The story begins on Sept., 11 2001. Or at a Town Hall in Seattle on Oct. 1, 2018. Or at a decommissioned immigration building in Seattle’s Chinatown International District on March 23, 2019. For the purposes of this story we’ll start at the Town Hall — that’s where the mother of two transgender sons, a Sikh Captain America and a freelance photographer chose to reclaim what it means to be a superhero — and what it means to be an American.
In “The American Superhero,” an exhibit currently on display at UW Tower, people — of many races, sexualities, gender identities and socioeconomic status — are photographed in Captain America costumes. Next to them is an excerpt of their stories — what’s important to them, what they’ve overcome — and what their super power is. This exhibit tells the stories of overlooked American superheros, from drag queens to congresswomen, painting an image of the American flag with more colors than just red, white and blue.
On Monday evening, Oct. 1, 2018, Vishavjit Singh, aka Sikh Captain America, hosted a Town Hall event in Seattle. For an hour that night, Singh shared his story — how he dropped his career in engineering, ditched his fear of performance art, and became a cartoonist and an occasional Captain America. With his turban and beard, the classic American costume makes an immediate statement. For Christie Skoorsmith, a Seattle mother of two transgender boys, and Seattle-based photographer Nate Gowdy, this event was their first time hearing Singh’s story — and they were both incredibly moved.
Singh’s attempt to redefine what it means to be an American superhero started after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Post-9/11 was a very difficult period for somebody who looked like me because a lot of Americans who were feeling insecure, anxious, angry — natural feelings after a tragedy like that — they projected their insecurities and vulnerabilities onto me,” Singh told The Seattle Times last year. “Within hours I had people who were giving me nasty looks and I had to work from home for the next two weeks. When I did step out, everybody — just about everybody, was giving me looks, calling me names; told me to go back home.”
Singh took it upon himself to share stories of Sikh Americans. In 2002, he created his website sikhtoons.com. He started dressing as Captain America in 2013.
For Skoorsmith, hearing Singh’s story immediately reminded her of her sons. Being the mother of twin transgender 8-year-olds has not been easy. Learning how people treated Singh before and after 9/11 reminded her of how people treat her boys after finding out they’re transgender.
“People that were very affectionate, giving them hugs, suddenly don’t know what to do,” said Skoorsmith, the project’s creative producer. “Someone that used to be part of your circle of family, friends, or neighbors is suddenly the other. People don’t know what to do with that person.”
For a while, they were bullied at their elementary school. Their classmates did not use proper pronouns. In an attempt to express themselves, their gender and their imagination, the boys turned to art — creating comics, specifically. The parallels between her boys’ and Singh’s stories took Skoorsmith aback.
“I really wanted my boys to know this man. I wanted them to have him be one of their mentors,” she said.
After the Town Hall was over, Skoorsmith lined up for the Q&A session. Behind her was photographer Gowdy.
When it was her turn, she spoke into the microphone:
“Have you ever thought of dressing up with other people also dressed as Captain America and having your photos taken together?”
Singh’s face, as Gowdy remembers it, took on an expression of intrigue and excitement. Singh said he would take the idea back to New York, where he’s based, and think about it. Gowdy, however, thought the idea was too important to leave Seattle.
“I was next in line and I very quickly said, ‘Or, we can bring the idea to Seattle and make this thing happen,’ ” said Gowdy, the project lead. “My brain just exploded. It’s not every night when you come across an idea like this one.”
Singh agreed and the American Superhero Project was formed. A month before they started shooting, Gowdy brought on his friend and creative producer of the project, Gregory Evans. The “core four” as they affectionately call themselves, began the project the following March, after months of planning, a few transcontinental flights, a maxed-out credit card, and a mission statement:
“By highlighting our differences it allows us to embrace our commonalities.”
Project gains traction
The first day of their shoot — on March 23 this year in the decommissioned immigration building in Seattle — the core four expected between 10 to 15 people to show up; they only invited their family and friends, expecting some to say no. But that wasn’t the case.
“We had about 40 people that first day. Everybody just kept saying yes,” said Skoorsmith. The number of participants wasn’t their only surprise.
“People didn’t want to leave,” said Skoorsmith. “[Participants] were standing around, sharing their stories. There was this whole little community [that] was formed that day. All of them said they felt so heard and valued.”
Skoorsmith acted as a guide, leading people from Gowdy and Evans’ photography space to interviews downstairs with Singh.
Participants were asked questions like, “What does being a superhero mean to you? What does being an American mean to you? What are your superpowers? What are your vulnerabilities,” recalled Singh.
Many participants said they had a complicated relationship with the idea of being an American — especially under President Donald Trump’s administration.
Gowdy’s cousin suggested that Giselle Lopez participate in the project.
“We’ve all been through hard times but hers is so extraordinary,” said Gowdy. “Her family has had a hard time since the 2008 recession. She was accepted to NYU and USC to go into film but she couldn’t afford it so she went to UW. Her mother dropped her off at school and a week later [her mother] is deported after 20 years of trying to gain citizenship.”
Lopez, 18, is putting herself through school, working two jobs, and trying to survive alone, according to the story accompanying her photograph in the exhibit. She’s an American superhero, the exhibit shows — though her powers are not publicized as such. This is the point of the project: Everyone has superpowers. And everyone has their own take on what it means to be American. By donning a Captain America costume, participants are reclaiming their power and what being the typical American means.
“We wanted to create something we could be proud of,” said Skoorsmith. “These people’s stories are the best of what America is.”
The project has gained rapid traction. The group started by reaching out to friends and family but soon enough they were photographing Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker and LGBTQ+ activist Aleksa Manila. Still, the group wants to focus on sharing stories that aren’t as public; for every celebrity, they hope to share the stories of 20 regular people.
“This is activism. We’re making change, not just documenting people making change,” said Gowdy.
Growing the project
The project is only in its beginning stages. Midway through his interview, Gowdy pulled out his phone frantically, before shoving it back in his pocket
“Sorry about that — I’m expecting a call from the Smithsonian today,” said Gowdy. “They want to acquire some of the work.”
National recognition is not something the group was expecting from the project when it began — but when they picked up speed and realized the power of their project, they never looked back.
Gowdy envisions the finished form of the project being a book — but Evans was quick to remind him that that’s only one of the finished forms this project can embody. They hope to take this project on the road, create a podcast and photograph many more people. They believe the possibilities are endless.
They are asking people that visit the exhibit for donations to help them continue to grow — all their time has been volunteered. Singh is flying back and forth from New York to Seattle with his own money. Gowdy maxed out his credit card buying Captain America costumes. Everyone that has helped with makeup, costumes and production has been volunteering.
While expansion is a goal of theirs, the changes they’ve made, the stories they’ve already told, have made ripples in the lives of participants. People that have heard Lopez’s story are reaching out, letting her know that she’s not alone.
Skoorsmith’s sons have also felt acceptance. During their interview for the project, the boys publicly acknowledged that they’re transgender, that they’re proud of their differences and that they feel special.
“I feel like they’re already changing the world,” said Skoorsmith. “We wanted to present people that have an alternative story than the typical American superhero story in a way that highlighted their superpower, their ‘super-amazingness.’ And I think we did that. With this project, we did that.”
“The American Superhero,” through Oct. 3; UW Tower Mezzanine Lounge, 4333 Brooklyn Ave. N.E., Seattle. Also on display Sept. 12- Oct. 5 at Vermillion, 1508 11th Ave., Seattle; and Oct 6-Dec. 1 at Retail Therapy, 905 E. Pike St., Seattle. Free. nategowdy.com