Gene Elder Remembered: The Triumph of Imagination Over Suggestion

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(left) The late Gene Elder with Mike Casey during the memorial of Kenneth Garrett in February.

Courtesy / William Sibley

(left) The late Gene Elder with Mike Casey during the memorial of Kenneth Garrett in February.

“Art is being too dumb to duck when you see it coming.” — Gene Elder (and George Green)

In the past few months, San Antonio has lost a number of prominent gay artists and business professionals who brought a degree of vision and creativity to our burgeoning metropolis that can only now be fully perceived with the clarity of time and reflection.

First, there was Tom Wright, developer, arts patron, downtown visionary, and advocate for a more sophisticated, urbane, and arts-conscious city. Then Kenneth Garrett, owner of San Antonio’s preeminent gay bar (or nowadays, “occasional” gay bar) behind the Alamo, the Bonham Exchange.

A week after Garrett’s passing came the death of local artist Brad Braune, who created the first Folklife Festival poster (the Longhorn steer with the balloon tied to one horn), the set for A Greater Tuna Christmas, and the set for the Joffrey Ballet’s Jamboree, among myriad creations. Braune was the progenitor of the “Soft Focus Cowboy” school of Texas imagery, now ubiquitous as Big Red and peanut patties.

Presently, we consider the recent passing of yet another San Antonio gay icon, Gene Elder. Gene died of colon cancer on Sunday, April 28 at his residence in the River Road neighborhood. He was 69 years old. Gene is survived by his older brother, Bill, and his sister-in-law Cheryl.

He was my neighbor in the River Road neighborhood for more than 15 years and lived in the same one-bedroom apartment for nearly twice that long. To say that Gene’s worldview was sometimes atypical is the equivalent of stating bananas are yellow and coffee brown.

It’s near impossible to recall or even fully tabulate all Gene’s artistic creations that he formulated since graduating with a degree in Fine Arts from Trinity University in the early ’70s. Born on July 4, 1949, in Dallas to Billie and James Elder, Gene said his was a perfectly normal, upper middle-class, baby-boomer childhood with a work-preoccupied father and overprotective mother. The notion of becoming an artist to a dreamy, misfit kid in suburbia with no role models on how to concoct such an achievement is the stuff of countless coming-of-age novels and rock star bios. In Gene’s case, it was a hard-won triumph of imagination over suggestion.

In addition to managing one of San Antonio’s legendary early gay bars, the San Antonio Country on North St. Mary’s Street, Gene managed the (then) incipient Blue Star Art Complex – both for original Bonham Exchange owner, Hap Veltman. Upon Veltman’s death, Gene became director of the Veltman Happy Foundation housed in the Bonham Exchange and serving as a repository for local, regional, and national LGBTQIA history.

Gene could frequently try the patience of a fence post. I’ve had countless arguments, quibbles, and tiffs with him over politics, sending me too many emails, leaving his notorious “gifts” of found junk he’d picked up in someone’s throwaway pile on the curb. One never won an argument with Gene. It was always a matter of turning and walking away. And yet … anyone, anyone was always welcome to join him during his afternoon relaxation time in his Hieronymus Bosch-like untended garden of surreal delights facing the San Antonio River. It helped immensely if you brought wine.

One morning everyone in River Road woke to find a small hand-painted tile with the mathematical symbol π (or “Pi”) deposited at their front door by Gene. We’re all still trying to ascertain the precise significance of that particular impromptu offering. A devotee of late, late-night radio, he knew of every conspiracy theory, every backdoor government treachery, every UFO sighting, every dietary herb or elixir that could magically alter your conscious or your figure.

(from left) Annalisa Peace, Jim Smith, Bill Sibley and Gene Elder "Moonbathing" in the Brackenridge Golf Course.

Courtesy / William Sibley

(from left) Annalisa Peace, Jim Smith, Bill Sibley, and Gene Elder “moonbathing” in the Brackenridge Golf Course.

