by Patric Stillman
Visual artist and spoken word storyteller Maurice Cassidy has found inspiration in his fellow Irish countryman Francis Bacon. Bacon was a gay abstract artist who is today recognized as one of the most important painters of the 20th century.
Born in 1961 in Dublin, Ireland, Maurice Cassidy grew up in a country that was radically changing as it began to look outward from itself. At 19, he came out to his parents who took it surprisingly well, considering the times of the conservative Catholic country. He studied at Trinity College and hung out at the newly opened Hirschfeld Center, which included a community room and disco serving the LGBT community.
After school, Cassidy decided to travel the world. He made his way to New York City and got caught up in the big city’s lifestyle. He walked into Nishi, a restaurant frequented by Andy Warhol and Keith Haring on the Upper West Side and was hired on the spot.
“I was in awe of everything going on,” he said. “It was the time of the big clubs. In retrospect, I now realize that I was at the center of a time and an era where important things were taking place all around me. Things you now see in documentaries.”
As people began dying of HIV/AIDS, Cassidy answered a “call for action,” where an unusually affable Larry Kramer led a crowd to get personally engaged in social and political activism. This was the start of ACT UP, the grassroots political group working to end the AIDS pandemic. Cassidy found himself protesting on Wall Street and at City Hall. He was arrested at the vigil protesting the death of Matthew Shepard and was taken down to the Manhattan Detention Complex, nicknamed “The Tombs.”
By 1983, he had opened the gay bar, The Hanger, in New York’s Greenwich Village, which is still open today. At the time, the bars were a congregating point for the community and through it, he organized buses to the marches in Washington, D.C. The early rallies were focused on treatment, research, and funding for AIDS, but pretty quickly became about Marriage Equality.
“Those marches stand out in my mind,” Cassidy said. “To be surrounded by so many LGBTQ+ people was energizing. In Dublin, I found my tribe, but in New York, I really saw the tribe in action. I recall hearing Judy Shepard (Matthew Shepard’s mother) speak and it was one of those pivotal moments in our shared history that stays with me to this day.”
New York became home. He focused on his business, sold real estate on the side and was in a long-term relationship. At one point, he was hospitalized and became addicted to opiates.
In 2016, he left the Big Apple for San Diego to enroll in Stepping Stone’s rehab program. It was this important decision that gave him pause to reflect on his life and where he wanted to take it going forward.
“Rehab is technology free so I had a lot of time on my hands,” he said. “I recall looking over the canyons and had the notion to begin painting what I saw. San Diego’s natural world was exotic to me. It was all new. I had never seen anything like it.”
He eventually moved into painting portraits, which has become his main focus for the past four years.
“My friend Jennifer was the first portrait I painted,” Cassidy said. “I was reading a biography of the figurative artist Lucian Freud and was impressed by his desire to paint the people in his life. I also wanted to document the people who came into my life and changed me for the better. My work became an attempt at maintaining a record, a biography of sorts. The work explores the intimacy and gratitude I have toward my loved ones. It’s a way of honoring them.
“I met Secret in 2016 at Stepping Stone,” he continued. “She was a trans woman who worked as an attorney. We met before she transitioned and supported each other’s sobriety. We were the same age, so we quickly became inseparable at The Alano Club. Being sober, The Alano Club of San Diego became our community center. A place where we could attend 12-step meetings, birthday parties, holidays and memorial services.”
Three years ago, Secret took her own life. Cassidy found himself filled with difficult questions and raw emotions. He began to paint Secret so he wouldn’t displace his feelings in other ways. This led him to pick up a pen and begin writing. He wrote about the trauma that he was experiencing. He wrote about the things he learned about his friend that were never shared one-on-one. He tried to find some meaning in the loss.
“I didn’t realize how much she was struggling with things that I had taken for granted. Housing, employment and other things that I just sorted away were a constant burden for Secret. I didn’t realize how serious it was or that it could be fatal for a trans person to find safe housing or a place of employment.”
Through the creation of art and words, something happened for Cassidy. He felt a compelling need to share their story and in doing so, he found himself transformed as well.
“Initially, I thought I was just going to read this piece and people would understand what I was saying,” he said. “It’s intensely personal to me in terms of being raw, vulnerable and expressing everything that was going on for me at the time. So the actual act led to the spoken word piece and it became a discovery of my voice. I’m up there and reading my story. The story I have always feared. It’s too sad, too tragic, too troubling. People don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear it. I want to run from it. I want to escape from it. Then all of sudden, I discovered that you can be present in your story, be fully in your body, and survive it. That was a big revelation – that it was possible to be a part of the process of experiencing it. A process of reclamation and renewal. I think that was the biggest revelation of all of it.”
As part of San Diego Pride at The Studio Door, when the sixth annual PROUD+ visual arts exhibition takes place, Maurice Cassidy will share “Searching for Secret: A Tale by Maurice Cassidy,” on July 1 at 7 pm in the gallery, for one night only.
The gallery will also have a collection of Cassidy’s artwork on display to showcase the unique sight and sound of the artist. The Studio Door is located at 3867 Fourth Avenue, in Hillcrest. For more information on these events, visit TheStudioDoor.com.
“I hope that people can see themselves in the story and connect to their own feelings of loss,” Cassidy said. Maurice Cassidy can be found online at mauricecassidy.com and on Instagram at @mauricecassidy.
–Patric Stillman is a fine artist and gallery owner of The Studio Door. If you are an artist in San Diego’s LGBTQ+ community and would like to be featured in an artist profile, please contact Patric for consideration at [email protected].