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Artist encounters homophobia at Seattle café
Artist encounters homophobia at Seattle café
by Jim Wilkinson - Special to the SGN

I'm a part-time photographer in the Seattle area. For the past few months, I worked my butt off and spent literally thousands of dollars preparing for what was to be a month-long one-man photography show at the Kiss Café on NW Market in Ballard. The name of my show was Normal Sometimes Naked People and it opened Saturday night (May 10) to an enthusiastic crowd as part of the Ballard Art Walk. Less than 24 hours later, it came down.

The story begins a few months ago when my partner Jeff and I were planning an evening out. We wanted to grab a quick bite before spending the rest of the evening in town. Jeff told me about a café in Ballard that sounded kind of cool. It was smallish, but had a quaint neighborhood feel. The food was good and what struck me the most was the staff on duty on that particular evening. And that night we met Amanda Whisler, a charming lady with a bubbly personality who can make an absolutely amazing brownie.

She described her most recent favorite wines, and brought us several to taste. In the course of our time there, we chatted. She told us that the place had recently opened late last year and eventually the topic came around to art and then progressed to photography. I told her that I did photography and described my journey in coming out in 1999 after my divorce. I mentioned that I had started photographing European buildings but eventually switched to photographing the male form and I explained that I did the photography on the Seattle Quake rugby calendar in 2005. Recently I had focused my work on photographing normal people, often without the restrictions of clothing. I told her about a large installation piece that I had in the Queer Eyes 3 show last summer during Pride at Art/Not Terminal Gallery on Westlake. The name of the installation was Normal Mostly Naked People. One thing led to another and my desire to have another one-man show melded nicely with the café owners' (particularly Amanda's) desire to have a show there so they could participate in the Ballard Art Walk.

We discussed my work and I told her how "naked" could mean anything from a headshot with shoulders exposed to full nude. I like to mix it up so that there's a little bit of everything in a show. She replied that all of it, including nudes, would be OK.

In the weeks approaching the show's opening, Amanda (whom I was initially told was co-owner of the café with her business partner Brenda Reed) told me that Brenda's boyfriend, Oakley Carlson, might present a problem and that I needed to "tone down" the show. Sometime after that, I was told that he was actually one of the owners of the café. I toned the show down some more. My intention was never to show any full frontal nudes. Who wants to look at that part of a man while eating their BLT sandwich? (Well, maybe quite a few folks, but I digress.) This was, after all, a café in Ballard, and I understood that. I work in digital photography and so I was able to adjust the pieces to show "less is more." The male nudes were cropped to a point just below the navels. At a subsequent meeting, Amanda suggested that I might want to raise the bottom up "just a bit more" because of Oakley's potential reaction. So on my own, I adjusted many of the pieces before final printing. I changed some of the male nudes to headshots and left only a few photos that represented nudity while not really showing anything. I wanted my work to be shown to a larger audience and I had decided that, while it was not perhaps my ideal of what this show could have been, it nevertheless still portrayed my message: Normal people can be beautiful.

A short time before the show was to open, I was informed that certain pieces were going to be allowed only for the opening night and that they had to be removed after the three-hour Opening Artist's Reception on May 10. This included my signature piece that I had intended for the show entitled simply Friends, which portrays five nude Gay men huddled together in a group, very similar to Herb Ritts' photo of the nude supermodels taken many years ago. Keep in mind that the Friends photograph showed absolutely zero as far as any sexual parts were concerned. You would see more flesh in practically any current magazine on any newsstand.

By the time the May 10 opening Artist's Reception rolled around, the show had morphed from what I originally intended - photographic installations of regular people (some nude) which portrayed the beauty to be found in normal, everyday people - into a nice but fairly benign show consisting of mostly portraits along with a few other very mild pieces. I was not particularly happy with how the show had changed from our initial understanding, but reluctantly agreed to all of this since I had already invested so much getting ready for the show. I also wanted to expose my work to more people. As part of my own journey of moving out past photographs of mostly Gay men, I actually went down to the café after hours one night and photographed five local ladies. Of those models, I understood that four are straight (including my enthusiastic, beautifully tattooed host Amanda) and one is a Lesbian. I was thrilled with the photographs, which took regular ladies and portrayed them in a way that truly showed their individual beauty.

The opening night was a huge success. I had sent out hundreds of e-mails and written invitations and the response was tremendous. I lost count of the attendees but Amanda told me that she figured there were at least 90 people that came in during the three-hour opening Artist's Reception. Oakley had been told by Amanda that he was not allowed to attend the opening reception. Later that evening, I went home very tired, but feeling satisfied.

