Interviews – Winter 2022

Letter from the Editors

For this issue of SoFA, we each interviewed people affiliated with Portland State University. Our social practices tend to engage with communities, but as a program we operate more as a satellite of our parent university. Individually, we have our own ways of connecting with campus life— teaching assistantships in undergraduate classes, working on-campus jobs, hanging out in the park blocks, taking Dance Fusion aerobics class at the athletic center, or working in the Social Practice Archive housed in the Special Collections at the PSU library. But because we primarily convene for classes off campus— at KSMoCA (Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School), Harrell’s living room, on Zoom from our respective homes (or favorite coffee shops)— it can feel like we, as a group, are disconnected from our university community. 

This year, as we experience a completely open campus after an era of pandemic protocols, many of us are getting reacquainted, or acquainted for the first time, with our campus; sprucing up our studio space, doing projects at the art department’s Open Studios, or picking up free groceries from the food pantry in the basement of Smith Student Union.

This winter, we found people in departments all over PSU who are engaging with topics connected to our own areas of investigation. We are excited to introduce you to the many people doing incredible research, teaching, projects, and labor across the university. 

In the interviews that follow, we meet a dance professor who wants you to notice your body in the city and the city as a body; a pragmatist philosopher who surmises the whole world is one big role playing game; the lone mascot of PSU’s athletic department who’s willing to shake everyone’s hand; a sociology professor who wants us all to talk more about death; a social psychologist devoted to trash; two graduate students with an intimate connection to their bowel movements; a critical feminist geographer using comics to explore the experience of homelessness; a critical race spatial educator uncovering the hidden curriculum within university culture; and the PSU Provost, who wants more artists’ voices in the room.

Come with us on the most in depth and strange virtual campus tour you’ll ever get!

Your editors,

Caryn Aasness, Luz Blumenfeld, Becca Kauffman

To Understand Each Other

“In my practice, mutual understanding means that people can learn about each other’s experiences and find something they can relate through, and build some bonds with each other that potentially creates some form of solidarity that can empower all of us.”


Illia is an Art and Social Practice alumnus I have the privilege to call a friend. I don’t remember how our friendship evolved, but we have shared stories, meals, drinks, school projects, and dance moves. Sometimes we get lost in translation—I being from Colombia and he being from Ukraine— but he has always made me feel understood, even in the darkest alleys of homesickness.

In many classroom friendships, some things never get asked, as if life before entering an MFA program was a hazy horizon detached from the shiny present of graduate studies. But being in grad school is just the tip of the iceberg of tons of decisions and life turns that make us converge in the same space/time to share thoughts around the same terms and topics.

I’ve known Illia for two years. We have ideals in common and a shared interest in community exchange and care. But I didn’t know what his journey in art life was like. This conversation is an exercise in understanding my friend’s urge to cultivate solidarity and cooperation through socially engaged art.

Illia during the Sailing Mariupol event. Willamette Sailing Club.
October 2022. Portland, OR. Photo by Diana Marcela Cuartas

Diana Marcela Cuartas:
Tell me about your life before coming to Portland. How did you end up in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University?

Illia Yakovenko: My life before coming to Portland started in the city of Mariupol, in Eastern Ukraine, where I grew up and spent a major part of my life. I studied economics with a major in management in Donetsk, one of the regional centers in eastern Ukraine and a city that also influenced me and that I feel connected to. This was one of the cities that got taken over and occupied during the first Russian invasion in 2014. After finishing my education there, I went to Moscow. I got a job in a telecommunications company as a delivery boy, and because of my management background, I was able to “grow” and became a sales manager. I started learning more about art because there were more opportunities for that than in Mariupol, which was more of an industrialized town without an art school and just a few museums. In Moscow, there were big museums and a biennial, and I had access to all this art from other places. Now, I get that it was primarily sourced from the other republics, similar to how things happen in an empire. You could find Ukrainian or Central Asian art stored in Moscow or St. Petersburg museums in Russia just because they could do that.

So I started to get exposed to art, then I started volunteering at the Moscow Biennial, and eventually, I got into an art program at the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Art. Since then, I’ve been into art. So, if we go back to how I ended up in Portland, there is a part of my life in Moscow, which is when I switched to art and also into precariousness.

Diana: What do you mean?

Illia: When I switched my career to the art field, I lost my job and my security to some extent. I was also undocumented for a while, and Moscow is very strict with that. The police are everywhere, and if you don’t have the proper ID, they can deport you or detain you. I also became houseless for a while. I had to study and try to navigate the situation when I had nowhere to go. I would stay and crash on my friend’s couches, but there are limits to that. So I’d have to wander at night or go to the subway because it was open until 1AM. Then I’d hang out for 4 hours somewhere in the city in the middle of the night.

I started getting different jobs managing art projects, so I got some money, graduated from this program, and entered another one in St. Petersburg. It was The School of Engaged Art by Studio Art Group. This was when my interest in social engagement started. I remember there were major demonstrations in 2012; people would flood streets like Bolotnaya Square, punch police cars’ tires, and fight with the police for real. Then, I guess the Kremlin and Putin became paranoid that they could lose power and started introducing new legislation, reinforcing the police and getting equipment to suppress the demonstrations. These laws could imprison people for 4-6 years if they’re found guilty of fighting with the police or taking part in protests, creating an even more oppressive and authoritarian climate.

