“I was about 18, 19. I was coming out as trans at the time. I started having these experiences in society that I could not reconcile with—things like going into a bathroom and being harassed or being misgendered all the time; things that were society-level problems; things that weren’t a quick fix, where there was nothing I could do. They would hit me really hard. I found drawing was pretty much the way I could get myself through that because I could take my experiences and change them with the drawing, or I could even just represent them in all their glory. It was a survival mechanism. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Jonah Welch is a transgender, nonbinary mystic and visual artist. I met them unexpectedly at the opening of their gallery at Black Locust Cafe, an excuse to see old friends. The show featured dreamy linear illustrations of haunting landscapes and towns, obscure bodies intermingled, and animals bent and moving in unanticipated directions. In their artist talk, Jonah spoke about their life’s work, the exploration and protection of all that is the divine nonbinary. While I still had more to learn about their work discovering the spiritual legacy of nonbinary people through several conversations, the first time we spoke was after their talk about a recurrent symbol in their work: horses.
The symbol took years to show up in Jonah’s work. They had been drawing from the time they came out as transgender and, for a handful of years, was not doing well emotionally. “Now that I’ve been on hormones for six years, I see that transitioning is a trauma. There isn’t guidance on how to do it. All of a sudden, you have to let go of all these things and learn all these new things, and there’s barely anybody helping you. So when I first started, I had a lot of qualms with taking up space as a person who looks male-bodied or like a man. I started censoring myself a lot, changing some of my behaviors because I didn’t want to make people uncomfortable, and I didn’t know how to exist as someone who looks like a man in the world. I went through this phase where I was very bottled up.”
Raised in northern Wisconsin, Jonah had worked with horses in various capacities as a kid, including at their grandmother’s farm. “Part of what was lost was this kind of joy I associate with my childhood self—that really free happiness.” It was a defining, happy feature of Jonah’s youth. “At a certain point, I realized what was happening and tried intentionally to start reconnecting with some of my childhood joy to let it through. That was a very important moment in my embodiment. The horses really started coming out when I made that decision to still pursue joy.”
With joy and pain in hand, Jonah has kept an art practice for years throughout adolescence, gender transition, and university study. They earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in gender and women’s studies with a specialization in feminist theory and a minor in LGBT studies. After graduation, they moved to Los Angeles and then Austin, where they apprenticed under professional mystic Olivia Pepper for three and a half years. Recently, Jonah made the decision to return to Wisconsin. “I wanted to come back here to reconnect with my community and to save up for a project I’m starting in the fall—an oral history project where I’ll be traveling around the country. Madison is where I saw the start of my art career. It feels really good to come back and share what I’ve made.”
These days in Madison, Jonah focuses on healing people through both mystic practice and artwork. A defining component of Jonah’s oeuvre is the series Nonbinary Prayer Cards . The series deviates from Jonah’s typical method of concept creation, which is hours of improvising, following their hand, and ultimately arriving at a new visual concept and full composition.
Jonah’s Nonbinary Prayer Cards are born out of their moral dictum: “Trans People Are Sacred.” Built around Jonah’s poetry, the cards contain visual references to myths and gods of the past, further solidifying the narrative of trans individuals as a group of people with a long legacy. Nonbinary Prayer Cards are meant to be used in moments of need for self-love and centering. “[They are] a survival tool for me and a part of my spiritual practice.” A combination of Jonah’s healing work, historical research, and artistic method, the series is not only a relevant cultural artifact for today, but a perfect encapsulation of Jonah’s craft.
While the motivating core of Jonah’s work is tenderness, they are evolving still. Over the Horizon is Jonah’s most recent series. Inspired by a previous piece entitled Who Civilized You? , an array of livestock scattered on the roofs of abandoned buildings, Over the Horizon is both a marker in technical accomplishment for Jonah and glimpse into the evolution of their character. The pieces in the series contain lush, diverse, natural landscapes paired with horses jumping off mountaintops. Jonah comments on the craft behind these new works. “First of all, it’s a new level of what I’m doing because I’m focusing more on taking the whole page and balancing it with light and dark, creating an almost alchemical balance on the page. Every piece is a project on balance.”
Jonah goes on to speak on the jumping horses. Their headspace has changed drastically over time. From the pain of gender dysphoria to the joy and purpose of mystic practice, Jonah has moved into a brave and adamant eagerness regarding protecting their community. “Taking the horses, which I’ve drawn a lot in various positions, and having them leaping off of this mountaintop and falling—I was going over a plateau emotionally. With what is happening in society and how I’m growing as a person, I’m ready to start the new world. I’m ready to go over the edge. I’m ready to sacrifice everything to pursue freedom.”
Elissa Koppel is a freelance writer and a local artist.