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Joanna Hiffernan Through the Looking Glass

By Thais Carrion 

This article was first published August 7, 2022 in DC Trending here.

This past June, the National Gallery of Art celebrated the re-opening of I. M. Pei’s light-filled East Building, following a series of renovations and structural changes that have been taking place since its most recent closure in February of this year. The exhibition chosen to inaugurate the iconic space is Margaret MacDonald, Anne Dumas and Charles Brock’s The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler, a beautiful and essential exploration of Whistler’s most important subject, Joanna Hiffernan. On view through October 10th, Whistler’s many depictions of Hiffernan provide an exquisite impressionist contrast to the bold colors of Rothko and random splatters of Pollock currently housed in the East Building’s permanent collection. 

Few gallery spaces are as dynamic and visitor-centered as the National Gallery of Art’s East Building, whose quirky trapezoidal shape and abundance of light has seen important infrastructural changes with the new renovations. With Pei’s original vision at the forefront of renovation initiatives, new skylights have been installed to both filter out paint-harming UV rays and restore the level of light within the building to what it was at its opening in 1978. New galleries have been installed, as well, to house the growing permanent collection and temporary exhibits that find themselves within the East Building.

“I’ve always found this building very uplifting and full of life. The architecture is very movement-oriented and the way the light enters the building is truly special,” says Susan Wartheim, Chief Architect, National Gallery of Art.

With the integrity of the building as a work of art in and of itself at the center of the renovations, the gallery has been transformed into a more technologically modern, accessible space.  In contrast to the symmetrical, rectangular galleries of the neoclassical West building, the dynamism of the East building provides open gallery spaces full of personality.  “As an architect, I think the architecture and the modern art really go well together,” says Wartheim, “there’s undeniably a conversation taking place between the East and the West [buildings]”. 

This conversation takes place between the art and architecture within the East building as well, with James McNeill Whistler’s white-clad muse in The Woman in White reminiscent of the light-filled  atrium just outside the three connecting rooms that make up the exhibition. “It’s very intriguing to put 19th century art in modern galleries like the East building because it gives [the public] a new perspective on how relevant they are to modern design and certainly that’s the case with this [exhibition], ” says Charles Brock, Associate Curator of The Woman in White exhibit.

Filled with ethereal white dresses and her signature wild red hair, The Woman in White, is Margaret Macdonald, Anne Dumas, and Charles Brock’s attempt to piece together the human behind Whistler’s depictions of Hiffernan and to explore the resonance of Whistler and Hiffernan’s collaboration for Victorian culture as a whole in the late 19th century. Posed just at the entrance to the exhibition, Hiffernan stares out at her voyeurs atop the menacing skin of a wolf in Symphony in White Number 1, the wild eyes of the dead animal at her feet seemingly acting as a vessel for whatever hidden emotions run beneath Hiffernan’s composed surface. Despite the curator’s best efforts, Joanna remains at arm’s length throughout the exhibition, which ends up revealing more about Whistler’s gaze than the subject herself.

The curators have done an excellent job at taking Whistler off his pedestal and asking questions about the nature of his relationship with Hiffernan throughout. The audience is included as an active investigator throughout the exhibit with wall texts urging us to consider Joanna Hiffernan beyond Whistler’s portrayals and to “discern a difference between the ‘real’ Hiffernan and a model playing a role” (wall text). Regardless of Whistler’s own reputation and importance within the world of art, the curators make it clear that none of his standings would be possible without his most important muse. 

Furthermore, once having seen what influence Hiffernan held in other impressionist and modern works of her time period, one can hardly help but ask how it is possible that so little is known, or available about her today. As part of the reclaiming of Hiffernan’s agency as a collaborator in Whistler’s art, the exhibition includes a dedicated wall containing quotes from DC area models that speak to the ironically anonymous position they hold within the world of art and creation. This through-line drawn to illustrate the continuity of the anonymity imposed upon Hiffernan despite her central role in the various artworks displayed throughout the exhibition is powerful, and draws on her historical position to inform viewers of the model’s silent role today. 

The collaboration between the stunning improvements to the East Building’s lighting and facilities, as well as MacDonald, Dumas, and Brock’s audience-centered investigative exhibition, results in the reclaiming of the East Building as a space made for congregation, a building with the enjoyment of its visitors at the forefront of its infrastructure. “To see [Hiffernan’s] image at such a large scale within the very modern spaces of the East Building speaks very eloquently to the point of the exhibition,” says Brock. 

