Mac MacDougall is a Pawtucket resident who for years struggled with the concept of gender identity. “It started when I was four years old. One day I asked my mom to call me Joe,” he says with a laugh. “She thought I was a tomboy and just wanted to be like my brothers; she thought I was going through a phase.” During puberty, Mac Dougall always felt separate from his body. “My older sister loved being a girl but for me it never took. I even went to modeling school to try and learn to be more feminine, but it just didn’t work,” he says, “ I’ve always known who I am but nobody wanted to listen to me.”
This month, visitors to the East Side’s Peregrine Gallery can glimpse a bit of MacDougall’s longstanding inner conflict via his Transformation: 20 Years In the Making of a Man Named Mac, a collection of self portrait paintings, drawings and prints that showcase the artist’s emotional and physical journey over time as he underwent gender reassignment surgery. Gallery Director K Lenore Siner says she first met Mac in 2005 when he was holding life drawing classes at his loft in Pawtucket. “The art that I am most interested in showing at Peregrine reflects the personal experience of the artist in a way that allows the viewer to relate it to their own story art as a bridge that fosters understanding.” Siner goes on to say that MacDougall’s work presents the topic of transgender issues in “a way that al- lows it to be seen as yet another aspect of the human experience.”
MacDougall says of this body of work that spans the past 20 years, “These self portraits set me free.” The mixed media works move in and out of focus, with earlier pieces nothing more than a chaotic jumble of lines clearly signifying the discord with self that MacDougall battled for so long. “They are very telling of how I felt along the way,” he says, “how introverted, how curious, how hopeful.” Over time, the portraits changed, and in the most recent one he’s staring the viewer straight in the eye, confident and strong.
While that final portrait is a key image in this collection, it’s Tiger Metamorphosis that holds the title as MacDougall’s favorite work. “It shows a woman changing into a tiger,” he says. “My mother fell in love with that piece and bought it from me. When my mother, who gave birth to me that first time, expressed to me how much she loved it, it was almost as if she gave me permission to be myself. She gave me the okay to go ahead with my rebirth as a man. It was a relief.” MacDougall notes that his entire family has been incredibly supportive throughout his transformation and continues to be so.
The artist hopes that the audience will leave this show unafraid to talk to the people in their lives that are struggling with gender issues. Beyond that, he hopes to one day take his show on the road. “I’d love to find museums and venues to host it so people can take a look at what it’s like to go through this. I’d also love to raise mon- ey for people going through the process as the surgery isn’t covered by insurance,” he says. MacDougall is also working on a book that documents the three year period during which his transformation took place.
In this show at Peregrine, MacDougall’s metamorphic journey is played out in all its phases, the artist’s highs and lows and his internal desire to be seen and appreciated for the person he’s believed himself to be all along. “I’m so sure of myself now, and I’m so comfortable with myself,” he says. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Transformation: 20 Years In the Making of the Man Named Mac runs now through March 1. The gallery is open Mon-Fri 9am-4pm. 150 Wateman Street, Providence. 781-366- 4924, www.peregrinegallery.com.