Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Bob’s Art Blog: Powerful Art Association exhibits spotlight LGBTQ history, opioid crisis

“Growth,” acrylic on paper, at the Art Association of Harrisburg

The summer of 1969, now half a century past, was one for the annals of time.

Revolutionary on many fronts, the year included the celebration of “peace, music and love” at Woodstock and the first men to land on the moon. In New York’s Greenwich Village, three days of violent riots took place to protest police harassment in a raid at the Stonewall Inn. The latter proved to be a watershed moment for advancing LGBT rights, pushing that movement to the foreground in a battle for equality and gay liberation.

The Art Association of Harrisburg, in conjunction with the LGBT Center of Central Pennsylvania and the Dickinson College archives, has mounted the exhibit, “Hope, Memory & Pride: Artists View Equality,” curated by AAH’s wunderkind, Rachel O’Connor. It showcases the event in picture and prose across varied mediums.

The juried exhibit is part of a dual show featuring the work of award-winning artist, Maria Maneos, and her “Brush With the Law” initiative. That exhibit deals directly with the opioid epidemic. Maneos won a juried award for her entry in Pennsylvania’s “Art of the State” in 2018.  Since then, she has become even more of an agent of change, bringing the opioid crisis front and center through her art.

The exhibit that became “Hope, Memory and Pride” was the brainchild of Barry Loveland, chair of the LGBT Center’s History Project, who brought the idea to AAH to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots.

Given free reign and the LGBT Center’s blessing, curator O’Connor sought artists to view the History Project’s collection, stored at Dickinson, and create art inspired by items from its trove of materials. In addition, O’Connor asked the artists “to write a statement of accompaniment as to why LGBTQ visibility/equality is meaningful, what transpired at Stonewall meant to them or their thoughts on being an ally for the cause.”

In emphasizing the struggle the LGBT community faced back in 1969 and that continues today, O’Connor drew on the properties of vinyl when illustrating the artists’ viewpoints. Vinyl represents durability, resistance to abrasion and, in a metaphorical sense, is often used in fencing.

With Stonewall, the gay community took a stand tearing down the fences, the barriers of society represented by the police raid, stating that no more would they be put in a box as outcasts. It became the battle cry then and for generations to come. Representative of the individualistic interpretations are artist Robert McCormick’s, “Trans-American Gothic,” (pictured) a riff on Grant Wood’s iconic 1930 painting of a Midwestern couple posed outside their house. McCormick’s assemblage, incorporating true blue denim, patchwork fabric, paint, metal, wood and paper, puts a 21st-century spin on the American classic. In another, an acrylic by STEN features a “Dude in Blue T-shirt” through a heavily textured painting rich in colors and tone. The painting lends credence to its insight that “there is courage and a knowing that makes coming out the ultimate choice.”

No matter gender, color or sexual orientation, we are human beings and should be given equal rights by law. With “Hope, Memory & Pride,” the LGBTQ community’s just cause is given their due historically and fundamentally.

The Second Floor Gallery is devoted to the second exhibit, “Bits & Pieces of the Past,” which reflects the efforts of one person to promote radical change toward reversing a trend that has reached epidemic proportions. The ever-growing numbers of opioid overdoses and deaths has hit critical mass.

Artist Maria Maneos and her program, “Brush With the Law,” takes the purposeful and restorative nature of art therapy to the prisons, teaching inmates like her son the power of creating a personal statement of reflection and growth out of their pain of addiction. Maneos’ art pulls no punches in its stark portrayal. Her award-winning “Art of the State” work, titled “5535-2017,” referenced the staggering number of lives lost to opioid overdoses in 2017. One of her timely works from this exhibit is “Power,” an outsized oil on canvas of a woman dressed only in her undergarments draped over a commode, making the power of drugs palpable (pictured). Another work by an inmate, entitled “Growth,” acrylic on paper, may be a unique take on personal reflection as a vine wraps around the figure, extending upward beyond her pain.

The connection between the two exhibits hinges on the word “Hope.” Society’s narrow view of what lies outside the norm often loses sight of the universal need that we all share regardless of our own walk. Hope can overcome all obstacles in our journey, for, with hope, obstacles can become opportunities and agency for change. Hope for tolerance and acceptance. Hope for a brighter tomorrow in which we all respect one another no matter race, religion, color, creed, gender or sexual orientation.

“Hope, Memory & Pride: Artists View Equality” and “Bits & Pieces of the Past” run through Nov. 21 at the Art Association of Harrisburg, 21 N. Front St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit their website.

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