On June 1, 2019, this first day of LGBTQ Pride Month, and the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, my partner, Janet, and I reveled in three momentous cultural/political events honoring our past/present/future struggles for human rights through creative expression:
1.The installation reception of prolific photographer JEB (Joan E. Biren)’s Being Seen Makes a Movement Possible at the Leslie Lohman Museum’s exhibit, Art After Stonewall 1969-1989. Her breath-taking, larger-than-life photographs loom over Wooster Street through the museum’s floor-to ceiling-windows These magnificent images of struggle will electrify that street for the next twelve months. A pioneer in the documentation of lesbian culture since the late 60s, JEB continues to educate the world about our lesbian herstory. In her words: “… I decided [if] I wanted to see images that seemed authentic, I was going to have to make them myself.” — Them Magazine.
2. The opera As One, performed at Merkin Hall of the Kaufman Music Center: a transgender’s journey performed as part of the honoring of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and the trans activists who bravely fought for human rights and continue to do so today. Until June 6, 2019.
3. In between these two powerful and inspiring presentations I took my partner on a historical trek down my memory lane as we revisited my 1960s-70s past as artist/activist in Hells Hundred Acres (now Soho). Our exploration helped us understand how past creative/political struggles inform the present and shape our future. What a grand day it was to experience once again how LGBTQ artists-activists have always been and unremittingly remain on the front lines of our movement.
How our day unfolded:
12:30-1:30 pm. Walking up to the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art at 26 Wooster Street in Soho between Canal and Grand, we were awed by the monumental photographs by JEB (Joan E. Biren) elegantly framed by the giant windows of the museum, giving dramatic visual reportage (real news!) of essential moments in our LGBTQ protest marches-demonstrations and victories.
The Leslie Lohman Museum, founded in 1969 by Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman aims to preserve LGBTQ cultural identity and build community within the intersection of art and social justice. Their present show, Art After Stonewall 1969-1989 is the first major exhibition to examine the impact on visual art of the LGBTQ Liberation Movement, sparked fifty years ago by the Stonewall Uprising, which historian Martin Duberman has called, “the birth of the modern gay and lesbian political movement.” The exhibition is organized within four still crucial themes: Coming Out, Sexual Outlaws, Gender Play, Uses of the Erotic. It is divided chronologically in two parts, at the Leslie Lohman Museum and at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University.
That photographers like JEB have recorded our history and that this work is shown by galleries such as the Leslie-Lohman inspires and informs us today to keep the roots of our struggle authentic and ongoing. In fact, members of ReclaimPrideNYC.org, who have organized a grassroots queer liberation march as the authentic alternate to the more corporate sponsored gay march, were at this reception, distributing information on the specifics of this march. I’m sorry to not have the names of these stalwart women!
JEB’s portraits, as viscerally moving as her political-scapes, can be seen within the body of the show, displaying mesmerizing works by many known and perhaps lesser known artists all giving expression to the show’s four themes. Her self-portrait of her younger self and her profound photograph of Audre Lorde, 1980, silver gelatin print, are part of the show’s insightful and prophetic expressions by artist-activists. The exhibit, open for a year, is a must-see for experiencing our history pictorially, personally, politically, poetically and all with pride!
1:30-3:30 pm. We then journeyed down my memory lane. As a dedicated sculptor in the early 60s, I lived in lofts in this area, then known as Hell’s Hundred Acres. Poor, dedicated, determined artists like myself, inhabited the factory buildings of the area, transforming them into livable studio workspaces. My two studios, one at 148 Spring Street and the other, 97 Wooster, pictured below, with monthly rent of a few hundred dollars, comprised the setting of my slow transformation from solitary sculptor of large wooden female ritual figures (which I showed in my A Sculptor’s Theater shows, reviewed in the Herald Tribune and Village Voice) into a full-blown lesbian-feminist-performer-composer-writer-activist-socialist-educator. This was the period of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Liberation Movement, The Anti Vietnam War Movement, and the Women’s and LGBTQ Movements. As participants in the Angry Arts’ Movement, we knew we had to put our skills to work, not to make saleable goods for the uptown galleries, but to make personal images, embracive art forms, inspire educational dialogues, social and political events for change. And thus, began the burgeoning street theater movements.
While we stood on Spring and Wooster Streets, in front of my loft-studios of those times, I remembered how my work-spaces became centers of “where the action is,” as I and my artist comrades made collective families of painters, poets, dancers, actors, musicians, sculptors, SDS politicos, all working together to become change-agents, if not the soul of our country. At 148 Spring Street I saw again the large casement windows of my third-floor loft, which I would open to the sounds of other worker-artists creating their new art forms: happenings, installations, protest art, street plays. Suddenly a woman came out of her shop behind us. “They are forcing the people out of that building your looking at by raising the rents way beyond their means!” Was it 2019 or 1967? I wondered, knowing that under capitalism some things will never change unless we, artists-activists, work together to change them.
At 97 Wooster, I nostalgically eyed the windows of my then 4th Floor loft. There was the Fire House next door, once hosting groundbreaking women’s music performances, where I performed from my opus for marimba, cello and voice, Jeritree’s House of Many Colours (I was known as Jeritree back then). On the street floor, below my loft, was where the A.I.R. Gallery was first housed. Here women artists, self-identified as feminists, showed their works all giving expression to that revelatory phrase “The Personal is Political.” Founded in 1972, A.I.R. was the first non-profit, artist-run gallery for women in the country. The announcement for the gallery’s first exhibition elaborated its founding concept: “A.I.R. does not sell art; it changes attitudes about art by women.” Yes, I still know that “Sisterhood is Powerful,” even as we struggle with the current repressive, fascist attempts to silence, separate and set people against each other.
