The Art of Healing
Gay Houston artist Ben Workman, aka Jumper Maybach, tells his story in new documentary.
By Karen Derr
With his smiling face and his long, thick blond ponytail, artist Jumper Maybach has become a recognizable Houston celebrity at art and social events, at Pride, and in ads for his art gallery on 19th Street in the Houston Heights.
Now the story of Maybach’s emergence on the Houston art scene is told in an 85-minute documentary that will get a special screening at Numbers on July 29, with proceeds benefitting the Montrose Center.
The Jumper Maybach Story is directed by wildlife-documentary veteran Alan De Herrera, who initially passed on the project, thinking the film might be better served by a director in the LGBTQ community. De Herrera had most recently directed a documentary narrated by Edward James Olmos about the struggle of seals in the wild and the hardships they endure. Herrera says he finally took on the project because of its focus on the struggles of a tormented gay man in conservative Texas. “I quickly realized it was more a story about survival; fighting for the right to simply be who you are without the fear of retribution or alienation,” De Herrera says. “In that context, Ben’s story was no different than the story of my seals and the struggles they endure.” He adds that he hopes the film will continue the conversation about equal rights.
Maybach, the alter ego of Ben Workman, began painting as a response to the discrimination he experienced after being outed and bullied at his work as an administrator for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “The film has really helped me bloom as an individual, and it’s been a healing process for me,” Workman says. “I hope I can give people who have been bullied at work the strength to come forward and fight for their rights.”
While at the VA, he was embroiled in two separate harassment and discrimination lawsuits. He prevailed in both cases, but because he still had to work with his tormentors on a daily basis, his life became unbearable. Kneeling in his living room, praying for guidance and help in his desperation, he was immediately and mysteriously compelled to paint. Even though he had never painted before, he rushed out to buy supplies and began painting works of art on canvas.
The persona of Jumper the clown was born out of a childhood interest in clown face that his grandfather also donned from time to time. And in clown face, Jumper Maybach could do things Ben Workman could not do in his state of despair. The film’s executive producer is Workman’s life partner, David Sanford, an oncology doctor. “I think everyone knows about bullying, but they really don’t understand the damage it does,” Sanford says. “And I think Ben, as courageous as he is in telling his life story—our life story—opens that up for examination.”
The film features appearances by Rev. Helen Havens, an activist who was the first female priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas; attorney Mary Sinderson, who represented Workman in his discrimination lawsuits; and Georgia Coffey from the VA’s diversity office.
“Ben was being sexually harassed by a female,” Sinderson says. “I thought it was a really good example of irrational and malicious bullying.”
In addition to workplace bullying, the film sheds light on the difference between law and mere policy, which forced Workman to remain in a work environment alongside his harassers. Also appearing in the film is actor and artist Pepe Serna, who has appeared in many supporting roles, probably most notably as Tony Montana’s friend Angel in Scarface. Besides appearing in the film, Serna helped produce it.
While The Jumper Maybach Story is a tale of triumph for Ben Workman and Sanford, Maybach’s art has a starring role, too. Vibrant and rich, his brightly colored abstracts light up the screen. Behind-the-scenes footage of Maybach painting at his studio shows his intensity as an artist and a process that is at once an act of release and a creation of beauty. That process results in joyful works of art that have been shown and collected around the world.
The Jumper Maybach Story was an official selection for the 2016 Awareness Film Festival that spotlights filmmakers committed to making positive change. It was also selected for the 2016 San Antonio QFest and the 2017 Depth of Field International Film Festival. The film is an Impact Docs award-winner, and it was also awarded the 2016 NiFF Houston International Film Festival’s prize for Best LBGTQ Film.
This article appears in the July 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.