Art and Activism
My military family moved more times than I can recall, bouncing around the world frequently with aplomb. My fun loving parents spent weekends exploring new cultures, embracing opportunities to expose their daughters to local customs, sights and food. By example they taught us to value all human beings and to embrace the unique attributes of those who are different. I believe my work as a fine arts photographer is deeply affected by those youthful experiences. Working in series, I create images of individuals within a group, compiling a mosaic that represents both diversity and shared humanity. My work is regularly included in exhibitions at Art Museums and is represented in major museum, corporate and private collections. But it is what happens outside museum walls that I am most proud of.
Just As I Am: Americans with Disabilities
In 1995 I created a short series of portraits of people with disabilities that was exhibited at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI). The images caught the attention of a publisher and became a larger group of 40 portraits in the book, Just As I am: Americans with Disabilities, with an essay by my friend, psychologist Dr. Ellen Dossett. It won a first place Independent Publisher’s Award and the Gustav Meyers award from Boston University for books that affect social change. Several of the images won awards from the World Health Organization and were included in international group exhibitions. I was invited to Japan to engage in a cultural exchange and series of lectures about the intersection of the arts and health issues. The equality movement for people with disabilities was young and vibrant, and my work was used to put a face on a community emerging to advocate for social and legal parity. This body of work introduced me to the power of collaboration with community- based organizations to use art as an agent of social change .
Soon I was invited to make portraits of people living with HIV. The social stigma of living with the disease had marginalized individuals who, with contemporary medical treatment, were simply living with chronic disease. Their professional caregivers believed that seeing the portraits would comfort newly diagnosed patients, and that has been the reported outcome. Images from Positively Living are on permanent exhibition at the UAB 1917 Clinic.
Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South
By 2011 my friends and I resented the fact that in other parts of the country LGBT people functioned openly as part of the social fabric of their community at large. Yet in Alabama many of our peers still struggled to keep jobs, child custody and acceptance from families of origin because of sexual or gender orientation. Alabama lacked a single legal ordinance to protect our families. I created Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South to challenge that disparity. It is a southern perspective. It is also the public coming out story for me and much of my community.
Because of the conservative social mores of my hometown in Birmingham, I developed a conceptual framework to provide lesbian couples control of their environment. The participants were photographed in a studio to eliminate any public trace of their home– a stark departure from my typical environmental portraits. They decided to face the camera or not, and many turned their backs to the camera due to fear of public recognition .
This collection of 40 images represents a cross-section of a previously invisible and largely marginalized lesbian community with Alabama roots. Groundbreaking at the time it was created in 2011 and exhibited at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2012, it opened just ahead of President Obama and the NAACP endorsements of gay marriage. By that time Birmingham was already having fresh public and private conversations about equality for the LGBTQ community— triggered by the Living in Limbo exhibition. Living in Limbo offers the viewer an opportunity to reflect on politics and portraiture, and to contemplate the complex nature of family.
This work was possible because of community partnerships including Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) who thoughts this was the right LGBTQ exhibition at the right time, the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), the Southern Poverty Law Center and others who endorsed the exhibition. Under the leadership of a prominent attorney, Ann Huckstep, the Birmingham business community stepped up to financially support and publicize the show.
Around 17,000 visitors from across the country saw Living in Limbo in Birmingham. The BCRI then sponsored the travel of the exhibition as part of their mission to advocate for human and civil rights. Exhibition sites included the West Hollywood Public Library, the African American Museum in Dallas, and a Meryl Lynch sponsored pop-up show in Wynwood as part of the celebration during Basel Miami 2014.
In 2018 the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) included one of the Living in Limbo images in a group show, The Art World We Want curated to represent alternative voices in response to complaints about Chuck Close during his PAFA exhibition.
The Kappa Family Fall 2011 Affair is a joint formal celebration of Phi Nu Kappa, a sorority for feminine women and Alpha Psi Kappa, the twin fraternity for dominant lesbians. The documentary portraits taken that night resulted in Sapphic Dance and an opportunity to honor individuals with nonconforming gender and sexual identities.
Together these self-described femmes and dominants have created an alternative support system, referred to collectively as the Kappa family. The groups socialize together, value education, and serve their communities raising money for mainstream charities. Couples choose maternal and fraternal parents who serve as mentors. In short, these women have created a family of choice– a safe space to be who they are and love who they love.
The young lesbians that I met while creating Living in Limbo were quite different than my peers. Considering gender and sexual identity in non-binary terms, they plan future families and careers with expectations of equality. I was inspired to develop another series of images, Family Matters, A dozen LGBTQ youth, aged 15-24 stood face forward to have their images made. That show, produced by Birmingham Aids Outreach, also opened at the BCRI and is traveling; with a set of prints on permanent exhibition at the new Birmingham Aids Outreach Youth Center, funded by an Elton John and Liz Taylor combined Grant. The prints are accompanied by essays the participants wrote in collaboration with curators of education at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
This image of Lucy is included in the Outwin 2016 exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait. Read more about LGBTQ images in that collection.
For more information about the Family Matter exhibition, please contact Amanda Keller.
Alabama Bound, Director PBS REEL SOUTH
Feature length documentary that explores the legal roller-coaster ride of LGBTQ family rights in the South over the last decade. It follows three families from Alabama (two of whom were included in the exhibition Living in Limbo) as they set precedents and fight the courts for their children during the time that federal marriage equality comes to a head. This is the story of a powerful community living with both frustration and hope in a conservative state where the line between church and state are often blurred.
I am amazed at the power of art to generate private and public dialogue about important social issues. While I continue to make personal work that is unrelated to advocacy, social justice work forms the core of my artistic soul. Although as a matter of principle I do not charge an artist's fee for advocacy projects, I have enjoyed significant large institution and community support to cover expenses and assure large audience exposure. It is my favorite way to work.