The following afternoon, I was out shopping with my partner Jeff. I got a call from Oakley Carlson who casually informed me that he had removed one of my pieces and that he wanted me to come down there and remove (cut off) the bottom third of another installation piece because he wasn't "comfortable" with it. This was met with stunned silence on my part. I regained my composure and told him that it really wasn't feasible to cut apart my art installation. I merely replied that I'd have to think about it while mentally I began to consider my options. He asked me what there was to think about - he's the owner of the café and he has the final say. Our shopping trip ended abruptly and I told Jeff that things weren't looking good. We drove straight home and we loaded the truck with blankets. I contacted Pam, one of our neighborhood friends (a straight lady) and asked her if there was any way that she could go with us to the Kiss Café, apologizing for asking so much of her on Mother's Day. I simply wasn't comfortable with Oakley's remarks and I really wasn't sure if things might escalate when Jeff and I went down there. After all, he had taken down one of my works for the simple reason that the model in the two photos "looked Gay" and obviously Oakley is not "comfortable" with Gay men. The plan was for Pam to go in first and order a latte, chat about the photography exhibit, and simply observe - with her camera handy, of course. Jeff and I went in and one of the staff summoned Oakley to where I stood, near the entrance, adjacent to the table where Pam was sitting. I chatted with him for a few minutes. His disgust was palpable. He said that he had talked to Brenda and that although he found it objectionable and not his "thing" he would "let" me keep the installation piece up for the duration of the planned time, but that I had to take away the other piece, which he had removed and stuffed behind a wine cooler. I, of course, promptly removed the entire show. What artist or photographer would want to keep one's work hanging in that kind of hostile environment?

His call Sunday afternoon had blown my mind. The show was beautiful. The "objectionable" piece was one of nine photos in a small installation, showing the side view of Jacob, a nude man in a bent-over position, hands touching his leg. He wanted me to chop off the bottom row, which contained this benign nude photo. And Oakley had taken it upon himself to remove the double photo piece (a headshot combined with a torso shot of a young man lying on his side with an outstretched arm) for one simple reason: these photos portrayed Gay men. I asked Oakley what the difference was between row three of the installation, which showed the benign nude photo of Jacob, and row two, which showed a nude side view of Ashley, a female. I didn't mention the female nude in the top row. He replied that he just wasn't comfortable with the photo in the bottom row. Then he said that Brenda wasn't comfortable with the photo of the female in the second row. He was clearly covering his tracks. He too, didn't mention the female nude in the top row....

None of the photos were pornographic in any way. What was wrong with the photos was the simple fact that they portrayed Gay men. Period. Oakley is clearly not comfortable with photos that show images of Gay men or "Gay-looking" men (whatever that means). I find it stunning that any business owner in this supposedly "Gay-friendly" city could be so ignorant and blatantly homophobic in this day and age. An article in the Seattle Times last fall started with this fact: "Among the 50 largest U.S. cities, Seattle is second only to San Francisco in the percentage of residents (12.9%) identifying themselves as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual, a new study reports."

Oakley Carlson has the right to have any kind of artwork that he chooses on the walls of his café. I do not dispute this. What he needs to learn, if he wants to hang an artist's work in this art-loving city, is that artists and photographers put their heart and soul into their work. And it hurts to have your heart stepped on, even if the heart happens to beat in the chest of a Gay man. The obvious question remains, Oakley: "If you are so 'uncomfortable' with images of Gay men, or 'Gay-looking men,' or if you are so insecure about your own sexuality that you can't stand to have even a benign male nude photo within your gaze, then why in the world did you ever allow a photography show entitled Normal Sometimes Naked People to be advertised and hung in your café in the first place? And why, Mr. Oakley Carlson, did you accept all of that money that my Gay friends gave you for food and drink on my opening night when you look at us with such disdain?" Perhaps you're not as smart or as great a businessman as you think. Sit content in your own little corner of this city. The Gay men and women of this community don't need to visit your café. There are plenty of others that welcome us and our business.

And me? I look ahead to someday soon when I'll meet another café or bar owner who isn't so small and foolish. And I ponder the last image I have of you, caught as I glanced over my shoulder on my way out after removing the exhibit. The walls of your little café now empty, and there you were, standing in the back corner, re-hanging that mass-produced favorite little print of yours, housed in that cheap black frame. I can't help but smile when I think of it.

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