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Bess, Forrest (1911-1977)  
 
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Forrest Clemenger Bess was a mystic and artist, who sought to fuse male and female in his life and work. In small, but boldly painted, abstract pieces, Bess represented his visions, which, he believed, contained the secret of immortality.

Beginning in 1960, Bess underwent surgical procedures with the intention of uniting male and female in his own body. Frustrated by his failure to convince others of the validity of his belief that this fusion would produce eternal rejuvenation, Bess lived in increasing isolation and poverty.

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Although occasionally exhibited by major galleries and museums, Bess's paintings were largely overlooked during his lifetime. However, since the late 1980s, Bess has gained posthumous recognition as one of the most imaginative and original American painters of the twentieth century.

Background and Early Years

Bess was born on October 5, 1911 in Bay City, Texas, then a "rough and ready" community of about 18,000 people. Forrest's middle name was inspired by F. J. Clemenger, who had discovered the oil fields of nearby Clemville, where his father, Arnold Bess, worked as an oil driller. As his nickname "Butch" implies, Forrest's father was a hard working and hard drinking man, and he had little patience with his son's frequent absorption in dreams. On the other hand, his mother, Minta Lee Bess, was a strikingly beautiful and gentle woman, who encouraged Forrest's early indications of artistic talent.

During most of Forrest's childhood, his family moved from one Texas oil boom town to another as his father wildcatted. Without a permanent home, the family often lived roughly in tents and other temporary shelters. However, by 1925, they had settled in Bay City, where Forrest attended high school.

At the age of four, on the morning of Easter in 1915, Bess experienced his first vision. Upon a table in front of his bedroom window, he saw people moving through the cobblestone streets of a village under a sky full of multicolored light. As he got up in order to approach this scene, he was frightened by a tiger and a lion, sitting on chairs in his room. Throughout the later years of his childhood, visions--sometimes terrifying and sometimes comforting--occurred to him with increasing frequency. However, his friends remember him as a typical boy, lively and mischievous.

In 1918, at the age of seven, he executed his first drawings by copying images of Greek and Roman mythological figures in an encyclopedia. In subsequent years, Bess avidly read about Greek and Roman mythology, and he produced numerous crudely executed oil paintings of classical subjects, such as Discus Thrower.

In 1924, at the age of thirteen, he began to take private painting lessons from a neighbor in Corsicana. Utilizing images in encyclopedias, he created oil paintings of famous American landmarks and picturesque European villages. In later years, he maintained that he already had found in art a refuge from the harsh realities of life.

By the time he entered high school, Bess felt that his personality was split into two virtually irreconcilable components: masculine and extroverted on one hand and feminine and introverted on the other. Although often lost in daydreams of ancient civilizations, he excelled both at football and school work. His parents hoped that he would enter West Point, but he failed the physical exam due to curvature of the spine. Although Forrest wanted to study art, he resolved to train for a career as an architect in order to please his father, who regarded art as insufficiently manly.

University Studies and Early Professional Artistic Endeavors

Between 1929 and 1931, he studied architecture at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A & M University), but he did poorly in required courses in physics and mathematics. In 1931, he transferred to the University of Texas, where Professor Sam Gideon strongly encouraged his studies in world religions. However, Bess dropped out of university in 1933 without finishing the requirements for a degree.

As he would do until he entered the military in 1941, Bess alternated sporadic work in the Beaumont oil fields with extended trips to Mexico. Although he later claimed to have spent many hours watching Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros at work, these muralists did not have any discernible impact on his art. In 1934, he opened a small studio in Bay City, and he had his first solo exhibition in the lobby of a hotel in that town.

In 1938, he had a major one-person show at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, and he participated in group shows at the Museum of Fine Art, Houston, and at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Despite these early indications of possible future artistic success, Bess continued to live in destitution, making meager wages through hard labor in the oil fields and wandering off to Mexico whenever he managed to accumulate any spare cash.

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