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Biography of a Wandering Angel
by Kimberly Nichols
Bottomline Magazine 2005

If you look at the winding ramps and inner changing history of artist/photographer/writer Roland Wise’s life, you might say fate lead him to become one of Matthew Shepard’s Angels. He was living in Kansas City when Matthew Shepard was killed, a murder that rocked the world and put vulnerability back into the hearts of many gays and lesbians. Roland had come to stay with his sister while regrouping after a business failure in Denver and was seriously pondering his life. “The same week Matt died, I was scheduled to vacation in DC,” he says. “I ended up attending the Washington DC vigil where many folks, including Ellen DeGeneres, showed up to speak. I was so upset that I vowed I would go back to Kansas City and create bumper stickers that said DON’T FORGET MATT SHEPARD. I had ten grand in the bank and thought I would see how many stickers that would buy.” But when he returned to KC, his plans were derailed by news that a friend in Denver had died, so off he went to the funeral, putting a temporary stop to his plans. This would become one of those detours that forever change one's life.

“After the funeral I was sitting in my car in a park writing in my journal, listening to a country song, crying about my friend’s death, when I looked up and there stood a guy in camouflage with a gun,” Roland recalls. “He was screaming ‘Die Faggot Die’ to the guy in the car ahead of me. I thought it was a joke at first, you know, and I was thinking about how when my mother would tell me don’t even point a fake gun at another person.” But then the gunman began shooting and Roland ducked down into his seat, trying to turn on his car to get the hell out of there. Suddenly, something inside told him to face this man rather than lie down and wait to die. So he sat up, and upon seeing the man walk the other way and get into his own car, Roland slammed on the gas heading right into the gunman’s vehicle at 30 mph.

“His car spun around and faced me,” says Roland. “He had this look of ‘what the hell are you doing?’ which was strange to me in that he had just shot a man. Nevertheless, his car was able to move so I embarked on a 50-block chase through the park grass and through traffic lights until he (the gunman) crashed again across town. At that scene everyone saw me pull up and thought I was the bad guy. He then took off on foot and I followed in my car until he went into a bar. Five minutes later when the police came and I was able to explain what happened in the park up to this other scene across town, they went into the bar and arrested him bringing him out for me to ID. This guy had told friends the night before he was going into Denver to show the world how to really kill some fags.”

The heroic experience threw Roland into the activism spotlight and while his head was spinning in that odd sort place, he realized that he wanted to stay in Denver and do his part for the growing Matthew Shepard movement. After chasing down a madman, it somehow seemed like a cakewalk to quit his job, leave Kansas and follow his dreams of living as a writer and artist, even if he had no idea what that would mean. Thus began his Seven Year Ache, which is the title of his second Photography Series shown throughout 2005.
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During the years just after receiving his Master’s in Counseling, Roland would take winter sojourns to write and take photos of the South. One series was called “One More Southern Boy Escapes.” And he means this. His childhood in Florida was the antithesis of what his life is like now. “It was beauty in ruins, the decaying south,” he explains about the photos. “I found myself missing the South, knowing that once I fully came out as a gay man, I may never see it again in the same unobstructed way. These photos are visual heirlooms and gently evolve alongside me, comforting me while carefully unlocking memories that have seemed forever nailed shut behind closed doors.” In anticipation of great rejection, he read Southern novels that were painfully true and comforting at the same time while avoiding the useless encounters with his parents.

“Growing up, my parents were at war with one another and still are to some extent, and my mother’s only means of controlling how bad it got physically was my father’s obligation to hide his rage from the public eye, especially when it came to saving face in our church. I remember when I went to our pastor once as a teen trying to describe the mental abuse from my father, and the preacher man totally took my father’s side attributing the wrath I received to my own rebellion issues. He was wrong to do that but dead on when it came to me being a different color than the rest. Since age Seven, I knew I was largely on my own in this life, and that I had to reside within myself and remain perched above it all in order to survive both emotionally and physically.”

