This Sunday, during New York’s Pride parade, 41-year-old Brooklyn-based queer artist and printmaker, Ben Copperwheat will unveil a handpainted float for the new Gerald J. Friedman Transgender Health and Wellness Program of Lenox Hill Hospital. The program, which officially opens on Sunday, provides comprehensive, trans-affirmative medical care for the transgender and gender nonconforming community.
Transgender singer/songwriter Mila Jam is slated to perform on the float in a customized piece.
Copperwheat was commissioned to create a design for the float based on his point of view, which utilizes bright, bold and iconoclastic hand-drawn prints that also translate effectively to wearable art. For instance, the artist counts Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy Carter and Boy George as clients, among others, who have been pictured wearing his clothes at events and concerts.
OUT caught up with Copperwheat at his East Williamsburg studio to learn about his involvement with this year’s pride festivities, and why he believes it is more important than ever now to support transgender health and rights.
(Left) Copperwheat in his East Williamsburg studio (Right) Work-in-progress canvas for Copperwheat's Pride float
OUT: How did you get commissioned to design this float?
Ben Copperwheat: Back in April, I was approached by famed rock publicist Jane Friedman, who started the HOWL! Happening Gallery in honor of East Village artists, and Jonathan Bee, who is a sculptor and multimedia installation artist. I met Jonathan through a mutual friend, and ran into him last September at the Patricia Field Art/Fashion show I was involved in. He connected me to Jane, who to my surprise was a fan of my work. They both asked that I design, handpaint and screenprint this float. They particularly wanted me to do it because it was for the transgender unit of Lenox Hill Hospital, and they wanted a float that was light, vibrant, and diverse. And considering that my work is basically rainbow-colored all year round, Pride Month seems to be the one month where it really fits in.
How are you designing the float?
I created a sketch, which is often how I begin my work process. A lot of it was technical measurements: I’m using 100 feet of canvas that I’m painting to cover the float. The idea was based on an expansion of the rainbow motif, but with my interpretation.
Sketch of Copperwheat's float design
What does it mean for you as a queer artist to support such an important cause like this?
It means a great deal in the sense that my work is very much about being visible in the world, being bold and brave, and putting oneself out there in a friendly way. I feel that as a queer artist and by the way I dress that I am mainstream. But at the same time, I don’t feel marginalized because I feel that’s a state of mind. I’ve always believed in individuality and I think that’s an essential part of being human—everyone expresses individually in their own way.
So to bring the joy and color and fun and light of my work to a cause that is so needed, especially under the current conditions in our country, it’s critically important. It’s great to be working with Mila Jam, who is a fabulous up-and-coming talent and a perfect face for this project. I have a number of trans friends in New York City who I think will greatly benefit from this unit, especially as stable health insurance is a major issue for people, and excellent, safe, and nonjudgmental healthcare is essential for supporting those in stages of transition.