Art can be a powerful tool for reaching many goals, including empowerment and personal growth. Gene Witkowski ̕ 21, a prospective music and math major, finds these and other qualities of art in his music. When I interviewed Witkowski to showcase his talent, he was genuine and candid, providing a beautiful look into the arts at Swarthmore.
When I talked to Witkowski about what it means to be a musician, I got to see the complexities behind the art he creates. What it means be an artist or creator varies from person to person, and his definition acknowledges the difficulties of authentically telling stories and being a voice for others.
“I think there’s an enormous sense of responsibility that comes with any form of creation. Through music I’m able to tell stories, and it’s important to recognize that even though those stories are yours, other people that you may not even know have experienced similar situations that allow them to see pieces of themselves in something you’ve created,” Witkowski said. “For that reason, I’d like to think that with each song I write, I have the potential to change, or maybe even save, someone’s life by allowing them to live vicariously through me. And as a gay man and a member of the larger queer community, that sense of responsibility is even more potent.”
In Witkowski’s view, his love of creating music does not make him an artist, despite the fact that many would call him just that.
“I know other people might call me an artist, but I’d be hesitant to call myself that,” Witkowski said. “When people use the word “artist,” I think there’s an element of commercialism there, as if their art is simply a hobby or a profession, and in that sense I don’t think that I create art.”
For him, music is an essential outlet for processing emotions. Witkowski explained that he is not so much an artist as just a human who feels pain, love, loss, and any other other emotion. The only difference is that he chooses to express those emotions through his music.
Witkowski’s passion for music was in many ways established in his childhood. He began singing in church as a child and started piano lessons at the age of five, which his mother made him continue.
“My mom sang in church and gospel choirs when she was younger, and my dad toured as a roadie with a number of prominent bands in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so I’d say I inherited my musicality from both of them,” Witkowski explained.
Witkowski explained how his musiciality was not simply an inheritance, but also something that they helped to facilitate.
“I remember wanting to be able to play a ‘boy’s instrument’, and my dad suggested the guitar, as well as promising to give me his old electric from his touring days once I learned to play. And it fit well with the dream I already had by that point of wanting to be a famous musician, so I had my mom sign me up for guitar lessons. It came pretty slow to me, but I loved it then and continue to now.
“I actually do remember the first song I wrote; it was this really innocent two-minute-long song called ‘Place For You in Me’ that I told everyone I’d written for my grandmother, but was actually about a girl I had a crush on when I was six or seven years old. The lyrics essentially talked about how much she meant to me, how she had embraced me unconditionally, and how I would be willing to do the same for her.”
“I remember a few years ago, I went back and tried to add some more to it, but I couldn’t bring myself to make any changes. It was so cheesy and obviously written by a little kid. But it felt perfect just the way it was. Which is a little ironic when you think about it, given all of the songs I write now are about boys,” Witkowski reflected.
Witkowski’s musicality was also an essential part to understanding his own sexual orientation and its impact on his relationship with his father. In many ways this came from one of his favorite singers, Troye Sivan.
“I publicly came out as gay for the first time on my sophomore retreat when I was fifteen; when I returned as a junior to lead the same retreat the next year, I spoke to the retreatants on my troubled relationship with my father and the process of coming to terms with my sexuality, and used Sivan’s ‘HEAVEN’ as a preface to my talk. I remember watching his coming out video on YouTube when I was fourteen, one of many I found online while grappling with the realization that I liked boys, and as a result was the exact opposite of the son my father wanted,” Witkowski said.
These stories of Witkowski’s youth were deeply personal and provided a lot of insight into his music. Witkowski also explained that Sivan was important to him in a plethora of ways and is a source of inspiration.
“So I dealt in terms of repression, all the while wishing I could be as free and unashamed as Sivan was, whether it was as momentous as coming out to my family or even something as seemingly inconsequential as saying ‘he’ or ‘him,’ instead of ‘she’ or ‘her,’ in a song.” Witkowski said. “He was the representation I desperately needed, and so when the time came for me to stand in his shoes, it felt only fair to me to pay him homage. I see so much of myself in him, and I continue to be inspired by the good he does, not just in his music, but in his activism. And a smile comes to my face every time someone tells me that my voice or my lyrics remind them of him.”
Witkowski’s openness about his music and where it comes from for him can serve as an inspiration for all those who are struggling to find a way to cope with whatever they may be going through.
“Don’t evaluate your successes by the successes of other people, don’t be afraid of making something you don’t like, and wherever possible don’t put any limits on your artistic ability. I’m constantly guilty of comparing myself to others, but you should never think of making music or painting or whatever medium it may be as a competition between you and somebody else; your job is to create something you’re proud of, not something that you think someone else will be proud of,” Witkowski explained.
Witkowski shared some powerful advice to conclude.
“Some things may be perfect the first time around, but sometimes they’ll be shitty, and that’s okay. It might take some time and several attempts, but your hard work will undoubtedly pay off in the end. And be as flexible as you can at all times. Don’t try to put your art into boxes or police the content you create, even if it’s different from anything you’ve done before. Don’t give yourself deadlines to meet. And don’t stop yourself from doing anything just because you tell yourself, or someone else tells you, it won’t be good enough.”