Artist Timothy D. Bellavia walks a fine line in new memoir
As you step into the tiny living room of artist Timothy D. Bellavia’s typical East Side one-bedroom apartment, you might be forgiven if you thought you had stepped into the hidden workshop of a young Kris Kringle.
There is the drafting table on one side; a glass cabinet full of homemade cloth dolls; an entire wall of shelving, filled with neat baskets of yarn, construction paper, glue, markers, you name it; and the always-on computer, ready to download or send PDFs of graphics, photos and designs.
And then there is Bellavia himself, elfin and twinkling with big-eyed excitement about his just-released memoir, Pieces of Ice, co-written with Kristin Walsh.
Describing the book as a full-colored, illustrated picture book about his life experience as an effeminate male, Bellavia laughs, "It’s an unwanted stepchild of my earlier work . . . but of all my children, this is my favorite child."
The road to publication was not always easy: an original publishing company that was not "on top of things," according to Bellavia, forcing him to seek out another publisher; and not wanting to recall painful episodes from the past and write the book, which was originally a master’s thesis in 1994.
"When you come into the room with a pink book and you’re pink, you are really setting yourself up for abuse, so I resisted doing this," Bellavia says.
According to him, he needed the collaboration with Walsh, a best friend from college with whom he reconnected on Facebook.
"The groove is in our hearts, with Kristin and I," Bellavia says, often punctuating his dialogue with pop music references-in fact, chapters of the book are named after obscure pop tunes from some of his idols.
"Her role was to be a filter, a vessel, a massage," he explains of Walsh. "She had a collaborative role and I couldn’t have done it without a person from my past, someone I loved mind, body and soul. I needed Kristin to not make it sound like I was writing defensively."
"Working on this project with Timmy has invigorated my soul and has made me feel like a born again Kristin," Walsh quips. She is a graphic designer who owns Wayland Publishing and lives in Rochester with her husband and three children.
Regarding the imagery of ice that permeates the book, Bellavia said, "Ice is my survival skill; when anyone belittles me, I freeze. Basically, Pieces of Ice is letters I’ve never sent, things that were not said, messages that did not get to Michael." (Dionne Warwick song reference, that.)
Stylistically, the book jumps from one memory to another, surprising the reader. "The books I’ve come across where the sissy grows up and then overcomes are predictable," Bellavia sighs. "I wanted chunks of ice, memories frozen in time. It’s not like a musical where there is a hero and then a triumph; it’s more like a musical revue."
Although it has illustrations, simple language, and point of view seemingly through the eyes of a child, the reader quickly realizes that the book is not for a child. There are tales of humiliation, parental neglect, religious intolerance, an abusive lover, even a bout with skin cancer-all of which somehow ride the line between sadness and hilarity.
"I didn’t want the book to be child-friendly but to be playful, kind of like Barry Gordy’s plan for packaging Diana Ross," Bellavia says. Ross, his favorite, and other icons are featured prominently throughout the book.
"When I saw Diana Ross in concert, I could put my hand up and feel her energy, I was swept away," he explains. "Without parental support and love that was unconditional, I had to seek out icons and they were my love and support."
All of this may come as a surprise to Bellavia’s fans, who heretofore has been most-celebrated as a children’s book author.
After graduating from Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester and later earning an MFA from the Pratt Institute, Bellavia lived the meandering life of a New York artist, working as a runway model for alternative fashions, an actor on a cable soap opera, and even had a stint as a backup dancer for Cyndi Lauper, before landing a job as a curator at the Tenement Museum on the lower East Side.
There, he had what he describes as a career breakthrough on January 16, 1997. "At that particular moment, I manifested The Chamber Pot Show at the Tenement Museum and did the whole thing myself to the point where I did press releases, slides, etc., and the New York Times gave me affirmation that day when the show opened." It was then he realized he could conceive, produce and make something happen that was important.
He also lists as a mentor long-time friend Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, one of the original members of the Stonewall riots. Bellavia finds it fitting that his book is coming out on the 40th anniversary of that time, when gays were seen as invisible.
In 2000, his book We Are All The Same Inside, was published, featuring the character Sage. The accompanying Sage doll was designed so that hair and costume could be changed, but when opened children would discover that all were the same inside.
The success of that book led to several follow-up books as well as Bellavia’s award-winning work as an educator, bringing his doll-making lessons in tolerance to numerous elementary schools throughout the New York area. He presented his curriculum on the International Day of Tolerance at the United Nations, on behalf of the We Are Family Foundation, founded by iconic music producer Nile Rodgers.
As for Pieces of Ice coming at this juncture of his life, Bellavia realizes that he needed to write it to heal himself, to get out of his own way so that he will no longer attract certain elements into his life.
"I’m hoping this book can help a teenager or the parent of a teenager who is exhibiting suicidal, desperate living, and give them a little more insight as to what’s in someone’s mind who is questioning in this world, a lonely in-between," he says. "I want them to come away with my mantra, that we all want to belong, we all have feelings, we all want love . . . we are all the same inside."
Pieces of Ice by Timothy D. Bellavia and Kristin Walsh, is available at www.amazon.com; you can read more about the artist at www.timothydbellavia.com.
Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).