The East Building’s wide open spaces, fascinating geometric layout, its natural feel brought forth through gentle sunlight, and the ficus trees planted into the ground all act in conversation with the modern and contemporary art housed within its walls, a conversation that places the audience and their participation as a key figure. The Woman in White is one of the first of its kind, an exhibition that encourages museum-goers to look past the supposed genius of its painter and instead take part in the search for humanity within the subjects of the paintings themselves.

DC-area art therapists explore ‘Resilience Through Art’ in online exhibit

by Dylan Klempner

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drive demand for mental health services, a DC-based group of art therapists is participating in an online exhibit that highlights the potential for cultivating resilience through art making. 

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 35.9% of adults in the District reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder in a survey conducted from Sept. 29 to Oct. 11, 2021. This figure is somewhat higher than the 31.6% of adults nationwide who reported these symptoms.

As the need for mental health support has grown, therapists themselves have also reported symptoms of burnout. Some concerned about increased demand on already-strained mental health professionals are labeling this “another pandemic mental health crisis” and are calling for changes in the nation’s mental health system, including added support for therapists.  

Amid these trends, art therapists in the greater Washington, DC, area are using an online art exhibit to build community and share personal examples of art’s therapeutic potential. 

Works by 25 art therapists are part of “Resilience Through Art in 2020 – 2021,” an online exhibit available on the website of the Potomac Art Therapy Association (PATA), a professional organization serving the Washington area. The group is a chapter of the national American Art Therapy Association (AATA) based in Alexandria, Virginia. 

An untitled work by Tyler Strusowski, president of the Potomac Art Therapy Association’s board, is part of the exhibit of works by 25 art therapists. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Strusowski)

Tyler Strusowski, president of PATA’s board, is one of the art therapists whose work is in the show. 

Prior to the pandemic, he had been working as an art therapist and artist-in-residence at the McClendon Center, which provides mental health services in DC and operates an art studio for its clients.

Tyler Strusowski

A month into the spring 2020 lockdowns, the DC-based art therapist remembers craving the art making he was missing. “When I was working at the McClendon Center, art was in my life, every day,” said Strusowski. “When we went into lockdown, it wasn’t.” 

Inspired by the tulips and poppies blooming in his Northeast DC neighborhood, Strusowski bought a large canvas and began collecting collage materials. 

While working on his piece at home, Strusowski learned that a client he had become close to had died. As he dealt with his feelings about her death, art making served a therapeutic role, he said. “I was mourning her through that process.” 

Art therapy defined

Research has confirmed the effectiveness of art therapy, a mental health profession that specifically integrates psychotherapy theories and practices with the intentional selection of art materials, according to Jordan Potash, associate professor in the Art Therapy Program at George Washington University. 

“With an art therapist, a substantial amount of time is going to be spent actually creating artwork,” said Potash.  

Making art during an art therapy session can help clients relax, a welcome contrast to how they might respond in a different context, said Tally Tripp, associate professor and founding director of the George Washington University Art Therapy Clinic in Alexandria, Virginia. 

“It doesn’t have quite the same stress involved in the purely verbal therapeutic relationship,” she said. 

Tripp said that some clients, especially those who have dealt with trauma, may have difficulty accessing words and emotions. Art making offers tools she can use as their therapist.

“We can work with clay or experiment with different kinds of media, and that’s going to promote a healing that is really strengths based,” Tripp said.

Tracy Councill, program director and co-founder of the DC-based nonprofit Tracy’s Kids, created prayer flags for the exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Councill)

Art therapy can help people cultivate resilience because it is an “active and engaged practice” that provides a sense of control, said Tracy Councill, program director and co-founder of the DC-based nonprofit Tracy’s Kids

“It puts you in a position of control. And that can be very meaningful to people in therapy,” she said. 

Like other mental health professionals, art therapists must undergo academic and clinical training before obtaining credentials to practice, said Potash. 

The Art Therapy Credentials Board, a group based in Greensboro, North Carolina, offers testing that leads to a national credential for art therapists. Practitioners may also need to pursue additional licensure in their home state. More than a dozen states, including Maryland and Delaware, have passed laws granting licensure specifically for art therapists, and DC recently followed suit.