3:30-4:30 pm. There was time for one more historical visitation. I remembered when the Fanelli Café, corner of Prince and Mercer was our hang-out, less famous and trendy than the Cedar Tavern, but oh so artist-worker friendly. It’s still the same outside and in, and it’s still inviting and people-friendly. There my then partner, poet Jerome Badanes and I, along with our artist-politico comrades, including SDS students, hung out and hashed over ideas for joining politics with the arts. We came up with CAW magazine, a political arts journal, Burning City Street Theater (women and men collectively creating plays for the parks, demos, protests on such themes as Stop the War in Vietnam, Our Planet Needs Our Help, The Parks Belong to the People, Civil Rights Now, LGBTQ Movements on the Rise) and then The Women of Burning City, followed by Painted Women’s Ritual Theater, which dramatized our own stories in Moments of Pain – Moments of Gain.
We went inside to enjoy a healthy appetizer and cold drink. Janet is studying the book Dropping Acid by Dr. Jamie A. Koufman (not a Timothy Leary directive!) detailing diets that cure acid reflux. Her cold drink was water. We enjoyed the welcomed attention of the personable, thoughtful woman serving us. I can’t write “waitress” here as long ago I gave up the “ess” endings, and I really don’t like the phrase “serving us.” Can I simply say, the kind woman bringing us our choices?
Going back to Soho on June 1, 2019 was going ahead as well: we certainly experienced how the past informs our present and future. Thank you, Leslie Lohman Museum, for honoring and presenting images that can feed us in these once again repressive times. They forcefully call upon us to remember where we’ve come from, what we’ve accomplished and are capable of, and what together we can and must do to build an ever-expanding, humane, just and healthy society in a wholesome and sustainable environment.
Now after a trip back uptown to my current studio on the upper west side, a rest, bath and light supper, we continued our unforgettable cultural tour.
8:30-10:30 pm. As One, a two-person opera with string quartet and conductor, explores the consciousness of a transwoman’s complex and painful journey from adolescent self-awareness, to self-determination, and self-acceptance.
It is the most produced contemporary opera in North America, now in NYC as part of the honoring of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall uprisings and the diverse band of trans activists who bravely fought for human rights 50 years ago and who continue the fight today.
We were impressed and moved by its unique, innovative structure: two singers, a baritone, Tarell Williams, (“Before Hannah”), the other a mezzo-soprano, Briana Elyse Hunter (“After Hannah”), chronologically express the emotional, spiritual development/transformation of Before Hannah (male body/female-identified gender) into After Hannah (female sex and gender realized). Based on the real experience of transgender woman Kimberly Reed (video designer and librettist with Mark Campbell), it sensitively portrays the difficult transformation through operatic arias and string quartet, composed by Laura Kaminsky. This innovative and challenging operatic work is a realized inspiration for all artists-activists struggling with unleashing creative and authentic ways to express our journeys of finding, creating and accepting our complex selves.
That the production features presentations by two alternating casts, one white, and the other persons of color, expresses the creators’ attempts at inclusiveness even as they continue their search for trans singers for the two roles. The challenge here is how to depict/express this emotional trajectory on stage through music, song, and action. This performance had the feel of being “about” such a struggle, as opposed to being “in the now” or “of” the struggle. Was it the classical style of the music that kept the emotional, somatic, mind, soul and gut experiences at bay? And yet, the heartfelt vocalizations, energetic and sometimes excruciatingly painful, together with the sometimes playful and always intriguing interactions of the two selves (protagonists) of the one person, slowly becoming “as one” in front of us, all evidenced a courageous and creative attempt to realize and express such an intricate transformation. Hannah’s personal journey was magically rooted by the specific placement in time and place through the extremely fascinating and skillful visual imagery streaming on the scrim behind the vocalized narrative. (However, it was jarring that in the backdrop film white actors were used to dramatize some of the protagonist’s memories while the soloists were people of color. A problem not yet solved) The few artful wooden stage constructions, by set designer Ron Kadri, in fluid transformation from desks to mirrors, doorways, bikes, chairs, made us feel a part of a monumental and infinitely delicate and continuous process. To know and embrace and joy in one’s ever becoming self is part of every human being’s struggle.
You can catch it at Merkin Hall, the Kaufman Music Center, 129 West 67th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, through June 6th.
Experiencing this gender exploration through music, film, acting, staging (yes, an opera!) along with the photography exhibition at the Leslie Lohman Gallery and my personal herstory I relived by revisiting Hell’s Hundred Acres with my beloved partner, has given me renewed energy and determination to market and share my current creative work: a four book memoire-driven historical novel, Rune Quartet, that chronicles my transformative experiences as an artist/activist, 1963-1994. The journey of a heterosexual sculptor from a Republican conservative Presbyterian Midwestern family transitioning into a lesbian-feminist-composer-writer-activist-socialist-educator certainly is a transformation, a transfiguration not unlike the struggles imaged by JEB in Being Seen Makes a Movement Possible and those expressed by Hannah in As One.
One thought on “On the First Day of Pride Month”
i was a student of Adrienne Rich and Konstantinos Lardas at city college circa 1969-1970. somehow, i believe it was through Lardas, i attended an evening of anti-war poems and performances at the washington square methodist church and heard you singing “rose, a rose, rose this is my song…” i can still hear you singing it, clearly, purely, mesmerizing. will never forget it. i sing it myself from time to time.