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Artists explore growing up gay in the South



Decisions, decisions. Dolls vs. dump trucks? Dresses or jeans? A beehive or close-cropped hair? Electroshock therapy or sex with your opposite? These are just a few of the growing-up choices that had to be made by artists whose work is featured in Hairdos and Tractor Pulls at Trinity Gallery. "This show dispels the stereotypes that all gay men are hairdressers and all lesbians are butch truck drivers," says Trinity's Alan Avery.

Fourteen artists from Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia were invited to present a visual commentary on the experience of growing up gay or bisexual in the South. In the juried show, painting, sculpture and photography are displayed alongside the artists' written statements.

Some subjects on view have more obvious links to sexual orientation than others, like the photos depicting gay couples and the really tacky porn portraits painted by Charlie Brown. Others have no evident connection to the topic. Alli Royce Soble presents small photo portraits of her lesbian friends annotated with the number of years that each has been out.

King Thackston dives straight for popular culture. The vogueing in his "Choose Me" series comes straight from personal photo ads in Southeast Singles Personal magazines. Concealing, yet revealing, poses of men seeking men describe his experience of growing up gay in the South. According to Thackston, the act "required all the cleverness, invention, deception and strength that one could muster."

Jill Ruhlman proposes a "Lesbian Nativity Scene." Her black-and-white ceramic rendition of the Christmas story revisits the nuclear family. Illustrating an autobiographical anecdote, two women are envisioned as the parents of not one but three precious infants (her partner gave birth to triplets). Singing angel cowgirls and wise women encircle their joyous nativity. "I was wondering why my family should not be considered as sacred as a heterosexual family. The connection of new life to spirituality made me want to expand that traditional image, to broaden it," she says.

Kathryn Temple shapes a dress from the pages of a book chapter titled "What About Lesbians?" Her painting "Still Life With Secret" pictures the fragile identity of a young girl. Seated on the floor surrounded by four straight-back chairs, she stares off into space. An open book and half a peach lying on the chairs might symbolize the dilemma of reality vs. her knowledge and desire.

Reflecting on the show, artist Robert Sherer notes, "The work is more serious than I expected. But a lot of people who grew up gay in the South still can't exactly laugh about it. I didn't have a hard time. For me it was a nice, easy transition." Sherer has brought new meaning to Boy Scout projects. With tree branches, rope, leather and wood-burning tools, he crafts scenarios that reveal the potential homo-erotica in camping rituals like the "buddy system" and "initiation."

Beau Venable's remarkable revelations eclipse his large painting of an angel-winged man. Venable recalls how he lived his high school years buried in Catcher in the Rye. His deviant sexual orientation discovered, he was sent away for treatment to Hillcrest Hospital, where he hid his medicine in the ceiling and was submitted to shock treatments. Only after having sex with a young female patient was he considered "cured" and released.

Many of the artists, if not all the art in Hairdos and Tractor Pulls, reflect on the confusion and angst tied to growing up different. Artist Larry Jens Anderson, whose work draws a puzzled Dick from the Dick and Jane of early readers, remarks that "fear, shame, embarrassment and desire are not exclusively gay." Those feelings are not distinctly Southern, either. In a world that scoffs at the sissy, an overweight boy, a dark-skinned child or the girl who is first to sprout breasts share the same dis-ease.

Hairdos and Tractor Pulls continues through July 29 at Trinity Gallery, 315 E. Paces Ferry Road. 404-237-0370

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