“Licensure laws, in general, are there to protect the public,” said Potash, who serves as chair of PATA’s licensure committee. “Only somebody who has the unique education and qualifications of an art therapist will be able to call themselves an art therapist.” 

The Professional Art Therapist Licensure Amendment Act was signed into law in DC by Mayor Muriel Bowser in April 2020. The law, passed by the DC Council at PATA’s behest, lists qualifications and standards to practice as a professional art therapist in the District. 

Art therapy and resilience 

Councill said many art therapists use their personal art practices to process their own experiences. “In my work, there is a lot of sadness and loss, right, because I work with a lot of kids with serious illnesses.”

Tracy Councill

Though she rarely makes art directly about losing a patient or someone close to her, Councill has a “need to be creatively engaged. I need to have an arena in which I feel that sense of agency and that ability to respond and be resilient.”  

That’s the line of thinking that led Kelly Jacobs, PATA’s vice president of communications, to come up with the idea for the online art show. 

She said that as the shutdowns took hold, she tried to think of creative ways in which members could connect and share their artistic experiences without requiring a Zoom call. Together, she and her colleagues settled on the idea for the show’s title, which focuses on the idea of resilience. 

Jacobs said she heard from art therapists in the early days of the pandemic about the stress they were under, the challenges they faced, and the adaptations they made. 

“It was hard, but there was so much creativity that was happening. And that all seemed to just kind of relate to this idea of resilience,” said Jacobs. “Adapting, being creative, growing from the experience.”

For the artwork she submitted to the PATA art show, Tripp used a technique known as slow stitching, which emphasizes the use of needle and thread for art making rather than for their more practical purposes, such as mending. Tripp said the practice is good for stress reduction. “It was just a way to be focused and relaxed.”

Tally Tripp submitted her stitching project for the online exhibit. (Photo by Mark Morrow)

A half-century of art therapy in DC 

The history of art therapy locally goes back at least a half-century. In 1971, Bernard Levy and Elinor Ulman co-founded George Washington University’s Art Therapy Program, one of the nation’s first. 

The DC area has also been home to leading art therapy programs including Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense that began in 2004. 

Tracy’s Kids, a medical art therapy program for children dealing with cancer, had its start at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. The nonprofit now also supports seven other art therapy clinics at pediatric cancer hospitals, including Children’s National Hospital. 

Art therapy and the political sphere 

Art therapy has long enjoyed bipartisan backing from politicians and their families. 

Just a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hillary Rodham Clinton – then a newly elected New York senator – read a Congressional Record statement supporting art therapy as a mental health field. 

Marcelle Leahy, wife of Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, is a Tracy’s Kids board member, while Karen Pence, former Tracy’s Kids board member and former second lady, has played, perhaps, the most visible role in raising awareness about the field. 

Shortly after the inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2017, Pence announced that art therapy would be her signature cause. 

But many art therapists challenged the AATA’s willingness to embrace the second lady as an ally. In protest, more than 1,700 joined a Facebook group known as Art Therapists for Human Rights. 

“We demand that AATA respond to Karen Pence’s stated commitment to our field by asking her to publicly take action for the rights of … all people who are in danger as a result of the policies of the current administration,” reads a statement on the group’s page describing its mission during the Trump administration. 

Pence’s interest in art therapy prompted a lot of conversations among art therapists about government policies and other factors that impact their clients, Potash said. 

“Systemic racism takes a toll on clients and limits their ability to access services in ways that they can’t overcome on their own,” said Potash. In the years since Pence’s endorsement, he added, AATA has reviewed its policies and practices and looked “at how to make changes in the interest of equity and inclusion.” 

Art therapy and social justice

Potash uses art therapy to facilitate intergroup dialogue. Art therapists, he said, can play a meaningful role in supporting social justice and community development.

Art can help people visualize systemic injustices, said Potash. “But just showing them might not be enough.”

Art therapists, he explained, can help untrained audiences who may not have the skills to see meaning in a work of art — a role particularly valuable when it comes to getting a deeper understanding of artwork about injustices. 

“Art therapists can help to lead meaningful opportunities for viewers to really get a sense of what it is the artists are trying to convey,” he said. 

As a result of art therapists’ training in psychotherapy and group dynamics, they can also help people use art to communicate about their differences and come up with new policies and programs.

“Art therapists can also — using our skills in groups and whatnot — create art making opportunities where people come together to create art and to try to reimagine ways in which the world could be.” 

