The coming-out experience is an intensely personal process for most LGBT individuals. However, an LGBT group from Central Pennsylvania has proudly displayed its members’ own coming-out tales across the state and, next week, will head to Philadelphia for the retelling of their stories.
“Coming Out: 15 Artists, 15 Years of Common Roads” is a traveling art exhibit that showcases 15 original pieces by the same number of LGBT artists who used their work to express their feelings about their own coming-out experiences. The exhibit, which will be on display at the William Way LGBT Community Center from May 1-31, was created as part of a 15th-anniversary celebration of Common Roads, a Central Pennsylvania LGBT youth organization.
Don Blyler, curator of the exhibit and a former board member of Common Roads — which recently merged with the LGBT Community Center of Central Pennsylvania to form the LGBT Center Coalition — said the concept for the show was a result of a series of brainstorming sessions among Common Roads’ board members, who were eager to pay tribute to the organization’s 15 successful years, as well as generate a productive conversation about LGBT issues.
Once the idea was finalized, Blyler went to work contacting representatives of local art venues in search of interested artists.
“First we had to find 15 LGBT artists and then make sure those artists were comfortable with their names being associated with an LGBT event that’s going to be traveling through Central Pennsylvania,” Blyler said. “It sounds much more challenging than it actually was, because as soon as I had 15 people, I explained what we were doing and got almost unanimously positive feedback; there were a couple who said they weren’t able to participate, which I completely understand, but I think we went through about 17 names and got 15 ‘yesses.’”
Blyler said there is a proportionate number of men and women featured in the exhibit, as well as one transgender individual, and the artists range from their 30s-60s.
Blyler noted that the submissions, which vary from photographic pieces, oil paintings and water colors to mixed-media works such as a leather jacket and a handmade shawl, represent numerous facets of the coming-out process, as each artist was given leeway and artistic freedom.
“I asked them to create a piece that they felt expresses something about coming out, whether it’s their feelings when they were coming out, the feelings they had before they came out or what it’s like now as an out artist,” he said. “We left it pretty open-ended for them in that regard.”
Each piece is accompanied by a copy block that details the artist’s motivation for the work, which Blyler said helps to bring together the entire exhibit.
“I had an experience last March where a young woman came into the exhibit and walked through for a couple minutes and said, ‘I’m done, there are only 15 pieces here.’ And I asked her if she took the time to read all the copy blocks and she didn’t, and then I saw her again about an hour later when she was going to leave, and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, it all makes sense now,’ and just couldn’t stop talking in positive terms once she actually allowed herself to see how it all fit together.”
Philadelphia is the seventh and last stop for the exhibit, which opened at the WITF Inc. Public Media Center in Harrisburg in February 2008. It’s since traveled to Millersville, Lebanon, Lancaster and York.
Blyler said he was pleasantly surprised by the number of Central Pennsylvania venues that were open to the idea of an LGBT art show.
“Through the planning stage I knew we’re in Central Pennsylvania. I grew up here and lived in D.C. for 10 years and then moved back. It’s a very conservative area — certainly not DuPont Circle. To be stereotypical, you’re back in Kansas,” he said. “I anticipated there’d be some kind of pushback as far as the theme of the event, but the minute WITF came onboard as the premiere exhibit sponsor, a lot of other places got in touch with us and said, ‘When can we be in the schedule?’ and ‘We’ve heard really good things; what can we do to make this work?’ We didn’t even have all of the images of the works yet to show these places, but they just went by what they know WITF to stand for and we’re so lucky about that, because this could have been a huge obstacle.”
However, Blyler noted, the exhibit did experience some resistance when it opened at the Arts Centre of York Inc. in January. He said that after a local newspaper in York ran a story about the upcoming show, the center was inundated with hate mail and angry phone calls from area residents opposed to the theme of the exhibit, and a group of residents announced it would protest the opening. Although no protesters showed up, a wealth of supporters did turn out.
“It was one of the best openings the Arts Centre ever had,” Blyler said. “We had a huge turnout in support of the show, and what I thought was really amazing was the way the York Police Department responded — they were very open and supportive, which is really the last thing I ever thought would happen. When I heard there would be protesters, I thought, ‘Oh, great, now the police will be involved and they don’t want us here either,’ but it ended up being the exact opposite.”
Blyler said the tour has been an eye-opening experience for him, and he’s anxious for it to have the same effect on patrons.
“Every single stop has been really heartwarming. It’s so nice to see that things have changed in the last 15-20 years and changed for the better. There’s still certainly room to improve in Central Pennsylvania, and I’m hoping that this exhibit opens people’s eyes to that.”
There will be an opening reception for the exhibit from 6-8 p.m. May 1 at the center, 1315 Spruce St.
For more information about the exhibit, visit www.1515artexhibition.com.