With all these things happening, artists had a special role in supporting the demonstrations by making posters or signs, looking for different ways to call for political action, or making art that addressed the political context. Some of my first art-making was with my friends, organizing an experimental school for gender studies in Moscow because there was a large clash of the Russian government against the queer, LGBTQ+ community, and anything that would be a disruption of the patriarchal gender standards. There were laws introduced that criminalized what they would call “propaganda,” basically anything that would speak about LGBTQ+ rights. People could get imprisoned if the government found that they are doing this “propaganda” for minors. So we were trying to push back and decided to come together and create this school and invite people. 

It was a two-month program with three components: art, theory, and activism. We invited artists to share their art practice through talks or lectures, and we invited philosophers or people from the academy to talk about gender in relation to the Soviet Union. We invited activists to share resources about other activist organizations or events. We had an art laboratory where we produced artwork based on what we learned at this school and the experience of meeting all these people, and we were lucky to get away with it without getting in a lot of trouble. That was one of the first socially engaged projects I’ve been part of creating, curating, and making. We conceptualized it as a social sculpture.

Diana: So, in Moscow you were more exposed to art, and it seems like this was also pushed onto you by the context. I wonder, if the political situation had been different, would you be interested in art anyway?

Illia: I think the political situation made me interested in socially engaged forms of art. Because I was interested in art before but in more conventional forms, still very much confined to gallery or museum spaces. After these experiences, I realized that even in the gallery space, many artworks could convey a political message. After getting more embedded into this community of artists, I realized that people were actually part of the events and tried with their art to support political activism as much as they could. It was not like they just made art and talked about the experience. 

So, my political engagement started in Russia, but by the end of 2013, another revolution was happening in Ukraine. I visited a few times to witness how it unfolded. The Ministry of Culture in Ukraine got occupied by activists and that event changed my perspective completely. I connected with the people who occupied it and went to a couple of meetings where people would gather at this large table to have a very horizontal type of meeting. They were discussing how they wanted to rebuild the cultural infrastructure of the country after the revolution succeeded. It was super interesting to experience that. It was very different from the Russian situation, where you can’t even come close to the Ministry of Culture building because it’s fenced out and the police guard it. 

In Ukraine, after the occupation, you could enter the building; the guard was still there but did nothing because he was just a guy, who I assume was still coming to work because things were unclear. The Minister left the building and never came back. Most workers also did not come back to work, so you could access papers, financial documents, and everything. It inspired me to go back to live in Ukraine to become part of this process of changing the structures because they were very inert, in many ways similar to what the Soviet Union was: a very top-down corrupt system without any input from the art community. But in 2014, after the building was occupied and after the revolution, all these changes started happening, and people from the field started entering the Ministry of Culture, some new government institutions were created, and it became more functional. I got inspired by this change and its potential and moved back to Ukraine and lived there for almost four years before coming to Portland.

Diana: How did you decide to come to this specific program?

Illia: There was another part of my life when I went to Beirut, Lebanon, to another art program for almost a year. There I met Gregory Sholette, an American artist involved in socially engaged work with a very political practice. Meeting him, I learned he runs a program in New York, and the program’s name is Social Practice. Basically, this is how I learned about the term. I was already interested in socially engaged art and how to learn the skills to enable social engagement between people or communities. I was interested in working with people and improving that part of my practice. I started looking for opportunities to do that and found out about the Fulbright scholarship, which I was lucky to get.

When I was applying, I didn’t know much about other programs in the United States. I knew about Gregory’s program and was in touch with him. Initially, I applied with the hope that I would go to study in New York. But, because of the nature of Fulbright, they can send you to any school they decide is most relevant for you based on many factors, trying to find a place they can afford best. Eventually, they just told me where they wanted me to go to study. I learned about the program at Portland State while I was already in the process.

When it turned out they were sending me to Portland, I checked the PSU Art and Social Practice website. I saw they had a partnership with the Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School and the Columbia River Correctional Institute. As an international student, not knowing what to expect in the United States and struggling with the language and many other things, it was good to see that, structurally, the program had these established forms of co-creation available for students; where maybe I could plug in and not have to look for the opportunities myself. Because the whole experience of adjusting to this new environment is already a lot of stress and energy. 

Diana: How did the experience in the program and the Portland context impact your creative process? How is finding community and trying to master “social engagement skills” in this specific Portland life?

I’m curious because your artistic practice emerged as a reaction to the political context you were immersed in before coming here and I don’t feel like PSU Art and Social Practice has a strong foundation for activism or political engagement.

Illia: It was definitely a difficult experience. I don’t want to necessarily say it was a “culture shock,” but it definitely felt very different. Like many things that were relevant to me were different here. I’m still learning and don’t fully understand how to operate in this context. Still, I am staying here longer and longer. It’s always challenging in general, and it’s not even necessarily a program-related thing. It’s just the difference in the context. 

But there are some takeaways from the program, from this local context, and mostly from the people; either students or just people who I’ve met in my journey in the United States. I have learned many things that changed how I think about socially engaged art. Now I think about my practice in a way that not only creates antagonistic statements but also as a way of trying to be supportive of myself and the community I am part of. Compared to what I experienced in Russia or Ukraine, where art often came from this political necessity of pushing back against the government, art can be very vocal and very rough. There is also a lot of trauma but you kind of embrace this trauma and try to… I am trying to find the right words… 

Diana: I’m thinking about the word “urgent.” At least for me, that also comes from a country where the context urges you to take action with your practice, to the point that sometimes it feels like it is kind of a privilege to create outside of those lines.

Illia: There is some art that makes some eyes feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to say it is “violent,” but you do some things and maybe you don’t like them but you still have to do it because it feels like a need to be dedicated to the political moment. I guess I’m trying to say that I have learned that it’s also important to take care of yourself and the community you work with. In this way, my practice became more about care and joy, or at least that is something I try to find for myself through my work. With projects like The Sea of Mariupol (1), I was trying to create a healing environment for myself, but with an approach where I could offer that framework to other people and see how it can be helpful for them to overcome the trauma of displacement. 