Participants at a workshop held as part of George Washington University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service were asked to create images of a personal experience that defined their social. cultural or political outlook. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Potash and Alberta Gyimah-Boadi)

Prior to the pandemic, Potash and a colleague, art therapist Alberta Gyimah-Boadi, led a series of intergroup dialogue workshops that incorporated art making at GW during its Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, as well as at public libraries in the District and in Virginia, they said. 

“We ask people to come and create art [based] on an experience from their life that has led them to their current political views,” said Potash. “The goal of this is to refocus people not so much on political debate, but that people’s perspectives come from somewhere.” 

Gyimah-Boadi said she and Potash were inspired by King’s teachings that encourage people to work together to fix a flawed system. The two of them asked participants to use art making to focus on one another’s stories rather than on their individual views.  

“People may see the issue differently,” said Gyimah-Boadi. “But at the bottom of it, there’s still an issue.” 

For PATA’s virtual show, several art therapists submitted artwork focused on social justice. 

Councill contributed three pieces titled “Prayer Flag Portraits” that depict the faces of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, whose deaths prompted massive Black Lives Matter protests around the world during the spring and summer of 2020. 

Councill, who attended some of the protests, said that the prayer flags are a form of personal expression. “They’re still hanging on the front of my house.” 

She also brought the art to work at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, the site of one of the Tracy’s Kids art therapy clinics. Many of the children being treated there are African American, she said. 

“I wanted to make it very, very clear to the kids and families that I work with, that I want to do everything I could to be present to them,” Councill said.

“The kids also made their own prayer flags about things that they were worried about during that time,” she said. Some made art about the protests, violence and the pandemic. 

For Strusowski, art making works therapeutically for him in multiple ways. “It becomes my way of processing things that happen and developing insights as to what my feelings actually are,” he said.

He described insights that arose during the spring of 2020 while he worked on his piece for the online exhibit. Through the art making process, Strusowski said he came to realize that despite being close to a client who died, his understanding of her life was limited. 

“I didn’t live their life. And I didn’t have the things that happened to her, happen to me,” Strusowski said. “And that’s kind of where I started to come to peace with the fact that I would never see her again.” 

Virtual exhibits transform traditional museum experience with longer exhibition times, interactive elements

By Roy Gao

This article was first published in The DC Line here. It was developed within Day Eight’s week-long, 2021 summer arts journalism institute.

With just the movement of a computer mouse, a silver pitcher covered with two winged camels and foliate patterns is viewable from all angles and at various scales. This Central Asian artifact, made in the late seventh or early eighth century A.D., is just one of numerous 3D items that visitors can access through a National Museum of Asian Art virtual exhibition. The museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is far from alone in having launched virtual exhibits at a time when the pandemic kept museums and galleries from fully reopening.

Even as DC art institutions like the National Museum of African Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery have gradually reopened their doors to the public, not everyone is ready to head downtown, particularly with the rise in COVID-19 cases due to the spread of the delta variant. Luckily, the city’s museums have adapted over the past year to offer an equally valuable experience through online exhibitions. Antonietta Catanzariti, assistant curator for the ancient Near East at the National Museum of Asian Art, notes that visitation to their website has doubled in the past year, and remains high even as the museum and others have reopened.

That’s hardly surprising. “Virtual exhibitions are similar to physical exhibitions, often capitalizing on the web’s capacity for a personalized experience in which the user directs their own journey,” wrote Ngaire Blankenberg in her 2014 book Manual of Museum Exhibitions. (Blankenberg, formerly a cultural consultant, became director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in July.)

Here are examples of what you can find online from three DC museums: 

National Museum of Asian Art (formerly the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

The Sogdians: Influencers on the Silk Roads, curated by the National Museum of Asian Art, has been open since 2019. With no specified end date, this timeframe is rare for physical exhibitions, which are usually open for weeks or months. 

Kimon Keramidas, New York University professor of digital humanities and a curator of the show, said digital exhibitions can usually last for five to six years before advances in technology lead to complications. Even then, however, they can still be updated and recovered.

Digital exhibitions also allow for the display of artifacts that might not otherwise have been available. The curators of the Sogdians exhibition, for instance, decided to go digital due to challenging geopolitical circumstances, according to Keramidas: The trade embargoes that followed Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 prevented important collections from loaning objects.

