The Interview Show: Editors/Publishers of WMN Zine interviewed by Anne Charles for the Vermont cable show ALL THINGS LGBT.
Phoenix Lindsey-Hall is a Brooklyn-based mixed media artist. Lindsey-Hall holds a MFA in Photography from Parsons The New School of Design in 2012 and a BFA in Photography from Savannah College of Art in 2004. She has held solo shows at Victori + Mo Gallery (New York, NY) Christopher Stout Gallery (Brooklyn, NY) Brown Gallery at Duke University (Durham, NC), Gallery Aferro (Newark, NJ) and shown in group shows in various galleries in New York, NY, Philadelphia, PA, Louisville, KY, Savannah GA and in Pingyao, China. She is New York Art Residency and Studios (NARS), Studio Residency Recipient, and a participant in the Emerge Program with the Aljira Center for Contemporary Arts in conjunction with Creative Capital. Her artwork centers on violence in queer communities.
We had an artist talk with artist Phoenix (She/Them) centered around a discussion of their work with sculpture, ceramics, photography and contemporary queer issues.
Jeanette Spicer: Everyone can hear me? Perfect. Thank you so much everyone for coming. Um, so for those that don’t know, which I think out of this group, everyone does know and we do have some people probably filing in, and we’re just, we’re just gonna get started because it’s almost 6:10. So, I’m Jeanette, and I’m one of the co-editors, co-founders of WMN, which is a lesbian publication, we make zines, about marginalized communities of lesbians who are making visual art and poetry. So I think everyone here probably has both copies, I don’t think I need to go into too much detail about that. We have two issues, out so far, the second one is just now going to print. So for those that have been waiting super patiently, months and months, we really appreciate it, it’s going to be shipped out the last week of August. And we just got the proof, it looks beautiful. So thank you so much for those that have been super patient with that. So we, in lieu of not really being able to meet in person and host things due to the pandemic, we’ve been thinking about ways that we can sort of utilize Zoom, if you will, and kind of our website as well. So for those that haven’t had a chance to check out our website, Sara built a beautiful website; we have a lot more content there. So we’ve been creating content and doing interviews, whether it’s over zoom, or written interviews with folks that identify as lesbian and are artists, art historians, make music any, anyone in anything is welcome. If you know of anyone who might be interested, they can always email us, and it’s all listed there on our website, we’re always interested in having more folks contribute. And this is actually going to be recorded as well. And we will be putting that onto the website. So we hope that that sort of acts as an archive and a place of resource and resistance for people. We already have some really interesting content up so far. And we really wanted to do an artist talk, so our first artists talk is today, and for some people today, some people this evening, depending on where you’re coming from. We have Phoenix Lindsey-Hall, who for me is up in the top left corner, who’s waving with the guitar.
And I know Phoenix from Parsons, Phoenix was a year or two ahead of me, but we had some overlap, and in thinking about who I who we all would be interested in hearing talk, I immediately thought of Phoenix I recently went to a show of hers, I think we were just saying it was a year ago in Chelsea, and I was really blown away by seeing the installation and the way just the vastness of the research that she did, and that show that series is called remind me Phoenix. Shame is the first betrayer.
Phoenix Lindsey-Hall: Sorry, I was muted. yes, Shame is the first betrayer.
Jeanette: The visiting artists was muted. Awesome.
Phoenix: Well, my cat is vocal so I muted myself.
Jeanette: I saw that and we’ll talk much more about that. And we’ll probably see some imagery from those, from that series. We’re really excited to have Phoenix discuss her work for the next probably 20 to 30 minutes. And then I’m sure Sara, and Florencia, maybe just want to introduce themselves for folks that don’t know who they are. Sara and Florencia and I will all ask one brief question and sort of just keeping it very conversational, and then we’ll have a brief q&a for Phoenix and just keep it pretty organic. If anyone has questions throughout, please feel free to I see some people already utilizing the chat, please feel free to just type anything into the chat. And in the meantime, so yeah, if Sara, Florencia either of you guys want to do a brief? You’re muted.
Florencia Alvarado: Hi how are you? My name is Florencia and I live in New York right now. And that’s how I met Jeanette and Sara and I’m also the co-editor of WMN zine, I’m an artist, photographer, graphic designer. I am from Venezuela and been living here in the US for three years in a half. We’re happy to have you here. Thank you for your time. Welcome.
Sara Duell: Yes, thank you so much, Phoenix and everyone else who’s joined. My name is Sara, also one of the co-editors. And I’m Swedish and I’ve been here for eight years. Yeah.
Jeanette: Awesome. So Phoenix if you want to take it away and just tell us however you want to kind of run it. If there’s anything of course you want to add or?
Phoenix: Yeah, totally. Yeah, this is such a great group and we can be kind of conversational. So, you know, I’ll kind of be scanning the chat while, if questions stuff pop up. I’m super excited to be here. Thank you all for having me. I did just get a puppy, and I do have a cat, so there could be some sounds. So we’ll just roll with it if that happens, I also just realized that I think zoom maybe adds an inch to my hair. So that’s also prominently featured, for me, as an artist, Sara, you might have that same issue, I’m not sure. So, um, as Jeanette said, I went to, I got my graduate degree at Parsons. Before that, I went to Savannah College of Art and Design, but I actually weighed, my degrees in photography, though, you’ll see I don’t have much photography in my finished work. It’s more from a research visual research base. But I waited seven years between undergrad and grad, because I was living in Louisville, Kentucky, actually, and doing a lot of activist work. It was the year that there were so many anti-marriage amendments that were up there were like 13, up in that year, and so that’s when I kind of fell into doing a lot of activist work. That led me to being on the board of directors for the Kentucky ACLU, I was the co chair of our local queer rights organization, the fairness campaign, and I was a states lobbyist for queer rights issues and some environmental issues. I kind of had to head down this path, but I realized, you know, there are only so many hours in the day, and if I really wanted to be an activist, I almost had to give up art making and so I was really kind of struggling with that and, and decided I was ready to go back to grad school. So that’s why there was that break there. But but that work really informs my art practice. And I’m excited to share some images with you guys tonight. The first note, let me share, um, the first thing I could start with, um, there, you should be able to see that full screen. Um, the first thing I wanted to start with is, um, is Never Stop Dancing. So this work, my wife and I were upstate at a Dixie Chicks concert a couple of years ago. And, and then we started getting like, all these phone calls from friends being like, Are you guys okay? Are you guys okay? And I don’t know if people all live in New York. But anytime something bad happens, I feel like people like call each other. And so what people were calling about actually was the nightclub shooting down in Florida. And so you know, it was almost like that friend network of everyone who’s like checking in with each other when something like that happens. So was the Pulse nightclub shooting were 49 people were killed in this massive hate crime. And of course, it was at the time, the the biggest kind of shooting, of course, now, it’s been eclipsed, unfortunately. But what I and my wife did right away was we went from upstate, we just drove straight to Stonewall, the Stonewall Inn. Stonewall Inn is where we kind of we go as a people anytime something bad or good has happened. You know, when marriage equality was passed, everyone was there with Edie Windsor, [inaudible – championing math?] and, and at the same time, at the Pulse nightclub shooting, we all went there to mourn. So there was a bouquet of flowers that was sitting there that someone had left, and a little note that said, never stop dancing, and I thought that was just so beautiful. I was really inspired to make this piece. And so what we’re looking at is 49 porcelain, disco balls that are all hung, you know, kind of in this celestial way with the with the lights kind of dropped down to cast the shadows. I’m really interested in shadows and you’ll see that as a theme of something that’s both there and like not there at the same time. The disco balls themselves are all a few different sizes so I could kind of get some depth and play with the installation of them. The disco ball itself almost becomes like a moon, or star. Again, with those shadows casting long. I was also really interested in the disco ball as this almost as like a bearing witness to that event. Here’s an image just have one disco ball by itself, so you can kind of see a little bit more of the technique of slip casting. I don’t know if anyone’s used ceramics here?
Okay, so I’ll tell you what the casting is, just since I use it a lot, is the process of making a mold from like an object, and then it’s a way to repeat objects. So you know, I made like to get the volume of 49 disco balls actually purchased disco balls, make cast of them, and then use liquid clay in a process called slip casting to make these multiples. So I’m interested is in ceramics is like a, you know, ceramics, you only have the opportunity to make it so big, right? Like it’s constrained by the size of the kiln. I like to use multiples to to to build volume and shape even though there is that limitation.
Phoenix: I made this because when I was first coming out, it was the same year that Matthew Shepard was murdered. For those of you who don’t know, he was a young college student who had gone home with some guys after a night out. They really brutally attacked him and left him to die tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. As I was coming out, this had just happened. So, you know, I remember like the Times newspaper article of his face being on it, and that just being really palpable, for me as someone that was raised, that was coming out queer in the south. And so there was always that kind of undercurrent of that something bad kind of could could be happening, right, because I was queer. So this story really resonated with me and kind of has been a part of my coming out, kind of almost backlighting that. So I wanted to remake the fence because as you could kind of tell from the other work, I like to take kind of scenes and extract out like one object and play it up. This actually is six, it’s a hard kind of scale, I feel like there should be a person in this photo, but it’s 16 feet long, and it’s five to six feet tall, and also five to six feet wide. So it’s a really large ceramic sculpture. There’s also we use this process called slip casting, but I kind of cheated and you know, to get a really long log, I cheated the seams and kind of patched them together, but it is porcelain. The other thing I think a lot about is how we don’t have like memorials for queer people. And for this fence, it actually was, it was moved after about 10 years because it was on someone’s property. And they were like, you know, I kind of need my land back. They actually moved the fence so it’s not even there anymore. Now we have the Stonewall Memorial, that’s the park right outside of Stonewall, and there are a couple pieces of work there. There’s like one memorial on Amsterdam, which is like a little thin.
I’m always thinking about making memorials, and remember it’s in in honor of folks that history has not been kind to all the time, I think I’ve done a detailed shot. So this is where you can see all the different pieces kind of coming together. I actually went upstate and bought fence posts, and then used the same method you would use to cut the wood to make them latch together and then use bolts to bolt the whole thing together. A part of my art practice is something about like, really fragile things over concrete floors [laughing]. So there’s always some really terrible high stakes, logistics to work out. You know, I’m really interested in the fragility of ceramics and I think that that as a medium is really good for the more conceptual things that my work explores.
This is a an earlier piece where you want to see the same theme emerging, it’s really reminiscent of Never Stop Dancing. This piece is called Flame Tempered. When I moved here, I was doing a lot of research about queer hate crimes and came across one that was really close to where I live. These are about 75 baseball bats. In this process of slip passing, you know, if you leave, if you leave the mold the way you’re supposed to get a perfect object. As I was getting these perfect objects, I was like, a perfect ceramic baseball bat doesn’t tell the story at all. I thought, you know, I would break the mold too soon, and so they’re the objects are kind of, and then bent and distorted. And I can like, have my little fingerprints kind of in it, and then just kind of patch them back up. So here’s a detail of that bowl with the with the kind of bent twisted baseball bats. And I think that, you know, kind of taking this object that has been used as a weapon and making this kind of cyclone out of it. It’s like the object holds the act of violence, and kind of reflects it back to us, which is what I’ve been kind of interested in.
This was an earlier work to even kind of illustrate that point further. I can make a ceramic hammer, and that’s, you know, fine, maybe you would like to see it at West Elm or something be like a cool object. But I was much more interested in these crimes, the weapons themselves kind of holding the story of the violence once the person, the victim, and the perpetrator had been kind of removed from the scene for different reasons.
This is that work that Jeanette was alluding or mentioning, that was a show I did last year. It’s called Shame Is The First Betrayer and this was after a five year kind of long, really wandering research project at the Lesbian Herstory Archives. I don’t know if you guys know about this place, but it’s amazing. You should absolutely come visit anytime you’re in New York if you’re not already. So the Lesbian Herstory Archives they’re in a brownstone, like a three story brownstone, in Park Slope. And the premise of this archive is all donation based. Anyone who identifies as a lesbian or feels their work belongs there, can donate whatever ephemera: t shirts, buttons, um, you know, different objects, books, lots of books, and the archive will hold it in this collection. Some things are, you know, their books, and if they’ve got a really nice library, and people come and do all sorts of, you know, PhD level research.
But they also have this private collection where people can donate their things that are more like letters and photographs and things like that, so I got really interested in that and we’ll talk more about the boxes that you see there. I wanted to tell this crazy story, that’s so amazing, that happens. So the piece that says “never underestimate the power of a dyke” here was um, and this is eight feet by four feet, it’s a full sheet of plywood, but I printed it on veneer, so there’s no backing on it. So it’s almost like wood paper, it’s really thin and fragile and then hung it up with with magnets actually. So I’m always kind of interested in like things that you would think are hard being soft, almost like a photograph. This photo I found and I’ve got screen printed very, very large with a fabricator I work with, on this on this panel. And I’m and I just thought it was a really great image. I love the T-shirt, I love that they’re all kind of looking away. I kind of removed the background so it was just their backs. There’s so much kin photography and coming out and being queer, there’s a lot of images in the 80s and 90s of the backs of people because they couldn’t put their faces forward for fear of retribution of their job or housing or other places but the family maybe? so I really kind of like that it was highlighting that. Anyways, so this was the image that had been used for a lot of the promo for this show, and I got this Facebook message out of the blue, totally, from this woman who lived in Illinois. She says, “Hi, my name is Sarah, and the woman wearing that T-shirt is my wife who passed away three years ago. And I have never ever seen this image. Where did it come from? Who are you? How did you get it?” And we built this really amazing relationship, I got to find out that this photo was taken in 1984 when I was two years old, and it was a Boston Pride Parade. Sara and Catherine, it was their first Pride Parade that they went to after they just first started dating. It was kind of like the first Pride Parade that Sarah had been to and Catherine really loved making these shirts, and she like made all these really fun shirts. This relationship, you know, we talked a lot on the phone and, Sarah decided that she wanted to come to the… it wasn’t for the opening, she came during the 50th Stonewall anniversary, which had was right around the time that the show was on. So she flew in and we got to spend the day together, and she showed me all these photos of her partner and them and their lives. We walked down to Stonewall together, got some lunch, and it was just a really, it’s just a really amazing, you know, I feel like she was like, she’s like an aunt, you know, we we just really connected. I never would have expected that from this show. Here’s another photo, this makes it look really tiny, but again, it’s eight feet long.
This was another piece you could see it in that first image hanging on the wall. So this figure here, can you guys see my cursor? Yeah, so this figure here is this really amazing woman named Joan Nestle and she was one of the co founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. She lives in Australia now. She is a writer and an activist, and it’s just, it’s just has left this really amazing legacy through through building the archive with a woman named Deb Edel, they’re the co founders. So I had come to find a lot of Joan’s writing, because she again, she’s a writer, and so that’s actually where the name of the show, Shame is the first betrayer comes from a poem that she wrote called Stone Butch Blues Butch [Stone butch, Drag Butch, Baby Butch from A Restricted Country 1987]. I just got to know her work, her writings, and, it’s an archive where it’s like, very homegrown and there’s not, we don’t have a Dewey Decimal System here, you know, very homegrown system. I had been doing a lot of reading about her and reading her words, and then I found this really small image. And I was like, “Oh my God, that’s Joan.” Like I recognized her and so I found this photo of her that was like, not labeled, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, she’s a Jacob Riis beach”. And for anyone who is a queer and in New York, you know, Jacob Riis beach, that is where I will be this Saturday. It’s where I was two Saturdays ago. It’s the queer beach. I was blown away because this photo was taken in this in like the 60s, and I had no idea that that was the queer beach then, like, this is literally where I like set up my tent. This house is here. This weird building is still here. Who knows when it ever was, I’m not sure. Um, and of course, Jacob Riis is a famous photographer too. So I love that little nod.
Anyway, what I did was I worked with the same screen printer and got the image printed pretty, pretty large. I think this is maybe four feet long, maybe three feet and had it printed on cotton sheeting. And I went to Jacob Riis, and there’s some fence kind of back back along here, and I took the cotton sheeting and tied it up to the fence and and just left it for a couple weeks, and let the rust from the from the fence and the weather from the you know, was like the winter so it was it was wet and moist, and so it got all this rust saved on it. That was that was this work, so it’s almost like taking Joan back to her beach. I didn’t even realize we had shared, of course, we shared it.
This is a ceramic piece where I’m taking some of her writing Mrs. Jones name, again, January 82. I was born February 2 of 82. I kind of wanted to make like this banner out of ceramic. So it’s kind of woven, you can see on the edges. And it’s an introductory notes to the Lesbian Herstory Archives bibliography on lesbian separatism, which is what it kind of been called them. She talks a lot about what does it mean for us to take our lives seriously, and that’s kind of the drive for this place, why they wanted to make an archives.
So this was almost their like, manifesto.
This is another piece I just wanted to show you. I just kind of gotten into weaving a little bit. There’s this other crazy story from the archives, where it was when they first got started, it’s in like the 60s-70s, and they needed they need filing cabinets, because they’re like building this library, they like need filing cabinets. So someone calls it’s like, “Hey, I heard you guys, need filing cabinets. Somebody left a bunch outside of my house, you guys come bring the truck, we’ll get these filing cabinets. And so they get the filing cabinets. Great, serendipitous, wonderful. But in the back of one of these filing cabinets, there’s this letter, and it is really old, like from the 20s. And it’s this letter is a love letter to Alice and it’s a lesbian love letter. And she’s talking about lighting the candles as I sit down and write this letter to you, and this is a quiet letter and this is this is a love letter for me to you and it’s really beautiful letter so I was really, of course, I was really moved, they decided to call it the gutter letter because they found it in the gutter in these filing cabinets. So again I screen printed on this cotton sheeting and then had a loom and wove the text in so you can kind of see the the text that kind of goes back and forth, and of course, it’s obscure. But you know, I wanted to kind of weave, I’m thinking about rag rugs, you know, and I wanted to weave these words in, but leave it raw, you know, kind of leave the edges, it doesn’t need to be perfect. And then it just leaves the tail out there as a nod to the text that’s kind of hidden inside.
This was a piece that is a lot more fun.It’s a tufted rug that I made, and so this is like the lesbian icon right? I found this kind of lesbian, it’s called a labrys. I had found one that was kind of similar at the archives I made it really really really big, it was more it was smaller.
And so I’m made at four feet wide. I thought that would be fun way when you walked in the door to kind of be like a very dyke move.
Then I just wanted to show you guys this, because I got so personal with the archives, you know, they eventually wound up letting me have a key. I have keys to the front door and so I could come and go when I was working, that felt like such an honor to me and so I cast the actual keys and beeswax.
I also, it’s a brownstone and so I also actually got permission, was able to do a cast of their bannister so you know it’s like in a typical brownstone where the banisters kind of coming down., and so I was able to, over Thanksgiving when no one was there. Oh, it was so stressful because it’s like an archive with books and I’m mixing up plaster like making this mold and I did the cast, you know, back in the studio, but it was like so nerve wracking, that I’m gonna like get this dust everywhere or something. But I just love that I was able to work with them to do to do this.
And then, the boxes which I alluded to earlier. So this is part of the special collections that I got really obsessed with. And so you see Jones name, you see Deb’s name those are the two co founders, dyke TV. I don’t know if anyone here remembers dyke TV, that was like in the 90s but that was like some pivotal lesbian/queer moments for me and I found their box full of ephemera that they’ve donated now is just part of this special collections.
There’s boots of leather slippers of gold, which is a bar that was up in Buffalo.
My wife and I currently are in the big apple core band. And so if you ever go to a pride parade, in New York, or near New York, my wife was in the color guard, with the flags on the front, and I played trumpet. So I found their box. And so I had to, I had to make that these are all made out of ceramic. And we got really interested in that, like these banker boxes as, as containers, and as protectors and as houses almost. And then the last one I’ll mention is some a woman named Marge, who I got pretty obsessed with, who is also a writer make these really small little poems and little tiny books, but what type them. Her story is that she was living in Buffalo, and had never come out to her family that lived in Ohio. And when she died, she bequeathed, she left, all of her writings, all of her poems to the Lesbian Herstory Archives and essentially came out after she passed away by doing that, and her family was very upset, and they took all the letters and took all of her all these notebooks of writing, and typed notebooks, and they were going to destroy them. So somebody called the archives, I think the lawyer for her estate called the archives and was like, you know, “we’re in Ohio now all of her stuff’s in Ohio, if you want them, I don’t know.” They kind of activated their network and found someone who was near Ohio or in Ohio, and got the truck and went and got all her things and saved them. So they’re here and, and I actually, in her box, I found I also found her will that talked about leaving her things for the archive, and I found just all this really amazing stuff. So I really wanted to make kind of make a box and a place for Marge.
