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wmn zine Interview
x ALL THINGS LGBT

The Interview Show: Editors/Publishers of WMN Zine interviewed by Anne Charles for the Vermont cable show ALL THINGS LGBT.

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Art Interview

Artist Talk: Pheonix Lindsey-Hall

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.

21:18  21:24 

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!

Categories
Interview

Black Lesbian Archives

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.

8 members of the ACHÉ publication standing against a railing smiling.
“Seven months in, co-founder Pippa Fleming moved to London. Question: How do you publish a 44-pg. monthly journal by yourself? Answer: You don’t–you call in some serious cavalry. This is what serious cavalry looks like.” (photo by Annie Valva) – Lisbet Tellefesen

For the month of June Black Lesbian Archives focused on ACHÉ (a Black Lesbian Publication) & how we can use this organization as a conduit (Oakland, CA 1992) for Grassroots organizing & community building through these current times. We will expand more on this in the upcoming months. Stay tuned! 

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!

“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.”

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?

the yellow front door and a shop window to the ACHE
Around 1991 (?) we moved into our new office on Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley across the street from La Peña. And as I would find out later, next door to the former office of the Black Panther Party! The beautiful cowries were painted by Adalia Claywomon Guarani-Kaiowá Serenata. Photo by Skye Ward.

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. 

“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’.”

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.

“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!”

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.

Categories
Interview

Lesbian Invisibility
in Art History

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.

Soboleva in Brooklyn photographed by Florencia Alvarado

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.

“So if I hadn’t been a lesbian, I might not have become an art historian.”

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.

“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.

“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.”

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.

Soboleva in Brooklyn photographed by Florencia Alvarado

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. 

 
Categories
Interview

Addresses Project:
Wanda Acosta

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.

Riya Lerner, “Wanda Acosta, Addresses Project,” 2019, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist.

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? 

WA: Yes.

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. 

Invitation from Wanda’s iconic party, “No Day Like Sunday at Cafe Tabac.” Image courtesy of Wanda Acosta.

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. 

Image courtesy of Wanda Acosta.
Invitation from Wanda’s iconic party, “No Day Like Sunday at Cafe Tabac.” Image courtesy of Wanda Acosta.

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.

Categories
Interview

Addresses Project:
Sharee Nash

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.

Riya Lerner, “Sharee Nash, Addresses Project,” 2019, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist.

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.

Article in HX featuring Sharee Nash from 1996. Image courtesy of Sharee Nash.

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.

Image courtesy of Sharee Nash.
Cover of HX featuring Sharee Nash from 1996. Image courtesy of Sharee Nash.

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.

Categories
Interview video

Lesbian filmmaker
Megan Rossman

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 Archivettespremiered 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.

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