The exhibition is packed with about 700 pieces of material, including 3D models, images, custom maps, drone footage and more. The exhibit’s subject matter is similarly rich in diversity. 

Julian Raby, director emeritus of the museum, calls the Sogdians an “underestimated” people. They were an ethnic group that lived in the first millennium A.D., occupying a vast terrain of Eurasia and significantly shaping Silk Roads culture and commerce. As merchants, craftsmen and entertainers, the Sogdians lived and traveled everywhere from China to the lands of the Byzantine Empire. 

In one section of the virtual exhibition, the visitor follows a historical trade route and sees a moving map, photographs of the terrain, and text describing each location. Unlike maps on gallery walls that could be easily overlooked, here the geographic tour takes center stage in the experience. 

“There is a sense of immediate rapport that could be quite powerful,” Raby said in an interview.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery

Hirshhorn Museum’s Lost in Place: Voyages in Video debuted in May 2021 as a direct response to the pandemic, which the exhibition text states had “greatly diminished our radius of movement — collapsing home, office, and school into a single location — and recalibrated our sense of personal boundaries.” Drawn from the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection, the digital exhibition brought together 11 videos by contemporary artists from around the world. They were each made available for viewing in sequential and overlapping four-week spans, with the last one accessible through Aug. 20.

One of the videos, Laure Prouvost’s Swallow, inundates the viewer’s eyes and ears with a sensual intimacy that is almost unsettling. While following a group of nude bathers in a stream, Prouvost’s camera fades in and out of extreme close-ups on body parts, flapping fish, and crushed berries. This all occurs while recurrent sounds of breathing and shots of an open mouth span the entirety of the video’s run. After a year of Zoom-room socializations, such sudden closeness with bodies and nature is especially striking.

Purchase Fund, 2008 (Photo courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

Among the other featured videos were Pierre Huyghe’s One Million Kingdoms, starring a digital avatar traversing a lunar landscape generated by her voice; the artist collective Superflex’s Flooded McDonald’s, a meditation on the fast-food restaurant chain’s material footprint that depicts a kitchen slowly filled with 20,000 gallons of water; Carlos Amorales’ Dark Mirror, featuring animations of wolves, bears, falling airplanes, and other images evocative of danger; and Guido van der Werve’s Nummer Negen (#9): The Day I Didn’t Turn with the World, a time lapse of the geographic North Pole, where the artist stood for 24 hours facing away from the sun.

National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA)

The NMWA’s online exhibitions, which are running indefinitely, mimic carefully crafted walking tours. They employ sequences of web pages that are as immersive as museum displays, which viewers navigate with their mouse and arrow keys.

The first online exhibition curated by the museum is the ongoing show A Global Icon: Mary in Context, which launched in 2015. The featured sculptures and paintings of the Virgin Mary come from Europe as well as Japan, Ethiopia, Mexico and more. With each page turn, the web window can zoom into a detail of the work or present an explanatory video that highlights the various contexts in which the biblical figure Mary appears.

The same kind of seamless passage from content to content characterizes NMWA’s newer exhibitions, like Ambreen Butt — Mark My Words, which launched last year and interlaces videos of her work process with displays of her paintings, prints and collages.

In June 2020, the museum redesigned its website to host its online exhibitions as part of an ongoing effort to enhance its digital platform. Laura Hoffman, the director of digital engagement, explained that the pandemic had prompted discussions in the field about what a museum experience without physical access ought to look like. 

With NMWA undergoing a major two-year renovation as of Aug. 9, Hoffman said the pandemic provided a useful — and timely — opportunity to explore the museum’s digital capabilities leading up to its temporary closure.

“The pandemic almost felt like a test run for all the digital possibilities there are,” Hoffman said.

Roy Gao was born in Boston, MA, but grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and in Beijing, China. Before college, he lived in and studied in both the United States and China. Roy received his bachelor’s degree in 2021, from the University of Pittsburgh, with a double major in Art History and Philosophy. For the fall, he has been admitted to the Master’s program in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2020, Roy was a top-ranked applicant for the Fine Foundation Fellowship at the Carnegie Museum of Art (before the fellowship was cancelled due to COVID-19). He was the curator of “Footsteps” at the China Millennium Monument in 2019, and co-curator of “This Is Not Ideal: Gender Myths and Their Transformation” held at the University Art Gallery of the University of Pittsburgh in 2018.

