For your reading pleasure, Buzzfeed brings you “17 Badass Historical LGBT Women Who Absolutely Gave No Fucks.” I love Gladys Bentley! Who is your favorite on this list?
Archive for the ‘artists’ Category
My guest today is Hilary Sloin, author of the new novel Art on Fire, which is due out from Bywater Books at any minute. I personally can’t wait to read it.
Art on Fire is the apparent biography of subversive painter Francesca deSilva, the founding foremother of “pseudorealism,” who lived hard and died young. But in the tradition of Vladimir Nabokov’s acclaimed novel Pale Fire, it’s a fiction from start to finish. It opens with Francesca’s early life. We learn about her childhood love, the chess genius Lisa Sinsong, as well as her rivalry with her brilliant sister Isabella, who publishes an acclaimed volume of poetry at the age of twelve. She compensates for the failings of her less than attentive parents by turning to her grandmother, who is loyal and adoring until she learns Francesca is a lesbian, when she rejects her. Francesca flees to a ramshackle cabin in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, working weekends at the flea market. She breaks into the gloomy basement of a house, where she begins her life as a painter. Much to her confusion and even dismay, fame comes quickly. Art on Fire is a darkly comic, pitch-perfect, and fearless satire on the very art of biography itself.
If you’d like to be entered into a drawing for a free copy of Art on Fire, leave a comment here about what excites you about this book and why you, too, can’t wait to read it. A winner will be drawn at random.
And now, some thoughts from Hilary about her writing process:
To be quite honest, I am something of a dilettante. If I had lived in Victorian England, people might have rolled their eyes when speaking of me and said I was subject to “enthusiasms.” Or I might have been a witch burned at the stake for being a little excitable. Sometimes I give up writing altogether and take up something else with fervor—for a while it was painting, for years it was music; these days, I am obsessed with finding and restoring antiques. There have been many phases in my life, but always I return to writing of some sort. Ultimately I can’t fight the fact that I need it like I need food and air. My friends all think I am very disciplined because I work all day from very early in the morning at whichever enthusiasm I am currently ruled by. Truth is, I am keeping the meaninglessness away. And nothing keeps meaninglessness away like writing, which, when I am doing it, I can do around the clock. Even when I don’t hold pen to paper, I stare off into space and think about my characters, imagine them walking across the room, lying down to bed. While I walk my dog I hear them talking. I see them sitting opposite one another with nothing to say or with everything to say but too frightened or angry to say it.
The one thing that holds true with everything I write—and finish—is that I fall in love with what I am working on, whether it be the story, the place, or the characters. Ideally, all of the above holds me sway. With Art on Fire, which was my first attempt at a novel after many years of writing plays and stories, I fell in love first with Isabella, the protagonist’s mentally ill and acutely intelligent sister. Isabella is so much smarter and wittier than I have ever proved to be and, of course, this fascinates me. How can I create a character who surpasses me by leaps and bounds? Soon I fell in love with Francesca, too, but that was for entirely different reasons: I had created my dream lover: a cowboy in girl’s clothing, the one who cannot be possessed, who oozes with the need to express herself but cannot. And again, I was fascinated because to this day I am still not sure whether Francesca’s paintings were any good or whether, as some of the critics in the book postulated, she was simply in the right place at the right time, an icon of pop culture. I fell in love with Evelyn Horowitz, Francesca and Isabella’s terribly human grandmother, because she is basically my grandmother and every time I read the chapters where she appears I cry, missing my own Gram all over again. And then there is Lisa Sinsong, who bears all the tragedy and much of the poetry of the story, who is victim to family legacy in a way that seemed to me to be inevitable in this particular book. How could I not love and want to save her? I was able to write Art on Fire because it held my attention. It made me laugh and cry as I was writing it. Sometimes I just sat back, took a drag of my cigarette, and felt very good about creativity and that it was the one constant in my life. Like all things that come from the heart, it is a flawed product, but it breathes and pulsates and that is the kind of writing I seek out. Anything else fails to hold my attention. I hope this book will hold yours.
Thanks to Steven Reigns of The Gay Rub, I had enough materials to go out into the field yesterday and do a rubbing of artist Andy Warhol’s tombstone. If you missed my post about Steven’s project, click here. Directly behind me in the photo is the grave of Andy’s parents.
And here’s what the decorations and mementos on Andy’s grave look like right now. In addition to the soup cans and Coke bottles, someone left an envelope of their writing at the side of the stone, and there’s a plastic egg for Easter, too. For more about Andy, see my earlier post.
Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center
Fifteen miles east of Asheville was the location of Black Mountain College, an experimental school in existence from 1933 to 1956. According to gay historian Martin Duberman, who chronicled its history in his exhaustive group biography, Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community, the college was “the forerunner and exemplar of much that is currently considered innovative in arts, education and life style.” At Black Mountain, there were no required courses, no exams, and no formal grades. Students were responsible for planning their own course of study, participating in classes that often had fewer than 10 students each.
Black Mountain was also the nurturing ground of numerous queer writers and artists, including Paul Goodman, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. Other queer lecturers during its history included Thornton Wilder, Ted Shawn, and Robert Duncan. Artists Robert Rauschenberg was a student at Black Mountain. The college’s literary journal, Black Mountain Review, published the work of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, among many others. Though gay men taught and studied there, however, homosexuality was not openly tolerated. When Paul Goodman, a lecturer in “psychotherapy (his own), literature, history, community planning and sex,” according to Duberman, applied for a full-time teaching position, the faculty voted against him, fearing that he would prove to be a sexual predator.
