Artist Shines Light On Heroes Of LGBTQ+ History For Pride Month

Shoulders of Giants Art Exhibit 
Looking to shine a light on the rich diversity and legacy of the LGBTQ+ community, artist Rachel Wilkins debuts a new series entitled ‘Shoulders of Giants.’ The 30-piece (one for each day of Pride month) multi-media body of work pays homage to the advocates, change-makers, and unsung heroes, whose tireless efforts helped to bring about social and political progress for LGBTQ+ people. 

The portraits feature well-known figures like Marsha P. Johnson, Audre Lord, Harvey Milk, Billie Jean King and Elton John but also chronicles lesser known voices such as Michael Dillon, the first trans man to medically transition, Barbara Gittings, a prominent activist for LGBTQ rights in New York, and Bayard Rustin, the main organizer of the March On Washington where MLK delivered his infamous “I Have A Dream” speech.

It was the closure of non-essential businesses and sheltering in place due to the COVID 19 pandemic that sparked the idea for “Shoulders of Giants,” says Wilkins, who is the Co-Founder and CEO of Conception Arts.  “My business had grounded to a halt because we are in the event space, hosting art exhibits all other the country.” Every year, Wilkins tries to do something for Pride Month. With lots of free time on her hands, she began researching people who were involved in fighting for LGBTQ+ rights. 

“I had this yearning for a deeper understanding of what came before. What, or who, enabled me to live my life so freely today as an out gay-woman,” she explains. “As my research unfolded I came to understand that there was a great deal of diversity and intersectionality represented among those that fought to push us forward.” She adds there were voices and faces that were new to her, “I felt both a moral and creative responsibility to get to know them and to honor them.”
Audre Lorde, Shoulders of Giants Art Exhibit 
Using industrial materials such as household paint and masking tape, layering mixed-media iconography atop of the painting, Wilkins presents each subject standing proud with a year of significance for their contribution to time and history. So, for Harvey Milk it’s the year 1977, when he won his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay elected official in the United States. 

Moreover, each portrait is paired with a personal essay. A white cisgender lesbian woman “who is perceived as being a straight white woman,” that is her experience, says Wilkins. She pondered, “how can I tell these stories about people of color and trans people in authentic way.” This led to the idea of including a letter of thanks from members of the LGBTQ+ community that expresses their gratitude and documents how they were personally affected by their hero’s contribution.

Wilkins eventually wants to take her “Shoulders of Giants” exhibit on the road to galleries and institutions, inviting the people who wrote the thank-you letters to share their experiences in person. She also wants to make this project a tool for educating communities, especially young LGBTQ+ people, “about the importance of a rich tapestry of people, cultures, ethnicities, genders, and classes that defined our movement.” She is in talks currently with the Newark Museum and Hudson River Museum about the possibility of the series being included in future programming.

Wilkins is in the business of holding art shows nationwide, enabling artists to showcase and sell their works without incurring hefty gallery fees or commissions. She notes some clients have sold $15,000 worth of artwork at one show after having paid only $330 to participate. “It’s a new way of art commerce,” she says.

Conception Arts also offers workshops and coaching among other services. “We are big on nurturing and elevating artists, helping them navigate the challenges of being a solo artist entrepreneur,” adds Wilkins. Since founding Conception Arts in 2011 with partner Jennifer Blum, the business has worked collectively with some 8,000 artists of varying mediums from sculptors to painters to photographers.  

More recently Wilkins has been hosting daily live shows on Facebook and YouTube, called “Coffee With Artists,” where she interviews one artist each morning. “It has been a beautiful way to get to know what some of these creatives are doing, especially during COVID and sheltering in place,” she says.

Wilkins joined nglccNY at the end of 2018. “I appreciate the investment the organization has made in connecting the dots.” Meaning, “the chamber doesn’t just host networking events. I was assigned an ambassador who was able to point me in the direction of the people whom I should be having a conversation with as it related to the type of work I am in,” explains Wilkins who has attended several workshops and many of the monthly mixers. Conception Arts is in the process of getting certified. Wilkins says she proudly declares, “I am an LGTB business.”

Marsha P. Johnson, Shoulders of Giants Art Exhibit 
For the remainder of PRIDE Month, each day Wilkins will introduce a new piece digitally from the “Shoulders of Giants” series. The 30 painting series is for sale at $2,200 each (, with 50% of the proceeds benefiting the National LGBTQ Task-force.

“We have this unique moment in time where we cannot be together physically, but thanks to digital media we now have the power to reach people who may otherwise never have had the opportunity, or means, to travel to a big city PRIDE parade. I thought long and hard about how art can capture a moment in time and give hope. I want young people to be inspired to live in their truth.” 

In the wake of worldwide protests over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, Wilkins acknowledges PRIDE marches were birthed out of protests. Afterall, the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 was a rebellion against police harassment and brutality. 
“Communities have the right to be as angry as they are now,” says Wilkins. 

She loves that LGBTQ+ PRIDE organizations around the nation (the world) have pivoted to focus on Black Lives Matter. “I think that was so appropriate. It’s about a damn time,” exclaims Wilkins who is originally from the UK and now resides in northern New Jersey with her wife. 

Wilkins' work is also available for purchase. In the month of June, all funds raised will be matched for the National LGBTQ Task Force, for up to $50,000. 

Written by Carolyn M. Brown, a journalist, author, playwright, producer, and founder of True Colors Project, a social enterprise that produces two annual events: My True Colors Excel Pride Awards and My True ColorsFestival, a multidisciplinary arts festival for and by LGBTQIAGNC+ storytellers. She is a member of the nglccNY Media and Communications Committee. @cmbrown_7

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