Diana: I totally got that with that project. It was healing magic having all these people together, sharing a boat ride. It was a joyful moment that I didn’t know I needed, and it brought me feelings of home. It made me think that maybe because of the pandemic plus the political situation, the need for care has become more urgent too.

I would also like to hear more about the Center for Art and Human Cooperation (2). I love that the mission is “To support mutual understanding and solidarity through arts and culture.” Can you tell me more about the need for mutual understanding, care, and solidarity?

Illia: Because I went through all these experiences, meeting people from different countries and cultures, I have learned some things about the politics and the struggles that those people have gone through, and I can relate to certain things that people share. Even though the struggles everyone is exposed to are different because they involve different configurations of geopolitics, history, race, and all these complexities. They fall differently in different places for different people, but there are factors that are relatable for many of us. In my practice, mutual understanding means that people can learn about each other’s experiences and find something they can relate through, and build some bonds with each other that potentially creates some form of solidarity that can empower all of us.

Because of being in the United States and not being connected to anyone, people have helped me a lot. People from different communities with different experiences have stepped in and helped me navigate different situations. So there are two things: one is finding ways to relate to each other and know more about each other’s struggles, the other is to understand them not only through the mind, but basically to feel for each other. Is there a word for that?

Diana: I don’t know if I’m getting it wrong, but this “feel for each other” sounds like learning through feelings. A connection to share ideas, experiences, or facts by understanding each other’s feelings.

Illia: Things unfold differently in different contexts, but some things are common in terms of capitalism, colonialism, and extraction. People experience these things differently according to their own circumstances, but it is still part of this global capitalism and the extractivist paradigm we’re immersed in, which, eventually, everyone has to address in some way. It is mainly driven to help yourself, but if there is more coordination and solidarity, it would be easier to address these systems in a way that can benefit everyone.

Diana: Why did you choose an institutional disguise as the framework to start the conversation about mutual understanding with The Center for Human Art and Cooperation?

Illia: Part of the need to make an institution came from the fact that I’ve done small projects that get folded into this bigger framework, and putting them together multiplies its symbolic value. But it comes from the need for a sense of security as well. I’m not sure if it’s working out for me so far or not, but since there’s so much precarity in being an artist, an institution feels more stable. It’s more psychological, that, maybe if I express all these things in this form, then I feel more secure, that’s one of the reasons. Also, sometimes, when you reach out to someone and say, “I have this institution,” people get more interested in what you’re doing. But at the same time, it can be a challenge. I remember the experience of participating in the activities of the Ukrainian Day Festival. I didn’t know the organizers very well, and when pitching my ideas, I would bring the institution up, and the response would be, “Oh, but what is your institution? Is it a charity? Is it commercial?” It felt more challenging to explain an institution than just come as an artist. In certain cases, it can make things more difficult because people may ask more questions and can even feel distrust of you as an institution.

Diana: One more question: how do you explain social practice to non-artists?

Illia: I would have some examples of my own work to share, explaining my projects and that I try to create experiences that will help others to learn about the place I am from in a way they can relate to my experience and connect it to things that are relevant to the context they come from. Like with The Sea of Mariupol, people’s social interaction and the social part of the project’s design is part of my practice and the artwork itself. This is how I approach this question so far because everything can be social practice. But basically, social practice is when social experience becomes an integral part of the artwork.

(1) The Sea of Mariupol is a program created by Illia to celebrate and commemorate the city of Mariupol, Ukraine, with a series of community-oriented events at the Willamette Sailing Club to raise awareness of Ukraine’s situation. This event encourages personal connection by sharing experiences and stories during a boat ride guided by Illia in support of Mariupol and its people.

(2) The Center for Human Art and Cooperation (CAHC) is a project created by Illia as an institution committed to supporting mutual learning and solidarity through exhibitions, events, discussions, and other artistic activities to promote cross-communal and cross-cultural exchange.

Diana Marcela Cuartas is a Colombian artist, educator, and cultural worker transplanted to Portland in 2019. Her work incorporates visual research, popular culture analysis and collaborative learning processes in publications, workshops, parties, or curatorial projects as a framework to investigate the relationships formed between a place and those who inhabit it. With her practice, Diana is interested in subverting hegemonic structures by cultivating spaces to invite people to slow down, think together, share questions, and play more.

Illia Yakovenko is an artist from Mariupol, Ukraine and a displaced individual. He is a 2022 graduate of the Art and Social Practice program and a Fulbright recipient. Illia grew up in Mariupol, by the Sea of Azov, where he spent hot summer days swimming and sailing.

The first Russian invasion of 2014 turned Mariupol and eastern Ukraine into a frontline. Since then, Illia directed his art practice to address conflict, heal, and imagine a more equitable, inclusive and safe future. In the following invasion of 2022, the Russian military attempted to completely destroy Mariupol. Illia’s family was able to flee to Europe. Illia’s status in the United States or elsewhere is precarious and uncertain.


This cover reminds me of the way I felt recording a dance in my kitchen to ‘Dance it Off’ by New York underground It felt exciting to highlight the digital publication of SOFA Journal by featuring an animated GIF. I found that the pop of red for the logo just felt strong, and I also enjoy how it plays on a retro 70s palette with the brown in the heels and toes of the socks. The clip shows Karena Salmond’s “Kitchen Sink Barre”, a dance piece that she created in April 2020 at the start of COVID-19 quarantine in Portland, Oregon when many people resorted to rituals to stay grounded in the chaos. With the war in Ukraine putting so many at high risk and without safety, we can return to our rituals as we offer resources for emergency travel, shelter, and financial support for those in need. Moving our bodies is always available through transitional moments for release, connection, expression, and even celebration.

