter of profound male nudes. These nudes are potent, strong, and often even erotic. My nudes have dicks. They are sometimes erect and sometimes flaccid.

I am straight.

And because I am asked frequently why I paint this way as a straight man, I have given some careful thought to this. The easy answer it that I am a man. So why shouldn't I be compelled to paint what I am? My paintings are not the objects of my desire. They are an expression of who I am, not who I want to fuck.

Several years ago I was preparing for an exhibition of my paintings in a small gallery in Seattle for which I had prepared several striking, male nudes. These comprised the first of the paintings that were to become the work that made me "Hengst." It is noteworthy that at least half the paintings in that exhibit were of me, although they were not self-portraits exactly.

Early in the day of the opening reception I was waiting in traffic when I was suddenly struck with the feeling that I must go to the opening in the nude. I wanted to reveal my total physical being. Because there were children present who were not old enough to integrate such an appearance I decided to do something else instead. But what?

Later, it occurred to me to cover my entire body in mud including head and genitals. And so I prepared a bucket of slick mud from potter's clay and an hour before I was to appear at the gallery, I stripped in my studio and began covering myself in mud. The effect was so much more than I had anticipated. The opacity of the mud covered over the fleshy transparency of my skin and eliminated all the fuzzy irregularity of body hair, moles, freckles, etc. So my essential form emerged while the mud dried and formed a kind of total body mask, bringing forth something essential, pure, volumetric-and distinctly male. Jeff was masked and Hengst was revealed. Even friends who knew I was preparing to do this did not know who I was when I entered the room. They thought I had put someone else up to it.

The effect when I entered the gallery was fantastic. Some people were horrified, while others were amused, but most fell into aesthetic arrest. They didn't know what to think. The shock was visible. Suddenly there was room for a new concept to enter. Suddenly before them was a real man, a pure man--not a person. I was not a person and I knew instinctively not to talk.

But one of the best scenes took place after leaving the exhibit. I was joined by an attractive woman and we walked down Pike Street, in front of the Wild Rose café. It was a warm September afternoon and there were many women sitting or standing around outside the place. We approached and the crowd rolled back and people started cheering. As I walked through they rose to their feet applauding. What was going on here? Did these women recognize a man when they saw one? Had they not seen a man for so long that his mere appearance warranted applause?

painting by Hengst

Since then I have done many appearances in mud and created a strong body of work entitled "Erden Mensch."

Just shortly before this time I had decided to return to Pennsylvania to find my father and to confront him about the several beatings I endured from him when I was a child, before he and my mother split. I wasn't sure what I needed to achieve, but I knew I had to see him. Perhaps it was only to see the hand that beat me 28-30 years ago.

And so I returned to Pennsylvania and looked him up. He was genuinely glad to hear from me and suggested we meet for lunch at a restaurant near his home. As I drove towards the restaurant my whole body began to quiver and shake. Eventually I was gripping the wheel so tightly I could barely drive. What was coming over me? What was I doing here anyway? What did I hope to achieve or to say? Would I tell him I remembered that he had beaten me? I knew only one thing for certain: I wanted to end the conspiracy of silence. I wanted to say it: "You beat me."

I arrived at the restaurant and convinced myself that I must go through with my plan and decided that I would bring up the subject no matter what. No matter how bad the timing, how awkward the moment, this lunch would not end without me saying it.

When I met my father in the lobby I had not seen him in over 10 years and then only briefly at my brother's wedding. So I had not really seen him for 20 years. He was old now, and I was 34. I was taller than he was and my body was full of power and strength. He looked good, but he was 65. He couldn't beat me up now if he tried. The idea was laughable.

We settled into a booth and fell into conversation easily. He asked questions. He told stories. Our food came. We kept talking and ate. It was pleasant. How could I say it now? Everything seemed so nice now. Couldn't it just be forgotten?

Dishes were cleared and there were so many people in the restaurant. Could I cause a scene in front of all those people?

