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Lio Mehiel: The Activism of Art

“I really identify as a mutt,” laughs creative artist Lio Mehiel about their upbringing. “I got that phrase from a filmmaker friend of mine. I am a mutt in that I am of mixed ethnicity (Puerto Rican and Greek). I have mixed genders. I am also a Gemini” But that crossbreed reference could just as easily apply to the fact that Mehiel is a multi-faceted creative artist who has worked professionally as an actor, director, and salsa dancer.

Attending Northwestern University and an alumnus of the Emerge NYC Residency program, they have presented works as a filmmaker at both the Sundance and the Palm Springs Film Festivals. Their immersive piece Arcade Amerikana was included in the list of 10 Best Immersive Shows in NYC by TimeOut and Gothamist.


Now, for the 40th anniversary of the Outfest Film festival in Los Angeles, they are presenting a unique multimedia showcase entitled Ancient Futures, divided into three sections, Purgatory, Fruit Trees and Angels. Over zoom, Mehiel talked with the HFPA about their work, both past and future.

What is the inspiration for this presentation?

It started as a short film called Suspension, which was written and directed by a creative collaborator of mine, Dulcinee DeGuere. At the center of this story is a trans love story. People are so struck at this love story in the most unlikely of places. You go to this town and its dilapidated architecture, thrown away plastic, metal rusting everywhere. Yet, there’s this brooding life and love at the center of this film. That got me thinking about oh ‘Wow, isn’t it such a beautiful metaphor for the trans experience in America?’ But, also, the sort of American experience generally where we have this location in which the mythology is so much about freedom, the American West, cowboys, independence, The Gold Rush, the best life you can possibly live. Then, again, it’s forgotten. Disposed of. Rusting, poison, toxic. I’m, like: ‘Okay, that feels like a nice metaphor for the contrast between the ethos of Americana and the actual lived experience of it.’

And you divided that up into three visual mediums, to illustrate the metaphor?

Part 1 is the video installation called Purgatory, which is an excerpt of the short film we made. It focuses on this tea-for-two love story and imagines the two characters as a kind of Adam and Eve relationship. We go from that video installation into Part 2, Fruit Trees, which is a photo essay that is really a celebration of trans beauty and trans resilience. We picture trans individuals in the nude posed up against this architecture, emerging from the rubble like fruit trees and showing how trans people are able to thrive and find beauty in the most unlikely and inhospitable locations. Then we land in Part 3, which is called Angels, It’s four sculptures rendering trans-identified individuals. I wanted that to feel like when you walk into the Metropolitan Museum and you see all of those Greek and Roman busts from thousands of years ago. It feels like ‘Oh wow, this is a part of human history.’ That kind of figurative sculpture has always been normative for cis-gendered bodies. And I’m, like: ‘What about trans bodies too?’


With all art comes opinion. How important is debate and conversation about what you have created?

Thank you for asking that. As a filmmaker, if people don’t love or are obsessed with or hate my movie, I did something wrong. If people are like ‘Oh, that was great’ and just walk away and aren’t physically charged either with passion or with disgust, then I think I haven’t provoked them enough into a space of aliveness, activation, engagement, and curiosity. This work is no different. I hope that there are people who are, like: ‘Well, what is this conversation? Why are we picturing them in this dilapidated setting?’ I don’t even know what kinds of contradictions or challenges might emerge through audience’s responses to the work. But I think that, at the core, this does that in some capacity. Then, it will have done the job of engaging people enough to make them think, question, feel something.

Being part Greek and Puerto Rican, how did those cultures help create who you are today?

I lived in Puerto Rico until I was five. In my mom’s family, I am the whitest one. Everyone is browner than me. In my dad’s family, I’m the brownest one. Everyone is whiter than me. He’s the Greek side. You look at me and I hold white privilege. I am a white person but, in our culture and being a Puerto Rican in New York, that is a culture in and of itself. Holding these multiple perspectives has allowed me to create work that offers my nuanced perspective. It also includes all the people who are, like, ‘Oh, I was raised thinking I was one way but now I am in the world and I am this other way. Where do I fit and what am I?’ The more we can have creators who are honest about the complexities of their experience, the more people can feel included in their expansive and contradictory lived experiences. There is space for that.

As an actor, you started at an early age on Broadway. How was that experience for you creatively?

I was in two shows on Broadway, as a kid. When I was in fifth grade I saw this advertisement in the school newspaper for a show called The Miracle Worker, which is the Helen Keller story. Hilary Swank, an Oscar award-winning actress, was playing the lead part in it. There was an audition for the understudy of Helen Keller and I was, like, ‘Mom, can you take me to this? I just want to do it’. She was, like, ‘Sure.’ I booked it, which was really amazing. We did our previews in North Carolina. Then, we came to The Music Box theater on Broadway. It was just around then that there was some post-911 bomb scare stuff, and the show closed before opening. But the stage managers from that show then did this show called Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams, which starred Ashley Judd, Jason Patric, and Ned Beatty. They were, like, ‘We know an amazing child actor to play the lead no-neck monster, the kid of the brother.’ They had me audition and I booked that. It ran for about a year. It was a limited engagement. It was really amazing. I mean, I am a performer at heart, so, to be able to be around these expert artists and craftsmen of all kinds, whether it was on the crew behind the scenes or actually the actors on stage, I think that imprinted on me a drive, focus, and attention to detail. To be able to work with adult actors at that age was so formative. I feel so grateful for that.

And you most recently did WeCrashed, right?

Most of my scenes were with Jared Leto. Again, Oscar winning actor. I was blown away. He is one of the most focused and prepared actors I have ever seen work. He would show up, know exactly what he was doing. He wasn’t talking to anyone. They would say action and he would go right in. It’s also cool because it was a comedy. To see these actors do a lot of improv and going off script, having moments that you don’t expect… As a young actor, that was my first recurring TV role. It kept me on my toes. Like, ‘Oh my God, what is he going to say?’ (laughs) And, yeah, just to be on a set with 300 people, the budget for that TV show… I don’t know what it was. I was hearing things like ‘One hundred million dollars’ and I was, like, ‘Whoa!’ It was really amazing to see.

How close do you see a correlation between art and activism?

The entertainment industry and media have become such an economic force that it isn’t surprising to me that artists want to be famous. Or make money. Or ‘My goal is to just get my film out there to a billion people and make a lot of money.’ It has become commercial because of the way our economy is set up, our economy of attention, our actual economy of exchange. At the core, artists are like messengers. They are the people who are waving the lantern, or whatever, being like ‘Hey guys, wake up, pay attention.’ Or they are the people who are, like, ‘I feel this thing, it’s okay to feel this thing.’ They activate the aspects of human experience that are just fundamental. As an artist, the reason why I have a little bit of trouble talking about my work is because I come at it from a conceptual perspective. I have something I want to say but I am, like, ‘What different art forms can I use to be able to say that?’ I don’t need to just make it a film or just make it a performance or just write something. Ancient Futures is a perfect example. It’s a video, it’s a photo, it’s a sculpture, it’s something that I hope people share and it becomes a kind of spoken word poetry. Whatever medium someone has to communicate something — to make someone feel alive, feel connected, feel less alone, or comment or critique or wake people up about what’s going on in our world — it’s the job of artists to do that. Everyone is creative. You can make these art objects be a part of the conversation.