Sunday, October 30, 2011

Jersey Juxtapositions: Jersey Artists' Art Makes LGBT History

Jersey Juxtapositions: Jersey Artists Use Art as a Vessel to Navigate the Trouble Waters of the Fight for Equal Rights and Make (LGBT) History

October is LGBT history month, yet not many are aware of it. Even more, not many are aware of the recent LGBT history, rich in events that have shaped our lives. Recent LGBT history has redefined our existence in our very lifetime. After all, the 1969 Stonewall Riots are part of our recent history. Many individuals who experienced the beginning of the gay liberation movement are still here to tell the story. The same can be said about events surrounding prominent members of the community—Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, Lawrence King—or the continuing fight for equal rights.

Nowadays, a majority of individuals supports same-sex marriages. More and more universities and colleges are offering LGBT studies programs through which they help bring the LGBT history to the forefront.

Why is it important to know our LGBT history?

First of all, because it is part of history; most importantly, it is part of our living history, because we are still “making” it in our very lifetime.  Also, it is important to know our LGBT history and its heroes—those sung and unsung—to realize that, at the core, we are all the same—we all yearn for our liberties and freedoms, for our equal rights, for a more understanding and compassionate world. 

This “same” can come in different flavors, reason why we experience different kinds of LGBT rights celebrations, specific to particular regions of the country—and the world—to better connect with individuals living in those places.  In that sense, the now widely acclaimed ay pride parade that started on Christopher Street transcended not only the country and continent, but also the entire world. One cannot expect the New York City Pride to be identical with the Hamburg Pride (Germans call it CSD, or Christopher Street Day, after Manhattan’s Christopher Street); one cannot expect the more local Jersey Pride Fest to be the same with those in Middle America, where they put up picnic tables for the event. Regardless of the setting, the pride parade is a manifestation of LGBT activism, an expression of LGBT history in the making.

To better understand LGBT history at a national (and, dare I say, international) level, one needs to start by learning his/her local LGBT history. This can be achieved through related events, LGBT activism or by supporting an LGBT-related local non-profit. Art opens yet another path, one that gives learning about LGBT history a more creative spin. In the process, art becomes a guide to an artistic activism for many creative individuals. …And Jersey has plenty of those. 

3 Little Indians, by Dion Hitchings
Dion Hitchings, for example, is a talented artist who started drawing at an early age. He worked as an art director for Manhattan companies with well-known names. For a while he was, as Hitchings mentions on his website, “in fashion heaven.” But then things changed… 9/11 happened and he was laid off; he also lost his significant other in a car accident. In the midst of it all, Hitchings moved from New York City to New Jersey. The move gave a new direction not only to his life, in general, but also to his artwork and the creative process through which he makes it happen. 

As a result, Hitchings started to reprioritize his life. He took up painting again—he draws a self-portrait each day, just “to keep up the discipline and grow” in his art.

One of his most representative pieces is President Obama’s portrait, for which he used crayons, magic markers and highlighters, on eight different layers. He explains the painting as his “reaction to this fear,” to the fear we’ve all felt during the economic downturn we’re still experiencing. The creative process did help the artist get the fear out of his system.

He also loves drawing Native Americans, maybe because the artist is part Cherokee. Hence the art series called Ten Little Indians, a collection of Indian portraits. “Do you know that [Native Americans] accepted their gays”? he asks.  [The Cherokee term for LGBT means “two spirit.”]

Dion Hitchings calls his art “primitive, child-like,” inspired by the world around him, including Jerry Springer shows.  “I spell everything out,” Hitchings describes his artwork, “I don’t hide, because it shows you why I’m who I am.”

Living in New Jersey has helped Hitchings redefine himself as an artist; also as the owner of Outsider Gallery and publisher of artsy SIC semi-annual magazine. Hitchings explains that the jersey element in his art life and his life, in general, comes through three-fold: his “first nest” is his home, which he shares with his new partner; his second nest is his studio with a gallery in front. Opening the Outsider Gallery has allowed the artist to connect with local residents, meet people and other artists; make friends. This connection represents his “third nest.”

