Growing Up Queer in the South pic

Growing Up Queer in the South is an exhibit at the Greenville Museum of Art from June 3 through Sept. 24.

In an effort to celebrate southern queer culture, the Greenville Museum of Art (GMoA) debuted a brand new exhibit, Growing Up Queer in the South, on June 3 which will be open through Sept. 24. 

The opening reception, held from 5 to 8 p.m., featured prominent members of the community and had a turnout of over 200 people. The GMoA gave out artist awards and had a performance by local Drag queens. The reception featured many of the artists with pieces in the exhibit. 

Parks McAllister, guest curator for the exhibit, said he came up with the title of the exhibit as a way to reflect on how states such as North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Texas and others throughout the American South shapes queer youth and the adults they become.

He said the artists in this show are from all over the South and are from all backgrounds and walks of life. Some are young artists still honing their craft, some do art full time, and other pieces came from professors, self-taught folks and two ECU students, McAllister said, representing queer artists who deserve to take up space in a place like a museum.

“There were no limitations to what could be submitted when we called for artists. It had to have some association with growing up queer in the South, however queer relates to you and however the South relates to you,” McAllister said. “I just recently moved, but I had spent my entire life in the American South. I loved it, but I think we see on a daily basis what needs to change and queerness in the American South feels so different.”

A gallery owner in New York City, McAllister said he grew up in Monroe, North Carolina. He is a member of the LGBTQ+ community and said he has been working toward the gallery opening since 2019. He said his original vision was to have a truck that would exhibit a mobile show focusing on the queer community and planned to drive to different southern states to be a completely accessible art show on wheels. However, he said this was not possible due to the pandemic. 

In March 2021, McAllister said he had a contact at the GMoA who was fully supportive of the show and wanted to take it on as a four month long exhibit. He said the opening of the exhibit has been an amazing opportunity and that it feels even more special to have it debut in his home state. 

McAllister said the art exhibit is a way for people to approach the queer community and interact with the expressions of their identities in a reflective way. He said he hopes to see people stop and take a second to listen, learn and grow. 

“Historically, southern people who have been here for generations and don’t know much past their own and their own families, but I feel also tend to be cis(gendered)-het(erosexual) white people, is also the majority here,” McAllister said. “I am a firm believer that art is such a special way to create safe conversation. And to be able to bring people in and converse on a topic that needs to change, without it seeming like a protest or something that is in their face.”

Trista Reis Porter, executive director of the GMoA, said the call for artist submissions went out in January 2022 with over 200 artists sending in submissions. She said there are 43 artists included in the catalog that highlights the background of the artists, sold for $15 at the show. 

Porter said the queer community and the power of social media created a huge response to the exhibit, specifically with the help of East Carolina University’s Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ center. She said the center posted about the exhibit on social media and got over 2,000 shares, peaking the interest of art councils across the South. 

“I really wanted to get a wide variety of media. A really diverse group of artists from multiple southern states is kind of what I was looking for, so multiple kinds of diversity, all kinds of different pronouns, different ways that people relate to the LGBTQ+ community and different ethnic backgrounds and training,” Porter said. “I was just looking for a strong group of work that Parks or I had responded to.”

This is the first time the GMoA has participated in an exhibit like this, but Porter said it will not be the last. She said exhibitions like Growing Up Queer in the South are important to represent the movement forward for the museum and the queer community. She said celebrating this kind of diversity and inclusion helps people feel seen and gives them a space to be themselves.

Creating a public queer space can often offend people, Porter said, as she has already received some negative comments from older folks in Greenville. But, Porter said she hopes people can come to this exhibit and pause to think about their negative assumptions and react in a more positive way.  

“Part of the actual mission statement, part of some of our vision and goals for the (GMoA) museum is to create a space that forces people to think about themselves in relation to the world and people around them, but also thinking about other people's experiences,” Porter said. “I think that really goes hand in hand with Greenville with the newly established Pride festivals and creating this public space where the queer community can really be themselves.”

The focus of the exhibit on the art, the artists, and their story was reflected in the pieces, Porter said, some with many interactive components. 

Porter said the focus on queer people and queer people of color from throughout various southern states creates a unique intersectional space that allows people to really understand one another.

“Art is a way for people to express themselves in spaces, not necessarily like museum spaces. Although it's definitely true that those museums' spaces have not historically celebrated or created space specifically for this identity,” Porter said. “All art is really a form of meditation, communication and therapy. I think for a lot of people and just having that kind of space to communicate and express oneself, it's really important.