One night he invited a group of us all down to the low-water crossing in River Road. The command was to bring folding chairs and wine. When we arrived, Gene had set up milk cartons filled with candles on each of the concrete bollards lining the spillway. We then were directed to the Brackenridge Golf Course to sit in a sand trap and gaze at the full moon. Arriving there, Gene ignited yet another fire on the grit, much to the group’s disapproval. Growing increasingly uncomfortable, I started back for home when a fire truck suddenly appeared. Two firefighters approached our woozy cluster of middle-aged to elderly agitators with their mouths open. Gene managed to stand regally and rather than plead innocence, demanded immediately to know who the louse was who turned us in.

I invited Gene over for a sit-down a month or so ago, after his most recent cancer treatment. We talked about his life as an artist and about how defining art can make it exclusionary.

“I think it’s very unhealthy to say that something isn’t art,” said Gene. “They said that about photography, lithographs, watercolor, pottery, weaving … quilts. They say it about everything new that comes down the pike.”

To Gene, art was about being inclusive and willing to take a chance. Though, he didn’t grow up in an artistic family, art eventually became a way of life for him.

“Somehow it evolved in my head that whatever I was going to do, it would become an art piece,” he said.

His Volkswagen Rabbit became his sketchbook, documenting everything he wanted to study and perhaps later use. He would stand in front of the Alamo trying to get into as many tourist photos as he could.

“I don’t think I was ever taken very seriously by our local art community. They didn’t know what to do with me.”

Gene Elder's Volkwagen Rabbit

Courtesy / William Sibley

Gene Elder’s Volkwagen Rabbit became its own work of art.

Gene wrote in March in one of his next-to-last flurry of emails, “End of life is an unusual time. One gets to slow down, think about what is important, not worry about all the things we are normally forced to worry about because you now have a plan and you know the end is near. In my case I have been given the necessary time to edit down my life’s collection of all the art and things valued that I thought I just couldn’t live without.”

Gene’s particular tenacity and intention was his unwavering devotion to experiencing this specific incarnation of his as an artist, according to his own definition of the word, not yours, not mine. He was indisputably true to himself. It was never about museum shows or catalogue raisonné or gallery blockbusters. It wasn’t even about you grasping his highly individual divinations. It was about Gene being free to be Gene.

12 thoughts on “Gene Elder Remembered: The Triumph of Imagination Over Suggestion

  1. Bill, wonderful writing as always. Thanks. I adored Gene and was in awe of his lack of fear at the end of his life. He was so clever, creative (and irritating, but isn’t it always thus?), yet just to look at his handsome face and think what was going on behind it was a gift to us stolid lay people. I shall miss him.

  2. Thank you, Jack. Sorry for our collective loss! A bronze statue (on the golf course?) of his famed Rabbit would be a fitting tribute to such a beloved and remarkable character. Or pour some wine out for him on the sand trap tonight. It’ll be a fun way to put out the small fire!

  3. Wow, just so wonderful Bill. Made me smile the whole time I was reading it. Gene really was one of a kind person and I LOVE how you described him as aggravating you and you loving him at the same time! So true. I will miss his crazy commentary . I just know he and Yvonne are yacking it up.

  4. Excellent piece on one of many who for years created a rare piece of performance art: Making true San Antonio’s vintage tourism slogan — Nowhere else but San Antonio.

  5. A lovely tribute to Gene and his highly original way of seeing the world all around him. If I ever saw his name affixed to a letter-to-the-editor or a short op-ed piece in the newspaper I took the time to read it. I knew that there would be a skew against conventional thinking, an independent view that few people would dare to express in a public forum. Sometimes there was risk involved: his apartment was once shot at from a passing car — likely by someone reacting to his outspokenness on the reality of gays in the military. He told me about this incident and what struck me was that he was genuinely confounded not by the violence that someone had done but by the imperfect world in which we live. For someone who saw life in terms of its better possibilities this was more a disappointment than anything else.

    I look back to the 1960s and how that era’s creativity addressed social injustices not with matching vitriol but with appeals to an alternative idealism, however susceptible that was to cynical critique. That was my lasting impression of Gene — his spirited insistence in the unconventional belief that what is good (that what is right) will win in the end.

  6. Thank you, Bill. A beautifully written tribute. This city feels bereft without Gene’s loving eye contemplating it. And his voice telling us what he thinks. And yes, he was a model of gracious comportment in departure. We’ll be sitting outside a long time at sunset remembering his laugh and his gaze.

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