Visual Arts

Art exhibit trains a 'Mirror' on gay Lexington

Longtime artist and activist Bob Morgan curated 
I'll Be Your Mirror at Transylvania's Morlan Gallery.
Longtime artist and activist Bob Morgan curated I'll Be Your Mirror at Transylvania's Morlan Gallery. Lexington Herald-Leader

When Bob Morgan immersed himself in Lexington's gay culture in the 1960s and '70s, he says, he thought he was just living the life he wanted to live: being an artist trying to make the community more open to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning.

"We didn't have any LGBTQ," Morgan says, using a now relatively common acronym. "That was all very hard-fought for.

"Now it rolls off people's tongues. But for years, the men and women were separate, and the trans didn't belong to either group, and there was no cohesion or vision or purpose for any group for many decades."

Now, he realizes that he and many of his friends were absorbing, living, making and recording history as the LGBTQ community became more visible and accepted and gained more rights.

Morgan, a well-known Lexington artist, has curated a new exhibit, I'll Be Your Mirror, which puts that chronicle on the walls of Transylvania University's Morlan Gallery.

The exhibit takes the viewer through more than a century of history, from a purported drag-queen soldier of the Civil War through mid-century Lexington drag-queen icon Sweet Evening Breeze to today's young gay and allied artists.

Along the way, the works Morgan has gathered touch on figures who constituted an active but secretive gay culture in Lexington.

"We loosely called it '150 years of the les-bi-gay-transgender community in Lexington and Central Kentucky,'" Morgan says, describing the exhibit's mission. "We wanted to explore myths, stories and faces of the community.

"There were some specific old tales of the community I wanted to make sure got heard and seen by a new generation, because so much has been lost."

Part of that is due to the AIDS epidemic, which claimed many gay residents in the 1980s and '90s. Another part of it is because people who have been at the forefront of the movement to usher LGBTQ issues into cultural conversations are getting older.

Morgan, 64, is particularly interested in drawing viewers to the beginning of the exhibit, which starts with a self-portrait of young Kentucky artist Katelynn Ralston but quickly drops back to the 19th century and Civil War soldier Marcellus Jerome Clarke, also known as Sue Mundy.

"There's old texts, telling in elaborate detail about some of his get-ups and feminine behavior," Morgan says. "Now, historians say that was all made up. I found entries in Civil War soldiers' journals, who did their memoirs when they were old men, that talked about Sue Mundy and seeing her all dressed up and stuff.

"When I was a kid and first met all the old gay men downtown, some of them were born in the 1800s, and they all loved Sue Mundy and talked about him all the time. He became part of the myth of the local gay culture, whether it was true or not that he rode into battle dressed in drag."

Morgan said that in the 1970s, as the gay rights movement gained momentum, the image of fighting drag queen Sue Mundy was embraced by many in the community.

There are a number of older images in the show of Mundy, of black drag queens and of Sweet Evening Breeze, including a portrait of her male persona, James Herndon.

But the images get more plentiful, and in some cases more explicit, as the 20th century goes on. They include images of the Thomas January house on Second Street, which Morgan says functioned for years as a private gay club, and images by and of Central Kentucky artist Henry Faulkner.

As the works show, the secrecy and refinement of early 20th-century gays gave way to the 1970s and '80s and a more flamboyant and open community that favored clubs like Cafe LMNOP and even had floats in Lexington's Fourth of July parade.

"People were floored," Morgan says of the reaction to the floats. "They did not know how to handle it."

Institute 193, a Lexington gallery, partnered with the Morlan Gallery to create the catalog for I'll Be Your Mirror and put much of the exhibit together. Gallery director Chase Martin says the Institute previously had worked with a number of the artists in the show, including Morgan. But he says he was struck by the overall amount of material, about 50 percent of which came from Morgan's personal collection, including Faulkner's scrapbooks, which are presented in a display case.

"I would not necessarily have known any of these stories if I had not known Bob before," Martin said. "It's a cool context to have, especially now."

It's a time when many of the rights for which activists including Morgan fought are coming to pass nationally and in Lexington, a city that in 1999 passed the state's first fairness ordinance and recently elected a gay mayor, Jim Gray.

Patrick Smith, an artist in his 20s, says that through the growing acceptance of gays, maybe things have gotten too normal.

"A lot of flair has gone away," he says. "There's a lot more frumpiness in today's culture."

Smith is one of several artists Morgan asked to create new works for the exhibit. Some were longtime compadres, including Libbie Sherman. Others were young artists like Smith and Ralston.

The latter is entirely appropriate in the view Morgan's longtime friend and colleague Diane Kahlo.

"Through Bob's work and his activism, and sometimes it's just being there and having the work, students have come to him and in turn used their work in a very healing and searching process," Kahlo said.

The exhibit title, I'll Be Your Mirror, is taken from the song of the same name written by Lou Reed, who died last month. The song, originally performed by the Velvet Underground and Nico, talks about showing people they are beautiful despite what they think of themselves. That is the type of community Morgan says formed many years ago and endures to this day.

He says he is surprised that despite society's more openness in terms of sexuality, many young artists have the same sorts of identity and vocational struggles he faced decades ago. He said that's why he wanted to get pieces from younger artists: to show that the history is continuing and evolving.

One photo shows Jackson E. Schad, a Central Kentucky artist who is transgender, showing another person going through gender transition how to take hormone-therapy drugs, a process Morgan said was unheard of when he was younger.

"We didn't think what we were doing when we were Patrick's age was necessarily historical either," Morgan says. "But it ends up being that, and I was trying to give young people a sense that what they were doing was historical, too, though none of us know it when we're doing it."


'I'll Be Your Mirror'

What: Exhibit of art depicting the history of Lexington's gay culture

When: Through Nov. 25. Gallery hours: Noon-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.

Where: Transylvania University's Morlan Gallery, in Mitchell Fine Arts Building, Fourth St. between Broadway and Mill St.

Learn more:


Curator talk: Bob Morgan will discuss gathering items for the exhibit. 12:30 p.m. Nov. 12.

Gallery Hop: 5-8 p.m. Nov. 15