Youth help ‘show face’ of LGBT community with new art project

    In June, Philadelphia raised its already-sky-high support for the LGBTQ community: The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program unveiled its latest project, “Showing Face,” a series of photograph portraits to appear on billboards across the region and on citywide bus shelters, showcasing the product of a yearlong collaboration among Philadelphia LGBTQ youth and seniors.

    A partner of the Mural Arts Program in creating this cross-generational alliance was the John C. Anderson Apartments, the city’s first housing facility dedicated to providing welcoming, affordable housing for LGBTQ seniors. The residents from these apartments and the young millennials from fellow partner The Attic Youth Center served as the photographs’ subjects, as their interactions brought to light the huge generational gap in the LGBTQ community. Contemporary queer experience is much more visible, and therefore more accessible, to today’s young folks than it was decades ago, when today’s seniors, as young adults, had to blindly navigate their identities in an intensely oppressive environment.

    Highlighting this past reality to Attic students was important for their own sense of self, which is where visual artist Brandon Dean came in. Focused on fostering a long-lasting relationship between the seniors and youth, Dean led a series of gatherings meant to churn up conversations among the old and the young. Through storytelling and personal history lessons, Dean knew there was an opportunity for the younger generation to further reflect upon their critical moment in history while they listened to and learned from the experiences of their elders. He recorded the thoughtful dialogues between them and created a book that chronicles the project — with contributions from the participants themselves, too — and was available in a limited number alongside the billboards’ unveiling.

    Another artist, Ashley Kolodner, who specializes in still photography, captured the immaculate portraits of the seniors and youth for the billboard project.

    Kolodner, who is also an activist, taught Attic students how to visualize identity in a series of workshops before they each created their own wallpaper design to be used as the backdrop for their individual portraits. Similarly, the residents from JCAA stood in front of varied wallpaper designs they found fit for their own identities. Ultimately, Kolodner produced two portraits for each person: one with their eyes closed, to show vulnerability, and another with their eyes open, to show strength and individuality.

    Mark Segal, founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News and longstanding LGBTQ activist, commended this teaming of ages, saying, “This project brings together two truly inspirational groups from opposite ends of the LGBTQ spectrum and unites them in order to form a driving force in the fight for LGBTQ equality and acceptance. Through storytelling, history lessons and art making, stronger relationships have been built …[and] I look forward to witnessing what this kind of LGBTQ unity brings to the city of Philadelphia and society.”

    The billboards, which are part of a partnership with Clear Channel, can be seen in various locations throughout the Philadelphia area, including (but not limited to) Frankford Avenue, Germantown Avenue, Grays Ferry Avenue and Delaware Avenue. There, where exquisite, vibrant and telling portraits tower above or stand beside the populace, Philadelphia invites you to see its diversity, treasured and passed down, generation to generation.

    You can find more of Kolodner’s and Dean’s photography at www.akolodnerphotography.com and www.brandon-dean.com. “Showing Face” was funded by the City of Philadelphia Department of Human Services. Partners include The Attic Youth Center, John C. Anderson Apartments, William Way LGBT Community Center, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund and Clear Channel.

    For more information, call 215-685-0750 or visit www.muralarts.org. For further information, call 215-685-0750 or visit www.muralarts.org and follow along on social media: @muralarts on Twitter and Instagram, phillymuralarts on YouTube and MuralArtsPhiladelphia on Facebook.

    This article also appeared in the online issue of Curve magazine.