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Any artist who lives in fear of the critics could learn a little perspective from Dylan Scholinski. As a patient in a series of Midwestern mental institutions, the painter discovered that there’s at least one viewer who can do a lot more damage to your artistic career than any reviewer, columnist, or blogger: your shrink.

“You’re in a system where you’re supposed to be learning to be positive, so if you paint a sun, you have to say it’s sunrise and not a sunset,” Scholinski says. “Because the sunrise is the birth of the day and the sunset is death of the day.”

As a patient at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Scholinski was once forbidden to make art for two days after painting a ceramic dog to look plaid. “It took me a while after getting out of the hospital to finally get back to who I am as an artist.”

That process, however, wasn’t nearly as long the one that’s finally allowed him to get back to who he is as person. Born in Petaluma, Calif., in 1966, Scholinski was originally Daphne, the child of a soldier and an Air Force sergeant’s daughter. By age 6, the masculine-looking Daphne was getting shooed out of women’s bathrooms. By her teens, she was playing baseball, demonstrating a rather ungirlish indifference to her appearance, and strongly identifying with boys.

It’s unsettling to think that what seems like classic tomboy behavior is enough to merit in-patient psychiatric care, but that’s pretty much the story of Scholinski’s adolescence. Daphne spent 1981 to 1984, what would have been her high-school years, in mental hospitals in Illinois and Minnesota. She was depressed and suicidal, wrestling not only with an identity crisis but also with the breakup of her parents’ marriage and her separation from a mother who shunned parenthood to save herself from her own demons. She drank, stole, and joined a Chicago gang called the Disciples, beaten into membership by a pair of male friends.

To this day, Scholinski credits his parents for recognizing that their child needed help. But the help Daphne got—which included “cosmetics therapy” and learning how to walk with a swing in her hips—was not the help she needed.

Now 39, with a scribble of a goatee on his chin, arms full of tattoos of his own design, and an oversized belt buckle that reads, “DICK,” Scholinski looks the part he’s always dreamed of: himself. “I don’t believe that I was born a girl and that I need to be a boy,” he says. “I just needed to be myself. I just needed it to be OK to be myself.”

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How he got there is the subject of two exhibitions opening this week: “The Human Abstract” at 9th Street NE’s Wohlfarth Galleries, which pairs Scholinski’s paintings with photographs by Richmond, Va., photographer Tom Condon, and “Sent(2)Mental,” a solo show at U Street NW’s Nevin Kelly Gallery. Though not exactly a retrospective, the latter will include several works dating back to 1994 and at least one that’s currently still on the wall in Scholinski’s studio, awaiting final touches.

Scholinski’s art is personal, often excruciatingly so. One series of paintings depicts floor plans of every place he’s lived since childhood, with captions coolly describing traumatic events. The diagram of the Forest Hospital in Des Plaines, Ill., for example, points out a room in which Daphne was put in restraints and the football field where she was raped by another patient. Another series, called Freedom of Depression, is a suicide instruction manual in white paint on black paper.

For Scholinski, the creative process mirrors his lifelong struggle of learning, as he puts it, to “trust the world.” “I spent a lot of my life trying to be other people,” he says. “So I think a lot of my childhood art was copying other people and trying to be an artist in the way I thought an artist was supposed to be instead of being the artist that I am.

“Now I’ve found my style.”

Scholinski works in a cluttered studio on the ramshackle top floor of the building that houses Dupont Circle’s Townhouse Tavern, where he tends bar a few nights a week. He’s been living in D.C. since 2000, when his memoir, The Last Time I Wore a Dress, was produced as a play at the Source Theatre. It was around that time that Daphne became Dylan full time. Scholinski’s D.C. friends all call him Dylan reflexively; it’s taking the people from his past a little longer to get used to the new name. The outgoing message on Scholinski’s voice mail invites callers to leave word for either.

“I do have a public name as an author, and I don’t feel the need to change that name,” he says. “I was Daphne when I was a kid. I would have liked to have probably been Dylan. But it didn’t happen.”

As Daphne, the name under which Dress was published, in 1997, Scholinski earned a brief national notoriety, appearing on Dateline NBC, 20/20, and Today. The book received favorable notices in Time Out New York and Salon and is now regarded as a transgender classic.

Today, Scholinski maintains a career as a public speaker, addressing college students and others about his experiences. But mostly he paints, having completed thousands of pieces since his graduation from art school in 1992.