GIF: Karena Salmond, Kitchen Sink Barre. April 2020. Excerpted from “ISO: Mentors of Color” by Lillyanne Phạm with Karena Salmond. 

Cover design: Gilian Rappaport 

Cover production: Laura Glazer

Letter from the Editors

Everyone you meet knows something you don’t. Part of doing an interview is learning things that you are curious about from experts and enthusiastic amateurs. Google searches don’t always give you the answers you may be looking for, as Jessica Cline tells Laura Glazer in their interview “How it Works to be Curious.” When sourcing through the web, “you don’t necessarily want to see the same image everyone else saw.” Asking people what they know or how they feel can give you a larger picture of what matters. An interview can be a tool to show that you care about someone. This is sort of like being a good host. Becca Kauffman talks with Fernando Perez in the interview “The Unexpected Host” about the intersection of hosting and interviewing, and how both require empathy and the ability to make people feel comfortable. “If you’re extremely empathic, that is reliably a good way to bring the best out of interview subjects,” says Perez. 

As social practice artists we are regularly trying to create experiences for people as a form of art. In “Collaborative Curation, Ethical Exclusion, and the Materiality of Nightlife,” Luz Blumenfeld and Roya Amirsoleymani discuss how parties can be and are artworks: “I am frustrated by curatorial practices that simply display politics as content, signaling social justice values without living them, embedding them, operationalizing them, or building them into the ways in which a curatorial project or institution functions.” There are lots of reasons to conduct an interview. Sometimes it’s because you want to revisit a time in your life with someone who was there and find out if your memory matches theirs. Olivia Delgandio interviews her 2nd grade teacher about her teaching philosophies, a topic that may not have been on Olivia’s mind at seven, but is now a shared interest between the two. Sometimes an interview happens because you have someone in your life who is amazing at what they do and/or amazing at describing the world and you just want others to experience the person you have the privilege of having regular undocumented conversations with.

Reading interviews can make you feel like a backseat interviewer; you might wish different questions had been asked, or more time was spent on  a particular idea. Remember, you can always conduct your own interview! Pursue a “self-educational” experience, explained in this issue by Harrell Fletcher in conversation with Kiara Walls. As we are so often reminded in our program, everyone you’re interested in is just a person, and you can always ask to talk to them. Go forth and interview! Here is some inspiration to get you started.

Caryn Aasness

Becca Kauffman

Emma Duehr Mitchell

Breathing Its Own Magic

Gilian Rappaport with Carla Kaya Perez-Gallardo 

“That is our practice, changing people through the lived experience of eating with us, and all of the sensations that they have.”


How do our senses shape the socially engaged artwork? How do the relationships within the collective define its form, and what guides those formational decisions?  

Recently for me, this question has intersected with my interests in queer aesthetics, storytelling, flavor exploration, and frameworks of collaboration. I have been pleased to find a sparkling intersection for these curiosities in Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, a James-Beard nominated restaurant, art installation, and queer mecca in Hudson, New York. The restaurant was founded by chefs and artists Carla Kaya Perez-Gallardo and Hannah Black in 2016. 

In 2019, I was love-struck to discover Lil’ Deb’s Oasis through their ‘Gala Extravaganza 2.0: The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (see feature from their first Gala in 2018). I was particularly captivated by their celebration of community art – bringing together the owners, beloved staff, cherished food vendors, local artists, and lively restaurant guests. A multi-course dinner extravaganza in their signature style of ‘tropical comfort’ was flanked by performances from the resounding local 20-person samba band Berkshire Bateria, followed by drag performances from community members Celeste and Davon. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020-2021, the Lil’ Deb’s team temporarily closed their restaurant and instead, incarnated as Fuego 69 in the backyard of a nearby hotel. There, Deb’s offered “zing-zangy frisky-fresh pescatarian hippie food right off the grill,” standing on a promise of reciprocity by donating 69 cents of every item sold to local and national racial justice causes and community organizations amid the George Floyd protests. Each Lil’ Deb’s offering contrasts with the way that many food establishments in the Catskills can feel aesthetically homogenous and exclusive. Doesn’t the familiar look of white walls, pine bars, and exposed brick cue a certain kind of food experience and model of leadership? 

When my friend Seth Caplan asked me to accompany him on a photoshoot of Carla’s home in early 2022, we all spoke about queerness as an uncontainable container, layering as a visual device, and the importance of reciprocity in community care. Carla agreed to continue the conversation as a phone interview a few weeks later. What I found in Carla was their embrace of queer hospitality as a mode of being, including the changing and evolving life of the restaurant itself. I, too, aim to embrace change wholeheartedly, but for me this tendency has often felt scattered. In Carla, I saw the opportunity for this as a generative space from which to build endless inspiration and connection.

Food offered at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis. Image by Heidi’s Bridge. 2019. Courtesy of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis.

February 25, 2022

Gilian Rappaport: Hi Carla! To get started, will you share a little bit about the community around Lil’ Deb’s?

Carla Kaya Perez-Gallardo: Hi Gil. Sure. When we opened five years ago, queer community felt disparate in the Hudson Valley. It didn’t feel like we were non-existent, it just felt like there was little infrastructure to support us. 

