On Nov. 8, 2013, Wynne Neilly sounded like a woman.
Neilly spoke the date into a digital recorder and preserved the high-pitched voice.
The Canadian artist repeated the experiment for months, and over time, the voice on the recorder got deeper. By Jan. 5, 2014, it had descended several registers. Anyone talking by phone with Neilly would have assumed that the caller was a young man, perhaps a teenager.
By Nov. 8, 2014, the one-year anniversary of the first recording, the voice had a deep, gravelly pitch. Neilly sounded like a grown man.
In fact, during the period of the recordings, Neilly had transitioned from female to "male," as he puts it in the title of his absorbing show at Joseph Gross Gallery, Wynne Neilly: Female to "Male." (He puts the word "male" in quotes, he says, because he considers identity to be fluid, not something to be pinned down by a single word.)
Formerly known as Erika Wynne Neilly and now called simply Wynne Neilly, the artist has put together a remarkably intimate exploration of his transition. He's turned his medical supplies, including needles and testosterone bottles, into artworks displayed on pedestals, and hanging his medical and pharmaceutical bills on the wall. He's even allowed others to tell parts of his story by posting private writings ranging from a detailed assessment by a psychologist to letters from family and friends.
From the artist himself, there are recordings of his changing voice, which visitors can listen to on earphones, and 125 selfies taken weekly from August 2013 clear on up to January 2016.
Neilly made these color snapshot-size portraits on the day each week that he had to self-inject testosterone into his body. The shots were no small thing. On a nearby wall, photocopies of the medical instructions the doctors gave him hang. These how-to pictures, showing a medical model piercing his arms and buttocks with needles, are not for the squeamish.
In Neilly's own photos, he reveals none of the pain the shots must have given him. Though he has wrapped each picture in a medical-looking baggie, in each one he appears stoic, standing, facing the camera with a neutral expression on his face, his arms hanging loosely by his sides. He's stripped himself naked to the waist. Week by week, the shifting configurations of his uncovered torso, shoulders and arms testify to the impact of the testosterone.
Neilly had already had his breasts surgically removed before he took the first self-portrait, on Aug. 16, 2013. The incisions have healed nicely, and Neilly has the chest of a young man. Yet his body is otherwise still feminine, narrow-shouldered and faintly muscled; his face is softly rounded.
The artist notes the size of the testosterone dose in handwritten text on each picture. At first, he's shooting up just 50 milligrams at a time, but within weeks that amount doubles to 100 milligrams. By the end of September his body's getting a little thicker, and by early October his biceps are bigger. A slight mustache emerges on Oct. 18, the week of the tenth shot; by late March, on his 32nd shot, he looks like a young man with broad shoulders and well-defined muscles.
Tattoos also proliferate during the process. A celebratory tattoo of the word "Boy" appears above the left pec 14 months into the change. The final picture, taken just weeks ago on New Year's Day 2016, shows a mustachioed man, proud of his muscled body, now fairly heavily tattooed.
If Neilly's own contributions to the show focus on his physical transition, the writings by others fill in the psychological. Through the psychologist's three-page report, completed after Neilly had had his breasts removed, it becomes evident that the artist had felt "gender distress" since the age of 8 or 9. As a kid, Neilly liked to dress in boys' clothes and play with boys. As a teenager, she came out as a lesbian, and by 20 identified as "`butch' lesbian/gender queer." At 21, Neilly re-identified as a trans man.
The psychologist reveals that Neilly has no plans for "bottom surgery"—the reconfiguration of his genitals and creation of a penis—and that he and his female partner planned to stay together and perhaps have a child. Finding him to be "emotionally and socially stable," the therapist signs off on the testosterone treatment, noting that Neilly was aware of the potential medical risk, but eagerly anticipated the hormone's "masculinizing effects."
Neilly's methodical artworks don't directly address his state of mind two-and-half years into the treatment. Rather they painstakingly document the careful planning, financial sacrifice and physical pain that the transition required, helping viewers understand just how strong his previous "gender distress" was. Ultimately, the pieces add up to a celebration of Neilly's own courage in making this major life change.
The notes from family, however, show some of the emotional costs. His mother wrote him a terse message colored by anxiety: "Please make sure that if you are having any 'qualms' or second thoughts that you do not proceed. Mom."
His grandfather, though, moved beyond fear. He sent a generous note to his former granddaughter; as a testament to pure love, it's worth quoting in its entirety.
"Dear Wynne," he wrote, being careful to use his grandson's new name. "Just a note to tell you how glad I was to hear from you. In regards to your change, as long as you are happy, that is the main thing. Sometimes it takes a while to find yourself. I wish you all the best in the future. Love, Grandpa."