And this was a This was in the way their code works is 1987, and this is seven boxes. So this was in 1979, and that’s her 14th box, Joan left a lot of things. I think I just have three more images, and then I’m excited to do questions. This is a really new piece. It’s actually on display right now, I did a residency at Greenwich house pottery, which is a kind of well known over 100 year old pottery and ceramics shop, a studio in Greenwich Village. And I was doing it during the 50th of Stonewall. And it’s like, a half a block away, it’s a stone’s throw. And I didn’t plan my residency to be during 50th of Stonewall, but I was just, I just felt really inspired by it. I was kind of thinking back to the disco ball was thinking about this, like, an object that was a silent observer of the night of the riot. I kept coming back to the sign, which is not there now, anymore. Now, it’s, you know, neon or whatever. But anyway, so this is very tall with the pedestal, it’s taller than I am, and it’s made in four different parts, which is the same way the sign itself was made. This is about two feet, and so then I think the whole piece is about six feet tall. And then just put a little internal structure from the base to the ceramics piece to balance it like that, you know, it was a little bit of logistics. Again, really precarious things with super fragile ceramics.
But it’s glazed too, this is this is all ceramic, it’s not metal. The next piece that I did while I was on that residency, if you walk into the front of the Stonewall, they have this poster, which was the raided premises sign that the NYPD hung on their door when they shut it down, you know, that night, and so they kept it in its frame when you walk in their foyer. So I just went over there popped a photo of it and kind of re-placed it on this piece of ceramic slab, it’s about two feet by two feet square. And just you know, hang it up with a simple rope.
And then the last piece that I have for you guys tonight, was this. I’ve been experimenting a lot with screen printing on ceramics. And so this was an image I found of the Stonewall uprising of that night, and I just really, I really was drawn to the banality and how like pedestrian this images like, this is not a sexy protest photo. It’s just people walking. Like, it’s a, it’s like a dispersing crowd, and then just thought, I’ve been thinking so much
about the sensationalism of that event. And of course, now with all the protests that have been happening this this spring and summer, I kind of wanted like a quieter moment. One that that was just people kind of trying to figure out where to go and what to do.
So that’s, I don’t know, I was just kind of drawn to that image. So I screen printed it on this porcelain slab, which is about two feet long. And I think that puts us back at the beginning.
Sara: Amazing, thank you so much. I have a question for you, which was something that you mentioned right at the beginning, which is that your background is in photography, and besides found photography, we haven’t seen any of that. And I’m just curious how you made that transition into mixed media, or if there ever was a transition? Or if that was always around? And as a follow up, was like, and if you see any, like, do the processes of both speak to each other, as influences speak to each other? Or support each other? Or what is your experience? having so much photographic education, and now working in mixed media?
Phoenix: Thanks Sara, that’s a great question. When I first, my grad degree is in photography, even though I didn’t show any photographs at the end, much to the chagrin of all my professors, of course, but I, when I started making work about violence and queer communities, photography was no longer working for me because it’s too flat. And yes, people are doing super rad, sculptural things with photography. And that’s a very contemporary move. I just felt like it was too distancing from the viewer and that the object needed to be in the room and needs to have a physicality that I just was like, banging my head against the wall with ceramic, sorry with photography. And so that’s how I came to ceramics, because I was dealing with such a fragile topic. It just felt like that was the right material to be exploring the theme. So I knew what I knew when I like came to grad school, I was going to make work about like queer things, and and then somehow kind of fell into doing this work about hate crimes, a lot of research about hate crimes. And then ceramics just felt like the right medium. The thing that’s really interesting, you know, I mentioned the thing about slip casting and how you have to make a mold, and then you pull multiples, and then you use the multiples to like, make a larger thing. Well, that’s photography, with photography you have a negative, you take the negative in the darkroom, you process it, you make multiples, and show them in the room together. I always joked, like,” Oh, my molds are just like, really heavy negatives.” So I think there is a relationship in the, like, the multiplicity of both things.
Sara: And did you teach yourself ceramics?
Phoenix: I did. Yeah, I did. That’s part of the reason too, that when I first was making these objects, you know, I’d make a hammer, like the image of the hammer that’s twisted, like, I would pull it, like, I didn’t know what I was doing. So my timing was all off. So I pull it too soon. And then it’d be like such a mess, or I pulled it, and then I finally got the timing. I was like, “Oh, I’m doing this perfect.” I’m like making these perfect hammers. And then I was like, this says nothing, like the story isn’t in it. So then I started messing them up on purpose.
Florencia: I’m also curious about this ceramics, Sara kind of introduce that, the same curiosity that I have. I do see the influence of photography in your work very clearly, because it’s more like an expanded photography that you do with a print screen and transferring images in very non traditional materials. After I hear you and I see your talkign about your work, I was also curious about the colors that you use, the color palette that you use, and it seems to be very controlled. And very, very in control, or maybe both, you can tell us more about that. And your work is stunning, it’s beautiful, the way you use whites and the grays and those like earthy tones, like, speak to me about a strong relationship with contemporary art standards. I just want to know more about that journey with ceramics and color and why were you? I don’t know, just, why have you been to choosing the tones that you have been choosing, and how has that been that journey with color and your concept? Your message?
Phoenix: Yeah, that’s a great question, and a very cool thing that you picked up on. When I first when I first was making work, thinking back to that hammer. You have a world of colors, you can glaze anything, you can do all sorts of really cool, you make crystals grow, you do all sorts of cool stuff with ceramic and glazes. But I just felt, I tried to you know what, what, I’m going to make the hammer red? like that’s wrong. You know, it just felt like it was too glossy, it was too premeditated, it put my hand on it too much. And so I decided just to not glaze I really hardly ever glazed anything. The only thing that was really glazed was the Stonewall sign itself, I use Chino glaze, which is, which is white or rust color, depending on how thick or thin you put it on. So and that’s like kind of a historic, you know, like ceramics glaze. I just felt like, so much of my work is about a life or a process cut short, that I just leave things bone white.And I think there’s also a seductive quality about the work. That’s really important because these topics are hard, they’re not easy to talk about, they’re not fun to talk about. And so I just thought, let me let me seduce people a little bit with the object itself by leaving it kind of raw, makes me want to touch it, you know, and then you get that tension where you’re like, “Oh, I’m not supposed to touch this thing.” And then with the work about the the Lesbian Herstory Archives, I was struggling “there’s so much color in the show, I don’t know what I’m doing, you know, I’m making this tufted rug that has bright red in it.” I’m really pushing myself out of my comfort zone. But still using those using those muted colors, and you know, using the raw, like the rust, just how it, you know, the patterning that it did. So yeah, I just favor a much more kind of controlled thing. And maybe that’s because if you’re a photographer, unless you’re really orchestrating a photoshoot and setting it up, which I like, but you know, it’s what you get is what you get. So you don’t really get to choose what color the photo is that you’re like, taking of life, you know? Yeah, I struggle a lot with that choice.
Florencia: The piece, the fence piece with ceramics it’s so beautiful. So good to see you talking about that and see the details. beautiful.
Phoenix: Yeah, thank you. Yeah.
Jeanette: I’m curious about your, your decision to go from. And I know, also, being artists and like you have a really long trajectory of life, the amount of work you’ve made. And we only have so much time to see some things that you’ve decided to show us. And I know there’s probably in betweens and befores and things you’re working on now. But from what you did show us and I think what I’m familiar with from seeing some of your work when we were in school, and then seeing the show that you just discussed, I’m curious about how more just kind of emotionally and I like the term that Florencia was using about being kind of on a journey. Like, I don’t know that it’s always a decision, so I don’t know that I want to use that word, but how you sort of found yourself going from more from highlighting these more violent situations and circumstances which I’ve always found really interesting in your work because I do feel like that’s not something we see enough and I feel like the way you do it is so inviting. I do think it’s important to see and talk about this violence and to mourn it and to have these memorials. So it’s nice to hear you kind of speak about it that way. And I totally see like the throughline of your work, I’m just curious how you sort of, I’m not surprised you ended up at Lesbian Herstory Archives, but um, it’s a bit of a shift, like I see, I see the similarities for sure, and this way of you wanting to I feel like the objects almost are personified in your work. Like, I see I because I work with people so much I’m seeing it’s such a lack of people in a way, they’re almost not needed, you know? So, yeah, I’m just curious about that transition, because even though I do see quite a thread, and a theme, I feel like that is a bit of a shift. So I’m curious how you sort of ended up moving towards Lesbian Herstory Archives?
Phoenix: Yeah, that project have been running in the background for so long. I mean, I would just kind of like any spare Saturday, go and like, wander around there. As a community archive, that’s what I what I had to do, I had to keep showing up to, to get them to trust me, you know, like, I’m like, “Hey, I’m an artist, I’m gonna come hang out” you’re like, “what’s your intent?”. So that work have been running in the background for a really long time. It was such a wealth of, like, I could have picked Marge, that story about the woman and her will. And I could have, I could have done a show just about that, and, like that box. But the story became some more about the archive and about the place and about the community.
It was really funny, I was putting that show together, because I was like, Okay, I’ve got this huge wooden photo, that’s huge. I’m going to use ceramic boxes, I’ve got a rug, I’ve got a weaving, I was like, this is gonna look like I’m just all over the place, how is that going to go together? But I think that color palette that Flo picked up on, like, I think that helped to tie all the work ascetically together. But you’re right, the work, like Shepherd and Never Stop Dancing, those works are much more quiet and austere.
And I feel that I feel that coming back right now and work that I’m really kind of starting to think about making in response to George Floyd and Tony McDade and and all the black lives matter work. I think one of the things I can add, is my art, is my artistic voice. That’s what I think I’ve just a contribution I have to the world. I’ve been thinking about how I can can maybe make some work about more kind of current themes, and how I can find my place and find my voice that’s appropriate to do. And I think that work will be much quieter also.
Jeanette: Cool. Thank you. I think Grace, you had a question.
Grace Han: Yeah. I’m really curious, and I also love the fact that you say your ceramic practice is like an extension of photography. I’m so into that idea, right? Because like, conceptually, you are making like a system and then repeating it, and also like the idea to that, inevitably, I think whenever you talk about photo, it’s hard not to be talking about, like some idea of memory. Something that I really curious about is like, do you see your practice, or like how you interpret conceptually memory as being different when you’re working with ceramics as opposed to when we’re doing more like literal photo things?
Phoenix: Yeah, that’s interesting. There’s, in ceramics, because I’m doing large things. There’s a physicality, you know, you’re like, sweating it outa, and there also is like, some tactile, which I think in photography that like… I mean, I love the darkroom, right. Like we like I fell in love in the darkroom. That’s why I got into, you know, doing like black and white photography. I really liked that process, and the science of it, and you get that same kind of thing with ceramics, too. But in ceramics, it’s much more physical, it’s much more of like a labored act, and then there’s a duration, especially because I’m making so many multiples. It’s like going back to the studio and doing it, going back and going back and there’s that duration of time. So I think the other thing, I really like this idea of memory that you’ve brought up tying photography, and then the themes that I have around ceramics, so much of it is about, you know, remembering things that were hard or that are overlooked or that are aren’t remembered appropriately. So I really like that you’re drawing that kind of connection.
Jeanette: Think we have a question? I just want to read it from Lyndsey who is here but she and her wife Annie are driving so they’re not able to say it themselves, I don’t think.
So it says, “Hey all, we’re driving listening in without video. Lyndsay is from Atlanta, Georgia. And her question as a fellow southerner, how was that experience? And how has that experience informed your work as a queer artist?”
Phoenix: Yeah, well, I’m from Athens, so right down the road, and then I wasn’t going to college in Savannah, and I did high school, we moved to North Carolina. So I’m like, kind of all around that, and then when I finished undergrad, I went to Kentucky. And from Kentucky, I moved here to New York, where we’ve been for 10 years this month. Crazy. I think there’s, in being a queer person in the south, that absolutely has inspired not just my art, but my life, I think. There always was this, the way it affects my, or inspires my work is there was always this thread of potential violence, that kind of ran through my coming out, and my being out, and, you know, we have this really nice, like New York bubble, and I don’t feel it as much, but you know, there are moments that that are that are tough. When I was in high school, I had a friend who was the victim of a hate crime for being gay. It took me a really long time, kind of, and I was already making work about queer hate crimes, and then it kind of like when something is so obvious about yourself, and then you just finally see it, like, Oh, my God, like this, I’m thinking about Ed. And so that experience really shaped the trajectory of my work in ways that I didn’t really realize, um, and of course, my activism work before coming to being, kind of circling back to making art. That is very much tied to Southern my Southern upbringing, that and my love of country music.
Jeanette: Thanks, Phoenix. Anybody want to pop in? Feel free to just make a comment, question, thought? I just realized that I’ve got a slew of of liquor behind me, um, which looks great. So might have some, yeah, I’m like, that’s quite a lot of liquor. I’m not in my own house. I’m like, what is behind me? It’s a full bar. Okay. So that looks wonderful to the people that don’t know me, but I am actually drinking.
Florencia: I want to know about your quarantine artist practice. Have you been working something in these days? So you have your studio around? Or have you improvised a studio where you live? How it has been for you? Because your practice involves and need space? You need space to be dirty and to do stuff. So how have you been feeling about, you know, the lack of space and everything, the restrictions?
Phoenix: Yeah, um, so when all this happened, I was teaching at Parsons, I teach advanced ceramics for graduate students in the fine arts program. And, they all like left for spring break, and then they didn’t come back, but classes still happen. And so my experience, I mean, I was like, “What the hell am I going to do this? How am I going to teach ceramics?” to people that are in Malaysia, in Seattle, in Colorado, I mean, people were far flown. And so my experience as an educator in that was that I just gave people the assignment. And I said, “Look, figure out like, these are resources of how you can get clay, find your local ceramic shop, see if you can find a kiln. Like make a friend? like I don’t know? if you can’t do any of that do some watercolor, I don’t care just make something!” And so people did and the people in those three cities I just mentioned, each found their local ceramics community, got clay, figured out how to get work fired. It was really inspirational and one one student in particular was making, she has experienced some domestic violence growing up, and she had to return back to that space. And she felt safe, you know, she felt safe, with her work wound up being so much about being in that space, and she never would have had that being in the studio, you know what I mean? So that was just really, so I was really impressed by them. It’s just so much the point was like, wow, I gotta get my shit together, these folks are amazing. I’ve been making some work, I have a backyard. And so when it’s not so hot outside, sometimes I’m working on my, my picnic bench in the back. I’ve just been doing a lot of thinking and kind of planning and trying to think of how I kind of fit into the protest, I was, you know, pretty active in that, despite COVID, and I’m also you know, I also think there’s something about quarantine. It’s like, it’s been the great equalizer. Like, if something wasn’t a priority, and I was spending so much time on it, I cut it out. I feel like it was like a great priority shifting for all of us. And so it’s allowed me to like, kind of cut the fat a little bit on things that I don’t need to be spending that much energy worrying about work or that much energy worrying about whatever. So it’s freed up a lot of mental space for me to be to be kind of starting to, to anticipate a new show. I’ve also been applying to a ton of stuff, there’s like, they’re like four different applications I’ve just finished, which is like the unsexy admin work of being an artist.
Jeanette: That’s real. Yeah. We have some new people who joined in, and I’d be curious if, and if anyone has a question, please hop in, but maybe Phoenix, you could do a maybe a little screen share. And you don’t have to redo a whole presentation. But maybe we can just slide through as people continue to ask questions, and maybe that’ll help.
Phoenix: Oh, yeah, sure. Let me just share, but you can still ask questions.
Jeanette: And people are not muted, right? People can talk.
Sara: You can unmute yourself at any time.
Jeanette: I didn’t know if I muted people. I feel like I’m back to the days of the spring semester.
Florencia: They have to unmute themselves.
Jeanette: My students were like”no, we’re muted, we can’t talk” and I’m like, “No.
You can talk. You can talk.” No pressure. Was this installation at Parsons?
Phoenix: This was at my, when I got out of grad school. My strategy was apply to everything that’s really close to New York, but not New York, because there’s like less competition. Right? So this was this really cool residency I got in Newark, New Jersey called Gallery Aferro. And they had this huge warehouse, someone said was like, it was like, very, like lower east side 70’s vive, you know what I mean? It’s like this huge warehouse with big gallery spaces. And so this was part of their, a big show that we did, where I got this huge room. I mean, this is just one part of the room I had. And you can see I put I was like, have to figure out whatever grid system I’m going to like hang things from so. Oh, yeah. There’s always some logistics. And it’s just hung with monofilament leader like fishing line.
Jeanette: Yeah, for some reason, that looks like the Parsons’s like studios, they gave us and when you said it was a huge space, nevermind.
Phoenix: Yeah. No, this is more like 15 feet. Well, because I was in photo I didn’t have a studio, you know. So like, always hallway things. Always my burden to bear.
Jeanette: So we have some messages coming in from Savannah.
Florencia: They’re both curious about the disco ball installation. It seems they came late. if you can show us that image.
Jeanette: Feel free to hop in and chat too. But I think, yeah, I wanted to see the disco ball again.
Phoenix: Yeah, so this was about the Pulse nightclub shooting. And so I made 49 porcelain disco balls each for one of each of the victims. And then hung them you know, so they kind of become like moons and stars that are kind of overlooking. So it’s like the disco ball as the silent observer. And so of course, it’s it’s meant, you know, it’s matted Well, you know, it’s not reflective anymore now it’s matte white. And so it becomes, you know, much more of an introspective, instead of outward looking, now it’s inward looking.
And then here’s just one of them, just so you can get a sense of what one of them by themselves looks like, and they are slip-cast.
Joanna Raczynska: Can you can you hear me? Hi guys, I’m sorry I came in so late. And, um, but I’m glad I did. I have a quick question for Phoenix about the disco ball piece. So much you talked about looking in, it reminds me so much of like a galaxy within one. But also, obviously, maybe you talked about this earlier, I’m so sorry if I’m being redundant, but it’s so incredibly gorgeous. Have you did you guys talk about Did you all talk about why the color white? and why the mat? in particular?
Phoenix: Yeah, we talked a little bit about it, but the thank you for that, for that compliment about the work. I’m really interested in. I don’t like glaze, because I don’t want to cover it. I don’t want to like gloss over it. And in the ceramic process, of course, glazing is the last part, and I’m also interested in like, cutting the process short, just like the lives were cut short. It’s called like bone, white porcelain, and I, you know, I, I couldn’t cover that up. So when you when you see them, like individually, there’s like little like funky pieces, and sometimes you can see my little fingerprints, and sometimes things are like a little off. So I like to have the little scratches and the different marks of the making be visible, like, not too polished, like much more raw.
Sara: I also love that idea too with that because for some people on glazed porcelain is like nails on a chalkboard just like looking at it could be just give you goosebumps and just makes you feel really terrible. Which is such a nice connection too in the sense that you often install fragile porcelain on cement, where it’s like this feeling of like, “Oh, it’s going to fall down, it’s going to shatter and it like, it hurts me to look at it.” And it should, it should hurt because it’s very sad. I think that that’s a very beautiful way of conveying a message through form too.
Phoenix: Yeah, I really rely on that, you know, ceramic is like a domestic, you know, we all have like our coffee mugs, we all have our plates and you like wash it 1000 times, and then you just hit the rim just wrong, and the whole thing explodes. We’ve all had that experience. And so I like taking this object that we we know, functionally, but then making it really non functional and and really playing on that fragility.
Joanna: Another quick question, if I may? Maybe touched on this before. So just tell me if I’m again, being redundant, but how heavy are these pieces? And how do you actually make that?
Phoenix: [laughing] This one was pretty funky because my kiln was only could only hold about two feet, maybe. And, and the like these long cross pieces are like 14 feet.
Joanna: oh my god.