Roland goes on to say, “The Infrastructure Freeway Drawings was the design work that lead to the Eminent Domain Project and have been much like a private diary, a driveway in fact, leading toward the main house, a safe place where I have been mapping portions of my soul for some 33 years, the very places that would have otherwise been paved over and long since forgotten amidst all the pain. When I thought of putting these 300 plus drawings out there as artwork it was originally unthinkable to me until recently when I began to work with the designs, zooming in on the inner changes I had drawn while comparing the twist and turns with the inner change I had experienced in my life. I began to see how the twisted ramps of pain drawn in pencil represent misunderstanding and lack of acceptance and to my surprise, adding the rebelliousness of color again made for a very different feeling about myself and the body of work, hence the shows playful title The Eminent Domain Project, which in Latin, oddly enough, means supreme lordship, which is what I have continued to seek from within myself as I have embarked on the many winding roads my life tends to bring, learning the balancing act while grounding within my own personal sense of wholeness.”

“Well past the statute of limitations” Roland says with a grin “and after years of counseling and the letting go of the desire to sue my parents and the Baptist church/school where I received my earliest education, I was able to look on this time in a very different way,” he describes. “This education was known in the Baptist circles as the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE). Just after de-segregation and the sexual sixties the right wing conservative Christians conveniently (out of fear that their little lambs of God would go astray and intermingle not only with worldly things such as drugs and sex, but with races other than there own) created ACE as a checkpoint Charlie. My take on it now, after working through the lovely things I missed, such as any knowledge of Shakespeare (until the University of Texas years later) is that my time there was much like what I imagine a monk goes through while at monastery. I used to get my day’s work done in about an hour and sit and draw freeways all day, so once I stumbled upon this metaphor of good old Baptist creating (out of fear) vast amounts of creative time where their little lambs of God were actually racking up meditation hours leaning us all more toward the Buddhist faith, the irony delighted me so that I was able to move on and thank them as well as my parents. “

With that said, he admits he wouldn’t trade any of it if he could. “These are the things that shape us,” he says. “I believe that my parents and I, and my lovely Sister Mary Ann all had an appointment with one another, that we had roles to play and that we each fucking nailed it on our perspective stages, and are nailing it still.” He tells of how he earned his Bachelors degree from the University in Texas in order to not only blame, but to beat everyone over the head with a demand for change. “Desiring change and demanding it are two different things however,” he admits now. “In many ways those were what I call the anti-writer years, a time when I was dredging the river bottoms of my life for answers, almost like a detective trying to solve his own murder, perhaps because ones own murder hits the closest to home.”

Roland looks you dead straight in the eyes when he speaks, letting roll a lazy Southern drawl, while he calmly and measurably tells you how it is. Every once in a while he’ll crack a one sided smile, and his piercing blue eyes will dance momentarily before shifting right back in to pensive mode.

He moved to Dallas in the mid-eighties. “I was exhausting myself trying to be straight,” he sighs. “I was finally kicked out of seminary a short time later for having a gay experience the evening of my first sermon. I went my own way in shame. It was during this time in my life that I had sort of the hybrid gay life, still Christian, still exploring the gay side privately.” He finally left and never looked back saying, “I guess they thought I’d amount to a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife, but salt heals right? And its what I have to work with.”
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So when he ended up in Denver, reeling from his heroic experience, he decided to stay. “I was eavesdropping at my favorite coffee house where Romaine Patterson was working and sharing with someone about the clippings scrapbook she was preparing for Judy Shepard,” he explains. “I interrupted them and asked if I could please donate all the articles and things I had saved to go into this book. She said that would be great, then said ‘hey, you are the town hero, the guy who caught the gunman in the park’.” Romaine asked him to be an angel and invited him to a meeting that night with the four others. Together, they ended up designing costumes and preparing for their infamous protest to block hatemonger Fred Phelps at the upcoming Matthew Shepard murder trials.

“The contrast of that day simply put was that my entire life had usually involved Baptists like Phelps, who were against everything. As a boy I had mapped privately where I would go in life while being forced to march publicly with my mother and our church against abortion, homosexuality and ERA. For the first time I was on the other side of the fence, and even though we had our backs to Phelps and the gang, it was powerful to finally be my own man, going down the roadway I had planed for years.”

Photo by Johnny White

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