Heather Raquel Phillips, making her black-and-blue mark in the community

There’s always something hip happening at the William Way LGBT Community Center. I especially enjoy perusing the art gallery with dreams that they’ll feature some of my work someday soon (hint, hint). But in the meantime, there’s a fun, sexy and profound exhibit coming up, “Black and Blue: The Colors of Leather.”

I had a chance to speak to the coordinator of the event, the lovely and talented Heather Raquel Phillips. The Temple art grad with a Master’s from UPenn has been described as “a multimedia artist working in performance, video, text and photography.” The description of her work is too elaborate for me to describe, so I’ll just present info from her bio:

“Phillips works with queer subjects to represent and produce autonomy for negated identities, striving not only for the liberation from normative compartmentalization but a refusal of the status quo. Her characterizations assume the form of tropes to walk directly through stereotypes welcoming the viewer into a conversation that questions and exposes race, gender & sexual classifications as an unstable social construct. Her goal is to simultaneously disrupt notions of normalcy and debunk a patriarchal & heteronormative power structure.”


PGN: Where do you hail from?

HRP: I’m from South Jersey and moved to Philly in … 1994? Philly is my place.

PGN: Tell me a little bit about the family?

HRP: Hmmm, you mean my family of origin or chosen family?

PGN: Let’s start with origin, I read that you too are mixed and that it informs a lot of what you do.

HRP: Got you, yeah. My dad’s from Puerto Rico and my mom’s from here but of German-ish origins. And yes, that part of me informs other working parts of me. It created a sense of otherness and my investment in people who are marginalized, because I never felt like I fit in anyplace neatly.

PGN: Interesting, I know a lot of mixed kids feel that way. For me, it was the opposite. I felt I could fit in anywhere. I was the president of the Black Student Union on one hand and in the predominantly white drama club on the other.

HRP: It does have that effect too because true, I can move through different bodies of people easily and people will read me in all different ways dependent on where I am or who I’m surrounded by. But the flip side of that is that I can be privy to conversations that I don’t necessarily want to be privy to. There’s a dichotomy of moving through easily yet not fully fitting in. Not white enough, not black enough. [Smiles] I sometimes call myself a SortaRican or a Halfrican.

PGN: Ha! I like that. Give me a little more about your upbringing?

HRP: I have four half-siblings, two older than me and two younger, and I wasn’t raised with any of them. So I played alone a lot. A lot of fantasy and performance; I did gymnastics and dance and I rode a unicycle. I was always kind of in my own interior space. My father was in and out of prison for most of my life, he had drug problems, and my mother worked all day so I was a latch-key kid. The town I grew up in was a very small town right over the Walt Whitman Bridge — Westville, N.J. It’s 1 square mile. Aside from two adopted kids from Chile, I was pretty much the only brown child in town. So I was the recipient of all the racial slurs and bullying. I was always into art. My grandfather was a hobbyist painter and I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents. As I became a teenager, I got more and more into it, and here I am.

PGN: Seems like you were probably a big reader.

HRP: No, not at all. I didn’t have any books. It’s strange, I think I had a few old books that were my mom’s, “Blue Ribbons for Meg” about a horse and that was it. I think my first literature was reading the dirty parts of a Judy Blume book. The one with the dog-eared pages in the library! I read a lot now, though. I became an avid reader at 24.

PGN: Who was a favorite teacher?

HRP: Mr. Mackie, my art teacher. He was an old grump but he sent me to Moore College of Art every semester on a scholarship. I got to come to the city once a week to study. I think he knew that I came from a humble place and that my parents couldn’t send me, so he made sure I got there. That was my guy.

PGN: And did you go to school for higher learning?

HRP: I did. When I was 24 and got sober, I started reading and by the time I was 27, I was very interested in feminism and race and class, gender and sexuality. I wanted a more formal learning environment, so I took some classes at Temple including an art class. I had a teacher who was nothing but supportive and reminded me that art is what I do. We’re still in contact today. So I transferred into Tyler School of Art for my BFA. I was so tired from working and studying that I took an eight-year break and then went back for my Master’s.

PGN: And it sounds like you also had a bit of a break between high school and that first art class at Temple at 24. What was happening?

HRP: Oh yeah, I worked at a little go-go bar called “All in the Family” at 13th and Locust. I’d been working the circuit of strip clubs and go-go bars and ran into a friend who told me about the place. I went there and it was life-changing. I still have friends from that bar but I was drinking heavily, which is often a part of that world and I’d had problems with substances prior to that. I always had an intention whenever I picked up a drink, and that was to escape myself. Eventually, I managed to just give it up. But I wouldn’t take back a moment of my life. It inspires artwork and stories you couldn’t make up.

PGN: Jumping forward, you are somewhat of a renaissance woman. You do video and photography and performance and write. Does one dominate?

HRP: Photo is my main medium. It’s what I teach. Though I wouldn’t call myself a photographer with a capital P, it’s just a means to an end — a way to express and capture. The videography is the most important to me. All my photos have always been very performative and video brings them to life.

PGN: What inspires your work?

HRP: The people around me. The family that I’ve created, they’re all a bunch of weirdos and outcasts and outlaws — marginalized people living their truths despite how the world may reject them. It’s a beautiful sight to behold — that, coupled with the absurdity of the world, are two things that inform my work.

PGN: Tell me about the program that will be at William Way.