Phoenix: I had to make them in two foot sections. And if you look really close, let me see if I can, well hey, I did such a good job. There’s a little break right there. That’s where it’s like this is one piece. This is the second piece, this is the third piece, and so I just made it like you would make a male and female kind of mechanical connection where they kind of fit together and then use resin to kind of patch it in a really light little wash to get the colors to match. So that’s how I do it. And then I actually, I was mentioning I actually went and bought wood, this is cedar wood, you know cedar, you would make a fence out of cedar and so a bit out and bought saw cedar wood upstate and then like, notched it all out, made the thing and then cast the individual logs. But I made a pattern, you know, so there are repeats. So like you’d see this one and this one are actually the same that I pulled a cast from. So that saved me a little bit of time but then this one I wasn’t able to you know I had to make a new one for that one. This one and this one probably are the same, but just rotated differently. And then the whole thing is bolted together, you can see one of the bolts there. So I made an internal threaded rod and bolt. It’s very, it’s, it’s very, like meticulous and stressful.
Joanna: It looks it and its gorgeous.
Phoenix: And they’re, you know, they’re heavy. But, but ceramics is strong, you know, they say, you know, it’s stronger than steel at a certain thickness. So I kind of rely on that.
Joanna: About how about how heavy are these?
Phoenix: Yeah, I think that each one, they’re hollow, they’re hollow. So they’re not too bad. Um, but you know, I don’t know, it’s lighter than, this is lighter than a baseball because it’s hollow. You can see the little portholes, and the tiny little pour-holes, in each one of them. So they’re each of them are hollow.
Jeanette: Yeah, I was just gonna say that in looking at these and, unfortunately, not being able to go to see the other series that you’re talking about the Matthew Shepard and Never Stop Dancing and this piece. I can imagine that’s a really intense experience. And I like the way that you’re, when I also read about Matthew Shepard. And when I heard about Pulse, like, especially Pulse, that’s something that you feel so outside of, and you would never want to be inside of a situation like that, and the way that you put us in that space. It’s such a, we’re kind of seeing the insides of something that we feel like an outsider too, but as a queer identified person, you don’t feel like an outsider yet you weren’t there. Right? You know, so it’s this nice tension and kind of push pull between being inside and outside of something. And it reminds me a lot of a show that I saw, I don’t remember when last year but because at this point, I don’t even know what week it is, and what my name is, but there was a show at the New Museum called We the people by Nari Ward. If people don’t know his work, you should know his work. And I believe it was in the in the winter that it we can put that in the chat, but it showed at the New Museum for a few months. And he, I think he’s in his 50s, and he’s been a resident of Harlem for a long time, person of color. And he often works, he makes pieces about the Black experience, and has his most well known for the collection of shopping carts that homeless folks tend to acquire, and builds these amazing installations, basically out of found material in Harlem and around Harlem, speaking to just you know, systemic racism and housing and you know, who lives where and who collects what and who repurposes items for what reason. And he had one room. It just reminds me a lot with the lighting, where the whole It was a huge space. I mean, I don’t even know how big the room in the room was. But he had installed in the entire room, hundreds of strollers, which if anyone lives in a major city, you know, that’s totally a repurposed item that a lot of homeless people tend to use for many reasons. And it was just discarded strollers, basically. And then in the center was kind of an aisle. And it played and then there was a song playing. Do you remember Sara? because I think we went there together. At one point.
Sara: I don’t remember I’m sorry.
Jeanette: That like it’s like a very classic American not like, it’s like a very classic American song. And it was like, I think a recording from the 30s. And it was just this beautiful, haunting piece. And I like totally cried when I was there. It’s just unreal. And you can walk through the aisle just to see all these, every stroller was unique. Every stroller was totally different sized. Some look brand new, some look like they were from like the 70s totally different makes and models. And the lighting was very similar to what you’re working with. There was a lot of shadow. I just wanted to throw that in there because that was such a ephemeral, just such an intense physical experience to kind of be placed amongst these items that I don’t personally identify with per se but I’ve seen you know, I’ve seen a fence, I’ve seen a baseball bat, I’ve seen a disco ball. And when it’s placed in a certain area with music or with certain lighting, it can be a really interesting experience.
Phoenix: Yeah. And it’s about taking those objects that we have that familiar familiarity with. Ceramics as the domestic object, or domestic material, I use these objects that are domestic objects, kind of break them out of the connotations you might already have of them, like, but instead give them a new meaning as, as you know, a weapon or as a thing that was left behind or as a witness. Yeah, that’s great. You know, I know that work, but I don’t think I ever really, I didn’t remember that, that that was the person’s name. So I appreciate that reference.
Jeanette: Yeah, if I can look up what I’m what exactly that piece was called. He also included fire hoses as sort of the border along the aisle. I’m just, I mean, the whole show was great. It was multiple floors, but it was that piece in particular was just completely unreal. And I think a lot of it was because of the music was so moving as well. Just this idea of the American landscape and how, you know, really sad it can be. Other questions? Don’t be shy friends.
Drew Bourn: There’s a question that I was interested in raising. I wanted to begin by saying thank you to Phoenix for sharing your work. This is amazing work. It’s beautiful work that you’ve done. It’s very evocative. It’s very striking, and thank you for sharing some of that. With all of us today. And the question, I was interested in the way in which you would describe your interest in doing work that is able to acknowledge the effects of violence, especially anti-queer violence, perhaps, and acknowledging those experiences and and what that was like for those who have been impacted. And my question has to do with how much language or narrative does or doesn’t play a role in your work in order for that kind of acknowledgement to happen? So I know that there was some text that appeared on some of the works that you showed us, for example, the word Stonewall appearing on the sign of the Stonewall Inn, or the text that had some of Joan Nestle’s words. And I wonder if you could say a little bit about either through the signage that you use for your pieces, or in other ways, the choices that you’ve made in using language or using narrative or choosing not to use it? How that plays a role in how you want to convey stories about how is this piece about this particular instance of violence, for example, Matthew Shepard’s murder, or the attack at the Pulse nightclub? How does language or narrative, how is that something that you incorporate? Or that you choose not to incorporate in order to acknowledge that experience of violence?
Phoenix: That’s, that’s a really great question, and one that I’ve struggled with a lot. The thing about a hate crime is that the individual is a stand in for the group. It’s, it’s though, of course, has very personal ramifications. It’s not about the person, it’s about the idea of what that person is, it’s about that stereotype. At first, I think that’s why I kind of moved away from photography, because I was like, doing found images of just like, you know, a photo of a victim or photo of a perpetrator. And I was like, What do I like, what do I do with this is? It makes the viewer feel so disconnected. And it was too, it was too singular in a way. And so I kind of zoomed out. And that’s how I got to focusing on the objects, the other things that were in the room, because that was universal, and that could speak to a larger theme. And so, you know, I like to use, I like to present an object, let it be kind of beautiful. Let it suck you in. And then you can see the wall text and say, “Oh my god,” and that’s when you get that, turn of the screw and have have that kind of guttural experience.
And that’s when you can kind of get that feeling. So that’s why it’s sometimes I’m very cautious with colors, very cautious with kind of adding the narrative, I let that almost be part of the text that can go along with the piece or sometimes I’ll do like a small a couple lines of text to accompany a piece, but I like that to be secondary. So the the work can kind of suck you in, make you have that gut punch, and then that’s where you can have like that kind of cathartic experience.
Drew: Thank you.
Jeanette: Anybody else have any thoughts or questions?
Phoenix: Maybe I’ll stop sharing, so I can see your faces.
Sara: Well, yeah, just thank you so much, everyone, for coming. And thank you so much, Phoenix for sharing your work. And this was incredibly beautiful, and great way to spend a Thursday afternoon.
Phoenix: I appreciate so much to be invited and to have this conversation. Of course, it’s an honor. And you all ask some very great questions, which I really appreciate.
Jeanette: Thanks for sharing.
Sara: This video is going to be, the entire video will be available on the website afterwards. So it will be posted on our Instagram and through our newsletter, usually.
Jeanette: Do you have a question Joanna?
Joanna: No, I just waving
Jeanette: I’m trained to see hands. I’m like someone, its out of hand.
Joanna: You’re very good moderator.
Phoenix: Yeah, you guys did a great job. Does anyone meet my puppy before we go? Yeah.
Jeanette: Puppy porn. What’s his name?
Phoenix: This is Billy Ray. Okay. She’s gonna see she’s a southern belle, too. She’s our daughter. She’s like 11 weeks old. What better way to spend a quarantine? Get a puppy.
Jeanette: Yeah, seriously, I feel like that’s happening a lot.
Florencia: We invite all of you to visit our website, we are launching content every week, we are about to receive our second issue to to ship it to everyone who bought it. Thank you for supporting, keep spreading the word. And we will be planning a new artist talk soon. Because evidently, this is very important. And it’s a nice intimate format to just discuss and get to know each other.
Jeanette: And for folks that are New York local, we are planning to do a safe distanced launch. Very unfortunately, this would be the perfect time to have a book launch, and of course, that is absolutely a privileged issue to not be able to do that. And we’re very grateful that we are healthy and have been able to even publish this book at this time. So it’s a minor disappointment, but we we still miss seeing people and having supporter like actual physical interaction. So we just wanted to let you all know that if you are in New York, or you plan to be in New York, maybe at the like sort of beginning part of September, we are going to maybe do a little pop up kind of outside table stand-esque moment so we can sell some of these books. And have people learn more about our older generation identified lesbians internationally, and their poetry and their visual art. And we’ll have much more information about that on our website and be emailing people and posting about it as usual. But I just wanted to let people know now since we’re here, and yeah, it would be an outdoor safe situation. We’re not sure of the details yet or where we’re going to do it. But we were inspired to do it because they’re, Sara and I are upstate in Wassaic right now and they have a really lovely pop up. Can’t remember the last name of the woman but this woman named Erica something, is creating this beautiful pop up of multiple zines, magazines and other book type oriented things. I didn’t get to look at everything that are more on the cheap-end and super, super affordable. And we thought well we could do that too. So stay tuned for details on our COVID version launch. Alright, thank you for coming. Thank you for your time. Thank you, Phoenix!
(Full video & Text transcription)
Jeanette: we’re gonna just get started in terms of introductions. So, hi everyone. Thank you so much for joining us this evening/ morning / afternoon, wherever you are. My name is Jeanette Spicer and I am one of the members of women, WMN, which is a zine/magazine/publication. A dyke publication and we are a platform for visual art and poetry or writing for marginalized communities within the lesbian community.
I’m an American based visual artist living in Queens and Florencia is showing some of our two issues that we just did.
Our first issue was about. folks who identify as a Dyke or lesbian living in rural areas of the US or smaller cities. And our second issue called Show Me What You Got just came out and that is about older generation lesbians and their art and poetry. And that was a international call. And we have a few, I think at least one person here who was part of our beautiful zine. JEB. Legend.
Florencia: Jane Kreinberg [and Trish Stypka] too.
Jeanette: Amazing. I can’t see everyone. I apologize. Florencia why don’t you?
Florencia: Hi. My name is Florencia Alvarado. I’m a Venezuelan visual artist, photographer and designer based in Brooklyn. I’m also co-editor of WMN zine and, or I’m so happy to have this group of people here and looking forward to Listen to Lola, I’m also a photographer. So I’m very interested in what you have to share with us today.
Sara: Hi, my name is Sara. I’m a Swedish designer living in New York as well, and also part of the WMN team. I’m so happy to be here with all of you.
Jeanette: So we’re gonna just get started. And so part of something that, we, as a team decided we wanted to do during COVID was kind of carve out our website to act sort of as an archive. We started reaching out to folks who we were aware of who are identifying as lesbian Dyke and are working in really any field. And so Lola Flash’s talk today is going to be part of our featured content on our website. And we’ve got a few other folks over the last several months that we’ve, that have contributed to that site. We also allow, submissions or love submissions I should say, not allow. And, um, and it’s really any anyone with any background. So if you’re interested or, you know, anyone that might be interested, we would love to have you on the site. It can be anything from an artist talk to just a short interview or just maybe if you make visual art, just putting up your visual art in a bio. We are so grateful to have Lola flash here, also legend, Amazing Dyke photographer and I’m going to give a short bio for those who are not maybe as familiar with Lola’s work.
Working at the forefront of gender queer visual politics for more than three decades, photographer Lola Flash’s work challenges stereotypes, and gender sexual and racial preconceptions. An active member of ACT UP during the time of AIDS epidemic in New York city flash was notably featured in the 1989. Kissing doesn’t kill poster. Her art and activism are profoundly connected, fueling a lifelong commitment to visibility and preserving the legacy of LGBTQ plus and communities of color worldwide. They are currently a proud member of Kamoinge Collective. Flash’s practice is firmly rooted in social justice, advocacy around sexual, racial and cultural difference.
As we sort of described in the email, for those that had a chance to read it. Lola’s going to speak about the trajectory of her career and the last several years, decades of work and I will. It’ll be a little bit of a conversation. I’ll be asking just a few questions here and there and we’ll continue to see the end of that work and then we’ll eventually open it up to a Q and A. That can take place in the form of a question that you might put into the chat, or if you want to do a little virtual hand raise or a real hand raise. We will try to get to as many people as we can. We’ll have about 10 to 15 minutes for Q and A. We would love to get everyone’s questions. We certainly probably don’t have enough time for everyone’s depending on how many people are asking questions, but feel free to put them in the chat. And please remain muted while really anyone is speaking, unless you’re asking a question. This is a recorded zoom talk just so everyone is aware of this is recorded. And again, this will live eventually on our website, under the featured content. So you can always check back and see it there as well.
So I’m going to hand it over to Lola.
Lola: Great. Thank you for that introduction, Jeanette, I’m going to go ahead and start sharing my screen.
I’d like to thank you all at WMN zine for inviting me. I like to say hello to all the dykes out there in the house. As much as want to be this beautiful queer family sometimes. You know, I think for some of us dykes, we feel a little bit like a stepchild, so. In many ways it’s I liked the fact that we’re, this is dedicated to us. All right. So here we go. Thanks for everyone who’s coming. Who came. I saw Campbell X just came in the house. Uh, you’ll see a picture of them soon.Um, this is great. Really, really wonderful. All right. So here we go.
I am Lola Flash. I’m an artist and activist who’s committed to using photography, to challenge, stereotypes, and offer new ways of seeing. My work is directly related to my conflict with society and the absence of seeing my own reflection. Each of my portrait series speaks to a part of me be it my sexuality, race, gender or age.
I love the medium of photography and its ability to visually allure while initiating change. So here’s a picture of me with my trusty four by five, um, on a rooftop in Atlanta with my friend, Steven. We’re photographing him for my Surpassing series, which I’ll show you more about. I went to college in Maryland. Maryland Insitute of Art. This is the old building on the right-hand side and directly across the street is the newer building that has all the technology. I graduated in 81. That means that when I went to college, there was no digital cameras. I wanted to do a bit of film and they had super eight. Um, but while I was there, I started this process, which I call cross code. What happened was, um, my dad and I used to meet in New York, and he’d buy me all the different equipment I needed, you know, paper, film, and such, because again, there were no digital cameras. And the Cibachrome paper. So Cibachrome, for those who don’t know, was this beautiful paper that you would print a slide on too and you get these really rich colors. But Cibachrome was also very difficult to, uh, to Manipulate. So I’d probably go home and go back to school and probably spend, you know, 12 hours in the dark room and ended up with hardly anything. And I thought to myself, gosh, I’ve got all these slides. What am I going to do with them? I looked around and there was all this negative paper. So paper that you would print the negative on too. And I thought I’ll just try that. And I got all these amazing colors. Now, let me just backtrack a little bit.
The reason why I’ve always used slide film I, and I still use slide film today. Transparencies. Um, is because my grandfather took me to meet a national geographic photographer. Um, this would’ve been in the 70s. And, uh, he told me that they all used slide film because it gave this beautiful color. Now, of course they all use digital now, but that got me thinking, you know, I just really loved this bright color.
So going back to the cross color. My teachers were saying to me like, “Lola, what are you doing?” You know, and I was like, “I don’t know. I just love the color.” I started thinking about it, right. And I started thinking about, well, actually what I’m doing is I’m reversing the colors. So this picture on the right-hand side, um, can anyone tell me what you think that is? What’s happening there in the right hand side picture with the red?
Florencia: Looks like lava.
Lola: Right. It looks like lava right? Yeah. A lot of people thinks it looks like lava or he’s in the water, but it’s actually in the sand. I dug a little hole in the sand and I put the dog in there and he loved it. It’s really cool in there. And he actually was kinda nodding out and I was kinda like, “Hey, wake up, I’m taking your picture.” It was so nice in there. Um, so I kind of love that kind of, um, almost collage effect are still real effect that it created an addition to the color, but because I was in a academic environment, um, you know, the teachers were making me like, make sense of it.
And so I decided, you know, I started thinking like, Hmm, Black is white and my pictures, you can see the Coca-Cola sign, right? So the opposite of red is a, is a cool color. The opposite of, um, So the opposite red is this blue. What’s actually green, but I kind of made it blue. So I started thinking black is white and my pictures and white is black. And it took me all the way back to a time when I used to love playing with the dictionary. Back in the day a lot of times people had dictionaries on display and they used to have these little things that you could put your finger in to get like the A or the B, or stick your finger in there. And I just, there was something tactical about it that I just loved. I’m sure I remember reading that black was bad. That black was, was dirty. It was wrong. Right? But white it was beautiful. Perfect. Right. Angelic.
Growing up as a little black girl in New Jersey. You know, I never talked to anyone about that, but I think it’s kind of laid heavy on my shoulders. And so I was thinking, wow, what I’m doing is I’m actually changing the people, right? So no longer are black people bad. They’re good.
Right. So this guy here is, is, uh, is a black person. It’s actually from my, uh, another thing that was kind of cool about it was like, I could do different series. Like this is actually my picking nose series. But you can’t really tell that he’s picking his nose because of, you know, because of this process. I think throughout my career, I’ve kind of gone through, uh, or have created an image that’s that are both, emotional sad and some that are funny and silly.
As Jeanette mentioned, um, I was part of ACT UP, you know, I graduated from college in 1981 and, that was the first year to someone have been diagnosed with AIDS. You know, as we call it now, HIV.
It seems as though, as soon as I got out of college, that was what we were all thinking about, you know, the queer community. I moved around a little bit, Atlanta after college, Philly, and then I ended up in New York in the late eighties, right at the time when ACT UP was starting. I can’t really remember how I started in ACT UP, is just like one morning I woke up and I was there.
So here’s this iconic now poster of me on the end kissing Julie Tolentino, who at the time we were partners. It says “kissing doesn’t kill greed and indifference do” and the tagline below is just so synonymous with what’s going on now. Corporate greed, government inaction and public indifference makes `AIDS a political crisis. We can just put COVID in there, right?
I mean, it’s still the same people that are being disproportionately affected, right?
The sort of more frivolous part about this photograph is that we know we went to this studio in Tribeca and we just kissed everyone. You know, it wasn’t about like me and Julie, it was a bigger picture. Right. We used to always do kissing-ins. We would go these different parts of New York. Usually busy places in Manhattan, and we’d have these demos where we would just block traffic and we just started kissing each other.
This was at a time when people thought that you could contract.These would be through kissing. Um, so it went, it was a national, um, poster and, um. You know, so to be honest, we did this and probably the next thing we did was like go to the hospital to visit someone who’s sick.
Go to a funeral or go to an active meeting. A lot of what’s going, what went on during that time, I’ve really kind of probably just put it away in my mind. And I don’t really remember a lot. But luckily I have some of my photos to remember Miami of what I did. So I continue doing this.
This color, this color process, um, for 20 years, actually, to the end of that century. And you can see here on the left-hand side, the AIDS quilt. Um, which has stopped me in my tracks. I saw a flash and, you know, it just kinda was like a reminder, like, like, wow, that could be me.Right. That could be me that had contracted HIV. So. For those of you that don’t know. I think probably everyone knows, but just as a really refresher. The AIDS quilt was something that was started., I think sort of like in the late eighties, around 89 or 88. Basically family members or friends would make a quilt section for,for their, their lost, loved ones. And then they sold them together. Um, but it, it didn’t take very long for them, for the quilt. To not be able to be split displayed in one place because of the exponential rate of the death of those folks.
This young man on the right hand side,they’re viewed as another person who, um, another one of my friends who passed away from HIV. So, um, this is a recent picture. I don’t normally throw this picture in, but, um, you know, I just saw Tracy Litt my friend from ACT UP. And we, you know, most of us from ACT UP were kind of like this family and we we’ve sort of stayed together or we all have still kept our friendship is what I’m in state.