The Butch Boudoir Project is a Platform for Butch People to Be Unapologetically Themselves

By Clare Mulroy 

This article was first published March 29, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Though Gabby Horner has been “out” for over 20 years, she didn’t truly find herself until about five years ago. In the time since she’s been more comfortable identifying as butch, she’s made waves with the Butch Boudoir Project, a movement to empower butch and masculine people across gender identities.

The Butch Boudoir Project began two years ago as a photoshoot with photographer Graciela Valdes to expand the traditionally feminine concept of boudoir photos modeled by Horner herself. The revelation came when she was looking for inspiration on Pinterest and found virtually nothing.

“I can’t find butch women doing anything other than completely fully dressed, or they look like MMA fighters,” says Horner. She adds, “If I couldn’t really find anything on Google, it’s not enough.”

It was then that Horner and Valdes realized this was much bigger than just one photoshoot. The “impressive” reaction made her realize that butch visibility needed a bigger platform. Her next endeavor was an Instagram account for the project.

“The only thing I had access to was myself, [so] the only thing I could do was continue to showcase myself,” she explains. “So I started pushing myself and my boundaries to take more photos of my daily life.”

But from the moment the project became more than just one photography session, Horner knew it had to be bigger than just herself. She gathered a group of friends, known affectionately as the #ButchCrew, for another photoshoot set in a barber shop. In between haircuts and a candidly-shot game of pool, Horner says the “butch siblinghood” was powerful.

“That’s insanely underrepresented. I think it tears down toxic masculinity that is sadly common that a lot of butch people feel intimidated by other butch people,” says Horner. She adds, “Those types of toxic concepts are totally shattered if you can get a group of us together, hanging out, being friends.”

Now with over 3,000 followers on Instagram, the Butch Boudoir Project has become a hub for virtual discussions and questions. The questions have ranged from a humorous “Are you single?” to inquiries about how to best support butch people in your life.

“I thought about butch visibility, I thought about being able to see people like me,” she explains. “But I did not think about people who are attracted to butch people having questions and needing to see that representation as well.”

By nature, this is a particularly personal project for Horner, who is a graphic designer by trade and the co-founder and vice chair of Ignite Community Services.

Horner identified as a “tomboy” at a young age but struggled with how her discomfort with femininity fit in with her gender identity.

“I thought you couldn’t be a girl and also want those things,” Horner says. “I firmly identify with being a woman, and that’s not a question for me, but I don’t identify with being feminine.”

That changed when she found other people who celebrate masculinity within their womanhood and individuals who prefer gender-neutral terms. Now, at 35, Horner says it’s an indescribable feeling when someone tells her she’s handsome.

Next year, she is looking forward to creating a calendar featuring the growing #ButchCrew. The Butch Boudoir Project will likely expand to more in-person conversations when the coronavirus pandemic ends. However, the virtual community they have online is something she never wants to abandon.

“Those conversations are also a big deal, they’re important,” says Horner.

Ahead of the Curve is the Story of Franco Stevens, Curve Magazine, and Lesbian Visibility

By Clare Mulroy

This article was first published March 17, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here

Jen Rainin had no directing experience before taking on Ahead of the Curve, but she knew it was a story she had to tell.

Her wife, Frances “Franco” Stevens, the founder of Curve Magazine, told stories over the years — taking out a dozen credit cards and betting on horses to come up with money for the magazine. She won three times and used her winnings to launch Curve Magazine (formerly Deneuve) in 1991.

Armed with these stories and a garage full of archives from Stevens’ life, Rainin spent the next three years making the documentary, which is set for its worldwide premiere on Apple TV and Amazon Prime on June 1.

“As I was researching for it, I realized how little our history as queer women has been documented,” she explains. “I realized I actually think I owe it to the community to tell this story first as a nonfiction film.”

Rainin says the best part of creating Ahead of the Curve was learning about her wife through the eyes of those who knew her decades before the two met.

“She has such trust in me. She knew that I was going to tell a balanced and fair and honest story,” Rainin says. “She’s a badass, but she’s a flawed human, like everybody, and she wanted people to see that.”

The filming and post-production process had its own plot twists, however. During filming, Stevens received an email from the current owner of Curve Magazine saying that the magazine might not be able to survive another year. Stevens sold the magazine in 2010 after a disabling injury.