Opening the restaurant, we never sought to explicitly fill that hole, but as a queer person living and breathing in the Hudson Valley, and had been already for five years by the time the restaurant opened, it was born from this general desire to create community for younger artist types, who didn’t really fit into the spaces that were already existing around us. 

In many ways, I’m applying hindsight to this – seeing this need that was there.  I don’t think I felt as aware of that, specifically, in terms of queerness when we opened. 

Gilian: Do you remember where the project impulse was coming from?

Carla: At the time, we felt that there was no food that had heat and flavor, there was no place that felt young and alive. A lot of the places that were opening around here felt really ‘white wall, exposed brick, Brooklyn-comes-to-Hudson’ kind of energy. And we just felt really clear that we wanted to do something very different from that, and that we would be welcomed for that difference. And that was the main framework of our initial impetus to open the restaurant.

Gilian: Can you talk a little about what that meant aesthetically for you?

Carla: It meant a lot of bright colors, and neon lights. We often talk about an overwhelming sensorial experience, where you’re inundated with light, color, sound, and flavor all at once. Guests upon entering stand at the door and say, “Whoa, I didn’t know this existed here.” We’re a splash of… I hate saying “rainbow” because of its LGBTQIA associations in a very specific way, but a splash of super chromatic energy in the Hudson Valley. The Hudson Valley is such a verdant, vibrant, fertile place, but as it’s been developed, its aesthetic has become this homogenous thing— pine and black paint for the outside of your house, repurposed piping for your lighting— which started having this repetitive, cookie cutter quality all around us. Our aesthetics cut through that. It’s the acid in a dish that needs acid. It brings out so many of the other flavors and accents, everything in a way, which feels really necessary.

Staff at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis. Image by Heidi’s Bridge. 2019. Courtesy of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis.

Gilian: I love hearing you talk about the word chromatic. That really resonates with my experience being in this space. 

Will you talk a little bit about the role of performance, and food and service as performance?

Carla: When we first opened, it was really literal, because we opened with a team of servers who had no experience serving. And I remember one of our first pitches to them, all of them were artists, or curators, or painters, and our cue to them was, “Imagine what your quintessential idea of a waitress is.” Our space used to be a diner. And I remember referencing that classic 1950s epitome of a server, popping bubblegum, casually talking to guests, running to get the coffee. Very “homegrown, community, knows everyone, knows your neighbors” kind of thing. And we told our first crew of artists-servers “ut yourself in that place! Imagine being that quintessential waitress. What does she look like, what does she feel like? Put yourself into that mindset, and bring that to the table.” That was during our pop-up phase before we even had leased the space. (Read about their beginnings through the Wikipedia page “history”). It was really fun. We all felt like we were role playing in a way. At that point, I had never owned my own restaurant either, or been able to decide what the menu was, and the colors, and the lights. It felt like we were all playing house – we were role playing chefs, they were role playing servers. In a lot of ways, performance has always been at the core of our imaginative work, and has led us to manifest and really bring to life the fantasy. It was an internal dialogue around how to step into the role we wanted to play in the community.

Gilian: Are you still thinking about Lil’ Deb’s as a space of performance? 

Carla: Absolutely. A few years in, we started hosting Queer Night of Performance (QNOP) once a month, which was born from a conversation we had in the restaurant about wanting more queer celebration. Even though the restaurant had started to become an oasis and a mecca for queer people, it still felt like there wasn’t enough in-your-face queerness— total freedom, and being able to be super loud about it. 

We were still a restaurant, so we still had to hit all the points of what a restaurant hits, which in some ways automatically closes in on queerness. We’ve never told our staff to wear uniforms or any of the other ways that restaurants try to mitigate performance of the body. But the function of a restaurant is the function of capitalism in a lot of ways. There are certain things you have to do in order to perform the role of server well that limits the ecstatic exuberance of queerness, which is fundamentally anti-capitalist at its essence. Our staff was craving more expansiveness around their own queerness, apart from the performativity of it, and that’s how this conversation about QNOP started. Now I think QNOP is the most embodied way that we are still performing. 

Ále Campos aka Celeste. Queer Night Of Performance. Image by Leor Miller. Courtesy of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis. 2019.

Gilian: In my experience, everyone at Deb’s is performing in a way that transcends that base level requirement of what you need from your server. There’s a deeper sense of connection and openness starting with the hospitality, the flavors that you’re being introduced to through this person, and the way they are introduced. 

Carla: Yeah, in most cases, it’s that queer liberation coming through! But we still serve a majority of heteronormative, cis white straight people. In hospitality, our job is to be of service to everyone that walks through our doors. Part of the mission is to do it in an inclusive way that is about building community. That’s not always at the core of restaurants, and can also come into conflict with queer identity. 

Just, we run a business. Working at the restaurant is a job. We can’t escape from that. There is joy, and there is also work to be done and capital to be made. And all those things can limit the exuberance you experience while doing your job.

Gilian: Of course, thanks for elaborating on that. I want to talk about collaboration and what it means to really be collaborative in this ongoing art project. How do you navigate it as a mode of creativity? 

Carla: We go in and out of collaboration. The spirit of the project is very collaborative. And when I worked alongside my business partner [Hannah Black], it was definitely a full 50/50 collaboration on almost every element of the menu and design and all of that. But especially in the last seven months [since Carla became the sole owner, and the restaurant reopened following the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic], some elements of that have shifted. For example, I’ve taken a first pass at our reopening menu [for 2022] mostly on my own. I reference that because the word “collaboration” is so much about being in conversation with someone else’s ideas, and so in that sense, I want to say that we are not always 100% collaborative. But collaboration is core in really any restaurant work. It is impossible for it to be an individual’s work, without the erasure of the labor of so many minds and hands before the arrival of the final product or experience. So in that sense, we are 100% built on collaboration. 