I’m on the left-hand side is, is Ray. Julie and I are looking at, at each other, all googly eyed. I don’t remember that part of, I mean, I’m sure that happened, but, and then here you see on the right-hand side this is raised partner. And I always fixed space Alvin’s thing. It’s raised partner. I’ll remember it and you could see me pushing it. And there’s Julie next to me. And like, you know, for one of the things that I think I’m also excited about this conversation is that it. It’s a multi-generational conversation. Do you all know about the pride parade, but you know, it was a large, and I’m sure those of you who’ve read history books, know that. I can’t remember pushing either one of them. You know, you can see, they were both obviously very thin, very sick, but they still had so much energy and so much power in them. They were still, you know, fighting to the very end. And, you know, It wasn’t.
You know, who would I think about it now? Like, I don’t really see many people pushing their friends in wheelchairs in these praise now, but this was just like what we did. We put on our, all of our different like shirts. Mine says AIDS is killing artists. No homophobia is killing art. And, you know, we always, you know, especially if I went uptown, I always made sure I had ACT UP shirt on.Thank goodness that Tracy has some of these wonderful photographs.
When you’re in this kind of a situation, you know, the urgency is, is just so profound that. One of the things that is amazing about ACT UP is that it became family. We didn’t because of the rate of death. Amongst our cohort. You know, we didn’t have time to, to be like, Oh, don’t like that plaid shirt or that hairstyle. Right. We just kind of would like, you want to help then come on in and help. And one of the things I loved about actable, so it was that we had. If you were a scientist, of course you were important part in the organization. But if you were a club kid, you were also very important because you would pass out condoms and all kinds of safer sex, you know, um, literature that we had had made. It was a time for me to be able to put my body in the street. I got arrested a lot. There was always lawyers outside arm to make sure that we didn’t get lost in the system.
And this picture is entitled for me, I was sitting on the beach one day in Provincetown, one of my favorite places to go. I just looked and there was this wheelchair and I thought to myself, Who is differently abled. I didn’t see anyone. And, you know, I looked around, I didn’t see anyone. I just sat there for a minute, take a deep breath. And I thought, I bet you it’s Ray. He probably wanted to come to the beach. And be with me cause he had just passed away a couple months earlier, you know? And I think we all deal with definitely in a different way, different ways. But for me, I know that Ray is proud of me. And on that. He wouldn’t want me sitting around, feeling sad for myself.
Let’s get a little choked up around that point. This is the women’s caucus. Um, lots of people. There’s Sarah shown in there to the right. In the back, she’s coming out with a book in 2021, all about ACT UP it’s about this. So I think she’s covered just about everything. Which a lot of Tracy’s photos are in it. There’s Jill next to me, she’s a lawyer. And lots of other people, I can remember their faces, but not their names. But one thing that is obvious, to me. I don’t think I really thought about it when I was in ACT UP. You know, it was mostly white people. And when I think about the demonstrations that are happening now, and even in the 60s, when you think about, you know, people that look like me being hosed down, You know, we never, we got arrested, but we never worried about getting shot. You know, and, and it’s, so this kind of police brutality is as many of us knows it’s, it’s something that’s been happening for a very long time. It sucks.
My time when I was a bartender at the Clit Club.Which, uh, I was speaking with Jeanette earlier. So I was the bartender we used to like go. I remember going to the, um, the bookstore and getting like DVDs. And bringing my DVD player, you know, I would bring all my stuff too, like in my little Volkswagen to the club.And we’d set everything up and would take us hours to set up eventually got like things in place. But when we first started out, it was really kind of like, bringing our stuff from our apartments. And then I started photographing lot of the women and doing slideshows. So, so this would have been one of the slides. This is just kind of like a, another kind of color. A collage of some of the images that I would have shown…
We had a lot of biker girls. We stood actually just used to hang with leather biker girls and on Sunday mornings, we would meet in front of the Clit Club and then we’d go protests someplace upstate and nowadays it’s funny we go to the diners and we used to be like, they’d be like kind of scared of us all in our leathers and, still kind of probably the same haircut, you know by the time they kind of got to know us. Sometimes I remember one time, this guy on the bar and he opened it up for us so we could play pool. And there wasn’t as much of a, like the people who aren’t a stereotypical. We had some good times.
So in the screen can someone tell me what symbol is in this logo?
Someone is saying: Arrow. Right. The arrow. Exactly. So the arrow that’s here, which in the negative space between the E and the X, right. It’s an arrow. And obviously it means that it’s taking your package forward. Right. And that’s why graphic designers get paid so much money.
Cause they’re so clever, right? And so for those of you who didn’t know that whenever you see this FedEx sign, you’re gonna think of me. No, I’m just kidding. You’re going to, you’re going to see it, right. You can’t look at this, this logo without seeing that, that arrow. The more, you know, I’ve ruined it for you. But the reason why I like to start off with, or I want, I like to talk about this is because.
Now that I taught you how to see the arrow. Now, you know that right? Our families. Our friends. Uh, the media. They all teach us how to see. So we all have these biases.
And so as I show you. The next, lot of my work, which was done in this century, the 21st century. I want you to look at the portraits and I really want you to just throw away your biases. You know, Jeanette says it’ll be early, like unlearn, you know what we’ve been taught and just kind of look at the beauty. Okay, so do that for me. I’m going to read a little bit about this one. My lifelong series is entitled surpassing and an exam is the tragic impact skin pain skin pigmentation often plays on the black identity. Surpassing a shot on high vistas, traces the slave trade and get as a spectrum of beautiful skin color. The subject’s assertively return the gaze without being confrontational. And by hanging the four foot by five foot photographs above eye level, the viewer has no choice, but to look up to these people, poses of characters from a Shakespeare melodrama. And, so. It’s about skin color and the advantages and disadvantages that people get because of whatever shade they are. For me, it’s a real kind of cathartic look at, you know, it helps me work away. The guilt that I have for being light-skinned, you know, I grew up knowing that my grandmother used to pass. She used to go to the train stations when she was down South and she was standing in the white lines because they were cleaner, quicker. And then of course, when she got on the train, she would go in the black Negro section. Right. This was obviously during segregation. But I never really thought about myself and I never thought about how, you know, this sort of myth of light being better is carried forth into this 21st century and for this series what I really want to do is I want to eventually show it at the Guggenheim so that I can start off with the light-skin portraits, hung at the bottom, and then spiral my way all the way up to the dark skin portraits being at the very top to visually sort of squash the idea that light skin is better than dark skin because. I know any black person that’s out there. You have a very light-skinned cousin and a very dark skinned cousin and everything in between. These things, people are talking about these things, even now, you know, I’m thinking about, well, for me the first time when we got a black person in the white house.
Everyone was saying, well, if Obama was a dark skin brother then he probably wouldn’t have gotten in, right. If he looked like Mike here on the right-hand side. People are saying that about Kamala too right, too. Her hair, you know, her skin color that people somehow are, are make it so that she’s not really black. I’ve had people say that to myself. So that’s what this series is about, they’re up on high vistas so that they’re the biggest things, right. And for those of you who are photographers you know, that there’s a certain kind of visual language that we use and sometimes borrow from painters. So, you know, I looked at Italian painters who painted a lot of obility on high vistas to set, to say that, you know, visually these are like the ultimate, these are the, the big, the biggest things in the room. Right. And I purposely make the background out of focus so that, you know, you’re really your vision is, and your focus is really on these people. And you’ll notice in all of my work, mostly the people are looking at you, right?
The gaze is straight at you. And that has a lot to do with the fact that, you know, my ancestors, my slave ancestors, you know, could have gotten killed for looking at Massah in the wa in straight in the eye. Right? So it’s like this constant thirst of thing that I’m spinning into my work. “Salt” I like to read little bits too, so here we go. In my series, “Salt” I make portraits that feature iconic women who I strive to be like my grow up. They are age 70 years plus, and still fiercely engaged in their life’s work. In a culture where beauty is equated with youth, these women are not only beautiful, but accomplished and still making significant contributions to society. So I think when I was about 40, I still started thinking about like, you know, what kind of older lady am I going to be? You know? I’m figuring out how they’re going to be that older lady that has like shocking blue hair. And probably still have a similar type of Mohawk. Um, and you know, because my mom was a single mom, my grandmother raised me a lot. And, um, so I think I always had this love of older women and, um, so I just started looking around me and photographing some of the women that I knew and then started to ask friends of mine who had, um, grandmothers or knew people that would be great for the series. And this series really is really about the fact that women, as most of you know in some ways, I feel like I’m talking to the choir, but as you know, women, unlike men, once we get to like 28 or 30, we’re going to toss out the window and a new set of younger folks come in.
This series is to remind the women that they’re still beautiful because even as society says that they’re not, I see the beauty and I’m sure some of you can see the beauty, right. This little lady here on the right hand side Ms. Esther Cooper, Jackson just turned 103 in August and she’s sharper than me. I mean, when I call her, she’s like “Lola, I saw your work in the Smithsonian magazine. Great job”.
And it’s, it’s just, it just fills my soul. Like I get, like, I usually get a bit of a, a natural high from a photo shoot, but this particular series, I think I get the highest of them all. You know, they’re radiants and just kind of like infects me.
And then on the left-hand side, we have Agnes Gunn, who is an amazing philanthropists in New York city. You know, talking about biases. I think a lot of times, if someone is rich, we sort of all kind of sneer at this at the rich person. Well, all rich people aren’t awful. I mean, if all people were like an Aggie. Um, there’s actually just a new film about her. Then the world would be a better place. She has done so much for the New York art scene. And she just sold, I think about a year ago she sold her Lichtenstein for, I don’t know how many millions in order to begin a task force or organization that is concentrating on the incarceration system. Which is something I’ll come back to. On the right is Tony parks, Gordon parks, his daughter, and you can just see in her body posture that she is something else.
She passed away. Unfortunately, some of the women have passed away and I’m glad to have gotten them before they did. But she, yes, she was forced to be reckoned with. And unless they had left hand side is a woman called Nettie who is the President of the board of directors at Penn and brush. Penn and Brush gallery, is one of the most amazing galleries I think in the world. They have just put me up on a pedestal and, whenever I feel the least bit sad, I go there and I leave there feeling brand new. “Surmise”. “Surmise” is insiders accounts that many ways, gender prayer, people are perceived and how visual representations of gender affect both our individual psyches and the broader society. This ongoing portrait series features images of people who appear gender fluid. And who present themselves on apologetically and almost confrontationally.
So on the left-hand side is Billy. I called Billy mom. Sadly, my mom passed away at the beginning of like, 2002, and, uh, so Billy has become my mom and Billy someone I can depend on. Billy is trans. And got a boob job. I think probably when they were about 70. I won’t make a big deal about it, but you know, just like fashion, you know, language is also generational. So one minute I’ll call Billy mom, and the next minute I’ll use They pronoun. “He” and Billy doesn’t flinch.
Billy has a couple of other trans friends and it’s a hoot and we hang out like, um, Irene who is 80 something. And we just have a ball laughing, um, and, and the pronouns can just be exchanged just really very gingerly and free. Because, you know, at the end of the day both of them both of the two people I’m thinking about Billy and Irene, they both married women when they were young. And it wasn’t till the 30s that they, you know, because that’s, what was the tradition back then, and so when they got into their thirties and, um, you know, this sort of testosterone kind of started like fading. And I think they just started realizing that that’s not what they wanted to do, you know? You know, there’s actually, now both of them are still friends with their family. They’re still with their families. But my point is that they are just happy to walk around.
Presenting the way that they want to write that’s their thing, because they couldn’t do that when they were my age. Right. And so that’s, there’s just different kinds of liberation. One more point on that, it’s like my grandmother, when in the 60s, when my grandma, my cousins and I came to my grandmother’s and we were like, Grandma we’re black and we’re, we’re proud of, you know, my grandmother was like, I’ll never be black. You know, and at the time I thought to myself Oh, grandma’s like, so, you know, she’s so old fashioned, you know, but now I realize a course, she probably had been called Blackie and all these other kinds of awful words. And so she didn’t want to commit to this new, uh, iteration of black, just like queer. Right?
So. Just keep that in mind.
And here’s some more folks. This is Utah. My brother from another mother and, um, Kimberly. A friend of mine from London. Just really quickly. I just wanted to talk about util all because when I first met in Utah, Utah, I think all of my models, I think it’s like love at first sight, to be honest with you, a photographic way. And, I didn’t know what pronoun to use, with Utah, you know, but I knew I wanted to photograph them. So I said, you know, when you come to New York again, Let’s do a shoot. They came through the door and sat down on the floor and they’re like, tell me everything. They wanted to know all about ACT UP and everything. And I was like, well, first of all, what pronoun do I use for you? And they said they, them. And I was like, Oh, so are you trans, I guess maybe if I wasn’t photographing them, I wouldn’t have needed to know so much information.
Utah just didn’t want to navigate life with boobs. And here I am. I’m like, really? You can do that because my generation, you know, we all took like ACE bandages and wrapped our boobs down as tight as possible. You know, I wear like the tightest sports bra ever.
I guess if I was younger, I probably would have done that, but it’s just not something that we thought to do. As you know, baby dykes. In the 80s.
“Legends”. I’ll just speak about it. “Legends” is a series that I started and actually, I’ll tell you that the real story is. I was at Joe’s pub, one of my favorite places to go, and I saw this person. I won’t say their name. Cause I’m, you know, I’m all about love, not hate. But saw this person and I got so excited, they’re a trans person that’s on TV and I went over to them, and I said: Have you ever seen them before? It’s like, hi, have you ever seen them? And they said to me, “Do I know you?” I was like so shocked. I did not expect that at all. And I just kind of ran back to my table with my tail between my legs and I, you know, it’s just like horrified.
Well, the next morning I woke up and I thought to myself, she bloody well should know who I am. You know, anyone who knows me, I don’t really have a huge ego. I’m also really bad at immediate reactions, I have a delayed response and I thought to myself, If she had done her history if she knew her history, there’s people like me that helped her get to where she is to get to a point where we could have a trans person on TV. Right? I could never have dreamed of that when I was a kid. And so all the people that legends are, they’re all similar age is maybe a little bit younger, some a little bit older. But there are people who didn’t have LGBTQ centers to, to go to when they were young.
They didn’t have the L word. How to come out to your mom? I would have probably put her in front of the The L word and been able to like, say, “Well, mom I’m like them” But we didn’t have that. So Legends is all about that.
That’s DJ Lina. On the right? Yeah. It is, Buck Angel. Thank you. There’s Cheryl. And I’m sure everyone knows Cheryl. And Robin Cloud. Robin is kind of the baby in the family. She’s done a lot of amazing short films. And I think if you type Robin Cloud, you can find her website and she has some cool little clips of her work. Campbell X is my brother, my partner in crime. And on the right-hand side is Agusto. Agusto used to do drag back in the day.
Now we have “Syzygy, the vision”. This work is the culmination of all of my work. This project crystallizes everything that I’ve been doing for the last. 40 years. It started because this, this woman, I always have to look at her name. She’s a curator. Her name is Jaya Street Abidjan Don. And she has curated, a bunch of amazing shows in New York. We met in 2019. The short story is we both knew we were going to be in London at the same time. So I said, come on, let’s meet at the Autograph Gallery where I had my work there in 2019, I had a solo show there. And so she met with me and she was telling me how much she loved my work. Through her, luckily enough, I had a residency at the Woodstock Center for Photography. And you can see that the building behind me in that Serie, that’s actually the Artists in Residence House. So I actually was planning on just reading and kind of taking a breather, but because I had this opportunity to be in the show, I thought, let me just see what I can do on.
And so, you know, I saw that it had orange in the piping and I thought, perfect. You know, I’ve been really, really concerned about the incarceration system in America. Anyone who’ve seen. Ava DuVernay’s “The 13th” I mean, anyone who’s really alive who reads the paper, knows that the amount of people who look like me in jail is just, you know exorbitantly every year, it’s just more and more and more.
I have a lot of differents prison uniforms in my room. And I thought that orange one would go perfect with it. Right. And then of course, you know, the symbols that you use, we use, I had to, I knew that I needed to have some handcuffs and somehow I found these orange handcuffs. So that’s the visual language that us artists use.
For me, it’s my first time venturing into this kind of work. Anyway, but it’s, this kind of conceptual work is something I never thought I was gonna do, but. For me, I’m kind of doing, I think for me, cause conceptual work always does seem so complicated. You know, sometimes they stand in the museums and galleries and I’m kind of what is it? And I know that you don’t have to understand everything, but I feel like I’m doing mine sort of conceptual work 101.
So, once this year came 2020 came, you know I had a show in Baltimore. And then I was able to actually just, grab my work at a Baltimore and bring it home. And then COVID came. I was sitting there thinking, you know, sitting here at home kind of scared to go out. Like, I guess a lot of us were.
But then I would look out the window and I, you know, the hardly any cars I’m on second Avenue and they were hardly any cars going down the street. And I was thinking, I really want to take advantage of this, this quiet city that we never see.
It is a social distancing kind of like activity doing photography. I actually, some of the ones you’ll see, I actually did take on a tripod. But some of the other ones you’ll see were taken by Anna, who I think in this Zoom? You know, and it’s, it’s been a really cathartic process for me too, to be able to work during this time and sort of. Sometimes remote happiness. Sometimes not so much. I see like this yellow line, you probably, I don’t know if everyone could see this yellow line. I know it seems to just jumped up on my screen.
I think about words like lockdown, which, you know, they say we’re going in lockdown, but we don’t know us that are free. We don’t really know what a lockdown is. Language is so problematic.
This is a billboard that Save Art Space, put up in Brooklyn. And that’s was the first night that the MTA cleaned the subways. I thought I’ve got to get down there, you know, and no one really wanted to come with me. So I just grabbed my tripod. And to tell you the truth, I only got like maybe four pictures that were in focus and that was one of them. I just wanted to talk just a little bit more about coming towards the end of my talk. But I just wanted to talk a little bit more about Afrofuturism. So I’m hoping to get like maybe a hundred pictures on altogether.
And I think eventually you will see me possibly getting rid of my prison uniforms. And maybe put on something a little different. I’m not really sure just yet what it’s going to be. Um, but for those of you who don’t know, I mean, Afrofuturism is based on this idea that.
Black and Brown people can rewrite their own histories. A lot of times we weren’t written into history or if we were written into history, it was false.
In this image you can see that I have, these beaded bracelets that hark back to my African ancestry. And so, yes, I can just keep these kinds of symbols of my past, my present and my future, obviously the helmet would be a future thing, right. Many, many of my favorite artists, such as sun RA, the Funkadelic, Missy Elliott, Octavia Butler, Renee Cox, and, Janell Monae most recently are people who have been talked and played around with afrofuturism. And so it kind of crosses the span of the arts.
You know, because basically everything that we’re going through right now is it’s already happened before. Right? I mean, there have been viruses. There has always been racism and sexism. And so when I run out of energy to actually create my own work, I lay on these folks. One last thing about the series. To be transparent, heavy on my mind is the horror of America’s mass incarceration plight and the question of freedom. As much as I want to envision a positive eventual, I wonder can our truth seekers lead us to the place where we are superhuman?
Shedding our black bodies of institutionalisms. My soul is hopeful for divine future, where, we’re finally adept to run anew far away from the hate chatter and into a narrative of pure joy. So, yeah, I see myself at the, probably the last one. I’m going to be like jumping from Saturn to Uranus. I’m looking real happy, you know?
What you going to do when you’ve done your best and no one, no one, no one sees it that way. That is a quote or as part of a song that Toshi Reagan wrote. Toshi generously brought me into this project. She was working with “B” I forget his last name, but, B ends up not being able to follow through because of some personal issues. And Toshi reached out to me and she read methis lyrics and immediately I thought of my Syzygy series and I sent them a few images. And they loved it.
It’s now hanging in or it’s standing in Houston, Texas. It’s really cool. Like, it’s always been like a little bit of a secret ambition of mine to have a billboard. And so now I finally have one. I’m thinking about family legacy. We have here, Charles H. Bullock, who is my great, great grandfather. He’s the person on the right-hand side with the mustache and the hat black hat. On the left-hand side of your picture, you’ll see, Madam CJ Walker, who I’m sure you will know was the first black female millionaire in America. So I’m sure Oprah has got some pictures of her hanging in, in her place. And then the handsome Booker T. Washington. They’re in the middle. And then the other folks are like newspaper people and doctors. I’m sure many of them were there because they were benefactors. So the story goes that my great-grandfather, was hired by the YMCA, and he set up different YMCAs all over the States. So this one was in Indianapolis. He set up one in New Jersey, Montclair which is where I came from, where I grew up.
