Queer Art in the Seaport: Theodora Earthwurms Curating 27 Artists for Pride Month
Theodora Earthwurms, 25,is an artist, independent curator, and co host of the Boston Art Podcast. We sat down with them to talk about their curatorial debut, "Holding Space: Meditations on Queer Experience," the many challenges associated with organizing a show, and the importance of getting queer artists into a gallery space. Assemblage Art Space, the hosting gallery operated by the Fort Point Arts Community, is one of the only art galleries in the Seaport, one of Boston's newest, buzzing neighborhoods, that has become the latest obsession for Boston's investors, developers, and affluent residents. Located next to local restaurant staple The Barking Crab, Assemblage Art Space is a prime location for passerby's, restaurant goers, and pleasure seekers to find amazing art, have a few drinks, and make their next big art purchase. Vist https://linktr.ee/holdingspaceartexhibition to learn more.
Can you tell us a little about the group show? What inspired you to curate it, and what can visitors expect to see?
I was approached by Fort Point Arts Community to take over curation of their Pride Month exhibition early in 2023, following the public display of some of my other work that explores my non-binary and queer identity. I was very grateful and excited by this opportunity, and wanted to help create an experience that would be authentic and resonant for visitors. The process of curating this exhibition began with my sitting with the term “Pride”. My first thought when I hear “Pride Month” is to feel alienated, and to anticipate an environment of straight participation or performative acceptance of queerness rather than the creation or protection of an actual queer space. I think of capitalist organizations leveraging a rainbow flag, of statements of support that are suspiciously absent in any month but June, and general well-intentioned transparency - the feeling of being told “it’s okay that you’re here” when nobody had the right to say otherwise to begin with. I think of how, notably, the first in-person Boston Pride Parade since 2019 was cancelled in 2022 by its own nonprofit organizers following internal conflict about whether or not minority groups were being represented within Pride programming - specifically trans and BIPOC queer people. Generally, it was a negative association, paired with an inclination on my part to want to turn to DIY organizing (which is what happened last year with the Boston Dyke March, Franklin Park March for Trans Resistance, and various community-organized pop-up events which replaced the Pride Parade as the main attractions of June). The idea of curating for 2023 Pride in a white-walled Seaport gallery felt strange to me… but then, this gut reaction gave me pause, and made me think about why I felt this way, and if there was perhaps something I wanted to say or correct with the opportunity that had been presented to me. After some reflection, I was inspired by the idea of curating an exhibition that would resonate with and draw in a queer audience, celebrating and exploring the wide array of feelings and experiences that come with queer identity, rather than appealing to and bargaining for attention or acceptance from a straight audience. I hoped to hold space (not make space) for a range of feeling and expression, which has a right to exist and has always existed in Boston, at every time of year, year after year, since long before Boston Pride was founded (by a small group of just 50 gay and lesbian activists, when they held a rally on Boston Common in 1970 commemorating the Stonewall Riots). In this exhibition, you can find paintings, sculpture, jewelry, fiber art, and even film and live music, which will be presented on March 26th at our Opening Reception. Every artist, musician, filmmaker, curator, and installer who worked on this exhibition is a MA based queer contemporary artist, working from their own life.
Artist: Dave Pirro
With 27 artists participating, how did you go about selecting the works to be featured in the show?
I put out a public call for art for this show, and asked queer artists to submit works that relate to queer experience, in any way they chose to interpret that. From the many wonderful submissions I received, I tried to select the ones with the most brazen authenticity - in this show there are portraits of loved ones, representations of insecurity, fear, bravery, hostility, love, accounts of simple moments with other queer people (both platonic, sexual, and romantic), references to queer history, accounts from personal histories, and works that grapple with the artist’s struggles with identity. Some of these works play a call-and-response game that speaks to the friendships within community here - portraits are displayed that show other exhibiting artists as their subjects, such as Jamieson Edson's photograph "Campbell at Hannah's Party" of exhibiting artist Campbell McLean, Campbell's own painting "Cubs on the Hunt" of exhibiting artist Chris Falcione and his partner Ethan, and even my own piece that includes a photo collage featuring exhibiting artist Brian Huntress. I think these artists do a wonderful job, individually and together in this exhibition, of showing the many shades of queer feeling that we hope to hold space for, beyond just pride and shame.