The visual elements of a given work depend as much on the material close at hand as the thoughts Scholinski is working to represent. He’ll run through a tube of paint, producing a number of pieces with similar color schemes, until the paint runs out and he opens another tube. He fanatically saves photographs, fliers, scraps of paper, and novelty toys—items that frequently find their way into the paintings.

“I’ve always done mixed media,” Scholinski says. “In some ways, it might be considered a transgender aesthetic. When you live your life being part of more than one thing, it’s really hard to just do one thing.”

The artistic sensibility was revealed in early childhood, when Daphne copied comic strips from the newspaper. At age 18, after being released from a third and final mental institution and maxing out the family’s insurance policy—“$1 million to get me to wear a dress,” he jokes—Scholinski worked a series of odd jobs before attending St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. After graduating, she moved east to study art at New York’s Pratt Institute.

Early Scholinski paintings were notably aggressive, with jagged, stark imagery designed to disturb—and explanatory text in case anyone missed the point. (“I just smacked you in the face,” Scholinski says.) In his more recent works, the darkness is leavened with a wry sense of humor and the text more often than not appears backward, to allow the viewer to enter Scholinski’s vision at his own pace.

“I was impressed with the work,” gallery owner Nevin Kelly says. “Of course, I noticed the darkness of the work a little bit, but then I also began to see the humor in it, the artistic method of drawing you into a very dark story.”

The Nevin Kelly exhibition includes both the Freedom of Depression drawings and a series of paintings titled thorazine(c)rush, which deals with Scholinski’s experience of being forcibly sedated with anti-psychotic drugs. The drawings are excruciatingly funny for works on the theme of suicide. A piece about killing yourself by jumping out of a skyscraper advises the jumper on the need to find a structure more than 20 stories high because “otherwise you’re just jumping out of a building.” It’s also important to “try to yell while you are falling so people will move out of the way.”

The tragicomic tone is a Scholinski hallmark. His style, he says, isn’t so much a look as a frame of mind. “What you recognize,” he says, “is how you feel in looking at the work.”

Scholinski has long since forgiven his parents for his three-year institutionalization. He’s forging a workable détente with his father, whose combat experience in Vietnam is even the subject of some recent paintings. He’s friendly with his mother, who couldn’t have been more understanding when Daphne came out as a lesbian several years ago. He remembers that she made up a package including a Good Vibrations catalog, a breast-self-exam diagram to hang in the shower, and a folk album called Living With Lesbians.

But Daphne couldn’t really identify as a lesbian, nor even a woman—which isn’t to say Dylan identifies completely as a man. Scholinski says he chose the name Dylan in part because “it’s bigender,” and in part because “it didn’t feel awkward coming out of my mouth.”

Scholinski is active in the movement to have the gender-identity-disorder diagnosis altered in the next edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He’s sympathetic with individuals who need a psychiatric diagnosis to qualify for gender-reassignment surgery, but he’s also worried that the same diagnosis can be used to subject young people to treatment they don’t need.

“We’re all struggling,” he says. “Puberty sucks. But incarceration was definitely not what I feel like I needed or deserved.”

At this point in his life, though, Scholinski seems more amused than alienated by the failure of gendered language to account for him. Sexually, he describes himself as queer. “Anything I do is queer,” he says. “It’s just how it is. It doesn’t matter who I’m with, how I’m with them, what I do—it’s all queer.”

His sensibility is evident in his recent decision to shoot a guerrilla documentary chronicling the reaction of observers watching him make his way to the restroom on a cross-country car trip. “I’d be out in a restaurant, and people would be trying to figure me out,” he recalls. “As I got up to go to the bathroom, I felt like a person who walked into a pig barn. You walk in and every single pig in the room turns and looks at you.”

For much of his life, Scholinski felt compelled to explain himself to strangers who were perplexed or offended at his choice of restrooms. But he’s now decided that there are some questions he won’t answer.

“I had somebody the other night ask me what I had in my pants,” he says. “I don’t think I need to answer that anymore, because that’s not the issue. What I have in my pants, that’s not the issue. Accept me for who I am.”

“The Human Abstract” opens Friday, Sept. 9, 2005, at Wohlfarth Galleries, 3418 9th St. NE. For more information, call (202) 526-8022. “Sent(2)Mental” opens Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Nevin Kelly Gallery, 1517 U St. NW. For more information, call (202) 232-3464.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.