There are always times where we’re trying to highlight someone else’s vision. Right now, we’ve been working on a dish specific to one of our line cook’s childhood memories, of their mom’s broccoli salad. Then there are pop ups with other queer or POC owned businesses. And QNOP, which was really born from a collective conversation, but also was executed by individuals that took it on. A lot of how we work is, “Oh, I have an idea! Who wants to make it come to life?” And for me, being willing to acknowledge and let go of the times when I cannot execute a project from start to finish. And to know that it’s okay to not.

Gilian: Can you speak a little more to those examples? 

Carla: A lot of that is born through alignment and expression of desire. We are really good at catching that in someone and saying, “Oh, you just said something that sounds like you want to make that happen. Let’s make that happen! How can we support you in making that happen? That feels right.” I have a couple of examples. The wine menu is definitely a good example. 

Most recently, I had this moment when our cookbook announcement was made (Please Wait To Be Tasted, 2022). We were working with our graphic designer [Ryan McDermott] on different elements of the book, but he didn’t know what the title was. I sent him the book cover to upload to our website, and he said, “Oh my God, you guys named it ‘Please Wait To Be Tasted’! I put that on your menu board years ago.” ‘Please Wait To Be Tasted’ is a sign that’s been on the entryway to the restaurant for four years now, maybe five. It originally said “Please Wait To Be Seated,” and I assumed that it had been a customer who, bored while waiting, changed the letters to “Please Wait To Be Taste.”. We all laughed and riffed on that. It had totally left my consciousness, if it even was ever there, that one of our own servers and friends had done that. And so that phrase entered the lexicon of the restaurant, and took on a life of its own, and then eventually, it became the title for our book. 

I love that example because we often talk about the “hive mind mentality,” when you’re working closely with a group of people. You enter the space where you start finishing each other’s sentences, not knowing which influences came from the other, being able to pick an idea for fun, expand on it, and take it somewhere exciting. And you do that together. And that just feels like such a prime example of it. I’m sure Ryan, the graphic designer, laughed to himself about it and thought it was a cute, funny inside joke six years ago, and now it is the title of our cookbook, which we didn’t even recall having come from him. There’s ways where that could become territorial, like who said it first, but I think in a lot of ways, with us, we try to celebrate the ways we’ve rubbed off on each other, inspired each other, and how those moments have led to the creation of something else entirely new.

Please Wait To Be Tasted: The Lil’ Deb’s Oasis Cookbook. 2022. Image courtesy of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis.

Carla continued: This also speaks to what can be complicated about these relationships. We’ve definitely had some challenging conversations around ownership of ideas, and how intellectual property operates when you work so closely with a team of people; when there is this brand of restaurant with this specificity, housing a lot of other creative people within it, and how the ideas that are born under that are treated afterwards. The joyful side is all this synchronicity and what blossoms out of that, and the challenges are how to treat those ideas as they take on a life of their own. QNOP is a direct example of that, and so is the wine list. 

The wine list was developed in tandem with Wheeler, who was our general manager for the first three or four years that the restaurant was open. The list got better and better throughout that time. After a while, we developed the language of writing these wine poems, and expanding how we talk about wine because it felt really important to create an accessible language around wine, which wasn’t much of a conversation happening in the restaurant industry. That meant building our own dictionary of words, which are free associative references, memories, and cultural moments that we think of and are drawn to as we taste any bottle of wine. We developed that wine poem language together, and Wheeler took it even further and developed this idea of the “wine journey,” and started giving customers wine journeys. They would lead customers through a series of different questions, like choosing your own adventure, as a way of picking a glass of wine. They were super fun. Then Wheeler started getting asked to do pop-ups elsewhere, where they would do wine journeys at someone else’s wine bar or flower shop. When Wheeler left the business a year ago, that became a question between us: How do we treat the wine journey? Does the wine journey die when Wheeler leaves? Does it live on in the restaurant? Does Wheeler have the right to use the wine journey outside of the restaurant? And the answer is yes, Wheeler has every right to use the wine journey outside of the restaurant. And we can also use the wine journey if and when we choose to. It is this way that creativity blossoms out of something. Seeds are planted in soil, the soil is already fertile, and then out of that grows something bigger, more beautiful, and stronger, which leads to a better, more diverse crop. 

That feels very much like what happened with QNOP, as well. Out of QNOP, Ale (Ale Campos) / Celeste, who would run them, took off completely. They had never done drag before doing the first QNOP at the restaurant. Now they are an immensely talented performance artist-at-large, in their final year at SAIC. In 2020, they built a stage with grant money that they received, and hosted performances all around town. Our involvement was only that we were the fiscal sponsor, but besides that, we weren’t involved. Our name was involved, but that was it. They were also the person who first had the conversation with us about wanting to do QNOP. Out of that one conversation, so much newness was created, so much life.

Those are all ways that we have directly collaborated with people in conscious and unconscious ways, and that ideas have really taken off and developed and grown even further as a result of those little seedlings.

The Wine List. Image courtesy of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis.

Gilian: I’m wondering about the role of design, specifically your clarity around the foundation of Lil’ Deb’s—  your values, your tone— and how that allows for a more seamless and inspiring process for collaboration to naturally occur.