The original site of the school consisted of church buildings constructed by the Blue Ridge Assembly as a summer conference center for its members. For most of the year, the buildings were vacant, and Black Mountain founder John Andrew Rice saw it as the perfect location for his school. The main building, called Lee Hall (the photo below is of the porch), included both common rooms and individual living and study spaces for students.
The rental agreement with the church stipulated that the buildings and grounds had to be cleared of all college equipment and furniture by the beginning of the summer. Because of this, Lee Hall had a “Shaker plainness” to it, and many students had to construct their own desks and furniture. After a few years, the college purchased a more stable site at Lake Eden, a former summer resort with cottages and lodges on a human-made lake.
The college suffered chronic financial problems, and lack of students and money forced it to close in 1956. The property was sold off piece by piece, and part was leased as a boys’ summer camp. This museum and arts center in nearby Asheville documents the history and mission of the innovative school.
New York, N.Y. (Harlem)
“The Dark Tower”
108-110 West 136th Street
This was the site of A’Lelia Walker’s (1885-1931) home and famous salon, “The Dark Tower,” which she hosted for writers, musicians, and other artists during the 1920s. It was named after a sonnet by queer poet Countee Cullen, which has been said to capture the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance (see below).
A’Lelia Walker’s fortune came from her mother, Madame C.J. Walker, an enterprising woman who created a million-dollar empire from beauty salons and hair-straightening products for black women, and who died in 1919. With her inheritance, A’Lelia purchased these two Stanford White-designed town houses on West 136th Street in “Sugar Hill,” combined them into one residence with a new façade, and furnished them lavishly. Here the woman dubbed “the Mahogany Millionairess” hosted cultural soirees for the Harlem and Greenwich Village “glitterati,” white and black, serving caviar and bootleg champagne and providing entertainment by queer performers Alberta Hunter and Jimmy Daniels. Langston Hughes later wrote that A’Lelia’s parties “were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour.” She herself was a striking figure, whom Hughes called “a gorgeous dark Amazon.”
Sadly, Walker’s historic home was demolished by the city in 1941. Appropriately, the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library now stands on the site.
We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made to eternally weep.
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.
– “From the Dark Tower,” by Countee Cullen
Sunny Valley, Ore.
2000 King Mountain Trail
Southern Oregon has a rich history of lesbian and gay back-to-the-land projects. One lesbian separatist community, Rootworks, was established in the 1970s by Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove, when both women were in their 50s. “The philosophy was that we would live without men, separate from the patriarchal world,” Ruth told me in the late ’90s. “That is still pretty much the idea.” (The photo above was taken by Ruth at the commune in the 1970s.)
At Rootworks, there were originally only two houses – the Moonhouse and the Kitchen cabin. In the years that followed the founding, Ruth and Jean added the Sunhouse, a barn (called “Natalie Barney”), and the All Purpose crafts cabin. In the barn is a study and a feminist library. From 1974 to 1984, Ruth and Jean also published the magazine WomanSpirit from an office in the barn, and The Blatant Image, a feminist magazine about photography, was published there from 1981 to 1983; back issues of both are stored in the barn.
Ruth has credited WomanSpirit with bringing a lot of women to the southern Oregon region, by encouraging their creativity and spirituality. Though the magazine folded, Jean said, “the main elements of WomanSpirit are still being lived in the community – feminism, spirituality, all forms of creativity, sisterhood, nature, art, music, dance, literature, healing and personal development.”
Gardens that are nestled around some of the Rootworks buildings are filled with vegetables, beans, and berries. Solar energy provides heat and hot water and also powers the community’s lights. Ruth noted that it’s “not easy in the winter, and that’s when women usually leave.”
In 2008, Linda Long, Manuscripts Librarian for the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon in Eugene, told Lambda Book Report:
Rootworks is a historical site that is a perfect exemplar of the feminist-lesbian dream. From the 1970s to today, the women’s back-to-the-land community in Oregon was, and is, a dynamic expression of the separatist dream. As part of that dream, women experimented with new ways to live and work together – and with all sorts of activities and rituals, from house-building projects and collective gardening to the sacred circle. Many of the women were aspiring artists of one kind or another – writers, painters, photographers—and they hoped to be able to combine life on the land with their creative work. All of this lesbian/feminist life and work is represented in Rootworks…The permanence of Rootworks and its status as a women-owned land trust in perpetuity makes it a perfect example of a historic site. I think a living museum would be an effective and dynamic way to preserve the lesbian land dream and the history of the lesbian community in Southern Oregon.”
Alain Locke home
1326 R Street NW
African-American scholar and intellectual Alain LeRoy Locke (1886-1954) defined his role in the Harlem Renaissance as that of “philosophical midwife to a generation of young Negro poets, writers, and artists.” His anthology, The New Negro, was the defining text of that artistic movement.
The Harvard- and Oxford-educated Locke was a professor of philosophy at Howard University for many years, and lived at this address near Logan Circle from 1912 until his death (it is marked with a historic plaque). At Howard, Locke encouraged the study of black culture and history along with the European classics, and founded The Stylus, the university’s literary journal, in which Zora Neale Hurston published her first story. His attention tended to focus on the brightest and most attractive male students, and he routinely warned female students that they could expect no better than C’s in his classes.
Locke shuttled back and forth between Washington and Harlem, where he mentored several queer young poets of the Harlem Renaissance. His protégé Countee Cullen introduced him to Langston Hughes. “You will like him,” Cullen told Locke of the elusive and sexually ambivalent Hughes; “I love him.” A romantic triangle formed and may have been the root of the mysterious rift between Cullen and Hughes from 1924 on.