Back in those days during segregation they were called colored wise. It was a real Mecca for black and Brown people. They didn’t have any place to congregate. So they had parties at the YMCA. They learned how to swim, how to read. You know, and they felt they belonged.
And so, it’s in my mind, I’ve taken the Baton from my great grandfather.
You know, he knew back that we deserved better, that we as Black and Brown people deserve equity, you know? And so I feel it’s my duty to just grab that Baton and keep going. And if you’re saying I don’t have, you know, a great grandfather. Well, maybe it’s going to be you.
Maybe you’re going to be the next person that creates that family legacy. And maybe I’m standing next to Kamala Harris. Or Deb Willis, who, if you haven’t read any of her books, she’s the, one of the most amazing people I know. And who knows Rihanna.
You know, I think, I guess because I’m now 61 and three quarters I think about the future. I think about time and what I’m going to be leaving behind. You know, and it’s just really important to me. That’s really all I want to say, except for the last little point would be, my cousin Bumpsie passed away on Friday from COVID and he’s the first person in our family who passed away and I just wanted to dedicate this, talk to him.
He was so amazing. He was a black cowboy. He went to all the rodeos. He was really handsome. He never, every time we talked, he always asked about my partners. You know, he was just a really great person and, and I just want everyone to be safe because as you all it’s still out there. You know, so ya’ll thank you for being here with me. I’m going to come out of my little screen mode here and come with you all. Thank you so much.
Jeanette: Thank you so much, Lola, we have tons of activity happening in the chat, but Florencia and Sara are going to kind of navigate them. I was just going to ask a few questions.
Some things that stood out to me, you were kind of on a roll, so I just let you kind of let you do your thing and it was so great to hear.
I think it’s always wonderful, in artists talks to hear the actual background and understand the concepts and the ideas and how things came to be. I’m actually wondering if I could ask you to re-share your screen just so I could go back to some of the images, if you wouldn’t mind. There was just a few points that I think it’d be easier to make with the screen.
Lola and I were speaking earlier today and something that’s really important to me and to WMN publication, is this need for intergenerational dialogue, and that’s something that I’m also so grateful to have. We’re so grateful to have Lola here discussing, because, my generation is someone in my early thirties and people even younger, we have such a different understanding of pride. I think its really important for us to see images and Lola sharing stories about the community and speak to a time in which people were fighting for their lives. And not that we’re not now, cause we certainly are.
These two images are just, such a wonderful and joyful. I know you weren’t behind the camera in these particular images, but just the joy that I see of you and your partner at the time, and even the people in these compromised positions who are out there and, these images are so needed to be seen by everyone. I think as someone who’s part of the community, it gives me hope, but I also would love for these to be seen. And I know they have gotten out to wider audiences, but even wider audiences, which is something Lola and I were talking about too, is the lack of dyke representation. Period.
Especially in like the photo world. And as a photographer myself it’s so I’m hopeful to see another Dyke photographer. Especially of color whose finally being recognized in the way that you should have really been this whole time. Lola and I love the way that, as a fellow photographer that you talk about your use of film, um, the way that you work with the color. And I think something that stands out to me is.
How do you, when you are connecting with people on your deciding to take people’s portraits, ’cause they’re quite traditional, you know, aesthetically, are you, and you’re talking about kind of getting high and I can sort of relate to that. Are these all folks that, you know? and I guess I’m more referring to the maybe post-work of this, do you. Do you know, all of them often? or are they people that sometimes, you know of and as do you usually spend time with them beforehand? Or how do you, kind of, create that connection in order to create the portraits you usually reach out or is it more organic or is it kind of a mix?
LF: Um, well, first of all, um, I just wanted to say about Tracy. I think Tracy got the front cover for Sarah Schulman’s new book about ACT UP and I believe she’ll have a lot of her a lot of her work in Sarah’s book. So I’m really happy about that. I mean, I remember actually seeing this picture of Ray before, but I never saw Julie and I before. So, you know, like it just, I never saw that. And then this picture of Anthony, I never saw this. That’s the beauty of photography because our memories are not like you know,, you think you remember something, but it’s not really what would have happened. Definitely, most of the people are my friends. Most of them, I’m just going to move these along cause it does make me a little sad. So I’m just going. And move on to that what we want to that one.
So yes, generally most of the people are my friends. My friends have been very supportive of me. And that’s one thing and I’m going to come back to that. But when I’m working with my models, who are generally my friends. It depends upon a series. The series that I’m thinking about, like for the older lady series, sometimes I get them to talk about their grandchildren. It’s like the thing about like something happy. Cause I, you know, I don’t always need for them to smile, but I need to have some whatever’s going on inside their head be happy thoughts. Cause that kind of comes through their eyes.
For Surpassing. I tell people to think about pride, and to think about power. Think about someone that you admire. When I said that Carrie Mae Weems said “Oh, I’ll just think of you. And I just like went under my cloth. Like I was just kind of like, Oh my God, Carrie Mae Weems just said, you know. Just said. Um, so yes, I worked towards getting people to, um, to, to think about whatever kind of emotion I want them to, you know, To think to think about, um, and then just the other thing about my friends is that, um, you know, all my life. I’ve just been blessed with, with so many wonderful friends.
I mean, you know, you seen, my friends are up still, you know, they came from London, you know, and this is, I guess this is kind of if there is a good part about this, this virus is that we can like zoom to all these different places that we wouldn’t normally be, which is really amazing. As you said, my work is getting more well known. I’ve got some studio visits coming up next week that I’m super excited about. I won’t say too much about it. I don’t want to jinx myself, but, finally, I’m getting, I am getting known and what that means, it’s not really about me. I like to always say that, I’m like the modern day, Harriet Tubman, you know, like Harriet, didn’t say like y’all all down yonder is a river, good luck. You know what I mean? I know it’s a little dark out. She went and she took the people and she took them to the river. Right. And she went back and she kept doing that.
And for me, my joy or my success is like, our community’s success. That’s how I look at it. You know, when I look on Instagram and I see this person got this grant and that person got this residency. And I’m truly happy for them.
But like we were talking earlier, Jeanette, you know, we still are living in this patriarchal society and us dykes. You know what I mean, women are at the bottom of the old ladder, so to speak, and I know it’s dykes are even kind of lower than that. And then the Black and Brown dykes, or even lower than that, you know what I mean? So it’s, it’s for me. It’s. Maybe it’s corny, but that’s why I get up in the morning. You know what I mean? I’m kind of like, okay, what’s what do I have to work on? Now? That’s the substance thing that just keeps me going.
It shouldn’t have to be things there should be equity across the board. I kind of think to myself like, well, what would I be? What kind of art or would I be making? If everything was good.
JP: Yeah, absolutely. I’m so glad that we landed on this image and I want to also encourage people. Don’t be shy. Ask questions. So hopefully some people will throw some things in the chat. I just had another comment about this image. And then one other question, I think this is maybe one of my favorite images. First. I love the kind of inversion of color and that’s something that I feel like I haven’t seen a lot before. I love the gesture, just the whole aesthetic of this image, I think is so strong. And I love the way that we see the hint of the breasts and the person to the right… and it’s so kind of unclear, like what is this person’s gender and what exactly is going on and where are we? And I love that we’re not necessarily given that information, but we see such power in the gesture and in this sort of confrontation of, what we’re really confronted with as a viewer.
For me this, yeah, this image is just is so powerful and. I’m just really glad that you made it.
Another question that I had is in regards to sort of your more recent work like we were discussing earlier about Afrofuturism. And I had seen that work, I think first, when I went to your website and I’m curious because it seems like you’ve always turned your camera towards other people from what I’ve seen of your work, how it’s been navigating making self portraiture and also, I guess I could maybe think of why it might be conceptual for me as a viewer.
I’m curious about that experience, especially because I feel like it really coincides with, this challenge, we all have now of isolation and I know for myself as a photographer as well, it’s very challenging. I work with other people too and navigate that of finding folks to photograph, and I’m curious how that plays out for you with that experience as an artist of someone who’s been making work for so long, what that’s like and what that relationship with yourself is like through the lens.
LF: Yeah, well, um, you know, I think because my earlier work was, very traditional. I was very much under the influence of James Van Der Zee. He photographed the new Negro. And so I suppose I
in my mind, I was photographing like the new queer eye, the new black and Brown people than do you know, seasoned woman in every kind of very stylistic kind of very traditional type of way.
I do see some of that same kind of framing and composition. But it’s, it’s different because it’s me. I’m the reason why it started up. Well, the reason why the series, is me, is actually because in Woodstock, there’s not a lot of black people. I was like, okay, I’m doing Afrofuturism so needs to be a black person.
You know what I mean? So I kind of looked in the mirror and I thought, well, you’ll do you know.
That’s how that story. Although there’s a million people that are still really want to photograph, I don’t have to bother them right now. I photograph here my apartment and you can’t really tell, but it’s. You know, it’s a New York apartment. It’s big enough for me to do a shot, many of the legends series were done here.
JP: You were just talking about photographing yourself.
LF: It’s been just really great because other than my buddy, Jim and Anna who are in this Zoom tonight, they live in the neighborhood and they have helped me do a few of the shoots because even though I could do it with a timer, like I did, I did a lot more up in Woodstock. There’s still this kind of fear in me that I really don’t want to be outside for too long. So if I bring one of my buddies along and then they can help me photograph myself.
Its conceptual because I’m making a story up, I’m making a narrative. I’m not just photographing a person that’s going to be in my series, you know, I’m making this whole story up. It’s like a whole allegory. I’m thinking I’m hoping to go to West Africa. I really want us to photograph a lot of my outfits made of African prints. I mean, I don’t know when the incarceration system will get better, but, we have a new government coming in in January and things have got to get better. I mean, I can’t imagine them getting any worse. It’s like when you come from slavery and you’ve got this DNA in you that says “I’m going to be free one day”
I have to have hope. Maybe it’s not gonna be in my lifetime. I was arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time from walking while black, you know. It created a situation where I lost my job for a little while and I’m still paying off the debt from buying groceries because I wasn’t working because my teaching license was suspended.
You know what I mean? It’s people that look like me. Let’s put a face on what these people look like that get arrested for no reason whatsoever.
JS: Anybody else have any questions?
Audience: What was the response to this image when you first showed it?
LF: This was part of my show at the Clit Club. Cute girls. Drinks. So.
I think it was just part of the atmosphere. You know what I mean? We had downstairs, we had like sexy those sexy videos before DVD. VHS. Yeah. VHS. We would get these VHS and we’d have these kinds of like sexy VHS videos playing downstairs, and then we’d have the sexy slides show. My sexy photos going on upstairs. Even though I was part of ACT UP and we would have different kinds of shows I did not get included in a lot of those shows. I think part of it was a bit of Dykephobia. During the eighties and nineties, photography was still kind of like a new art, right? If you think about painting or sculpture, it’s still kind of new. I was doing this from 1980s to the 2000s and I just think people just in general, didn’t get the cross color process. Because first it was black and white and then it was color. And now here I’m doing this weird color. I think people just didn’t really get it.
And I also think maybe at that time, maybe I wasn’t as versed in my verbiage as I am now.
I’ve always been a little bit of a kind of quiet person and, I’ve learned over the years how to be an assertive person. This couple they were from Montreal. They were really crazy. It was a fun photo shoot.
JS: We have a question from Ksenia.
Ksenia: Lola, I’m wondering if your use of reverse color and the earlier work, was it all informed by Jimmy photographs of the mid late 80s.
LF: No cause I created this in the 70s, so I’m not familiar with that artist at all. No, no reference to artists.
Audience: Can you talk about the vernacular coded language used among dykes and lesbians and how did black lesbians/dykes connected in the 80s and 90s? Was there a “Hanky code: or something similar for lesbians?
LF: I think that was one of the wonderful things about the Clit Club. It was very diverse, there were so many different types of people. It was run by People of color, girls of color. It was probably one of the few places I can remember that Dyke bars where it was such a great mixture of people.
I see the younger folks when they were able to go to clubs. I see the change in. I know there’s a few parties and some other parties that are predominantly for people of color. I think they’re inclusive as long as you’re part of the community, you are welcome to come in, but it is predominantly for people of color. So I know a few kind of once a month parties. I have a few friends of mine have deejayed there
JS: Our generation, I’m considered a millennial, I guess a little bit of an older millennial, but it feels a little bit like a loss of these spaces. And when we were discussing, Jeb. And I, when you really think about why those spaces existed such as the Michigan Women’s Festival and the lesbian communes, and many more of these bars that I think we’re down to 3 at this
point, if they even make it in New York. It was out of survival, it was out of a need and you had to really find those spaces.
I think Jeb really taught me that, you know, it wasn’t always great and it wasn’t always as wonderful as it might seem. When you look back at something that you weren’t necessarily a part of. think it is still hard not to miss that, not to want that as the generation that have
created apps like dating apps and the internet. So people aren’t prompted to go out as much, or they meet in different ways and you can access people totally differently. And you build community in a different way. So I would say like something that the 3 of us at WMN felt like we was missing. Not only in the art world, but I think communally is we love our queer whole LGBTQ+ community, but we really wanted to kind of carve a space for dykes because it can
get quite mixed, which is, which is awesome. And we want that.
It’s also like we were speaking before a little. It’s so important to have like physical spaces too.
Like Ginger’s in park slope, is pretty mixed, but you know, I would say it does lean more towards lesbian. Same with Henrietta Hudson’s same with Cubby Hole. But, you know, when you look at Stonewall, it’s traditionally for men and they have like a “girl’s night”.
LF: I just love the word Dyke. I think that’s probably one of the reasons why I said yes to you all
Because, I don’t know what, what it is about the lesbian word. I don’t know why I don’t like it, but I just always liked Dyke, it sounds to me like I’m someone who’s like an activist, whereas lesbian sounds like. I don’t know. Maybe not as fun. I don’t really know what that means, but yeah, I definitely do like Dyke.
Audience: I’m in the beginning stages of starting a Dyke artists collective worldwide. Be in touch if you’re interested. Lola, will you join the Dyke artists collective, but really my question is, are you thinking of doing a photobook of any of your series?
LF: Yes, I will be part of your collective first answer.
Yes. I would like to do books. One of the things is that a lot of my crosscolor work. Its: its analog, right? So I have around 25, 24 boxes, and I need to get them scanned. So often when I write for grants, that’s one of the things I asked for money for, because they need to be scans. So as much as I would like the newer work that I did in the 21st century, I really feel the crosscolor work is something that people seem to really like it. Which makes me feel really happy because I had forgotten about it. You know what I mean? It was just under my bed, like I said,
I hardly have any scans of them because they’re so massive and they’re really hard to photograph,I have to like get these really expensive scans for each one of them.
So an answer to your question. Yes. I would love to have a book and I would like for it to be a complete book. I am in conversation with a couple of different people who are publishers. And we’ll see what ideas they have,
Audience: How important was it for you as an artist to have that kind of support early on and were your parents artists.
LF: My parents were teachers, both of them and it’s, it’s bizarre to me that I’m a teacher now. Because I, for for many years, like as soon as I got out of college, I was a waitress. I did every job that you didn’t need a degree for because I just really wanted that flexibility in my schedule be an artist. And then. I got into my thirties, my mom kept saying pension, pension. So I was like I actually love teaching, but they weren’t artists. They didn’t know anything about art, but they were so supportive. My mom bought me a dark room and ever since I had all different kinds of small cameras, this little Minox camera. I was an only child and always like looking around and taking pictures, nothing quite political when I started out. But when I got to college, I mean in High school and my mom got me a 35 millimeter camera and she bought me a dark room.
Sometimes when I do my talks I have a picture of them in my, in my talk.
I told my mom that I didn’t want to wear dresses.I knew at that early age that I was a big old Dyke and my mom was like horrified that she had made me wear dresses for so long.
My dad immediately then, which has taken me straight to the boy’s department. And by, you know, what I would call now a masculine clothes. It meant the world to me and it’s,
the reason why I can be like, yes, I’m Lola Flash “How can I help you?”
You know what I mean? Like it’s our stand in front of a crowd or even do these talks.
I mean, I know I’m just here at home, but I’m talking to a lot of people. I feel very blessed that I had them, it’s been long enough that I can talk about them and we’re thinking about them and not cry, and really just feel so blessed that they sent me up. I was reading before I went to school and now that I’m a teacher, it sort of saddens me with some of the kids I work with in Brooklyn, because they just don’t have that support. And I worked towards being that person for them, you know, that person that can encourage them. I think it’s also one of those things that when you get older, you realize how fortunate you are when you’re young. You’re just kinda like jumping around, just thinking you’re cute. You know what I mean? And then like, as you get older, you realize like this, they didn’t have that experience. The same experience that I did,
you know? Yeah, it’s the reason why, why I’m Lola Flash?
JS: Thank you, Lola. I think that’s that. There was just some nice comments and sort of conversation happening between people and people thinking you in the chat. So, yeah, I think that we can sort of end here and. Thank you so much. Lola for being here and giving such
thoughtful and personal talk, I can see everybody look at you. Thank you so much, and thank you everyone for taking the time to be here. Thank you everyone for being here, please stay safe, we’ll see you next time.
More about Lola Flash:
Lola Flash uses photography to challenge stereotypes and offer new ways of seeing that transcend and interrogate gender, sexual, and racial norms. She received her bachelor’s degree from Maryland Institute and her Masters from London College of Printing, in the UK. Flash works primarily in portraiture with a 4×5 film camera, engaging those who are often deemed invisible. In 2008, she was a resident at Lightwork. Most recently, Flash was awarded an Art Matters grant, which allowed her to further two projects, in Brazil and London. Flash has work included in important public collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her work is featured in the publication Posing Beauty, edited by Deb Willis, currently on exhibit across the US, and she is in the current award winning film “Through A Lens Darkly”. Flash’s work welcomes audiences who are willing to not only look but see.
An interview with Krü Maekdo
Storytelling archivist and founder of the Black Lesbian Archives Krü Maekdo sat down with wmn editor Sara Duell to talk about the importance of home, ownership of your own stories, grassroots organizing and how term lesbian is an Aries from New York. Featured photos are from her recent archive highlight about Aché: a Bay Area journal for Black Lesbians from the 1980’s.
Most of lesbian history is so hidden and obviously Black lesbian history is even more so. Can you share how the Black Lesbian Archives came to be and what it is?
One day in 2017 while I was staying with my Auntie in Williamsburg VA, I saw this documentary The Last Lesbian Bars, about how some of the lesbian bars have been disappearing around the world. Once I finished watching, something inside of me sparked: if these lesbian spaces shut down then we don’t have places to connect and commune besides the internet. Don’t get me wrong I’m always talking about the internet, I appreciate it, but meeting in person is a completely different kind of energy.
I started researching and realized that there wasn’t a lot of information on Black lesbians even online. A lot of what I found about Black lesbians was diluted into other gay and lesbian history, I was just like “hell no! I know I’m not the only one out there searching for this info”. So, I immediately set up the Black Lesbian Archives Instagram, Facebook, website, and twitter. I was just mad and wanted to see what I could do about it. I’m that kind of person. I’ll definitely talk about shit, but best believe that if I’m talking about that shit you are going to see me doing something about that shit. I’m not all talk and no bite, I’m talking and I’m biting, too! I knew that Williamsburg, VA wasn’t the place for me to be able to grow while doing this research, so I went from Williamsburg to Chicago. I was between moving to DC, New York, or Chicago. I wanted to go to New York, but it was just too much for box. I love DC, but couldn’t see myself living there. I had been to and lived in Chicago, so I moved there.