Carla: I’m probably going to digress before I come back to that, so feel free to bring me back! I think for the longest time, the restaurant industry has tried really hard to meet a certain set of standards that are really about respectability— white linens, rules about manners, where to put the fork, and all these things that have always seemed really outdated and arbitrary to me. In a lot of ways, our design aesthetic was in direct opposition to that. We said, “We can be as loud as we want, we can be as bright as we want, we can have people eat with their hands, our forks don’t match!” All these things that felt alarming to a lot of our peers when we first opened, and I’m sure disrespectful to some of them as well. But for us, it was really important to break some of those norms, and say you can still provide exceptional hospitality, you can still make incredible food, and you can still be inviting and welcoming and make people comfortable, even if these so-called “standards” aren’t in place. 

To circle back to how that makes collaboration more inviting, to me, the more traditional restaurant models feel like closed loops. Yes, there’s immense creativity that happens in those spaces. But it’s a specific kind with a specific goal in mind— of “excellence.” And I think queerness is eternally and infinitely open ended. It just goes on. And so in that way, it’s an open door, it is a constant invitation for more— for more people, for being louder, and for not quieting yourself down. And not asking others to change themselves to be accepted. 

Gilian: That feels like a really direct relationship to this idea of the role of plants and living ecosystems as an inspiration for queer aesthetics. Having been in your home, I’ve seen plants and fish tanks around the space, and it just feels very alive. I’m curious to hear you talk about the connection that you see between plants, and living ecosystems, and the queer aesthetic that you’re putting forward through Lil’ Deb’s.

Carla: Plants are a living example of reciprocal care. You water them, you nurture them, and they give you so much through simply being. And they’re not doing anything, they’re not actively giving you money, or actively giving you a hug, or whatever other ways we have learned to tokenize exchanges. There is a very sensorial, experiential exchange that happens with plants, which operates on a different level. In the ways that queerness is about community, accepting the other, nourishing the other through holding each other up, those are the ways that I relate plant life to queerness and community care.

Gilian: I love that idea of reciprocity, and a model of care. What’s the relationship between your own studio practice and what feeds into this space, which is a living, breathing participatory artwork 24/7, all the time?

Carla: I think unfortunately, the living breathing studio of all the time running a business, has, in many ways, eclipsed my own studio practice. I could see that glass half empty, and be sad about it. And I can also see it as glass half full, in the sense that I also get to live and breathe in my studio every day through the restaurant. So it’s twofold. There have been times throughout the years where I have made more time for working on my own practice. And my own practice centers a lot around food, and ritual. And giving and receiving. Those have all been central to my work for a long time. But you know, I haven’t afforded myself that opportunity recently. I’m actually really getting the craving to do that right now. So far, it’s been a little bit of a slower thing. 

I’ve performed in one QNOP in all four years that it has existed. It’s kind of funny, given my background in performance, that I haven’t performed at our own events. I think that also speaks to the ways that when something has a life of its own, and that life is so strong and pulsating, is so living and breathing its own magic, I tend to be pretty good at being like, That is already doing its thing, it doesn’t need me to do more. And it’s not as if the invitation wasn’t there, or that my participation would change the dynamic, but I think especially in a delicate infrastructure in which there is hierarchy, even though there is a lot of community-oriented, egalitarian idea sharing, fair and equal wages, etc., at the end of the day, I’m still the boss. And things shift when the boss is like, “I’m performing tonight.” So I’ve been intentionally really aware of that and have held back throughout the years. 

Gilian: What forms of documentation around Lil’ Deb’s have you found compelling? How do you archive that experience? How do you share that experience with people who aren’t there? 

Carla: Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve arrived at a “way” yet, but it feels really complicated any time we’re doing it. I think because there are so many characters and facets, and most documentation wants to focus on me as the chef, or me and Hannah as the creative people, and what that means about who is left out of that story feels always complicated to navigate. And even if we talk about inclusion, what is being perceived is still this idea of the celebrity chef. The best form of documentation is people coming in to experience it themselves. I don’t know if that’s a cheap way to get out of answering your question! It is documented by lived experience. Some painting that you’ve always wanted to see, you can see it in so many art books, and you’re never going to feel what it is, or really understand it for what it is, until you see it in person. And I feel like that rings really true for me about the experience of the restaurant. It is 4D! I do think our Wikipedia page did a really good job of documenting us though! That is because it’s actually researched and about the whole journey of Lil’ Deb’s from start to finish, with references to all the conversations we’ve had throughout the years. A lot of documentation we’ve had has been specific to “The 10 Best Towns to Visit in the Hudson Valley,” which can really dilute what we’re about or only see it from a certain angle. Obviously, there have been other pieces that have been more successful. One of the reasons why The Wikipedia article felt so nice was that it really tried to understand us in totality.

Gilian: Are there any other thoughts that you want to share around this intersection of Lil’ Deb’s and socially engaged art or participatory art or community art? 

Carla: You have to just come and be it, and be in it. That is our practice, changing people through the lived experience of eating with us, and all of the sensations that they have. The number of men I watch in the restaurant totally lose themselves and become immersed in this tiny television we have in the corner that has an ongoing loop of QNOP throughout the years— several of them have half naked people or fully naked people, and children and fully grown adults will stare at that TV and fully become one with it. I sometimes laugh because I’ll see a straight couple out to dinner, and the guy is fascinated by the screen. In a way, I’m like, “Come here and be challenged and be turned on by what you’re seeing. Have this experience.” And some people come and have disgust or feel uncomfortable. I think that what we are setting out to do is to have this very tactile sense of feeling held and challenged, and feeling desire and feeling hunger, and all of these super human emotions through being in our space with us. 

