Nature and wildlife artist Matt Tomko recently painted “Playful Chickadees,” a winter scene with two chickadees.
“It wasn’t until after I painted it that I thought about the fact that you can’t tell if the birds are male or female,” he said. “That is how I see Durham. People don’t see my partner and me as gay but as just a couple. They look past whether someone is gay or straight.”
The oil of the petite birds is one of 40-plus works in “Love/Hate, Private/Public, Inside/Outside, Gay/Straight,” an exhibit runs Friday through Sept. 30 at the Durham Arts Place Upstairs Gallery at 305 E. Chapel Hill St.
The exhibit, which features the work of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer artists, is in a way act two of an exhibit that took place in Durham in 1981. Both shows were birthed by Durham attorney Dan Ellison who created Durham Arts Place in 1996 years to provide affordable art studios.
“In 1981 there was the first Gay Pride March in Durham that came about as the result of a murder at Little River, north of Durham where two men attacked a group of people they thought were gay. One of the men died,” Ellison said.
“The impetus for the original show was that it was a way for artists to participate in that political statement,” he said. “It was another way for people to participate in the outrage at what had happened and in the beginning of some local activism for things to change in terms of gay rights.”
In today’s world having this type of show might not seem so unusual but in 1981, the climate for anyone who was not heterosexual could be dangerous. “I think back in 1981 to be out was a bold statement,” said Ellison, who put on the exhibit in a space he was renting at Five Points called The Art Loft.
Despite the success of the first show, Ellison didn’t start thinking about doing another until a few years ago. This spring he knew it was the right time spurred by the opening of this year’s N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on Friday at the Carolina Theatre and the N.C. PrideFest in Durham and Raleigh on Sept. 29. “It is again a way for artists to participate in something bigger and political,” he said.
Any LGBTQ artist who has lived in North Carolina during the past five years was invited to submit pieces for the juried show.
Ellison is contributing a photograph and said, “Not all of the artwork is for sale but for any artist who does sell work, we are asking that they donate 25 percent to The Carolina Theatre for the film festival.”Community building
Jennie Carlisle, an independent curator living in Carrboro, is one of two women curating the exhibit with Ellison.
“I wanted to be involved since there have been and are major LGBTQ art shows around the country, but I had not seen one in this area,” she said.
“I feel like there was so much community building and energy around the fight against Amendment One in the LGBTQ community,” she continued. “This exhibit becomes one more opportunity for people to come together in a way that they may not have had since Amendment One passed,”
Several exhibit pieces employ Christian themes. Jill Moffett’s mixed media piece portrays two mothers and a child, all with a halo over them. Grey Swartzel’s large, theatrical photograph is based on the Sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis, and Kelly Cross’ gray tone painting of two men is called “Adam and Steve.”
Lindsay Gordon, the artist services manager at the Durham Arts Council and a freelance curator who lives in Chapel Hill, is also curating.
“Gay and trans rights have always been important to me,” said Gordon, whose uncle is gay and whose attorney mother has long helped the gay and lesbian community gain and protect their rights. “I’ve also always had a lot of positive gay role models. My friends say I am basically a gay man hiding in a straight, Jewish woman’s body,” Gordon said.
She said one of the things she really likes about the exhibit is that there are seasoned artists as well as fledglings. “We wanted to include the range since the gay community is so excluded in so many places in America,” Gordon said.Showing solidarity
When Ellison put the call out for the 1981 exhibit, Durham painter Chad Hughes answered.
“I was pretty open and pretty out and was really excited when Dan said he wanted to put together the show,” he said. “It was small but we were showing solidarity, that we are here and not ashamed to be recognized as being openly gay and lesbian.”
Hughes, who now teaches at N.C. Central University and shares studio space with Tomko at Durham’s Golden Belt, answered the call again and is exhibiting, “Wrestling with It.” The oil is an older piece from when Hughes was working figuratively and trying to experiment with overlaying images and abstraction.
“It is sort of a personal piece dealing with inner turmoil or coming out,” said Hughes, who married his partner of 32 years four years ago in California.
“To so many more people the whole idea of gays and lesbians getting married is commonplace, but we have to remember we can’t be complacent about it,” Hughes said.
One of the exhibit’s pieces is an antidote to complacency. Stacey L. Kirby has been doing surveys of people’s domestic lives and then informing them what government recognition they will receive. Past surveys will be exhibited but plans are afoot to have Kirby survey people at the Aug. 17 opening reception.
The party goes from 6 p.m. to midnight. The Durham Arts Place will be open again during September’s Third Friday and by appointment by calling 919-491-4625.