As I was settling into Chicago, I happened to find Tracy Baim, one of the co-founders of Windy City Times, a LGBTQ+ newspaper. I emailed Tracy and I was like “Tracy! Where is the black lesbians history in Chicago? Where are they at?” She hit me back, and I always say this because I thought it was funny, because this is the culture that we live in: she was like “Is this a threat?” And I was like “No no no, no threat, I’m just really genuinely interested.” She told me I should come to this exhibit going up at Reunion Chicago called Lost & Found – the dyke spaces of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s with Kristen Kaza and Ruby Western. The exhibit was beautiful, but I wanted to see more black lesbians. I wanted to know more history about the black lesbians that I knew were at the front lines of a lot of these movements. It went from me seeing the exhibit, connecting with Tracy, connecting with Imani at the Black Gold Affair fundraiser, and research by talking to people that were in the community. We ended up doing an exhibit at Affinity Community Services (a non-profit organization serving Chicago’s black lesbian and bisexual women’s community) on June 14, 2018. At the exhibit we had Yvonne Welbon, a dope filmmaker, producer, and screen writer, doing a book release for her book Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-Making, and, we had a room for what I call the BLA confessional so you could sit in there and tell a story. I had a list of questions if you got a little stuck. On the other side I had a movie room, where you could go in and see the reels of people in the community being played; then the archives were plastered all over the building at Affinity. We had a film screening with Coquie Hughes’ films The Homestretch and My Mama Said Yo Mama’s A Dyke, a mixer so people could come in and mix, and a panel discussion with Chris Smith, Anna Deshawn and Pat McCombs. At the end, in August we also had an archiving on-on-one workshop. It was a full course meal! Then we did a nine day pre kick off tour the next year with an opening reception at Gerber/Hart Library and Archives. After that, we also went to D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. We were going on the Grassroots 2020 tour starting in March but then shit hit the fan.
What was your goal for the planned 2020 grassroots tour?
The grassroots tour was something I planned that would allow me to go to different cities and research how Black lesbians have done grassroots organizing in the past. Giving out flyers, being able to communicate with people face to face, building centralized places where people come and meet, organize, talk, connect, and be able to distribute information without having to distribute it online. Everyone does that differently no matter where you go; the south does it way differently than the west coast does it, and the north, the east coast, mid-west; we all do our shit differently. But there is one connecting factor that we’re all connected, right?
Even though the internet is a great way for us to connect , we don’t have control over it, the power of the internet is not in our hands and it could go at any time. I want to find out how we can build efficient communities between each other right now, as we’re seeing each other’s faces, as we’re riding these things out, as we’re communicating with each other, because if the internet were to ever shut down – what would we have? I want to be able to give people enough information on the internet, and I want people to be able to come and experience the archives for themselves in person. We live in such a scrolling, quick, fast and in a hurry of information that we are not actually taking the time on the internet to read, to really read the information that is in front of us.
I’m not sure when the grassroots tour will come back up, I said 2021, but honestly, the way things are looking right now I don’t know, we’ll have to see!
You’ve mentioned wanting the Black Lesbian Archives to be housed in a home in the future, can you share more about that vision. For example, what and where do you foresee that to be?
When I first started thinking about the vision for Black Lesbian Archives long term and what it would look like, I envisioned this home that everybody could come to. I see it as a place where people would come in and feel comfortable. A lot of archives that I have visited are very cold. I get it, because of the temperature and the way the materials need to be preserved. But the insides of a lot of these archives are just very cold, and they don’t have any life, it’s very dead, and it’s no shade to all the archivists out here doing the work. When I think of my culture, when I think of my people, and where I’m from, there is so much life and energy that goes through us and I need that in a space. I need a space to feel inviting. I need a space where when you come there your worries are gone, and I want that space to be somewhere you’re not only coming to meet, but that’s your home.
Now as far as a central location? I feel like that could be multiple homes. I’m going back and forth on that. Yes, I want it to be a place where Black lesbians can come but I’m thinking about even making it multi-cultural and having a full spectrum of lesbian history in one place. I’m all for building community in different places, but we still need these spaces where we are able to collaborate with people who don’t look like us, that’s how we learn. A skill set one person might have, or a gift could be something you do not and you can teach each other Regardless if it seems like things are changing, we still need spaces for lesbians to commune, and think, and take action.
What are your short term plans?
Right now, I’m starting to expand the archives. I don’t want to do this alone. I am not saying that I have been doing this solo the whole time, because there have been people that have been coming in and out. I do not want to carry on the legacy of these women alone, because these stories are very sacred. I’m seeing myself as a storytelling archivist; these stories need to be told, and they need to be told in a way that is respectful. I’m in a place right now where I’m looking to find a council, committees and volunteers for the Black Lesbian Archives so that we’re able to expand.
I’m also hoping to build out a mobile history van. I see it as a group of us being able to travel to different cities in this van with people showing us around their cities and how they’ve done grassroots organizing. I see it as the pretense to the actual home. Teaching and learning to story tell; how to build an archival collection. My short-term goal is really to buy this bus, gut it out, build it, and take small trips to different places to get information and do more research. This will give people a glimpse of what Black Lesbian history is and has been.
What are some of your favorite pieces or stories out of the archives?
Vernita Gray, I will always tell the stories of Vernita Gray! Tracy Baim, gave me a book she wrote about her: Vernita Gray: from Woodstock to the White House and she was a Sagittarius soldier! She had a home for those who had gotten kicked out of their house for living their truth. She also had a hotline for people to call in, and it was on the FBI list; that’s a whole other story. She had people living in her home and sleeping in her tubs. She kept her home open to people in the community who didn’t have nowhere else to go.
There is also this story of how she and her roommates had a party at University of Chicago, it was the first gay lesbian party that they had, and they didn’t think nobody was going to come. At that time people were very much in the closet, it was a hush-hush thing, so when they had this dance, all these people showed up and it got so wild and out of hand they had to shut it down. Even though they didn’t know the outcome of what that would be they still did it anyways. They still strived to create that space for people who were, regardless if they knew what it was or they were questioning, all those people came to connect to other people. I love that sense of community building and people risking it all. Risking it all to change shit and do something that is beneficial to the community.
That’s definitely one of the stories I love to tell, because to me it really shows her heart; shows where her mind was. The reason people were in that house was because she genuinely cared about these people who literally didn’t have a place to go. What does home look like when you don’t have it? Or what does home look like when you do have one, but are still searching for that community base?
What does the word lesbian mean to you?
A lot of people have a hard time identifying with the term lesbian. But to me there is something so revolutionary about the term. I feel like the word lesbian, the term, it’s bravery, coming from nothing, like the rose that grew from the concrete. I think of the women who weren’t afraid to be who the fuck they were, and just be out with their shit and not give a damn. That was very in your face. I think of that Lilith energy, I think of an Arian energy. If the lesbians had a zodiac sign it would probably be Aries, because it’s just so much “yeah, I’m here. I’m not going to rely on you”. It takes charge, stating your claim you’re not shying away from who you are. The term is more than just who you’re sleeping with, it came from the concrete! It probably came from New York, yo!
A lot of us wouldn’t have been able to integrate in bars if it wasn’t for the lesbians. I wouldn’t even be talking to you right now! Or I probably would, because I’m that motherfucker. I could talk about the lesbian term all day. Honestly I’ll probably do an exhibit about it. Not just the Black Lesbian Archives but the term lesbian, and the roots that this term comes from. And digging into that. It’s powerful, it’s a powerful word to use. It’s a powerful way to state your claim. I love it, it’s amazing.
Are there lesbians that you look up to? From the past or current, living?
Oh yes, Chris Smith from Affinity, Imani Rupert-Gordon out of Affinity, and Pat McCombs, for sure. These women aren’t typical women, and I hate to use the word typical, but they ain’t no basics. It took a tribe; it took a community of people to make shit happen. They knew the odds were against them; they knew what they would be going up against, but they still chose to do it anyway.
Affinity would not be here if you didn’t have a group of women, who we’re having meetings, having meetings and trying to dodge bullshit to create this space for lesbian women to come together and commune! If they hadn’t been looking around realize that we need these spaces, how are we going to get it? Not having much but still being able to manage and create a space that is still living and breathing. Affinity is on its 25th year this year, and it’s the only Black lesbian organization that I know that is still living and breathing our history.
You have to know your past before you can shoot fast forward into the future! You have to understand it, you have to really sit down and tune in with that it before you can just carry on or you’ll forget where you come from. I could talk about all these things: me being Black, me being lesbian, me being a woman, I could talk about these things all day but if I don’t know where I come from? All of this shit don’t mean a goddamn thing. It really don’t!
These women that have been doing this work, I commend them all, I pay my respects to them and I always will even, if they are still living, or gone.
What kind of support does the Black Lesbian Archives need right now?
I would definitely say that funding is one of the biggest things, because this work is a lot. I have also been trying to adjust the scope of how I’m bringing in the archives. When I first started, I encouraged everyone to just submit their archives, but we hadn’t created a submission process of how we were getting the archives, the dating, getting that contact info and scanning. I’ve been learning that as I’ve moved on, but I came into this from a storytelling perspective, so I have been able to piece together enough to share a story, however, the backend stuff is what I’m really trying to figure out. I want to make sure that wherever we are putting our archives, it goes to a place where people are actually going to take care of them, and preserve them. I think that’s why I want to expand too; so we can have more conversations about how to build archives with other people as well.
I talked to Bay Area lesbian archives and even though they have been in this game for a long time, they just started off on their first 5 years of actually archiving the stuff that they have. I want to learn from other people and figure out what would be the best method for the BLA. I get that there are resources out here, but it is important for us to establish and create our own. That’s another reason why I want this in a centralized place because we need to be sharing our own stories versus other people sharing and telling our stories for us.
Tell me more about the importance of Black lesbian telling Black lesbian stories? Is it so it’s not just pushed away in mainly white archives or becomes a subsection of that?
You need the people that were there telling the stories, and not letting other people tell those stories for you. What happens is that we go through these periods of time where we have other people telling our stories and we go off thinking that these things are true, but then when we go back to the original texts and say “wait a minute”. That’s one thing that I love about archives because I can go back and I can follow up. We have to be able to interpret and tell our stories, the honest to god truth, no matter how scary that shit is, no matter how fucked up or great that shit was. We have to share it and we have to tell it.
I have had so many people come up and tell me that if they would have seen the Black Lesbian Archives years ago, they probably would have been out. We have to be on the front end, whether we’re writing or we’re organizing. When you have someone telling a story that is like you, or that has been in the same shit that you’ve been in, you will connect to that person and you will listen.
We have to understand how vital and important it is to be able to share stories, to be able to preserve them, and keep doing that work of passing them along. Itt can change the scope of the world.
Krü Maekdo (make-do) is a multi-media artist known for her work as an archivist with the Black Lesbian Archives. An ongoing archival herstory project to uplift the voices of Black Lesbians. To educate, preserve and bridge inter-generational gaps between communities. Kosmic Rootwork Astrologist @ Aranae Storm and CEO of Maekdo Productions. A multi-media production company producing media & event programming. Serving women’s arts, community & culture in the LGBTQ+ community.
An interview with art historian Ksenia M. Soboleva
In late may 2020 Soboleva sat down with in WMN co-editor Sara Duell over a video chat discussing lesbian invisibility, being a grumpy dyke, and the value of criticism. Soboleva is currently PhD Candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU where she is writing her dissertation on lesbian artists and the AIDS crisis in New York (1981-1996), framing it within a larger genealogy of lesbian (in)visibility.
Would you describe a bit of your background and how you ended up in New York?
I was born in Moscow, but I mainly grew up in Arkhangelsk, Northern Russia—I lived with my great-grandmother. When I was eight my mother and I moved to the Netherlands, and that’s where I came of age. I studied art history at Utrecht University for my undergrad, but I didn’t find it to be very rigorous or exciting, so at the time I had no intention to pursue grad school. It was only when I visited Madrid in 2012 and saw the Sharon Hayes exhibition Habla (curated by the brilliant Lynne Cooke) at the contemporary art museum Museo Reina Sofía that I realized what art and exhibition making could be. I didn’t really learn that much about queer history or queer artists during my undergrad, so I would say it was really this exhibition that made want to pursue grad school. But I knew that I didn’t want to stay in the Netherlands, and I had this dream of moving to New York to study with Linda Nochlin, who wrote the famous essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, so I applied to the Institute of Fine arts, NYU. I got in, came to New York, but unfortunately Nochlin retired a year later. I was fortunate enough to see her lecture, but sadly never got the opportunity to take a class with her. But anyway, that’s how I ended up in New York; I loved it, so I stayed and pursued my PhD.
I’m assuming your interest in lesbian artist started well before grad school.
The interest definitely existed, but I was a huge closet case until well into college. Funny story; when I was six years old, I took drawing and painting classes at an art gallery in Arkhangelsk, of which my aunt was the director at the time, and I had a huge crush on my art teacher, who kind of looked like Liza Minneli in Cabaret, with short black hair and bright green eye shadow. It’s such a cliché, but I just adored her. The way I decided to make sense of it at that time, was to conclude that the passionate feelings I was having were not for the art teacher, but for art itself. So if I hadn’t been a lesbian, I might not have become an art historian. But I only started seriously studying queer art and culture in grad school.
How did you end up focusing on lesbian artists and the AIDS crisis in New York for your dissertation?
The AIDS crisis in an art historical context only entered my consciousness when I visited the 54th Venice Biennial in 2011 (this was during my undergrad). The Norwegian pavilion that year was taken over by the artist Bjarne Melgaard, whose project Baton Sinister centered on the stigma around HIV and AIDS. One of the pieces was this poster that said “Don’t get fucked up the ass. Period.” It addressed the government homophobia and what the solution to AIDS was according to the government, basically: don’t be gay and you won’t get AIDS. I was really captured by the project, I guess because I hadn’t really been confronted with AIDS in an art context, and especially not in a language context before, and it really resonated with me.
At the time, I didn’t think twice about the fact that the project presented HIV/AIDS as a gay male issue. It wasn’t until I moved to New York, when I was doing preliminary research on lesbian artists of that generation, that I kept encountering references to the AIDS crisis in their biographies, in catalogue essays on their work; they were all crucially informed by the AIDS epidemic. But then when I would read art historical scholarship on art of the AIDS crisis, the lesbian was almost entirely absent. Even the most recent large survey exhibition on art and AIDS: Art AIDS America (Tacoma Art Museum in partnership with The Bronx Museum of the Arts’) barely mentioned lesbian artists, and only included a few women artists. I thought that was strange and that’s how I first started thinking about it. The first conference paper I ever gave was about the lesbian activist art collective fierce pussy, and their role during the AIDS crisis.
I was very drawn to the sense of community queer people who lived through the AIDS crisis all seemed to have felt, and that was something I personally had not experienced in my life. My dissertation is driven by a profound admiration for that community; doing research on it was a way to getting closer, and also making sense of my own identity.
What are some interesting takeaways from your research?
It’s been a challenge to study a history of visual culture that is so rooted in invisibly. You can’t underestimate the extent to which lesbian contributions just tend to magically disappear both from feminist discourse and from queer discourse. Lesbian invisibly is no joke. There is a lot of contemporary stuff happening on lesbian visual culture which I think is wonderful: Instagram accounts dedicated to lesbian culture, TV shows, films. I think Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the first truthful depiction of the lesbian gaze. But if popular culture doesn’t somehow bleed into academic scholarship, then there is still a real lack. Especially in the field of art history, there are surprisingly few serious considerations of art and lesbian identity. Lesbians also haven’t held the same amount of tenure track positions in academia, or prominent museum-jobs, as gay men. It’s not only lesbian artists who haven’t received enough career opportunities throughout history, but also the lesbian historians who are most likely to write on them. Whereas gay men have always had a network, a support system. Historically, the art world was one of the few spheres in which gay men could get prominent positions. It wasn’t the same for lesbians. When Harmony Hammond organized “The Lesbian Show” in 1978, many lesbians declined the invite to participate, because it was still dangerous to come out and it could really hurt your career. One lesbian artist was even threatened by her gay male gallerist that he would drop her from the gallery if she participated in the show. Harmony Hammond’s Lesbian Art In America is a great source for lesbian art history, by the way. She was really one of the pioneers for creating a context for lesbian art.
Which historians do you look up to?
My go to is Catherine Lord, who is just a brilliant writer, curator, and artist. She has written a ton about art and lesbian invisibility; there’s an essay on Louise Fishman’s Angry Paintings that I could probably quote from memory. Then there is Terry Castle, who is an English Professor at Stanford. She wrote The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (1993), which was a great starting point for my research. Ann Cvetkovich has made an invaluable contribution with An Archive of Feelings, which explores lesbian trauma and has an entire chapter on ACT UP’s lesbians. Elisabeth Lebovici, who’s in Paris, recently wrote a great book on how AIDS affected her life, with a particular emphasis on lesbian artists as well. She maintains this very personal voice throughout her scholarship which I really admire. Also, Helen Molesworth is a big inspiration in terms of curating, and also a wonderful writer; the exhibition catalogue of This Will Have Been is a staple on my desk. My scholarship is also very informed by queer theory; I love Sara Ahmed and Heather Love’s work.Last but not least, there’s Jan Zita Grover and Laura Cottingham, who don’t write on art and lesbian identity anymore, but were powerful voices in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I actually dedicate an entire chapter of my dissertation to the disappearing lesbian, or the lesbian who drops out. So many people who were actively writing about lesbian visual culture during the AIDS crisis just sort of seem to have dropped out.
Why do you think that they dropped out?
It has a lot to do with trauma, as Ann Cvetkovich argues as well. I also think that they didn’t receive the recognition they deserved, and when that period of the AIDS crisis started to be historicized, lesbian contributions were excluded. Even though it was the lesbian sex wars that informed much of the theory during the AIDS crisis. Cindy Patton was crucial to Douglas Crimp’s scholarship, for example, which he acknowledges. A lot of queer theory emerged out of AIDS activism, and AIDS was informed by lesbian writings of the sex wars. Lesbians brought so much to AIDS activism, because they had already become politicized during women’s liberation and then the sex wars. They knew how to organize. I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but people tend to forget, overlook, or just not care about the lesbian contributions. Everybody knows who Douglas Crimp is. How many people remember Cindy Patton? I’d be interested to know.
Anyway, I can’t reach Jan Zita Grover, I think she opened a puppy rescue and wrote a children’s book about dogs. I also heard she was teaching cooking class somewhere. I have no idea where Laura Cottingham is, last I heard she was traveling through Egypt. But what’s sort of comforting is that other queer scholars of my generation seem to have the same issue. In Spring 2019, I organized this symposium, Queering Art History, which is how I met a lot of other young queer scholars working on similar stuff. After the symposium we went out for drinks and as we were chatting we realized that we all were running into the same issues with the same people, like: “this person won’t talk to me”, or “I can’t figure out where this person is,” or “this person emailed back but they seemed kind of rude.” It was hilarious, and a good reminder that we shouldn’t take things personally.
And even though you might encounter more gay and queer art today than before, I find that it’s harder to just come by lesbian art, which was one of the reasons I started WMN with Jeanette and Florencia because I realized I knew very little about lesbian art and history. I’ve learned a lot over the last year, but it takes a lot of research even just for something as simple as posting on Instagram.
To me that’s the beautiful thing about being queer. Coming out tends to incite this passion for research, for a lot of queer people at least, it is the way we make sense of ourselves. Most of us don’t have queer parents, or any queer family members, but queer ancestry extends beyond familial and biological relationships. So we go to the library, or I guess today you can look under the queer category on Netflix. We look at history to show us proof of our existence, that others like us existed before we came along.
What does the word lesbian mean to you?
So many things. I think it’s a common misconception that lesbian is a fixed identity, while queer is so fluid. I think that the term changes over time, it means different things to different people in different places. It’s funny, when I tell people in New York I’m a lesbian it comes across like I’m using this super outdated term and am like a 75 year old lesbian separatist or something. When I tell people in Russia I’m a lesbian, it’s super shocking and radical and just like “whoa she said the L word out loud.” The reason I insist on the meaningfulness of the term lesbian is because of the history that it carries, a history that hasn’t been sufficiently documented. Studying the ways in which lesbian identity has shifted over time is absolutely crucial to the history of queer identity. Lesbian and queer aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s not an either or. A lot of people assume that if you identify as a lesbian you must have some problem with the term queer or you must be essentialist, which is not at all the case. I hope that my own scholarship shows how lesbian can exist alongside queer, and how the two contribute to one and another, how they can strengthen each other, and how both have flaws and challenges.
Another fun fact, thanks to Terry Castle. The first time the word queer was used in a gender sexuality context, it was used as a code word for cunt, by Anne Lister in her coded diaries from the 19th century. So queer has this inherently lesbian origin, yet it has somehow swallowed up the lesbian. I’m constantly asked why I identity as a lesbian instead of a queer woman, and none of my gay male friends seem to get the question why they identify as gay instead of queer. The lesbian is such an awkward term to many people, which is sort of what I love about it. You know, my yoga teacher always says something like “the way we become comfortable in uncomfortable positions, is if we stay in them.” I like meditating on the awkwardness of lesbian.
