A Visit to Tulsa’s Center for Queer Prairie Studies

“It looks like someone’s gay-ass apartment,” curator Karl Jones said of his exhibition The Center for Queer Prairie Studies, which debuted in historic downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

He wasn’t wrong. The walls of Flagship, a public project space, were slathered in bubblegum pink paint and adorned with paintings as well as personal belongings of queer Prairie icons including Adah Robinson, Bruce Goff, and Lynn Riggs. Complimenting these were works by contemporary 2SLGBTQ+ Prairie artists, contextualized by historic paraphernalia like a flash camera from the Queer Camera Collection Society, 1960s Barbie dolls, and an original Broadway recording of Oklahoma! 

Installation view from The Center for Queer Prairie Studies (courtesy Dan Farnum/Tulsa Artist Fellowship)

The Center for Queer Prairie Studies (CQPS) imagines an age-old institution, one that has done the work of archiving and exhibiting art by 2SLGBTQ+ folks from the prairie region of the United States, which extends from eastern Montana to the prairie wetlands of Minnesota, and down through the eastern parts of the mountain states all the way to north Texas. 

“The Center is all about identifying queer art and talent, and threading work by both contemporary and established makers in this region with the historical, cultural, and artistic production of queer people,” Jones told Hyperallergic.

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The Center for Queer Prairie Studies Living Room (courtesy Dan Farnum/Tulsa Artist Fellowship)

Jones modeled the exhibition after the Victorian homes of the Boston Marriage and 20th-century apartments of gay men in New York’s West Village. Artworks decorate the walls and rest on the floor as if waiting to be hung by an eccentric queer collector. He even incorporated an area designed to look like a living room, complete with a conversation pit. 

Jones conjured CQPS into existence through his work as a Tulsa Artist Fellow. It was in Tulsa, his hometown, where he began his love affair with performance art and was an elementary school jump rope star.

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Center: Frankoma Pottery, “Rooster Trivet” (1967), clay and enamel (courtesy Dan Farnum/Tulsa Artist Fellowship), right: Hen Mar Ben, “Phallic Vase” (2022), clay and enamel (courtesy Dan Farnum/Tulsa Artist Fellowship)

When Jones left Oklahoma, he never let go of his penchant for theatricality. He remembered his time in Washington, DC: “There was a drag troupe I was part of, we made raunchy low-level character-based sketches and everything from videos to live performances. We also threw parties. We would have DJs, of course, but we would also bring down performances from NYC, Montreal, etc, because I loved DC but it was lacking in an art scene.” He connected with ’80s nightlife curator Earl Dax, who helped attract international talent to Jones’s local events.

Jones took his performance practice to Baltimore and New York City, but the East Coast could not keep him forever. He received the fellowship in 2019 and returned to Oklahoma with his honed production skills in tow.

“I started with an architecture festival focused around Bruce Goff, who’s queer and, after Frank Lloyd Wright, the second most prolific 20th-century American architect, but not well known because of scandals related to his sexuality,” Jones noted. 

This festival inspired the concept for the CQPS, which, in addition to the physical exhibition, featured public programming events including the People of the Prairie fashion show, a screening of Lynn Riggs’s 1931 film A Day in Santa Fe, a presentation by queer Kansas artist Peter Max Lawrence, and the Bimbo Summit, a drag collective that performed in the CQPS living room.

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Installation view from The Center for Queer Prairie Studies (courtesy Dan Farnum/Tulsa Artist Fellowship)

Jones envisions the Center for Queer Prairie Studies as an ever-expanding exhibition. “There were objects we weren’t able to get that we would love to incorporate in future shows,” he pointed out. “Also, I think the idea of geography can be so malleable; we can go to any collection in the country and re-identify and reimagine objects as being part of the center.” 

He aspires to work with other prairie-based institutions in the future, such as the University of Nebraska Lincoln and the Walt Whitman Center, to create site-specific iterations of CQPS that continue to identify established queer artists, contemporary artists, and prairie historic icons. 

“It’s easy for people on the coast to write off the people in the middle,” Jones said. “They’re the ones having anti-drag, anti-trans, and ‘don’t say gay’ legislation. But there’s important work that is happening here in defiance of that, and a lot of that work is creative.”

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