The Arts: A Lasting Legacy Of Matthew Shepard

Oct 5, 2018

The three-part oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard moves through the life and death of Shepard and the resulting trial alternating in genre and perspective throughout. The large-scale composition written for an orchestra and chorus was written by Craig Hella Johnson. The piece touches on western themes, religious ones, as well as focusing on Shepard's humanity.

"I've got to include Matt in this piece, not just Matthew Shepard, the iconic name," Johnson said.

Craig Hella Johnson at the Texas A&M Performance.
Credit James Goulden

The concert is touring the country now, including Laramie on October 6, the night of the attack. It's the latest major contribution to the canon. Shepard's death compelled a lot of artists to respond in unique ways over the past twenty years. There are countless paintings, musical interpretations, poems, and theatre. It's even been a story arc in popular TV shows like Six Feet Under and West Wing. Art has become central to the story of Matthew Shepard's death. Johnson said it allows something deeper than just reading news clips.

"We come together, we grieve together, we ask our questions together," Johnson said. "So that alone is one significant aspect of a way that performance and performance art, music, can hold a story and give us deep possibility for processing."

The first major artistic work to do that was The Laramie Project. Leigh Fondakowski, head writer of the play, was in Laramie just weeks after the attack talking with locals and gathering interviews, along with the Tectonic Theatre Project. She said the play maintains its relevance today, which surprises her. It continues to be wildly popular especially in high schools. Like Johnson, Fondakowski said she sees art as playing a role in the conversation.

"The Laramie Project" Cover
Credit Fair Use

"The art, I believe, kind of elevates the discourse, so that we could really look at it from many, many different perspectives and come to a deeper understanding both of the magnitude of the loss and the meaning of the loss," she said.

Fondakowski doesn't think The Laramie Project inspired all the art following it. She said the tragedy was bound to galvanize artists.

"There was something about his heart. His… I can't think of any other way to say it… just his light, his life force. There was something that just moved people to want to investigate further and to want to make art by," she said.

With twenty years of distance from Shepard's death, artists have had the time to investigate unanswered questions. Some wondered where Shepard would be now at age 41? Others explored the religious aspect of his death - seeing it as a crucifixion and him as a martyr. Lesléa Newman, a Jewish feminist author and poet, was coincidentally in Laramie to speak about gay rights the day Shepard died. She had her own burning question.

"What happened at the fence? Now, Matt, of course, can't tell us because he is no longer with us so then I had the a-ha moment. There were witnesses" Newman said. "The fence was there, the moon was there, the stars were there, animals were there. What could they tell me?"

In 2012, she published her book October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. It's told through fictitious monologues from perspectives like the stars, the fence he was tied to, and passing animals.

October Mourning: A Song For Matthew ShepardCredit Lesléa NewmanEdit | Remove

"[I] really just tried to come up with some truth, not the truth, but my truth," Newman said.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation is giving her this year's Make A Difference award.

Jason Marsden is the head of the foundation. He was also a personal friend of Matthew Shepard. He imagines the stories, artwork and poetry will help Shepard's story live on.

"Like all historical events, memory of it will fade if there isn't some compelling and emotionally powerful way to keep the story vivid to people," Marsden said. "People in high school now weren't alive when Matt was murdered so these works are the only way that people will have a vivid, emotionally resonant experience of this story."

Marsden said the artwork has changed since the event in 1998. Now, it has more context, new perspectives, and distance. But that even new works like Considering Matthew Shepard have power and are a gift for anyone who continues to fight for equality and acceptance.