Ohio's First Transgender-Themed Art Exhibition Opens

Telling truths

I AM: A Trans Art Exhibit Friday, April 3, from 6 to 10 p.m., Waterloo arts Gallery, 15605 Waterloo Rd., 216-692-9500. free, waterlooarts.org

With all this talk about boycotting Indiana, did you know it's legal to discriminate against transgender people here in Cleveland? Before you start boycotting Cleveland though, there's some good news coming out of Collinwood's Waterloo Arts District. As part of April's Walk All Over Waterloo, Waterloo Arts is hosting an opening reception for Ohio's first transgender-themed art exhibition from 6 to 10 p.m. this Friday.

Local artist Craig Matis was inspired to initiate the project after attending a trans family support group meeting at the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland. Matis was invited by his friends, who have a transgender child. After hearing personal stories at the meeting, Matis was moved to contact local galleries with a proposal for a transgender-themed art show. He found an eager partner in Waterloo Arts, who also hopes to share the voice of transgender people with a wider audience.

"As I consulted trans individuals to help refine the parameters of the show, I heard their personal stories, which was an important step in changing my understanding of gender identity," says Amy Callahan. "For those of us who have not experienced gender as something separate from our biological birth sex, it is natural to assume they are tethered together. Hearing the story of someone who doesn't feel those two things aligned, of someone who had to risk everything in order to be themselves, it is easy to see that gender identity and biological sex are not the same."

I AM: A Trans Art Exhibit features 15 artists from throughout the U.S. I AM was juried by a selection committee including Evan Fusco, Lorence Hyler, Craig Matis, Jeanette Thomas and Douglas Max Utter. The exhibition includes painting, sculpture, print, photography and ceramics.

"Lively, often brilliant submissions for this show came in from all over the country," says Cleveland-based artist and art critic Douglas Max Utter. "The art we selected includes bronze sculpture, a book-format photographic essay on transgender identity and a series of curious life-style genre paintings (watch out for that alligator in the bathtub!). It was both fun and enlightening to curate, and should interest a broad audience."

Participating artists include Seyi Adebanjo, Ianna Book, Raisa Cabrera, Mara Goldfine, Nicki Green, Golden H/ours, Alex Holland, Oliver Klicker, Zoe Renee Lapin, Kean O'Brien, Iram Roberts, Gavin Rouille, Maxx Sizeler, Kate Weakley and Milo Wissig.

Organizers hope to explore the topic of gender identity in three ways: the visual art exhibition itself, personal stories from transgender individuals (as well as friends and family) and through educating the community on the socio-political issues surrounding gender, including changing gender language.

"This project is an amazing opportunity to support positive visibility of the transgender community," says Phyllis Harris, executive director of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. "I am especially pleased that a local arts organization thought to present a comprehensive program to highlight trans lives through education, community engagement and art. Spotlighting the impact of our unique identities and recognizing the power of cultural contributions is how we move beyond tolerance and towards appreciation."

Beginning at 6 p.m., Friday's opening night festivities include outdoor light installations, performance art by Scene stage editor Christine Howey and live music by Christine Louis. At 8 p.m., the nearby Beachland Ballroom (15711 Waterloo Rd.) hosts the Spring Fling Burlesque Show featuring Ohio Burlesque, DJ David Tasslehoff and more. The Spring Fling Burlesque Show will be followed by a special after party hosted by Bella Sin that will double as the after party for Friday's opening reception at Waterloo Arts. Trans Ally shirts, stickers and buttons will be available for purchase, with proceeds benefiting Margie's Hope.

Additionally, Cleveland independent filmmaker Mai-Kim Dang is creating a series of interviews, featuring stories and experiences from members of the transgender community. These interviews will be posted on Waterloo Arts' website and social media outlets. Waterloo Arts has also created a resource page on its website and will be sharing these resources via social media during the next two months. Further, members of the public are invited to upload their own videos through a camera application on Waterloo Arts' website. Parents, siblings, children and friends of transgender people are encouraged to join the conversation.

"Art tells a truth," explains Alana Jochum, Northeast Ohio director of Equality Ohio. "Not necessarily the truth or all truths, but it tells a truth about humanity. We are glad that Waterloo Arts has brought this exhibit to Cleveland. Discrimination against transgender people is still legal in Cleveland, so there is an opportunity for education here. I hope people come out and engage with the art and deepen their understanding of the issues facing the transgender community."

Gender identity isn't a new topic for artists. Decades before gender-bending personas like Ziggy Stardust and Marilyn Manson, legendary modern artist Marcel Duchamp was dressing in drag as his femme fatale alter ego, Rrose Sélavy (circa 1921). Performance artists of the '60s and '70s were also very interested in exploring identity as it related to issues of race, sex, class, gender and sexual orientation. More recently, Matt Parker and Trey Stone explored transgender (or transginger) issues in South Park's "The Cissy" (Season 18, Episode 3, 2014). While the episode shouldn't be taken too seriously, its message was one of tolerance and equality.

On May 1, Waterloo Arts will host a 7 p.m. documentary film screening. The film will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A session. Waterloo Arts is planning a closing reception for May 24, but no times have been announced yet. For more information, contact Waterloo Arts or visit their website.

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