“The openings are fantastic,” Hitchings says, talking with much pride about Outsider Gallery. “Art is an education for kids.” In that sense, Hitchings is drawn to children’s art, because it allows unrestricted artistic and spiritual growth. Living in Jersey has helped Dion Hitchings tap into his own unlimited artistic resources and, through his gallery and artwork, create a sample of a better, more understanding world.

James Yarosh, a Self-Portrait
Jersey has offered artist James Yarosh a larger canvas on which he can create. An example is his recent show, exhibited in the window of a main street in downtown Red Banks. A Family Portrait allowed Yarosh the freedom to be “vulnerable and sensitive to all the subtleties of [his] subjects.” Working on the show also allowed the artist to discover his subjects’ truths and paint these truths on canvas, thus see the lifetime of experiences of the individual sitting across from him, “with empathy.” A Family Portrait included a self-portrait, as part of the five personal and psychological paintings, a portrait of his partner of 18 years, also of his parents and a former stray cat, Ilean. 

James Yarosh has always seen art as a “symbol of hope and beauty to believe in, despite what the world seems to want to serve up on any given day.” For him “art is both humbling and inspiring, and certainly a noble profession.”

Art is a profession Yarosh embraced years ago, while in his twenties, as a painter. He opened his gallery at the age of 29. The venue allowed him to spent the next decade of his life growing as an artist, while combining art with interior design. In that sense, when he looks at a room he sees a larger empty canvas on which he can create his art. “I always thought homes should be very personal,” Yarosh explains, “almost a diary of our lives.” He finds artist’s homes in particular interesting, because they represent artist’s feelings and understanding of the world.

Miguel Cardenas
Jersey is also home for artist Miguel Cardenas. He and his partner of 16 years, Paul Mendoza, are fixtures in the local LGBT community, and also in the artist community. 

Cardenas is the founder of Vital Voices, an art show featuring works from LGBT and LGBT-friends artists, now in its ninth year.  “What supports our mission more than that?” he asks, more rhetorically, talking about the show opening this year at Hudson Pride Connection Center in Jersey City, first weekend of October.

But what mission is he talking about? LGBT activism? LGBT history awareness?

When it comes to activism, Cardenas leans more towards the artistic aspect of it, one that allows people to gather together and celebrate, for example LGBT history month. This way, art becomes an intrinsic part of the local Jersey City activism, giving it a sense.

Hope, by Miguel Cardenas
While working in architecture, Cardenas’ background is in art history. Blend the two together and you’re offered a glimpse inside Cardenas’ art world—a world of juxtapositions capturing an artistic interpretation of our reality.

Juxtaposition has always been an intrinsic part of Cardenas’ artwork, of his everyday life. “Juxtaposition is a movement,” Miguel Cardenas explains. “I live it—I’m Ivy League, I’m Catholic, I’m gay. I work in Manhattan and live in Jersey City.” Cardenas doesn’t stop at the local juxtapositions, though. He finds a source of inspiration in the Cuban paradox world--the reality of the situation in that country and the heaven-like, imaginary pleasure land sometimes depicted in movies. This juxtaposition strikes a personal memory in the artist, his mother being Cuban.

Sticks, by Miguel Cardenas
Cardenas has used juxtaposition as a source of inspiration for his artwork. As a result, some of his art pieces blending graffiti and Matthew Sheppard, or old and young drag queens, were featured in this year’s Fresh Fruit Festival art show, Bright Lights, Queer City, at Leslie-Lohman SoHo gallery.

Cardenas likes the in-between-ness because, he explains, “we are all in between. I don’t see myself moving away from the idea of in-between-ness,” Miguel Cardenas adds. “The medium is changing, though. Subject matter can change over time.”

In today’s digital world, artists can use iconic images to teach, for example about LGBT history. “The youth of today don’t know the LGBT history,” Cardenas comments, “and it’s very recent history.  It’s for us to spread the word.” Cardenas comments that young individuals, today, don’t know how lucky they are to have gay pride, which the artist calls “a big party [and also] a civil act, a political act.”

Art can be a venue for politics. Art can break down the stereotypes. It can become a vessel to navigate the trouble waters of today’s fight for equality.

To read more about Dion Hitchings, James Yarosh and Miquel Cardenas, check out the October issue of Out IN Jersey Magazine.
As always, thanks for visiting!
Alina Oswald