The coronavirus pandemic also modified the film’s festival circuit. The crew was set for a grand debut at The Castro Theatre in San Francisco for Frameline44, but when in- person events closed, co-director and producer Rivkah Beth Medow suggested changing the event to a drive-in screening. The event was held on the day originally slated for Dyke March, and the audience rolled up decked out in pride and protest gear.

“We’re focused on making sure that our historical stories and our present-day stories are told and shouted from the rooftops,” Rainin says.

PBS Spotlights Local Black Artists in New Documentary, Kindred Spirits

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 4, 2021 in The DC Line here.

When documentary filmmaker Cintia Cabib was showcasing two films at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.’s 2014 conference on local history, she spotted an intriguing painting of the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and 3rd Street NW while perusing a small brochure. The modernist, geometric red hues of homes lining the LeDroit Park street and a gleaming, leafless tree bisecting the frame compelled Cabib to explore the work of the artist, Hilda Wilkinson Brown.

Years of research culminated in a new documentary produced and directed by Cabib called Kindred Spirits: Artists Hilda Wilkinson Brown and Lilian Thomas Burwell. The short film is being broadcast locally by PBS stations WHUT and MPT on Feb. 4 and by WETA’s World Channel on Feb. 10. PBS stations around the country have scheduled airings of the film for Black History Month programming.

The film rediscovers Brown, a mid-20th-century artist who painted DC’s neighborhoods and scenery; was a professor at Miner Teachers College in DC at a time when schools were segregated; and influenced her niece, Lilian Thomas Burwell, to become an artist as well.

Hilda Wilkinson Brown’s “Third and Rhode Island,” oil on canvas, is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as a gift of Lilian Thomas Burwell. (Image courtesy of Lilian Thomas Burwell)

In the film, Burwell, now 93 years old, recalls the life and artistry of her aunt and talks about growing up in DC — struggling against segregation and discrimination as she pursued her own abstract expressionist art career.

Cabib said her goal with this film was to bring both women’s art into public view. Brown has pieces in collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her piece Third and Rhode Island, which initially caught Cabib’s eye, is part of a traveling exhibit by the Smithsonian. Burwell is opening a new exhibit of her abstract pieces in the Berry Campbell Gallery in New York City in April.

Cabib believes both women deserve more credit, especially during Black History Month.

“I hope [the film] makes people think about other Black artists,” Cabib said. “Who else has been unrecognized? Who else is out there?”

The influence that Brown and Burwell had in nurturing Black artists still resonates in DC’s artistic space. As an educator, Brown encouraged many Black women to pursue careers despite discriminatory and segregationist barriers. Burwell also taught art for years, building on the legacy of her aunt. Alongside its exploration of these women’s histories, Cabib’s film also details the stories of the historic Black institutions and neighborhoods that shaped their artwork.

The documentary shows that Brown’s work was celebrated in the Barnett Aden Gallery, the nation’s first Black, privately owned gallery. It opened in LeDroit Park as an integrated art space and after World War II became primarily an exhibitor for Black artists who were rejected from white-owned galleries. Cabib said she wanted to feature the history of the LeDroit Park neighborhood, which was bursting with Black creatives like Brown, scientists, civil rights activists and more.

Documentary filmmaker Cintia Cabib interviews Lilian Thomas Burwell at her home in Highland Beach, Maryland. (Photo by John Z. Wetmore courtesy of Cintia Cabib)

Brown’s artwork was featured during her lifetime in The Crisis, the official NAACP publication founded by W.E.B. Du Bois, and The Brownies’ Book, the first magazine for Black children.

“It’s important to recognize the opportunities Black people made for themselves and each other after they’d been denied,” Cabib said.

The documentary was an official selection of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival and has been shown locally at events like the DC Black Film Festival and Alexandria Film Festival

Cabib was able to host one in-person screening of Kindred Spirits at the Avalon Theatre in March 2020, just before DC declared a public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The film was shown to high school students, and Cabib said she was encouraged by the attendees’ questions and engagements with the film and history. At subsequent virtual screenings, Cabib said Lilian was able to join discussions and share more of her story with audiences. 

Cabib’s story came full circle in November when she showcased her film virtually at the 2020 DC History Conference, bringing Brown’s and Burwell’s stories into focus — not just in a brochure, but on screen.