How would you describe the overall theme or message of the exhibition, if there is one?
I don’t know that this exhibition has a direct message, but I hope the visitor will come away with a sense of connectedness, and will see themselves in the work regardless of their identity. When I step into this exhibition, I feel at home, as I might in the apartment of a friend after we’ve talked for a while and the sun has set. I hope that the viewer will feel the honesty of these works. The theme is very simply what it claims to be - mediations on queer experience.
Artist: Jayme Horne
Can you highlight a few of the participating artists and their work, and what sets them apart in this exhibition?
Although I could speak for hours about the talents of every individual artist in this exhibition, I’ll highlight just a few. Find me at the opening reception to talk more…. Frankie Symonds is a boundary pushing artist whose installation “On Anguish and Intimacy #1” was assembled specially by the artist in the gallery. Her work often uses unique or unusual imagery or materials, such as the ziploc bags of body hair, rainy skylight photos, abstract paintings and tacked up face mask seen here, to evoke a tension between discomfort and familiarity. Frankie is also the owner of the wonderful Shoe Bones Gallery in Salem, which shows work exclusively by contemporary outsider artists and hosts frequent community oriented events. I cannot recommend her work enough. Dave Bermingham’s piece, “Lust Is A Blind Hand Walk”, is deceptively delicate - a hand-made necklace draped open across three nails on the wall in the center of the room, one might miss the symbolism if they don’t look closely, which is exactly the artist’s intent. This piece is a poem written by the artist that has been translated into Morse Code. This is represented by hand-cast terracotta beads, formed from molds made from mixed nuts (a symbol of abundance for Bermingham’s family). The coded nature of this work is a reference to the history of queer folk having to hide in plain sight - specifically referencing the use of the now largely forgotten language Polari by gay men in the UK in the 1960s-1970s to avoid persecution and legal action for engaging in homosexuality. As Bermingham did not submit the accompanying poem, there is a bit of this piece lost to the viewer as well, which adds to the elegance and poeticism of this work and made me fall in love with it. Brian Huntress' piece “Portrait of a Boy with a Fractured Identity” explores the tension contained within the feeling of living a life that doesn’t align with your identity. The composition and subject matter have Catholic undertones (consistent in Huntress’ work and referential to their Catholic upbringing), as the figure holds himself in a pose reminiscent of the Madonna and Child, and the mottled mixed-media surface of the canvas blends industrial materials such as foam insulation with archival oil paint, all of which adds to the feeling of oppression and suffocation that this work gives. Described by the artist as a memento mori (a reminder of mortality), this piece reads to me as a portrait of a person who is acutely aware of the time left before them to reclaim their life from discomfort, shielding their older self from harm as death peers up at them from the corner of the canvas. Campbell McLean, painter of “Cubs On The Hunt”, is an oil painter who creates beautifully engaging and sardonic portraits of queer individuals - often individuals from their own life, such as in this painting, which features McLean’s studio mate and another featured artist in this exhibition, Chris Falcione. So often, portraits of queer people are either hyper-sexualized or made to look beautiful and unthreatening - although these presentations are valid, it is refreshing to see portraits of queer people being brusque, brash, and unconcerned with being perceived as either inoffensive. I also find McLean’s use of color and outline to be quite lovely. To quote the artist, “I've found that by painting vulgar queer characters in control of tense or violent situations, I am able to deconstruct the stereotype that queers are suburban, wimpy, and soft. I've built my own catalogue of -hard working -gun toting -queer Americans, that don't take no guff and mind their own business.”
Artist: Brian Huntress
The exhibition is being held at a cutting-edge gallery, Assemblage Art Space, in Boston. How does the space itself inform the exhibition, and how have you worked with the gallery to create the show?
