Before he set foot in the Tucson Museum of Art, 18-year-old James Gutierrez didn’t know “you could document your life and put it in a museum.”
Gutierrez, who identifies as transgender, was one of this year’s youth participants in Mapping Q, a community arts education program in which LGTBQ+ youth explore representations of self within art, museums, and the wider community. Now Gutierrez’s heart—or a representation of it—along with a map of his life experience hangs in the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA).
His work joins more than a dozen other art works by LGBTQ+ youth created during the eight-week afterschool program, which focuses on suicide prevention, mapping, and art activities. Much of the show appears at UAMA; another portion hangs at the Tucson Museum of Art (TMA).
Mapping Q was started in 2012 by Chelsea J. Farrar, assistant curator of education at UAMA, in partnership with the Southern Arizona Aids Foundation (SAAF)’s ALLY (Arizona’s Life Links for Youth) program, which works to reduce the rate of attempted and completed suicides among LGBTQ+ youth in Pima and other AZ counties.
Mapping Museum Spaces
This year, MOCA Tucson and the Tucson Museum of Art (TMA) joined the program as additional partners. Youth visited all sites to understand how art was displayed in those spaces and what it portrayed.
At TMA, that meant viewing an exhibit of contemporary art called “Into the Night,” which considers the notions of darkness and dreamscapes, said Marianna Pegno, associate curator of education at TMA.
One of the pieces in the show is a large Gregory Crewdson photograph, “Untitled (Dispatch) Summer 2007,” showing a scene of rainy night and a woman who’s just stepped out from a taxi cab. When youth participants viewed the piece, they discussed what was happening in the image, interrogating the art with questions like “Is the woman trying to get away? Is she a rape victim? Does the want to be there? Who is still in the car?”
“We were trying to make sense of the story, thinking about it from all angles,” Gutierrez said.
Pegno said that allowing viewers to connect their personal experiences or responses is critical for museum education. “I’m always looking for more than one perspective on a piece of art,” she said. “In this case, what makes you uncomfortable, and then finding ways to speak to that.”
Mapping and Making Art
Participants also mapped all the identities they saw in museum exhibits at TMA, UAMA and MOCA. “Anything they saw in terms of interpretation, subject matter and artists,” Farrar said.
Because maps are always representations of places and spaces, complete with distortions of size and relationships, they are useful for opening up discussions of institutional power. “The results were that there were very few representations of LGBT identity,” Farrar said.
At TMA, the Mapping Q exhibit opens with a colorful map made up of crisscrossing yarn and ribbon that connects handwritten terms such as “gender fluid,” “androgynous,” “suit,” “mother,” “boss” and others.
Gutierrez explained that youth participants worked on the map over all sessions of the program, identifying spaces in the museum where those terms were or were not realized.
While artmaking can be therapeutic, Farrar acknowledges that a safe space is necessary for healing to happen. “It can’t just be an art class,” she says, “It has to have the right people there to support them.”
The process of mapping also helped students address their own anxieties about making art. “It puts youth at ease about having to create realistic artwork. They learn they can use abstraction and experiment,” Farrar said.
Experimenting with different forms and materials also helps participants figure out parts of their identity. “If you identify as more than one thing you can use different materials to echo those parts of your identity,” said Pegno.
Multiple Mediums and Expressions
Since the program’s inception, Mapping Q youth artists have explored different artistic mediums to express themselves. Last year, one participant interviewed fellow students in the program and their friends, and identified places in Tucson that were significant to them and their identities. They recorded those interviews and used Google maps to create an interactive map.
“When you click on the map it goes to a story or narrative explanation of certain space, like where someone was when they came out or their first gender and women’s studies class at the UA,” Farrar said.
Other projects are less complicated, but no less powerful.
In addition to a collage addressing his own life, Gutierrez created an interactive piece that poses questions to museum goers about times in their lives they felt unsafe or judged.
“I was thinking of times I was excluded or when youth voice wasn’t heard. Your voice sometimes won’t be heard unless you’re cis-gendered and white with a certain social status,” Gutierrez said.
Farrar said the student work helps to humanize identities they might have only heard about. “Viewers might have a liberal opinion about the transgender bathroom issue, but when it becomes humanized by art they get to see it in a deeper way,” she said.
In the UAMA gallery, an installation by Fran(k), a transgender artist, is made of three rolls of toilet paper. On each roll, each square of paper marked with a message of belonging, such as “I love you” or “You’re okay.” The piece is a commentary on the recent North Carolina court ruling against transgender bathrooms. The label for the piece reads:
I am just a confusion to everyone. I am a ball of anxiety and stress; even writing this, I am stressing out. This project is about these insecurities and stressors that make my life harder, especially when I need to pee. I am taking all the negativity out of the bathroom and making it a positive thing.
The artist was looking at a space of anxiety and trying to make it positive, Farrar said. “It was just $10 worth of materials but a really thoughtful and significant project,” she said.
Queering Space and Challenging Structures
By exhibiting work they’ve created, organizers say participants gain a sense of validation of self. “They’re not seeing their identities represented in the museums,” Farrar said. “So when they create the artwork and it’s put on display in a professional way in the museum, they’ve inserted their identities. We’re queering the museum space.”
For Farrar, the exhibition of the work represents the most rewarding moment. “Seeing how many youth feel comfortable creating work and submitting it — I love seeing that eagerness and excitement. They all come to the opening and they’re all so excited and bring friends and family. It’s fantastic.”
Mapping Q also offers an opportunity for museum members and visitors to engage with identity politics in a different way.
One of the lasting lessons of the program, Pegno said, is helping museums understand how to better embody alternative language and how exhibits and outreach can interrogate our assumptions.
For the Mapping Q exhibit, youth wrote their own artwork labels and introductions. In the fall, TMA will continue that strategy, inviting various members of the Tucson community, youth included, to write labels/responses of 125 words, to works in an upcoming exhibit.
The museum also has adopted the practice of leading viewers through its collection to look specifically for representation of diverse gender identities.
This week Gutierrez, who now works for TMA, leads his first “Queer Detour,” a walking/talking tour through the museum to engage audiences in conversation about identity representations in the collections.
“You can look at a picture and see it a million ways.” This sentiment connects with his experience of gender. “Everyone identifies differently. There are so many ways you can identify,” he said.
Mapping Q is on display through July 31 in two parts, one at UAMA and the other at Tucson Museum of Art. http://www.artmuseum.arizona.edu/mapping-q