North Texas’ gay visual artists exercise their freedom of speech — and voice their social activism — through the power of the image
This summer will surely go down in the annals of gay history. Coming off the disappointing ruling over Proposition 8, obstacles for the gay community have snowballed into a sizable opposition that have united people to rally and protest to advance the LGBT community toward equal rights. If the community isn’t fighting for same-sex marriage, then it finds itself battling homophobia with the likes of the Rainbow Lounge debacle in Fort Worth where a gay bar was raided just like the Stonewall Inn, 40 years — to the day — earlier.
But while some have taken to the streets to make their voices heard, others in the LGBT community have let their art be their voices.
My current pieces reflect how I feel as a gay man in this world and the responsibility I have,” says Robb Conover, founder of Luscious Art Studios and the annual Art Conspiracy event. “I feel that it is part of the journey as an artist to provoke thoughts. A revolution has to start somewhere, so it might as well be one canvas at a time.”
He hopes provocation will remind newer generations to appreciate their history.
“It’s amazing how many young people go to a gay bar and don’t even think about what had to happen before they could have that freedom. This culture takes so many things for granted,” Conover says.
Cathey Miller takes a more subdued approach. She recently received attention as one of the muralists for the Live Oak corridor of the DART rail being built through Deep Ellum, has shown in numerous exhibits and has contributed denim jackets to DIFFA.
But her colorful paintings, evocative of pulp fiction cover art, are less about direct response but more societal. Miller doesn’t have the intention of advocacy but it manifests nonetheless.
“I paint what I know. It’s more about painting my world than trying to make a statement. But if I do paint my world, it ends up making a statement,” she says.
Lately, though, she has gotten more work and exhibitions due to social issues.
“It’s always been difficult to get shows and recognition, especially in Dallas. But now, people are seeking out my art and talking about it. The more people are out there marching around actually makes it easier,” she says.
Miller’s art is portraiture with a sense of humor. It may not convey an immediate impression of advocate art, but Miller believes in alternative viewpoints.
“Artists have a way of looking at society from the outside. Some of what I try to do is make paintings that make people think. I subtly introduce lesbianism into my paintings. Maybe show them how things are from a different viewpoint that makes it easier than getting yelled at while marching. It’s a difficult endeavor to pick up a sign and march. It takes bravery. That’s something I think about,” she says.
Miller also considers her advantage as an artist to say something.
“I don’t think people get the sadness of the situation when watching the march go by. For me, I can slip in the back door and say the same thing in more of a quiet time,” she says.
On a different note, artist Mark Stokes mixes his humor and social statements much more brazenly. Stemming from childhood doodles to editorial cartoons in his high school years, Stokes connects to the community with his works often found in Dallas Voice as the Drawing Dallas feature.
As LGBT people face a new wave of adversity, Stokes credits his “high level of bullshit intolerance” to be a voice of his own. “God granted me some ability and I have a personality that doesn’t sit well with authority. Satire is something I’ve always enjoyed. I like to take something people are familiar with and twist it all around to make a point,” he says.
Some of his targets have included Ann Coulter, Constable Mike Dupree and most recently the officers involved in the Rainbow Lounge incident in Fort Worth.
Before coming out, Stokes had a sense of standing up for the right thing.
“I never shied from defending a person’s right to be who they are. If someone doesn’t like gay people, what gives them the right to treat them as less equal?” Stokes asks.
Stokes speaks with passion, but it’s not his own voice he intends to speak with — not at all.
“Art is a voice. It can be loud, obnoxious, or quiet and inflective. Artists pour it out just because they have to or it needs to be said. Once it’s out there, you can’t apologize for it and if it’s worthwhile it will hold up,” he says.
Although he might be more known for his editorial cartoons and Drawing Dallas caricatures, his latest creation is an original piece of oil on canvas he intends to be right in viewers’ faces.
“We’ve seen the fist raised in defiance before, but I wanted to convey something a little more ‘in your face.’ The fist coming at you is meant that as single LGBT individuals we are like solo digits on a hand, but when we come together — POW! — we can make an impact. It’s an image I just couldn’t shake,” he says.
It’s clear cut for Stokes. He responds to that which rubs him the wrong way which lately, has been a few things. “I guess when someone bends my nose about something I want to bend theirs right back,” he says.
Approaching her art with more tenderness, photographer Debra Gloria has a sense of duty to capturing images of love that so happens is between two women. Seeing that women together was always interpreted as pornographic in nature, she takes a respectful approach to shatter negative conceptions of two women in love.
“I think we’ve had a bad rap for years: Same-sex people together is porn. It’s every bad verb, noun, adjective you can come up with,” she laments. “Our relationships are real. I am trying to say that in my work.”
It’s almost accidental that her work has such relevance now because same-sex marriage is a hotbed issue again thanks to Prop 8. Her work “Sensuality” has been an ongoing project for the past four years consisting of more than 80 pieces and counting.
“We’re evolving as a society I hope. What’s happening in the world is affecting me and us as a whole. Even more so I feel strongly about showing the work. Let’s open our minds and see the photograph for the beauty that it is. I think if we can do that there wouldn’t be that much hate in this world,” Gloria says.
A photographer for 20 years, Gloria is working to publish “Sensuality” as a book. She’s also explored the ravages of the human body with her work “Underneath My Clothes,” an astonishing yet disturbing exhibit of three lesbian women taking on three different body issues — cancer, self-mutilation and eating disorders.
“‘Clothes’ isn’t about causes but everyday things. As an artist, it’s my responsibility to educate on what’s happening with us. Whether we have cancer or somebody abused us and this is how we deal with it. These women were incredibly brave,” she says.
Gloria’s perspective may be somewhat peripheral in the advocate sense but she proves that a different eye can bring to light different issues — even the ones that people aren’t necessarily fighting for all the time. With “Sensuality,” Gloria has found that her straight audience responds overly positively, denoting the works, aesthetic over its subject. She feels she’s changing minds.
“I hope they are captivated in their heart by the work. The beautiful thing is we have a voice. With the more people who follow our work comes a bigger responsibility to talk to our audience,” she says.
Conover agrees that talking is viable but perhaps in a more assertive fashion.
“How much more as a community are we going to let happen? It is an artists’ obligation to let his or her voice be known. I want people to start listening to mine. No more silence.”
Which could perhaps be these artists’ masterpieces.
Art from Robb Conover’s series, including the piece pictured, will be exhibited at Buli CafÃ©, 3908 Cedar Springs Road, throughout August.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 31, 2009.