“Congruent” finds transitioning artist dealing with new symbolism, new connections and a new way of telling her story through art

Felicia DeRosa has never made art like this before. She couldn't have.

DeRosa began making art around age 9, encouraged by an uncle who “was a naturally gifted artist,” DeRosa recalled.

“I put my head down to draw a tiger, and when I looked up, I was 24,” she joked.

Twenty-four, an art school graduate … and adrift. DeRosa had no charted course for what came next in her life, and was crashing fast. Therapy introduced DeRosa to terms like “manic,” “bipolar” and “gender dysphoria.” They were concepts, if not terminology, with which DeRosa was familiar. Starting around age 12, DeRosa had begun trying to research, pre-Internet and with the resources available to a 12-year-old, why she felt like she didn't belong in her body.

“I was petrified for anyone to know anything about what I was,” DeRosa said in a late-October interview at a Downtown coffee shop. “Everything I could find told me that I was mentally ill, or probably a pervert or sexual deviant.”

The 24-year-old DeRosa was prescribed a smorgasbord of medication. “And they told me to go be happy,” she said.

It didn't work. The medication took away her art, which had become her way of relating to a world that she didn't understand, at least in part because she didn't understand herself, either. DeRosa's parents were physically, emotionally and sexually abusive. It didn't stop when they divorced.

“I would go to my room and shut the door and draw. In drawing, I got to express all that rage. And it became a way to try and connect with people,” DeRosa said. “When I started trying to understand sexuality, I tried to understand human nature. I wanted to understand humanity, why people are religious, or political, the way they are. My artwork acted as a bridge, as my proxy. It was me saying, ‘I'm concerned about being near to people, so here is my art, and if you connect to my art, you connect to me, and therefore I'm connected to you.'”

Abandoning the medication, DeRosa was able to go back to making art, but the challenges persisted. Failed attempts, first at transitioning to live as a woman, and later at suicide, left DeRosa at rock bottom.

“But rock bottom, while the bottom, is solid. I began to rebuild a life brick by brick,” she said.

DeRosa met and married a woman. She busied herself with making and teaching art. Still, the gender dysphoria would not go away.

“It's difficult to describe dysphoria. There's a disconnect between how you know yourself to be and how people perceive you,” DeRosa said.

On Jan. 1, 2016, DeRosa took her first estrogen tablet since her failed transition attempt years before. What was supposed to be a subtle transition became sudden, in part due to more rapid than expected biological changes.

“They told me it was obvious my body wanted to go this way, because it was changing testosterone into estrogen, treating it like it was a vitamin deficiency,” DeRosa said.

But the physical changes weren't the most difficult. Within a week of beginning hormone treatment, DeRosa “stopped being bipolar.”

“The hardest part of transition isn't transition, it's how do I interact with the world as not bipolar,” DeRosa said. “I have no idea how to not be a bipolar person in the world. … And I wondered whether I would be able to make art, whether the bipolar was where my art came from. I was afraid to go back in the studio.”

A self-imposed hiatus ended with a self-portrait.

“There was a dramatic difference,” DeRosa said. “[The art] was not a search for control through my technique any more. It just wasn't what came out of me naturally. It came out all free-flowing and sketchy. There's a symbolism there, [suggesting that] that I'm still developing.”

“Congruent: A Study of Humanity in Transition,” reflects this new symbolism, the developing Felicia. The exhibition includes a series of portraits of friends, looking for unfiltered authenticity. “Vanity” is a double-sided vanity table that addresses self-perception and the need to matter. And at the exhibition's painful heart is “Remembered,” an entire roomful of nearly invisible names of the estimated almost 3,000 trans persons murdered worldwide, hand-lettered by members of the local trans and allied communities.

“When your expression of how you want the world to see you lines up with how you see yourself, that's congruency,” DeRosa said. “It's the antithesis of dysphoria.

“And since I've been transitioning, I can connect with people. I'm suddenly who I'm supposed to be and not pretending to be something I'm not. It's kind of amazing.”