Assemblage Art Space, if you haven’t been there, is a white-walled single room gallery in the Seaport of Boston, owned by Fort Point Arts Community, and comprised halfway of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at the Fort Point Channel which is located directly across the street. It is a beautiful gallery in a competitive location, just a few blocks away from Boston’s ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art), in the wealthiest and most gentrified neighborhood in all of Boston. When I was asked to curate this exhibition, I was told that “Holding Space” will be the first all-queer show Fort Point Arts Community has held in their 40 year history in the Seaport. I am thrilled to have been asked to participate in something so historic, and I think it is critical to the impact of this show that it was held in such a legitimate and high-end gallery. I’ve seen incredible work in student galleries, media centers, community spaces, and diy shows, and many of these artists have shown there before, myself included. However, the quality of the space provides a sense of authority to the exhibition that would be lacking without the “white cube effect”. I’m very grateful to FPAC for understanding this, or at the very least for allowing it.
What role do you believe group shows play in the contemporary art world, and what can they offer both artists and audiences?
I think group shows are a wonderful opportunity, from a curatorial perspective, to showcase many artists at once whose work may be very different but toe the same lines and express similar messages. There is a great value here for the audience in terms of education, and appeal to many tastes contained in the same show. I also think group shows provide an opportunity for the artists involved to get to know one another on an intimate level (the sharing of one’s own work and appreciation of the work of others) via face-to-face at exhibition programming and opening/closing receptions. The success of the show is the success of all of the artists involved, and friendships and creative collaborations are formed in that fire. Solo shows are community engagement just as much as they are a personal accomplishment, when done right.
With such a large and diverse group of artists, how do you hope visitors will engage with the works in the exhibition?
I hope visitors will stop to see the value in each piece in this show. There is a wide range of works on view - realism, surrealism, abstraction, seriousness and humor, paintings and sculpture, and much more. All of these works have something lovely to say, and I think there’s many ways here to receive that message.
Artist: Chris Falcione
As a curator, what challenges did you face in bringing together so many artists and works, and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge in having so many artists and works involved in this exhibition was the plain and simple fact that I couldn’t include everyone I would have loved to have included. Narrowing down selections from over 100 pieces to 28 individual works was extremely difficult, and I look forward to my next opportunity to do so! In terms of setting up the show and making sure it happened successfully, I spent many many hours writing emails, creating google forms and sifting through spreadsheets, writing press packages, interviews, gallery paperwork, gallery plans, wall text, promotional materials, insurance paperwork, answering questions/DMs, and more. If the artists I’m working with weren’t so patient and lovely I don’t know that I could have done it. Towards and since the install itself, I drew on the help of my gallery assistant and exhibition artist Brian Huntress, who has moved mountains to make this all possible in the few short days we had to install these works. I’m grateful for all of it.
Are there any particular moments or works in the exhibition that you're particularly excited for visitors to experience?
I am very excited for the Opening Reception, to be held on Friday, March 26th from 6-9:30pm. This is the evening I’ve been waiting for - when the gallery comes alive with the presence of all of the participating artists, their loved ones and guests, and visitors to the exhibition! Musicians Brian Huntress and Spencer LaJoye will also both be playing a live set each, followed by about an hour of independent films screened on a projector in the gallery. One of these films, by artist Walter Tomasino, is a 30 minute series of shorts created in the 1970s and 80s, and hasn’t been screened since that time. Tomasino was kind enough to loan us the only DVD copy of this film left in existence to allow it to be screened for one night only at this event.
Finally, what do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition, and how do you believe it fits into the larger context of contemporary art in Boston and beyond?
I believe that Boston has a viscously underestimated contemporary art scene. I’ve been born and raised here, and although I understand the pull of places like New York and LA, the Boston DIY scene has a unique flavor unlike anywhere else I’ve been that combines an underdog attitude and flippant class consciousness (often associated with the punk and hardcore music scene of the 70s-90s, although rapidly rising cost of living in this area is increasing those tensions even more in present day) with a highly educated and talented populous of artists fed by a legacy of culture and history. The queer scene in Boston is also underrepresented, I think, depicted so often as a summery upper-class version of what is in reality a multi-faceted and not so easily definable community. I hope that this show does a good job at attempting to capture both scenes in a more well-rounded light. I hope to disrupt the context of the Boston gallery world and provide real insight into a thriving community that exists under the feet of arts institutions that don’t often showcase their work so prominently. I am very grateful to Assemblage Art Space for providing a venue that makes this possible, and in the middle of the fleeting New England summer, no less!