By Becky Raspe
Pride isn’t just the month of June for the 71 artists featured in the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve’s upcoming multi-venue exhibition, “CONVERGE,” bringing together diverse stories from the queer community, including voices of women, transgender and artists of color throughout the region.
With installations at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, the LGBTQ Center of Greater Cleveland, Lake Erie College and MetroHealth Main Campus Medical Center, “CONVERGE” will acknowledge both the historic and ever-relevant struggles of the LGBTQIA+ community, incorporating themes of protest, pride, celebration and transformation. The exhibition runs from Aug. 26 to Oct. 16. A satellite exhibition at Judson Manor retirement community will also feature LGBTQIA+ artists already part of AAWR’s permanent collection. And, the display of MetroHealth Medical Center Gallery’s biannual exhibition of the national AIDS Memorial Quilt will coincide with the show.
How it started
The show was born out of a committee meeting when AAWR – a regional museum that’s also an archival space to preserve work of Ohio artists and share and promote local cultural heritage – discovered gay artists in their files, but no archived lesbian artists. That gave birth to a larger conversation about filling the gaps in their collections, says AAWR Executive Director Mindy Tousley.
“It brought up the whole issue of other groups that are kind of disenfranchised in the greater scheme of things,” she says, which led to the concept of a show exclusively for and by LGBTQIA+ artists. “(This show) aligns perfectly with our mission because we aim to preserve the legacies of Ohio artists. Just by doing this show, even if work doesn’t go into the permanent collection, we’re providing documentation that will be on the internet forever.”
Journey for diverse narratives
Knowing their collection needs those stories included, Tousley says lack of historical documentation of local LGBTQIA+ artists is a broader issue in the arts community.
“Even with older artists who are in their 80s, which several of them will be part of the show, you couldn’t be out in their day, it wasn’t safe,” Tousley says. “So, documentation would’ve been under the wire. They weren’t out because you needed to keep things secret for safety, especially in a place like Cleveland.”
Kelly Pontoni, a curator for “CONVERGE” and one of the artists in the show, says AAWR made sure to portray a wide range of stories in the show, especially since the queer experience is so diverse. Some of those stories will touch on the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how those fears tied into living in the age of COVID-19.
“It was hard on people with HIV and AIDS to experience a second pandemic,” she says.
A big topic the show will explore the experience of young queer artists, their transformations and the art they’ve made as a result, Pontoni says. For example, local artist Max Markwald, a transgender man, will have a series focused on his top surgery, which will be on display at MetroHealth. Another artist will focus on what it’s like to be both Black and trans.
As a featured artist herself, Pontoni says as someone in her 50s and an out lesbian, she believes she’ll learn a lot from younger artists who are naturally and unapologetically themselves.
“Growing up in a time where you didn’t talk about any of this, I embrace the younger generation,” she says. “So, I think this show will also have a touch of education because I know a lot of people have challenges with the idea of non-binary and trans experiences, so I think this will be educational in that sense. Even me as an out lesbian, if I’m not willing to understand and learn from the younger generation, I’m as bigoted as people were to me when I was in my 20s.”
When selecting featured artists, Pontoni says it all came back to representation within the vastly diverse queer experience.
“It’s not going to be a show with over 60 artists all about rainbows and butterflies,” she says, noting a lot of the featured works will be nonrepresentational and will more subtly tackle ideas of queerness.
Tousley adds, “There are a lot of shows that focus on specific issues already, so that’s why we wanted a lot of different viewpoints from the artists because it is a documentation of the artists. We wanted to create a space to tell a story of the broader experience.”
Artistic intersection of queerness, racial identity
That intersection of a broader life experience and inherent queerness is where featured artist Lo Smith’s work lives. A 27-year-old Black artist from Cleveland Heights, Smith says they agreed to get involved because of the broad spectrum of stories detailed in “CONVERGE.”
“Something that happens a lot with queer shows is that they always feature a majority of queer white men,” Smith says. “(AAWR) told me right away that this is not that. In queer spaces, other narratives exist. So, when Kelly asked me to get involved, I asked if I was the only one that would look like me, sound like me or have this experience with race and gender like I do. And in the walk-through, the answer was already no. So, this makes me excited.”
Playing with the combination of being a Black and queer artist, Smith’s work for “CONVERGE” focuses on the idea of rest, and how true rest is hard to come by for someone who is living a similar experience.
“I often say that my art and my identity are the same thing,” Smith says. “People will ask if Blackness or queerness take precedence, or my gender because I’m non-binary. The Black experience is the queer experience, and the queer experience is the Black experience when you’re both. You don’t exist in a vacuum. So, with my art, it is a reflection of that.”
In tackling the idea of rest, Smith addresses how mindfulness and meditation spaces are heavily white and steeped in East Asian appropriation, but that is not what restfulness and mindfulness looks like for them.
“Doing yoga, for example, stresses me out – having my eyes closed surrounded by other people based on my experiences as a Black queer person,” Smith says. “That is not restful for me. They’ll say you just have to let go, but no, that sounds like danger to me. Going to a park and sitting with my eyes closed isn’t always safe for me. There is an assumption that this is a peaceful action, but that is not true. So, my work for the show addresses that need for rest, to address these things I carry with me all day.”
Impact on Cleveland’s artistic, queer community
With all of this in mind, Phyllis Harris, executive director of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, says she believes this show helps tell the collective story of the queer experience through a local lens – something that has been long needed in the community.
“This is exactly what we wanted for Cleveland,” she says. “It’s a fantastic opportunity. This is our history, our story. This time, it’s all about us.”
Harris also says the exhibit opens up the discussion that Pride is not just a month in the year or a moment, but a movement.
“There is so much we can do to extend the season of celebrating who we are and bringing visibility to our lives,” she says. “Part of it establishing our places where we can amplify our voices. It’s OK to conform at times, and we do, but we have a culture and we’re part of a movement. Any time we can hang our flag out and take a stake, like with ‘CONVERGE,’ it’s progress. But we have a long way to go. This is an opportunity for us to find something that speaks to us, and amplify those stories, our history and potential.”
Artists Archives of the Western Reserve presents “CONVERGE” Aug. 26 to Oct. 16
Artists Archives of the Western Reserve | 1834 E. 123rd St., Cleveland | Wednesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m.
LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland | 6705 Detroit Ave., Cleveland | Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Lake Erie College, Royce Hall | 391 W. Washington St., Painesville. Call 440-375-7050.
MetroHealth Main Campus Medical Center | 2500 MetroHealth Drive, Cleveland | Call 216-778-7800.
Judson Manor, South Concourse Gallery | 1890 E. 107th St. Cleveland |
Daily, 10 a.m.to 4 p.m.
Artists Archives Opening Reception: Public reception is from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Aug. 26, with a private VIP reception to precede it from 5:30 to 6:30.
LGBT Community Center Reception: Public reception from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 17, with the private Plexus LGBTQ Young Professional Reception to precede it from 5:30 to 6:30.
LGBT Center Heritage Day special viewing : Oct. 9, time TBA
Cleveland MetroHealth Reception: Date TBA, Cleveland MetroHealth
Lake Erie College Closing Reception: 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14
Virtual Program: “Un(masc)ing Drag History with Dr. Lady J,” 7 to 8 p.m. Sept. 14, presented by the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve
Virtual Panel Discussion: Art and AIDS, date TBA, presented by the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve and Cleveland MetroHealth
AIDS Quilt Workshop at MetroHealth
More information on all programming is available at artistsarchives.org.