Breaking Gender Norms: Mainstream Invisibility of Black LGBTQ Fashion

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published January 28, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

When Harry Styles graced Vogue’s pages in a floor-length, faded blue gown in early November, social media and pop culture discourse erupted. Most fans were elated and praised Styles for his consistent disregard for gendered, masculinized fashion. In the interview, Styles says, “There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never thought too much about what it means.”

On the other side were people like Candace Owens, a politically conservative author, who ridiculed the end of “manly men” in a tweet that targeted Styles’ cover. Owens later went on to say during an Instagram livestream that she loved the dress, but that Harry didn’t look feminine, but just “stupid.”

Does breaking gender fashion norms contribute to a liberation of gender identities? When we ask questions like these, we seem to be focusing on white, cis-gendered celebrities, bestowing them praise and recognition for their one-night-only red carpet designs that bend fashion rules. It’s just enough to capture attention, but not enough to make anyone uncomfortable.

During the 2019 Golden Globes, actor Timothee Chalamet wore a glittering harness and received much love for embracing a feminine silhouette. At the same event, Julia Roberts wore pants (with a golden train skirt) and was met with equal attention for going after a masculine-type style.

Someone who consistently raises eyebrows for gender-breaking fashion is actor Billy Porter. He’s graced red carpets in dresses, skirts, feathers, sequins, and glitter. His outfits mix fabrics, colors, and shapes, and people always commend his style. However, the same praise for breaking norms isn’t always applied. No Twitter trends are amplified or debates started over his fashion, like what happened with Harry Styles.

Do we only give praise to straight celebrities who break from the binary of fashion when it’s unexpected? What about those who make it their mission to disregard gender when it comes to fashion?

We expect queer people to dress exuberantly, flamboyantly, outrageously, because the identities of LGBTQ people are also often viewed as “other.” When straight people adopt the fashion standards LGBTQ people created, they receive praise while Black, queer people are overlooked. They are not seen as the revolutionary icons that they truly are.

Paris Is Burning, the amazing documentary that glimpses briefly into the lives of many Black drag queens and queer men in the 1970s New York ballroom scene, showcases that gender bending fashion is not the product or brainchild of influential white celebrities but of less fortunate yet imaginatively creative and resourceful young Black people competing for recognition and self-identification.

One notable figure in Black queer history and in fashion was Dorian Corey who stars in Paris Is Burning.

When talking about fashion in the film, Corey says, “Black people have a hard time getting anywhere, and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive. You’re showing the straight world that, ‘I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because I can look like one,’ and that is like a fulfillment.”

Over decades, Black women have been the ones altering fashion trends. Starting in the 1930s, Josephine Baker embraced feminine glamour while also trending towards clothes that emphasized her boyish facial features. In the 1940s, blues icon Gladys Bentley, who openly shared her queer identity, dressed often in pantsuits and top hats for performances, though she rarely received the red carpet credit for breaking the rules that white celebrities constantly get today. Androgynous style is still empowered by Black stars like Janet Jackson and Rihanna.

When Rihanna began her own fashion lingerie company, Fenty, she became the first Black woman in charge of a major luxury fashion house. In an interview with the New York Times, she catalogued her simplistic view of fashion: “It’s sweatpants with pearls, or a masculine denim jacket with a corset. I feel like we live in a world where people are embracing every bit of who they are.”

That idea, of embracing yourself, despite racial discrimination or gender boundaries, is why so many Black LGBTQ people use fashion to rebuke gender binary ideologies in culture. It’s not about being reviewed on a red carpet look but about finding an authentic self.

Black gay designer Willi Smith is constantly overlooked for his Philadelphia-based fashion that introduced the concept of streetwear in the late 70s. His styles embraced varied body types, average fabrics, and mixed patterns to encourage the everyday lay person to break gender binaries in fashion.

Today, a Los Angeles brand named No Sesso, which translates from Italian to “No Sex,” embraces agender fashion styles. Designed by Pierre Davis, who is a Black trans woman, these styles upcycle fabric that can fit any body, as long as it makes them happy.

Black LGBTQ designers have been and continue to be critical in expanding the fashion industry into one that allows white men like Harry Styles to wear dresses and receive praise. It’s encouraging that celebrities across race or gender identities are expanding their closets and bending gender norms, but the constant recognition of their images rather than the hard work and legacies of LGBTQ individuals, primarily Black people, jeopardizes any actuality of allowing fashion to be truly non-binary or racially conscious.