The check came and my Dad grabbed it and insisted. Lunch was done, let's go. Ordinarily I would have wanted to chat. We had 20-25 years to catch up on. But now all I really wanted was to filibuster.

Within moments we were on the sidewalk outside, preparing to head to our cars. I squared off with this smaller, older man who was and is my father and I said, "Dad, there is a reason I came here to see you and it is that I have something to tell you."

He braced himself. I was prepared to shout after him as he ran, but instead he looked as though he put down roots, got ready for a gust of strong wind or something.

I looked straight at him and said, "I came here to tell you that I remember being beaten by you twice when I was a child." I stopped. Not to hear a response but to gather my thoughts because I knew I had more to say but I was only then figuring it out in the heat of the moment.

He burst into the pause, denying that he had and that my mother had fabricated those stories and began repeating himself. I was only half-listening. I burst back into his words, saying, "The second thing I want to tell you is that I am aware of it. It's not something underground in my unconscious. I've been thinking about it a lot and discussing it and trying to become conscious of it."

He listened, but when I paused he broke in again repeating his denials and accused my mother again of fabricating the stories. I burst in again though, saying, "Dad, I came here to tell you I am done with it. I've dredged it up, I've looked at it, examined it, considered it. I'm done. And I want you to forget about it from now on as well. Forget it."

There was a deep silence for a moment. He had stopped talking over me and defending himself. He was listening and so when I stopped there was silence. We looked straight across 25 years of silence and dread. He saw me and for an instant, and I saw him. He reached out his arms to embrace me. As we hugged he said he was sorry. Stepping back he apologized again and struggled to regain his composure. It was hot, and the sun beat down on both of us. I reminded him that I was over it, and repeated my hope that he would get over it as well. He promised me that he would. He said he would drop it too.

We said goodbye, then walked to our cars and left.

Without realizing it, I had gone there to forgive him. And without realizing it I had rediscovered the power of forgiveness. I discovered how it may come about instinctively from an urge to grow. It is not a moral principle, but a living imperative. It flows forth from life itself. I had set myself free ironically by concentrating on setting him free.

And what were the terms of that freedom?

In that moment I was free to become a man. Even though my father was a man. And even though this shaped my idea that a man is one who beats his children, spurred by some unknowable rage. I have felt that rage too, and I know the twisted power of rage.

My whole life I assumed that becoming a man meant succumbing to that rage. So I spent many years trying to become a woman. I stopped trying to become a woman on that sunny afternoon with my dad, but it took me several years to deconstruct my efforts to become woman-like. My paintings are not deconstructionist. They are about my reconstructing a truer male self. I am a man. At last, at 34 I could begin to make use of the motions in my heart, the swelling of my muscles, the power in my thought and thrust in my loins. I could understand how to use feelings of rage positively.

For the first time in my life I could really fuck someone (not to say "fuck them over"). I realized that love, for a man, is made by fucking. What a strange paradox. The union I feel now with my lover is such a deep blessing of love. . .a catharsis of every drop of blood and sweat. And invocation of a million years of my fathers and grandfathers and grandfathers' fathers. It is a howling, growling explosion of everything I've got and everything that ever has been.

The union which follows is complete. We are one for an eternity inside of a few precious moments. We emerge reversed. I am tender, sensitive, open, soft and dreamy. She is empowered, emboldened, firm, certain and mindful.

Painting is a sex act. I stab and thrust, lick and caress. I initiate and make the initial shape. The paint and the brushes respond according to their true natures. I am present for their gentle voices and so they roil me. I prod harder or softer accordingly. I can not let go as the fever increases. The pitch hastens, the heat of it, the sweaty male pounding intensity.

The constraints of shame long forgotten. The whole history of maleness springs forth from my brush now instead of from my dick. But it all started in my loins. It is given up.

When I see my sweetheart emerge from our love making, empowered, emboldened, upright clear and strong, it is no wonder that my paintings emerge as images of men. But they are not ordinary men. They are million year old Menschen and they are made by Hengst.

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