HRP: Amy Phillips, The MidAtlantic Leatherwoman, came to me with the idea about a month ago and asked if I would curate a show to coincide with the Philadelphia Leather Contest in February. I realized that I had no time for it, so my answer was, Of course I will! I have trouble saying no. We put out an open call for artists and got a lot of responses. The show is called “Black and Blue: The Colors of Leather.” It’s not just my work. I wouldn’t curate my own stuff, but they asked me to participate. There are several very talented artists: Syluss Alfaro, Douglas Johnson, Nick Hollup, Emma Osle, Cassi Segulin, Brian David Dennis, Evie Snax, Emerson Anicëto, Thomas Duffy and me. The intention is to show what the colors of black and blue mean through the eyes of an artist, and what it means to embody the leather/kink lifestyle.

PGN: Where do you fall on the LGBTQ spectrum?

HRP: I have such a struggle with labels, I think it comes from being mixed. I guess I’d say heteroflexible, just left of the Q.

PGN: As a young person from a small town, how did you get involved with the LGBTQ community?

HRP: I started coming into Philly with friends when I was about 17, we’d go to underage nights at Woody’s. We’d hang around the Leather Rose, which later became Frannie’s Place. There was just something that felt like home here. It was different back then, it was a hotbed of excitement, a place where you could be yourself and it didn’t matter to anyone if you were black or white, gay or straight. It’s much more mainstream and normative now, which is fine, but different.                     

PGN: Which photo would you grab if there were a fire in your house?

HRP: There’s a picture that you’ll see first if you look at my website. It’s a woman in an afro kneeling on a bed wearing a body stocking. I did a ton of work researching the ideas for the image. Her race is ambiguous. Her body shape is not in alignment with that nude image of a black woman on black velvet in the ’70s. She’s nude, but not nude. There’s a complexity to the image and the model is one of my best friends so I love it. It’s called, “The Shining.”                                                              

PGN: Have you done any acting?

HRP: No, no I haven’t. Wait, that’s a lie. I kind of always say yes when people offer me something, so over the years, I’ve been in a lot of things. [Laughing] So it’s a complete lie when I say I haven’t. I just don’t feel comfortable at all with people pointing the camera at me.

PGN: And you have such a great face for it!

HRP: Thank you. I’ve just done it for the experience; I’m just in awe of what goes into the production of a movie. Seeing all the working parts come together. But I do try to challenge myself, so someday I may get comfortable in front of a camera. [Laughing] I actually have to do some green-screen thing for a friend tomorrow and they want me to speak on camera. I was like, Yeah, we’ll see how it goes.

PGN: I see in the photo of you that you have a number of tattoos. Describe two of them.

HRP: Which photo?

PGN: You’re dressed as a cheerleader.

HRP: Ah, that one, that’s a collaboration that I did with an artist named Charles Hall. It’s a long-running project about sports culture and toxic masculinity and gender roles. My character is Pom Pom and she’s an aging cheerleader. My narrative is that she never made the squad so she made up her own, a squad of one.

PGN: That’s a great series. You have fabulous pics on your site, both ones that you took and ones you are in.

HRP: Thank you. I have a video called “The Gutter” and I think it’s the most beautiful work that I’ve made. It’s me riding my unicycle [next to a clip of] a juggler. It’s a two-channel video so it’s of us in the same space at different times, performing by ourselves and it’s inspired by my childhood. When people watch it, they wonder, What happened, do they ever meet? It’s reflective of me before I had words, how I created my own world to survive in. It’s funny, I’m still a very solitary person but most people don’t perceive me that way. I know that visually, I give off a certain thing in the public sphere, but I’m actually very reserved. Again, we’re back to the dichotomy of being from very disparate parts as my foundation. My household was very German growing up, which is very different from the Puerto-Rican side in the way they feel, celebrate and express themselves. Polar opposites.

PGN: What is Female Trouble?

HRP: A group of women artists and craftspeople. I curated two shows in 2017, both based in queerness: “I/We In/Out Our/Own,” and “Embracing Failure.” My aim in curation is always to be inclusive. To make space for folks who are on the margin. To see people like oneself is so valuable as a way to understand, “I can do that too!” But, also to offer space to artists who don’t fit a normative gallery space, who have need to be represented and seen. The upcoming show digs a little deeper into this idea, going directly into outlaw sexuality and bringing it into the public to remove stigmas attached and again, speak to people who might carry shame over said stigmas.

PGN: Cool. Changing gears, if you were in the circus, what would you do (other than ride a unicycle)?

HRP: Other than that? Well, I’m a pretty good pole dancer! I got into it when I was in a deep depression and eventually wound up teaching. It was a great body-positive environment full of women. I got very skilled in it. [Laughing] Way more skilled than when I actually was a dancer!

PGN: You literally lifted yourself out of depression! What’s your favorite weird food combination?

HRP: [Laughing] What? I don’t know … Oh, wait, when I was young, I loved hot chocolate and cheese..

PGN: Eeek! What do you keep in the trunk of your car?

HRP: I just totaled my car, so I don’t have a trunk. But if I did, it would be sensible things like jumper cables, a gas container and a teddy bear.

PGN: If you were a natural element, what would it be?

HRP: Fire. I’m a Leo, which is a fire sign.

PGN: I see we have some favorite films in common. “Ma Vie en Rose,” “Pee Wee Herman” and “Willy Wonka.”

HRP: Oh yes. The visual information in those movies have informed my work.

PGN: Best film quote? Mine is from Willu Wonka, “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

HRP: The one that popped in my head is from a John Waters film, “Desperate Living.” Side note, he was the guest of honor at a film-festival event in which I’d coordinated a bunch of go-go dancers to work, it was on the last night I drank. The quote is from Queen Carlotta, “And don’t get your pecker tracks on my gown.” [Laughs] Not as deeply profound as that beautiful line from “Willy Wonka.” But profound on some level in its own way!

Black and Blue: The Colors Of Leather will be held Jan. 12-Feb. 23 at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. A reception will be held at the center 2-4 p.m. on Feb. 11.

To suggest a community member for Family Portrait, email [email protected].