The Art Teacher.
Daniel Mudie Cunningham
The basketball court was where school assembly was staged once a week. At its perimeter was a wire fence dividing the school’s property with a lawn bowls club for retirees next door. When my peers were on the basketball court or the footy oval across the street, I was locked away in the photography darkroom—a pokey little closet situated within the larger art classroom of Christian Community High School in the western Sydney suburb, Regents Park.
Late in 1990, when I was nearing the end of Year 10, I was nominated as a senior prefect-elect for the forthcoming final two years of my high schooling at Regents Park Christian School, as it is now known. The prefect ceremony took place on the basketball court during weekly assembly. My school era best friend, Mike, also became a prefect and would go on to become the school captain in 1992. But, as Year 10 was wrapping up awash in looming prefecture ambitions, I was a 15-year-old mess of homo-conflicted hormones. As a born-again Christian who attended a Pentecostal church on Sundays and a high school dominated by Baptist dogma packaged as pedagogy during the week, the internal mess I was in stemmed from daily straight playacting. I had a girlfriend at the time, Roslyn. We sometimes kissed on the train home despite the common myth that our braces could gridlock, causing untold humiliation and social derailment.
Within weeks of receiving my prefect badge, I quietly came out to Mike and another friend, Dave. I was a virgin in heterosexual terms, but at 15, well experienced homosexually speaking from engaging in secret sexual encounters with a male friend from another school. What happened next is a trauma blur in three parts:
- Mike tells his Mum, a guidance councillor at the school, for fear that my coming out was a suicidal cry for help (it was not);
- Mike’s mum tells the Principal, a creepy old man whose one glass eye gave the impression he was ogling students (he probably was);
- The Principal calls my Mum to the school to collect her disgraced son who is now stripped of his prefect badge and suspended indefinitely (true story).
Over the following two weeks, I’m counselled not by a trained professional, but by the pastor at church, who inadvertently gives me a blueprint for how gay beats operate (phenomena I was unaware of up to this point). He described a satanic power (coded signals and glances) that anonymously and wordlessly drew gay men to one other. Enough to terrify me back into the closet, I marched back to school a defiant soldier for Christ. I declared to the principal how mistaken and temporal my same-sex leanings had been—in fact, they had been corrected in a mere fortnight. I got back my prefect badge and the stage was set for seeing out my final two years of high school, during which time I was determined to prove that I was not just smarter and prettier than everyone, but that I was also better at (a performance of) heterosexuality.
Thinking about it now, I am pleased I went back to the school because I would not have met my art teacher otherwise. Fresh from teacher’s college, Mr Wallace started his career as a secondary art teacher in 1991. I was 16-years-old and he was about 21, though it never dawned on me that he was only half a decade older than me. Regardless of age, a teacher’s authority and power always made them seem inherently old and wise.
As it happened, I excelled in art throughout Year 11 and 12. I made cringe worthy collages and photos. But my writing skills were honed through art theory essays that always got top marks. Mr Wallace opened my eyes to art during a pre-internet age when it was greater effort to find interesting things happening in the present beyond what was merely described in dated library books. I found out about the feminist practice of artist, Julie Rrap. When I wove discussion of said artist’s work into an essay, Mr Wallace asked suspiciously whether I made up “Julie Rrap”. Clearly an instance of the student teaching the teacher and ironic considering Rrap would be one of my art school lecturers a few years later.
During my senior high school years, I took an active interest in postmodern feminist art because it was the only safe way a queer kid could engage with ideas around sexuality and the body—a public decoy from my private gay Idaho. I started to wonder if Mr Wallace was gay. Though he talked about having a girlfriend, he exhibited some gay trademarks in his appearance and mannerisms. Queer quirks I was as good at detecting as I was in exorcising them from myself.
I left high school on a high note, armed with presentation night awards in art and literature. I went to the school formal with Roslyn, who I’d long broken up with as she left school at the end of Year 10. As Roslyn had her driver’s licence and I didn’t, she drove us there in her parent’s combi van, an absurd sight given the Jessica Rabbit like red split dress she wore. And I’m not lying when I say that the principal-with-the-one-glass-eye really did gawk at her as we entered the formal, proof that my “heterosexuality” was also award winning.
Leaving high school behind, I jumped into both art school and gay conversion therapy. How is that for an absurdly fucked up coalition of mixed messages? I did not really see Mr Wallace again for some time after that. I heard that he had moved to Newcastle and taught nearby at Charlton Christian College. In my imagination, he probably got married and had a bunch of kids. Or so I assumed.
Then out of the blue more than a decade later, Mr Wallace looked me up online and made contact. I was living in the Blue Mountains and teaching art theory at Western Sydney University. Iain had left Newcastle and was living in Sydney. Turns out he didn’t marry and have kids after all. Quite the opposite. For some time Iain had been living a double life. During the week, he was Iain, the Christian art teacher. On weekends, he lived in Sydney and became Alex, a gay graphic designer who dated guys met online. During this era, Iain attempted suicide six times.
In a Sun Herald article in 2009, Iain admitted to journalist Erin O’Dwyer: “It was very stressful, I was lying to everyone and I couldn’t answer a single question without having to lie. People in the Christian community would say: ‘Iain what are you doing on the weekend?’ People in the gay community would say: ‘What’s your name and what do you do?’ I couldn’t answer either.”
Iain’s life was transformed for the better upon resigning from the college in December 2006. On his last day, he came out in a speech to staff and students at the school: “I have been involved in Christian education for over 15 years. I find myself in a strange situation where as a gay Christian in a non-inclusive Christian environment, I feel a little like the character Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady where she is from a working-class background but trained to mix with the upper class. Towards the end of the story Eliza discovers, to her horror, that now after her training … she doesn’t appear to fit in either group! I have come to the same horrifying conclusion that I don’t really fit in.”
Since Iain moved to Sydney he has been living with his husband, Craig Casey. We catch up semi-regularly over pub meals, as old friends do. Memorably, in 2015, Iain painted my portrait for the Archibald Prize garbed in the same dog suit I wore in my performance video Dog Eat Dog. It wasn’t hung at the Art Gallery of NSW, but I was chuffed to be asked to sit for a portrait painted by my art teacher.
If only I had thought to wear my prefect badge.