Which makes me think of your article about artist and AIDS activist Tessa Boffin in Hyperallergic, where you mention how scholars who started writing about gay history intentionally focused on the fun parts, but how important it is to also to highlight the darker aspects of LGBTQ history.
Yes, and I should mention that it’s Heather Love’s book Feeling Backwards that truly shaped my approach to this. People tend to act like we always got along, and were one big happy family. And sure, on one hand there has always been a strong sense of community to some extent. But queer history is full of exclusions and frictions. It’s valuable to study those messy histories just as closely as the histories of pride and victory.
What are your thoughts on lesbian visibility currently and for the future?
I co-chaired a panel The Return of the Lesbian? Examining Lesbian Visibility in Art History’s Present, Past, and Future at the art history conference CAA with my friend Alexis Bard Johnson, who is the curator of the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries in Los Angeles. The panel explored the recent re-emergence of lesbian visual culture in the form of Instagram accounts, TV shows, etc.. but at the same time an increasing reluctance for people to identify as lesbian. The panel tried to make sense of these opposing trends. But what we concluded at the end of the panel is that there cannot really be a return of the lesbian if the lesbian has never been turned to. That’s what I’m trying to say when I talk about popular culture versus academic scholarship, it’s not that I’m discounting the former, in fact my work is very much informed by it, but I think that in order to properly turn to the lesbian we need to create a solid, rigorous discourse on the history of lesbian identity, which is on its way but we’re not there yet. Laura Cottingham said: “Without any sense of our historical place, how are we to understand or produce our meaning in the present?” I’m very happy that there are groups like you [WMN zine] who keep insisting on the meaningfulness of the lesbian. I was also so moved by Barbara Hammer’s last interview before she passed away, with Masha Gessen in the New Yorker, where she said “we don’t want to forget the lesbian, and we don’t want her to be lost”. Thank you, Barbara.
You’ve described yourself as a grumpy dyke, but no wonder you’re grumpy if you’re continuously having to try to work against a field that is ignored and people that don’t respond.
You know, I should clarify that I don’t mean this as a complaint. I like being a grumpy dyke! I like disagreeing with people, I like being at odds with a lot of contemporary writing on queer art. I think there is a tendency within the queer community to be overtly praiseful, which I understand because of course we want to support each other, but I also think that in order to create a rigorous discourse, art criticism should make no apologies for itself. We should disagree, argue, hold each other accountable. As long as we don’t drag each other down. Catharine Lord once told me that criticism is a form of generosity, and I couldn’t agree more. To sit down and think about somebody’s work, whether you’re critical of it or not, is a form of praise in itself.
Which is funny working within an American context. I think it’s pretty unamerican to disagree.
Totally, I remember my first graduate seminar, I raised my hand and said something along the lines of “I disagree because…” and then later a classmate told me that in America first you say ‘I really like the point you made about X, and I really appreciated your careful consideration of Y, however I just wonder if in this particular very specific respect you could have perhaps potentially elaborated a little bit on…” That’s another thing I had to learn when I moved here.
Also, when I first started writing about lesbian artists of the AIDS crisis, I remember emphasizing that gay men had come to define the period and there was very little art historical scholarship on lesbians simply because there was this misguided notion that they weren’t affected by AIDS just because female-to-female transmission was rare (but not impossible, and some lesbians have sex with men, or were intravenous drug users). The AIDS crisis affected the entire queer community; it was more than a medical crisis, it was a socio-political crisis. People were dying because of government neglect, because of homophobia. Lesbians weren’t allowed to donate blood because the entire queer community was considered to be dirty, basically. AIDS was viewed as symptom of being queer. But anyway, I was pushing so hard for the consideration of how the AIDS crisis affected lesbian artists, that at some point I read over my proposal and I was like: Oh my god. It sounds like I hate gay men, and don’t think their art deserves the attention it has received—which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Needless to say, I completely rewrote it. I’m by no means discounting their work. I just want to bring in the lesbian voices too.
Ksenia M. Soboleva is a Russian-Tatar writer, art historian, and curator based in Brooklyn. Currently, she is completing her PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. Soboleva’s dissertation focuses on lesbian artists and the AIDS crisis in the United States (1981-1996), framing it within a larger genealogy of lesbian (in)visibility. Previously, Soboleva has curated exhibitions at the 80WSE Project Space, Assembly Room, Honey’s, SPRING/BREAK Art Show, and Stellar Projects. She has taught at NYU and the Cooper Union, and presented her research at various institutions in the United States and abroad. Her writings have appeared in Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, art-agenda,and QED: A Journal in LGBTQ Worldmaking, among other publications. Most recently, she launched a virtual series of artist talks in collaboration with The Center in New York, to highlight lesbian and dyke visibility. Soboleva is the 2020-2021 Marica and Jan Vilcek curatorial fellow at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York.
This portrait is from Addresses Project, a mixed-media series by Gwen Shockey and Riya Lerner featuring lesbian and queer women who have dedicated their lives to creating and holding space for women in New York City from the 1950s to today.
The individuals included in the series represent a diverse network of community builders engaged with social and political organizing, mental health advocacy, nightlife, music, journalism, visual art, literature, poetry, performance, research, safer sex, and kink practices. Each portrait includes a photograph taken in a significant location for the sitter, along with segments from their oral history interview and selected ephemera from their life and work.
Shockey began the project in 2016 by interviewing community members about their first experiences in lesbian and queer gathering spaces in New York City. She kept a log of the locations which now exist on a digital map alongside a growing collection of oral history interviews. Lerner began photographing project participants in 2019 after reading a number of the interviews that Shockey had conducted and wished she could see the faces of the women whose incredible histories she was encountering through the project. Taking inspiration from important work like Robert Giard’s, Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers Lerner has thus far created eleven portraits to accompany the oral histories, and plans to create an ongoing archive. To see the full multi-faceted project please visit addressesproject.com.
Wanda Acosta is simply a nightlife icon. She is the creator of parties including Indulgence at Casa La Femme, No Day Like Sunday at Café Tabac, Pleasure at Bar d’O, Kitty Glitter at Liquids, Skin-Tight at Tribal Lounge, Circa at Trompe L’Oeil, YuMMY at Cafe Melville, Soho Groove at Sticky! Puta Scandalosa at Mother, Starlette Sunday at Starlight, AVA at Clubhouse and Showstopper at BLVD. She owned lesbian bars including WonderBar, Starlight and Clubhouse which were open the late 1990s and early 2000s. Her work in nightlife ushered in a massive shift in lesbian culture out from the hidden, mafia-owned dive bars into visible and glamorous spaces. Parties such as Sundays at Café Tabac enabled queer women to see one another and to see themselves with respect and adoration. The following conversation was recorded on March 24, 2018 at 2pm at Smooch Cafe in Brooklyn, NY.
Gwen Shockey: The first thing I’ll ask of you is to describe the first lesbian or queer space you were ever in and what it felt like to be there.
Wanda Acosta: The very first lesbian bar I ever went to was called Peaches & Cream. I think it was on the Upper East Side. I wasn’t really aware of my sexuality yet – I was probably nineteen years old and I was working at a photography studio as a studio assistant. There was a lesbian woman working at the studio as well who I kind of had this crush on but I wasn’t really attuned to what that all meant. I just thought she was cool. I had never really been around a woman like that before. She wasn’t a girly-girl and she wasn’t boyish – there was something different about her. She invited me out with a friend of hers that she would call her lover and I had never heard that expressed before either and it kind of made me nervous. She was going to have happy hour drinks after work at this place and she asked me to tag along because she was going to meet her friend who was also her lover. I was curious so I went. I felt super nervous and I wasn’t old enough to drink. I don’t know that I had a drink and I didn’t stay very long but it always stayed with me.
After that, maybe ten years later, I went to Henrietta Hudson.
GS: Were you out when you went to Henrietta Hudson?
GS: Can you tell me a little bit about your coming out process?
WA: I was married to a man in my early twenties. Prior to that I had had flings with women but I never really thought anything of it. I just thought of it as another sexual experience. I got married – I was in love. It was a genuine relationship but then I met a woman on the subway! (Laughing) We would see each other every morning because we lived in the same neighborhood and we had the same schedule and we would check each other out every morning. One morning during rush hour we were facing each other holding onto the pole and we just started talking. She worked in the fashion district so we actually worked near each other. We would get on at the same stop and off at the same stop. We decided to have coffee one afternoon and it turned out that she was bisexual and I think she was engaged and I was married and we just had this affair and I got involved emotionally. Now this was different, right? I wasn’t just having sex. Everything shifted and I thought: Oh no, this is what’s been going on all these years.
I got separated and eventually divorced and saw women from then on.
GS: Once you started going to Henrietta Hudson did that become a community-building place for you?
WA: I had other lesbian friends for sure and gay male friends but a lesbian community – no – that was the first place. It’s wild because when I think about it now, my first visit to Henrietta Hudson was with a friend who I am still very close with and the first woman I met there I am still friends with and this is almost thirty years ago. We were all dancing and she was a really fun dancer and we had mutual friends.
Back then Henrietta’s was more like a Cubbyhole in a way because it was smaller and it wasn’t all modern. I have to say that I didn’t go there a lot. I was still kind of nervous being in those spaces because coming out of a heteronormative lifestyle the spaces were different, right? So now going into the lesbian community I felt like I was going into these dungeons, you know? These dark places. Some of it was cool.
The Clit Club was amazing because it was so sex-positive and you knew you were going there to sweat and to make out. But in the other spaces I would occasionally find myself feeling depressed. At the time Henrietta’s wasn’t my comfort zone. That’s why Café Tabac started because I wanted to create a place that I was looking for, that I could feel comfortable in and it seemed like many other women were feeling the same thing.
GS: What did this ideal gathering space look like for you?
WA: It was a space where I could get dressed up, where I could go have a drink in a proper glass and not in a plastic cup, where I could be visible. It was some place that was really alive – not in a basement, not really dark or hidden. Visible was the key word for me. I had been hiding and I didn’t want to hide anymore. I wanted to be around beautiful women and I wanted to be out and open.
GS: How did this idea of visibility or emphasis on visibility affect the planning that went into Café Tabac?
WA: The funny thing is that at the time in 1993 the restaurant (Café Tabac) which was on 9th Street was in all of the gossip columns. It was this hot spot where all these celebrities would go and I kept reading about it. I went in just to fuck with them, thinking these people are never going to want to do a lesbian party there. I had been there for dinner and I thought the place was really nice. It was a two-tiered restaurant – the downstairs had seating and tables and the upstairs was a VIP area during the week. The celebrities would go up and have their exclusive space. There was a gorgeous red velvet pool table upstairs, more tables and a bar.
One afternoon I was just walking around the East Village and I kept thinking about it, thinking about it, thinking about it. I decided to just go in and ask them. I had only done one party before at a restaurant in SoHo called Casa La Femme. It was a small Moroccan restaurant. We only had two Sundays there because in the end I didn’t feel like it was a safe space. So, I go into Café Tabac and lied a little bit and told them I did these events and that they were lesbian parties with beautiful women. I thought it would be great to do something there because I loved the space. Tim, the day manager, asked me what kind of crowd I thought I could bring in. I told him I could pack it and he said the only day they had available was Sunday since it was their slowest night. He said that the owner would never go for it but that he would ask him. I gave him my information and he called back to tell me the owner would let me try it, that he wouldn’t pay me but wanted to see what I could do. He asked me to do the first one the following Sunday which only gave me four days to prepare.
We didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have social media – it was all word of mouth. I went through my friends’ phone books, handed out flyers at other clubs and the first Sunday was great. It was busy, the women were amazing, everyone thought it was really hot. We did it and we were there for about three years after.
GS: What was it like to find spaces for the other parties you threw over the years and eventually the bars that you opened [Starlight, WonderBar and Clubhouse]?
WA: At the time there were lots of spaces available. Tabac was on Sundays and it was so popular that we actually needed an overflow spot. We started another party at a different bar on Mondays called Bar d’O. Whereas Sundays was this very glam and chic, Mondays we had more R&B and Hip Hop. It was also sexy but it was dark, smooth grooves – that party was a lot of fun too (laughing). We had go-go dancers. Queen Latifah used to come – all these celebrities would go there and kind of hide out. That was Mondays!
I had a lot of parties at different places at that time. There were tons of spaces that were open to having queer parties then. There were a lot of parties that were fun and busy!
GS: What was the crowd like at the parties you threw? Was it usually mostly women?
WA: Tabac was very mixed actually but predominantly women. There were a lot of gay men, straight couples, occasional straight guys but we did have a bouncer and we did try to keep the space safe. My other events were pretty much women. Guys were welcome at most of the parties but at Starlight men had to be accompanied by a woman. During the week a lot of men would come to Starlight so we would try to have Sundays be primarily for women.
GS: That seems to be happening at Cubby now too. I’ve noticed it tipping a bit towards more men on certain nights.
WA: That happens and sometimes it was really frustrating for me because the men had so many places and they still do! Let us have one night. Go to the Cock or something. You know the Clit Club was strictly women. They had a no men policy. The men would stay away. Sometimes you’d get a fool at the door who would say he was going to sue and that it was discrimination. I went to the Clit Club a lot. I loved that place. It was sweaty. There was great music. When you walked in it literally felt like a sauna because it would be so packed. It was humid from all of the dancing bodies and it was topless – you would take your top off and everyone was in bras. Julie Tolentino who was running the show there. She would always have some kind of performance. There were go-go dancers on the bar. She had all different types of dancers: androgynous, super high femme – all mixed. The performances were edgy, sometimes fetish, sometimes like: Ooo – did they just do that? The stage was on the main floor and then you would go down to the basement and they had television screens with lesbian porn on and couches and then upstairs in the back there was another little area that was chill where you could make out.
GS: I’m curious to hear more about the relationship between the lesbian chic aesthetic and Sundays at Café Tabac. Do you feel as though Tabac really influenced the style?
WA: It was sort of serendipitous that our events happened around the same time when lesbian women started to feel more empowered and ok being out and to want to look a certain way and not fit the stereotypes that were there previously. There was a lot of media attention around KD Lang and Sarah Bernhard and Ellen Degeneres. I think that definitely the media jumped on the fact that there were so many beautiful women in the space that they hadn’t seen before. Everyone thought lesbians only wore flannel shirts and combat boots, right? In interviewing women for the film we are making about Tabac they pretty much all said the same thing, that when they walked into that room they felt so empowered and beautiful just by being surrounded by that energy and that the next week they could dress up, walk in there and own it! It was really beautiful to watch. I didn’t know what to expect. I just created the space. Sharee [Nash] who was my partner at the time, was a deejay. We set the tone of the space with our own attire and with the music.
GS: Can you describe one of your favorite outfits that you wore to Sundays at Café Tabac?
WA: Every week I would try to wear something fun and different but I do remember that I’d taken a trip to Italy and I bought this beautiful, kind of burnt orange, pin-striped suit which I used to like to wear with a sheer, femme, sexy shirt with heels. We all dressed up – we would wear heels and lipstick and makeup and then the next week maybe a wife-beater and torn jeans. It was really fun though, the dress-up was really fun.
GS: It sounds like it would have felt quite liberating to be in a space like this where you could play with gender presentation, explore androgyny, high femininity and mess with the binary in this way. Did you find that to be the case?
WA: Not only were the women doing this but the men too! We had guys coming in there in outfits – in a sarong one week and the next week gym-wear. There was so much playfulness and I’m so sorry that we didn’t take more photographs and that nobody filmed it. I have about thirty polaroids because I used to carry a polaroid camera around and take pictures but that’s all I have.
The style and the clothes were really important at that time and you really saw the shift then to a new way of presenting as a queer woman. There were so many identifiers and codes prior for lesbians that I felt were a bit restrictive. There had always been the haircut, the swagger, that t-shirt thing – the wife-beater – and then the tattoos and piercings started happening and of course now it’s back and totally intense.
GS: Do you think this almost opening-up of style and code has affected younger generations of queer women?
WA: I think it allowed people to feel like they didn’t have to fit into any kind of mold, that they could self-identify and not have some outside source labeling you. Women felt they could be themselves in whichever way was comfortable and not have to be part of this contrived code. I did get the combat boots when I was first coming out (laughing). When I came out I was like: I’m a dyke! I cut my hair off, I wore the boots, and it was fun for a bit but it wasn’t the only thing that I was or am. I’m so many things. I never wanted to confine myself to a certain look because it was known to be queer.
GS: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your experience running both bars and weekly/monthly parties. Did you find that it was a different experience for women, especially in terms of community-making, to go to bars versus parties?
WA: As a bar-owner and an event promoter I think the difference is perhaps in the economics? The economic situation in this city is quite prohibitive. I give it to Henrietta and Lisa (Cannistraci) that they’ve been able to keep that space for all of these years because the changes in rent and in the social fabric of this city is astonishing! When I had my parties gay people all lived in the city and they could easily walk to the parties and then as things gentrified and prices went up the crowds dispersed and now you have women who are coming from Brooklyn and the Bronx so that dilutes the number of people coming to your events. If you have a seven-day-a-week situation it’s not easy to keep the momentum up and to keep a crowd coming night after night. It’s probably why Cubby and Henrietta have to let some guys in. When you have a weekly event, you can be a little more creative with it, you can entice the crowd into getting more exciting to come and they know what to expect and it’s this one-time thing so they have to go because they might not be able to make it next week.
GS: Why do think there is such a disparity between lesbians and queer women showing up to support lesbian bars versus gay men who have so many spaces still in Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea?
WA: I think it’s economics again sadly. Men get paid more, gay men don’t have families necessarily although things are changing now. For me it’s always been the economics and of course there is always the sexuality of it. The guys really want to hook up. Girls want to hook up too of course but guys have always been so out there. Now there’s Grindr too and I actually wonder how gay men’s bars are doing and whether they’re as many as there used to be. I have some gay male friends who say they don’t go to bars anymore because hookups just come right to their doors when they use the apps.
GS: I remember not even eight years ago seeing so much more sex going on in the bathrooms at lesbian bars. People were a lot more physical with each other. I still see women making out once in a while but I wonder if it’s become harder to initiate a hook up in person now that it’s all happening online.
WA: I’m fascinated with this too because I saw a shift at my parties once the phones were so in your face. I saw the interactions change and it was really interesting. At some of the earlier parties at Café Tabac if you told your friend you were going to meet at the party you really had to plan to meet there. There was no room for texting or backing out and if you did back out you had to go to a phone booth, leave a message on their answering machine and then the person had to check their answering machine! I started noticing women not knowing how to engage with each other. You’re standing at a bar and there are people around and you’re on your phone, not really making an effort to talk and I could see that they’re all single and they want to talk but they’re too shy so they’re on the phone. Or they walk in, it’s not as crowded as they want it to be, they text their friends not to come and then nobody comes. It was really fascinating. It affected our attendance levels a little. Right before I stopped the last party at Starlight in 2008 or so I saw a difference. People were impatient, handing the deejay their iPods and requesting songs, always on their phones. Then it wasn’t really that much fun for me anymore because I felt like people weren’t really so present.
GS: Is there one moment that stands out to you from your years of throwing parties as particularly meaningful or poignant?
WA: Oh girl. There were a lot. Do you know that this one moment always comes back to me though because it really made me feel like I was doing the right thing? It was at Tabac on one of the early nights and an African-American woman came up the stairs and I was standing there – I would always host and make sure I was welcoming – so I said hello, how are you, what’s your name and she said she heard that there was a lesbian party here tonight and asked me which part of the restaurant was ours. She was looking to see into what part of the space we had been shoved. I said, “The whole restaurant is yours! The whole restaurant is for the party tonight.” She was shocked and asked me if I was serious. So, I was like: Wow! We have to get out of those dungeons man! She came every single week and we are still friends. I was like: Wow… Yeah! We’re out, we’re out. That’s always something that stayed with me.
There were a lot of funny stories too of finding underwear in the back room and the celebrities that would swing through. There are a lot of stories.
GS: That moment you described of your friend arriving at Tabac and realizing that the whole space was for her kind of perfectly describes the motivation behind this work I’m doing. Even though there is so much acceptance now and it feels like there are queer women all over the place, there is nothing like walking in somewhere and knowing that the whole space is yours.