Mark Rasdorf, director of the Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center at ECU, said he just recently joined the board of the GMoA. Rasdorf said he was unaware of the exhibit when he joined the GMoA board, but was excited to learn about an exhibit that represents his own line of work.

Rasdorf said he posted the call for submission on the LGBTQ center’s Facebook page that was shared over 2,000 times, but by Facebook metrics reached 256,000 people. He said supporting queer artists in an exhibit that focuses on their upbringing in the South creates an opportunity to reach people far beyond Greenville, North Carolina. 

“I mean first and foremost, I think one of the primary ideas about diversity, equity and inclusion work is that representation matters, right? So I think one of the significant factors about this exhibit is that we see our lives in this art, in an exhibit focused on queer identities which to my knowledge, is the first kind of exhibit like this in the history of the museum. I don't think it's been done before,” Rasdorf said. 

The unique experience of identifying as LGTBQ while growing up in the South is an experience people around the United States can recognize, Rasdorf said, though the challenges of bias, prejudice and discrimation are felt across the country. He said the opening of the exhibit is a perfect way to welcome Pride Month. 

Rasdorf said the feelings of isolation and loneliness that accompany queer folks growing up in the South has historically led to high suicide and depression rates. He said he hopes an exhibit like this can represent queer lives in their truth to dispel the homophobia and transphobia fueling the legislation working against gender affirming care and queer education.

The usage of the word “queer” in the title of the exhibit shows the shifting language that accompanies an evolving community like the LGBTQ+ community, Rasdorf said. He said the word was originally something that was used to ridicule queer people, but has been reclaimed as as a term that is positive and acts as an umbrella for the entire LGBTQ+ community. 

“One person can be the lifeline for a queer kid that's looking for support and faces isolation, loneliness and depression,” Rasdorf said. “So when you have these tangible resources like the materials and the programming (at the LGBTQ center) and the lending library with over 1,300 titles or an exhibit such as the one that's happening at the Greenville Museum of Art on Friday. Again, it's just an opportunity for people to see themselves and feel like, ‘I'm not alone. My life matters,’”

Andy Marlowe, who goes by they/them pronouns, is a junior fine arts, studio art and creative writing major at Florida State University, who has a piece in the exhibit. They said they drove up nine hours from Tallahassee, FL for the exhibit and did not know what to expect and were surprised and excited to see the crowd for the opening reception. 

Marlowe said they found out about the exhibit through their local arts council and jumped on the opportunity. Despite being from Florida, they said the northern part of the state closely resembles the South, especially in terms of culture and expectations.

“It feels amazing to have a space to show something. To have an exhibit like this growing up, it would have felt really illuminating. So much of my life I have been searching for people like me, like a kinship and I have queer people in my family, but no one could kind of understand the trans experience,” Marlowe said. “Growing up, especially with gender identities somewhere in the mix, the representation didn't exist anywhere, especially in fine art.”

Fifth grader Kipo LaBell, who uses he/they pronouns, attended the exhibit with their mother, Rachel LaBell, who said she saw the exhibit and thought it was important to bring Kipo to see people who could relate to them and see the supportive environment that exists even in the South. 

Kipo said he liked the art and thought it was very pretty. They said that they are looking to see a community who looks like them and bring education and awareness to people like their mom who are still looking for ways to better understand and support queer people. 

“It's important to know that you are supported, even in a tiny community. We are in the South, I mean that's obvious,” Kipo said. “With all the homophobia and racism, you need to understand that there are people who will support you and that there are people that are like you there.”

The GMoA gave out awards to select artists based on the artists background and art piece and its application to the title “Growing Up Queer in the South.” These artists were chosen for their artwork and their story out of the 200 submissions for the exhibit as displaying excellent craftsmanship and a reflection of identity, community and queerness. 

First through third place artists awards, as well as honorable mentions are as follows:

Artist Awards

First Place: Kesha Lagniappe. (2018). 97 [fiber and embroidery]

Second Place: Cher Musico (2019). Trans Lives 2019 [embroidery thread, cotton fabric, medical gauze, tape]

Third Place: Sam Drake. (2020). Transcend [mixed media]

Honorable Mentions

Jacob O’Kelley. (2022). John 8:12 [chair, magazine, bible, light] and Untitled [found drawers, clothing, magazines, diary, light]

Stefani Byrd. (2005). The Paper Bag Project: Stephanie [c-type print on sentra, audio player] and The Paper Bag Project: George [c-type print on sentra, audio player]

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