WA: Totally. And that your tribe is there and you can be yourself. Do you feel like now with more acceptance and visibility that safe, queer spaces are necessary?
GS: Yes. Maybe more so than ever actually. I led a coming out support group for women through Identity House last spring and it was a mixture of ages from about twenty to late forties. A constant topic of conversation was how much everyone hated dating apps and how much isolation and loneliness they still felt and that Cubbyhole wasn’t enough. Meetup groups and parties are great but unless you know who to ask they are a bit hard to find.
I guess to wrap things up a little bit, what has it been like to look back at this legacy that you have created through working on the documentary about Café Tabac with Karen Song?
WA: It’s been really, really, really fascinating, emotional and intriguing to hear other voices and their optics on what that time was like for them. The interviews are centered around the event but it’s also such a broad discussion on the early ‘90s and what it meant to be a lesbian in those years leading up to today. How the early ‘90s impacted their lives. Karen and I decided to do this film because it’s been over twenty-five years since we did that event but people we would run into who we knew went there always told us that nothing ever compared to that party and we wondered why people were still remembering it in that way.
It keeps coming back to a sense of community, this real sense of community that existed for everyone on that particular night and that they needed to come back on that particular night because everyone was so open. You would walk in and there would be a stranger sitting at a table and you could go and sit at that table and you’d have an amazing conversation, you’d have dinner together, maybe you’d see them the following week and maybe they would introduce you to their friends. You would just meet so many people and you ended up becoming friends with them and they are still friends years later. There was something special that was happening there.
I think there was also something special happening in the East Village at that time. So many artists lived in the East Village. It really was a sense of community and a neighborhood. You would walk out the door and run into people you knew and it was affordable and there was this synergy of artistic energy and queerness and being out. It was also on the heels of so many men who had died from AIDS so there was this feeling of coming together and really trying to be together and help each other and push each other forward and support each other. I think we’ve lost that somehow.
Technology has shifted that idea of face-to-face support and conversation. The armchair thing is happening where folks think it’s enough to post something or to sign-off on a petition online but it’s not enough.
Maybe you should start something with a no cell phone policy! At the time people were doing these little salons or dinner parties. Initially the idea for Tabac was that it was going to be a salon. It was a combo – a salon where you could dance, the gay boys would do the runway thing or you could tuck yourself into a corner and talk to a designer, hairdresser, artist or whatever. Since it was a Sunday night people would always ask whether anybody had jobs in this community but most of us were creatives so our hours were flexible. We had a lot of hairdressers who were off on Mondays (laughing). Anyway, it was just a really special time.
GS: Well, thank you so much Wanda. This was just amazing.
This portrait is from Addresses Project, a mixed-media series by Gwen Shockey and Riya Lerner featuring lesbian and queer women who have dedicated their lives to creating and holding space for women in New York City from the 1950s to today.
The individuals included in the series represent a diverse network of community builders engaged with social and political organizing, mental health advocacy, nightlife, music, journalism, visual art, literature, poetry, performance, research, safer sex, and kink practices. Each portrait includes a photograph taken in a significant location for the sitter, along with segments from their oral history interview and selected ephemera from their life and work.
Shockey began the project in 2016 by interviewing community members about their first experiences in lesbian and queer gathering spaces in New York City. She kept a log of the locations which now exist on a digital map alongside a growing collection of oral history interviews. Lerner began photographing project participants in 2019 after reading a number of the interviews that Shockey had conducted and wished she could see the faces of the women whose incredible histories she was encountering through the project. Taking inspiration from important work like Robert Giard’s, Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers Lerner has thus far created eleven portraits to accompany the oral histories, and plans to create an ongoing archive. To see the full multi-faceted project please visit addressesproject.com.
Sharee Nash is a writer, deejay, and co-founder of iconic parties for queer women and lesbians including Sundays at Café Tabac and Mondays at Bar d’O in the 1990s and early 2000s with fellow nightlife icon Wanda Acosta. Sharee’s extensive knowledge of and passion for music has led her around the globe in search of sounds unheard of in New York City. Her work in nightlife with Wanda ushered in a massive shift in lesbian culture out from the hidden, mafia-owned dive bars into visible and glamorous spaces. Parties such as Sundays at Café Tabac enabled queer women to see one another and to see themselves with respect and adoration. The following conversation was recorded on April 16, 2018 at 4pm at Patisserie Des Ambassades in Harlem, NY.
Gwen Shockey: What was the first lesbian bar or predominantly lesbian space that you ever went to?
Sharee Nash: Hm. I’d have to say it would have been Pandora’s Box. I didn’t come out until I was twenty-two. I moved to New York when I was twenty-one and I thought I’d figure it all out. I was adventurous. I had been living in Germany for a while with my family and I would just go out and find places where women gathered there. I wanted to figure out if I was a lesbian so I figured I’d just go to Pandora’s Box. It was in the West Village and I walked in, looked around, panicked and left! My idea of queer then was a sort of Anais Nin vision and I imagined I’d walk into a room full of women with long, long hair and red lipstick but when I walked into Pandora’s Box I was like: Blimey! It was just sort of typical I guess for a lesbian bar then.
I had been engaged to be married since I was eighteen and I had only ever read about queer lifestyles. It never really crossed my mind that it could be me, I was just reading literature about women and the culture so I had this fantasy in my mind about what lesbians were. I mean, the music in Pandora’s wasn’t sexy to me – it was old school pop. I was just going through a different phase music-wise. So, yeah I mean the music wasn’t romantic, the scenery wasn’t really romantic – I’m a romantic so that whole scene was a little hardcore for me. So, that was the first one! Pandora’s Box was around forever. I liked the idea of the name. I had myself all dolled up for a night out you know? But I ran straight out of there and went into another tiny bar that looked nice and seemed to be owned by a queer person. I met some guys there, some super sweet guys, and they were like, “Oh honey, don’t give up!” (Laughing)
GS: Do you remember what you were wearing when you went out that night?
SN: Probably the same thing I wore everywhere: a pair of jeans, a nice t-shirt. I think it was warm. My uniform is always a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I’m a tomboy with a bougie mother… so I’m sure I had on a very expensive pair of shoes, a handbag with a tube of lipstick and a pack of Gauloises cigarettes in it.
GS: Was the dynamic pretty butch/femme in Pandora’s Box then?
SN: Yeah! I mean that was my first experience. I eased into it. I found you had to sort of tease through the scene because there were little pockets of different types of people. At the end of the day once I met more lipstick lesbians that became a sort of pocket or scene that I helped create. Actually, when I finally found kind of what I was looking for it was this house party in Brooklyn. This woman who I knew threw these parties for women of color and it was just hot house music and girls half naked, sweating, dancing, gyrating and I thought: Yeah! That’s more like it! It was a private party, special invite. It was called “The Children’s Hour.” So, that was a different dynamic that just felt more comfortable for me. Having a conversation with someone is fine but I like dancing and obviously I like music, I’m a deejay. So, I liked that part a lot you know? It was just different from Pandora’s Box or Henrietta Hudson, I mean there was diversity but a lot of places were just where the white girls went.
Everyone had their own agendas too. Some of the parties were private because a lot of women couldn’t come out. That was one of the things that people really liked about Café Tabac when we started throwing that party. It was upstairs and it was private. You had to know someone to get in so we had people in the limelight, in the celebrity world who couldn’t afford for it to get out that they were hanging out in dyke bars. Even then, in the ‘90s it was sort of hush, hush.
GS: What was your coming out process like?
SN: Well, I realized I wasn’t straight when I fell head over heels for one of the girls in my dorm. Like I said I was engaged to be married. I went to the University of Missouri-Columbia. I didn’t know any other lesbians then but all of my male friends were gay and my cousin is queer. I was hanging out at the gay bars near school with gay boys but I was like: I’m good, I’m heterosexual, I’ve got a man, no problem. Something really hit me though and I started really thinking about. But, man, I was 19 years old engaged to be married and it was crazy! So, I called off my engagement because I felt like I would be a ball and chain at twenty-one years old. So that was that.
Boy bars were great though! If you were the only cute girl in the room all of your drinks were paid for, you were complimented, you were fanned, they carried you around, your feet never touched the floor – they were just great. There was so much trauma in that community so there was a lot of love brought to those spaces. So, appreciated all of that and so when I finally came out it was fine. Of course, my mom’s reaction was to tell me she really wanted grandchildren and I was like: I haven’t given up my womb! I mean even if I were heterosexual I’m not sure I’d want kids because I don’t really feel that maternal thing. All together I have six aunts and for a while I was the only child because I’m the oldest. When I came out to one of my aunts she told me she understood and she told me some stories about experiences she had when she was younger. She had fun! I think a lot of people deprive themselves of experiences if they aren’t willing to understand their bodies and needs for other forms of comfort and familiarity. I mean it’s just like you will never understand the black experience if you aren’t black, you will never know what it feels like to move through the world as a black person unless you are. It’s like the experience of being a woman too it’s really different. You have to have an open mind to see yourself as something other than how people perceive you because of the color of your skin or your gender. You just have to find places with like-minded people.
I always searched for the alternative in everything anyway so at the end of the day I had the crazy fortune of meeting Wanda [Acosta]. I met her at this place in Chelsea called Lola’s. It was owned by Alexander Smalls who was just a tremendous chef and happened to be southern. They would have live music, dancing, salsa night and so my girlfriend at the time was the hostess for the restaurant. It was swanky and upscale everybody would come after work in business attire but it was straight, totally straight, I was there because my girlfriend was the hostess. My girlfriend was a model and all of her friends were models too so I would just be in there with all the pretty women. I was there one night sitting at the bar while my girlfriend worked it, having my martini and, this sounds corny, but I was reading Orlando – I’m a walking cliché! (Laughing) Wanda rolled up and asked me if the seat next to me was taken and I said no so she sat down and was looking at my book and I was wondering if she was queer too! She could have just as easily not have been!
GS: I need to start carrying lesbian literature around!
SN: (Laughing) It used to work! You can’t tell anymore because everyone’s on their iPhone or Kindle! So, Wanda and I started talking and realized we were both queer and she asked me what brought me to that bar and I told her I liked my martini in a proper glass and I don’t like peanuts on the floor! Stemming from that first meeting we started talking about creating a party for chic lesbians – a space that we wanted, that we ourselves would go to! And that’s how it started! As simple as that. We both liked to get dressed up and feel fabulous and we liked to be wooed and read poetry you know? It became about creating the space that was ideal and alternative and clearly it was! I mean, there were parties before that like Cave Canem on 1st Avenue which they just closed recently. Cave Canem was a restaurant with a little cellar that you went down into. It was a private party for queer women to go and be outrageous and unapologetic.
GS: Where do you think this desire for different modes of presence as lesbian came from? Was it a desire to break down the butch/femme dynamic?
SN: I don’t think we’ll ever break that dynamic. Listen, I was out as a lesbian. I was published in a lesbian anthology. It was ok for me to be out because I was always an artist. You can choose not to hire me or read my writing but being out never threatened the work I chose to do. I do think for other women there was a need to keep their sexuality separate from their professional lives. I think privacy is just a value for some people. Our parties were basically that. They were private parties. Bar d’O was private. Once we opened WonderBar and Starlight everyone was welcome. Do you remember the scene in the L Word where Bette Porter comes to New York and goes to a lesbian bar? That was Starlight!
GS: It really seems like the parties you and Wanda threw and the bars you ran really allowed women to find self-worth as individuals and as a community. To be able to escape the dive bar, come together in a beautiful, thoughtful environment seemed so important.
SN: Yeah and something that was important to us was that it wasn’t always about going out every night and cruising and picking up chicks, rather being around creative people. I’m a writer – I like to talk to poets, readers of books, healers and other writers and music is my life so meeting someone who would notice what was playing rather than just standing there drinking their beer was amazing. On Sunday nights it was a huge dinner party with community tables and people would sit and hop from one table to the next – there was food, music, drinks and sexy lighting. There would be a muralist sitting next to, say, Sandra Bernhard or a drag king, gallery owner, photographer, comedian, fucking tight-rope walker sitting next to Patricia Field so we just had all these different types of people together. We had it all! The idea for us was just queer women sharing their passion for all things queer and cultured and each other as women in our different experiences…together.
GS: Could you tell me a little bit about how you began deejaying? Did it start at Sundays at Café Tabac or were you deejaying before?
SN: Deejaying for the public was again one of those serendipitous moments (I’m a bit of an agoraphobe) I loved making compilations since I was a kid. When I got my first job as a babysitter, I used that money to buy records and turntables. So, when I moved to New York from Germany and got settled, I set up my deejay booth under my loft bed in a tiny studio apartment in the East Village. An ex introduced me to this super cool guy new to NYC from Oakland and he saw my setup and flipped through my collection of vinyl and encouraged me to basically Shine My Light! *Much Love to Disco Dave*!
I would make mixed tapes for Sundays at Café Tabac. This is how long ago it was. Every week I would make about four mixed tapes for the night. So, I ended up with a huge collection of mixed tapes. And I was actually spinning records at Bar d’O. I was doing this, then I met these women who were doing huge parties with like a thousand women on Friday nights in a warehouse space. They had three floors. They wanted everything. First floor was house music with pole dancers and strippers, the second floor was Latina, and then the top floor was a lounge where I was spinning soul and jazz and stuff. That was huge because it was one of the biggest lesbian parties at the time. I was doing some major things and then Wanda and I started Bar’d O on Monday nights. People thought we were out of our minds and that no one would show up on a Monday night. We were like: They will. You’ll see. Bar d’ O was really intimate. The idea was to add an element of burlesque…not a strip-show… a strip-tease in a triptych. Exotic dancers, drag kings, contortionists, fire-eaters! Lots of celebrities showed up there because they knew they had anonymity. We carried on at Bar d’O for years. Another one of my favorite experiences was working with Julie Tolentino, mastermind behind the Clit Club! We all have her to thank!
GS: I feel like the role of the deejay at lesbian parties that I’ve been to is this mythic type person. Not only are you controlling the energy of the crowd in a way but you’re also there to be seen, there is such almost desire between the audience and the deejay. Did you feel that?
SN: I mean for me, there was always a frame for it. I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of WonderBar but our partner John built this deejay booth, he’s a set designer. It was up on a platform in the back of the bar when you walked in. There was this huge oval almost like an eye and he created lighting so it was basically a stage. If you’re an aesthetic snob every little detail has to have some sort of connection to art or nature – you have to be able to connect the dots. Funnily enough I’m the most introverted person. I don’t like to speak publicly, I don’t like having my picture taken, if you look at me for too long I’ll run up a tree you know? There was something different for me about deejaying. It was my way of communicating. Being a part of the community, I could party with everyone but not be on the floor with everyone. We would try to make sure that the booth situation was part of it all but not in the middle. There was a lot of thought put into that. One night I was hanging out with some friends after hours and there was this guy there and one of my friends was like, “Sharee’s a deejay!” and he was like, “Oh never heard of her”… my friend told him he had to go and “See me”! and I thought it was really interesting that she said he had to see me…because it was a visual experience. It’s a really visual experience in that the crowd is loud, that he could come in a watch me spin for hours and jam to the music. I guess I lose myself you know? When everyone’s out there dancing and I’m standing there with my cup of tea, I pull off all my clothes and I’m just like in it. (Laughs) It was so fun for me. I’d have a sort of call and response. I would kind of know what would happen like, they’re going to lose their minds in three, two, one! It’s the most amazing feeling. I stopped. I was deejaying at a wine bar up here in Harlem. It was nice because people really listened. But after a while people started requesting songs they knew and I would say: No! I’m the deejay! I’m going to play something you don’t know so you can experience something new! That was a lot of what I heard from people over the years – that they’d come hear me spin and only recognize two or three songs in a night and they loved it! It was fantastic. Total opposite today.
GS: Do you think it has something to do with technology? I mean people have their phones with them all the time, they’re like, “Play this song!”
SN: It was not like that. It totally flipped. It used to be so amazing. It was global too. So much of my music came from overseas. It was nothing you would hear on the radio. Even the radio is different now. Back in the day when we were listening to the radio there was a loop, yeah, but they would loop in something new. It was a lot more soulful. There were lyrics. I do like some trap music but most sounds like they just created a dumpster fire and called it music and sold it to everybody as “trending”. I had my European collections and friends would come over from London and come with new vinyl. This whole idea of being connected globally… I mean people just don’t understand! Norwegians just killed at house music! Bringing it here was so fun and challenging. I would get so excited for certain nights when I could say like: Fresh from London, some new vinyl! The people would be so into it. It’s just a different attitude. You can’t even have an opinion about anything anymore. People are having fist fights over Beyonce and I’m like: Stay mad! Because Beyonce is doing Beyonce better than anyone else could ever do so whatever you’re mad about it’s your mad! You can’t even write a fucking post on social media without people saying it’s not politically correct. So yeah, the whole dynamic just changed and it no longer interested me to try to share something new with people who thought they knew it all.
GS: that makes me sad you know? That lack of curiosity, that lack of wanting to learn… Do you think it’s changed the way people party now?
SN: People are either on the offensive or the defensive…like, everybody in the room is either the hostess or the deejay! Those have been my experiences. If I’m going to go out and have a good time now I go to Europe. (Laughing)
I retired this year from my job at Columbia University in the Graduate History Department. I had to hang that up – I did it for sixteen years and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I’m an English teacher and that’s what I’m trained to do. So, I retired from university life and I’m writing a series of different things. I write poetry, short fiction… I guess I would describe my writing as sci-fi erotica.
GS: Does music affect your writing in any way?
SN: Oh yeah! Just yesterday I started writing a series in response to ten songs that had an impact on my life. I usually don’t do these things because it’s hard to pick a finite number of things that have influenced me. I’m on day nine now but I was thinking should I choose hip hop, soul, house? It just so happened that I picked the first album off the top of my head, which was this acid, jazz, soul album that was really brilliant and from that I remembered that I had already started a story from a long time ago just inspired by one of the songs. The chapters ended up being based on the rhythm of a song – a lot of Sade in there. The long answer to your question is yes. I don’t know what came first, music or writing. I’ve been writing since I was a child and it’s all about rhythm.
GS: Do you still go dancing?
SN: The last time I danced was on my birthday. The first girl I fell head over heels for reconnected with me a couple years ago. I was home in St. Louis visiting with my mother and she took me out for my birthday and the DJ played “No diggity, I like the way you work it…” and it was such a great time dancing in my hometown…being older…still feeling none the bit wiser in the “Great Scheme”…but that was the extent of my dancing recently. No dancing in my bra like the good old days! No tumbling off of tables in my stilettos… I’m not kidding. I still have the scars to prove it! I’m not saying we had more fun than kids now but Wanda and I, twenty something years ago, were in our late twenties and there were a lot of people in our circle who were famous and loved to dress up and it was just a different time in New York. Really different from now. I’m older now and I just want to cheer from the sidelines…leave it to you crowd to have the fun and keep the party alive!
GS: Any juicy stories you want to close out with Sharee?
SN: How about me distracting some girl by showing her my tits while her girlfriend was sitting in a booth with another girl on her lap with her tongue down her throat! There was tons of drama! But we didn’t have it splashed all over viral social media like we have today! PrideNYC was just beautiful madness. You’d get a fresh batch of women in from out of town…lots of love and trouble-making! It could get pretty debauched!
GS: Sharee, you’re amazing. This was amazing. Thank you so much for sharing these stories with me.
Film maker and director Megan Rossman and WMN co-editor Jeanette Spicer chat about older generation dykes, photography, film making and the desire to keep lesbian archives and our story alive.
Megan Rossman is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and assistant professor and chair of communication at Purchase College.
Rossman’s feature-length debut, The Archivettes, premiered at Outfest in 2019 and has screened as an official selection at over 30 film festivals. The Hollywood Reporter called the documentary a “warm tribute to second-wave feminism.” The Queer Review called it “a gift to the future.” The Archivettes, which explores the founding and development of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, has won jury prizes at Stamped Film Festival and the Fargo-Morehead LGBT Film Festival, and awards from the Princess Grace Foundation and Reeling Film Festival.
Rossman’s additional films have screened at festivals including DOC NYC and NewFest. Her film Love Letter Rescue Squad won best student documentary in the Emerging Filmmakers Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival American Pavilion in 2017.