Raised by three Ecuadorian women in Queens, New York, Carla Kaya Perez-Gallardo [she/they] was born into a home with a kitchen that was always busy. In seventh grade, they started Saborines, a pie company named after her grandmother. After graduating from Bard College with a degree in studio arts, they found a place for herself cooking and managing kitchens. Following a brief pause from cooking and a strained attempt to navigate the traditional art world, in 2016 she became co-founder of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis and is now chef-owner of the James-Beard nominated restaurant and community hub in Hudson, NY.

Gilian Rappaport [she/they] is an artist, researcher, writer, and naturalist. In their practice, she explores the relationships between sensuality, co-authorship, and personal mythologies to understand what we can learn from closeness with nature (rather than being more detached), and the paths to get there. Their cultural strategy and facilitation practice allows her to ask similar questions at a different scale, and support the vision for projects aiming to renew, restore and nurture our world. The granddaughter of Ashkenazi immigrants by way of Russia and Poland, she was born and raised in New York between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. They are openly queer, and live and work in Rockaway Beach, Queens. Follow them @gilnotjill. 

The Unexpected Host

Becca Kauffman with Fernando Perez

“Many things would fall out of disrepair if they were not held together by a thing; that’s what caulking does, that’s what the mortar between bricks does. You can do that socially. Good hosts have all done that socially.” 


It’s not every day you wind up bonding with a complete stranger who sold you a drum machine on Craigslist. But a few weeks ago, I did. His name is Fernando Perez, and his energetic speech, booming voice, and overall personability made it apparent that he was not your average craigslist seller. 

It happened like this: I was scrolling through the “for sale” section, clicked on an ad for a Roland drum pad, and was entranced by the bizarrely excellent video Perez had recorded to showcase the instrument. It was so excellent, in fact, I felt compelled to verge off the topic of logistics and email him this compliment:

“Watched your vid— felt like a high caliber youtube product review. 

Fully enjoyed and feel like you could, like, do that for a living?” 

As it turns out, he actually does. When Fernando dropped the drum machine off at my apartment a day later, I asked him how he developed the skill of comfortably playing the role of a salesman and found out that he’s no stranger to the camera. After a 10-year career as a professional baseball player with the Tampa Bay Rays, he became an on-air sports commentator and a host for Vice News. He was anchoring documentary field pieces on the football championships in North Africa, medieval-themed MMA battles, and the ancient Japanese religion Shugendo.

“You’re a host???” I gasped. “I’m a host!” This was even more exciting than my newly acquired drum gear. For the past two months, I’ve been offering my services in New York City as a professional host-for-hire. I fashion the role of host as a bridge that connects my training as a performer to my desire to be practically useful. I see hosting as a kind of social glue that creates cohesion in an otherwise chaotic scenario. My hosting investigation naturally began as an emcee for concerts and variety shows, having cultivated a particularly hospitable alter ego named Jennifer Vanilla over the past six years. So while sports and alt pop music seemingly don’t have much to do with one another, Fernando’s and my shared experiences in entertainment eclipsed the contextual differences. The role of host, I was learning, transcends genre and environment. 

Having never met a professional host before, I had to learn more about Fernando’s take on the position. We chatted excitedly in my living room until I’d entirely forgotten how and why we’d met, and he began to worry about his car double parked outside. 

“We’ve got to keep talking about this,” I said as he stepped into his sedan and turned the hazards off. “Sure,” he said, “I’m always up for a chat!” A few weeks later, we convened over video chat— me from New York, Fernando from a baseball stadium in California where he’s doing some consulting work— to continue our conversation.

Becca Kauffman: Tell me how you got into hosting.

Fernando Perez: I fell into it. I’ve never been very good with goals; even the decision to play baseball was much more of one where like, I was at school, and there are all of these helicopter parented kids who were running off to their internships. And there was my baseball coach saying, “You’re actually really good at baseball, you should take it seriously.” Next thing I know, I was a professional baseball player [for the next ten years]. [When that ended] I was [like] a 21-year-old 31-year-old. And I was like, “What can I do? Because nobody’s feeling me on LinkedIn. I don’t have any skills.” Most athletes use that cachet to be a coach, or they do a sales job. So for me, I’m like, “What is out there for me to do?” I had many of the natural skills of hosting. Then it was just getting the opportunity to be in the room with a casting person who was just like, “You know what, I think this is gonna work.” I was allowed to grow into the job. It was a way to have an adventure. It’s become a thing that is really, really important to me.

Fernando playing ball with the Tampa Bay Rays (New York Times). 2008, U.S. Courtesy Greg Fiume/Getty Images. 

Becca: Part of the reason why I’m interested in hosting is because I feel like it puts you on an equal playing field with people, where you’re sharing the spotlight rather than seizing it. What’s important about the role to you?

Fernando: It’s really become a part of me. It’s a heightened form of communication. People are not as good at talking to each other today as they were 10 years ago. Maybe the new form of in-person contact is, you know, a TV show, right?

Most of my professional experience is of this facilitative sort, where I am there to help an interesting person deliver their exotic expertise to curious viewers. This kind of content can be made without a host, where producers ask questions off camera. But adding a host is an option that producers often take that will bring different dimensions to a piece. For instance: the interview subject behaves differently with a host, and the viewers get to respond to the host’s body language. While the huge, complex, even contradictory idea of “hosting” is super fascinating, and worthy of a long study— I’m mostly speaking on what I’ve done. 

Becca: Hosting as a way to have adventures makes me think of hosting as a kind of passport. It gives you this alibi to interact and engage. What are the main functions of the host for you? How do you see your job?

Fernando: It is a passport. You learn so much about people. What I need to do is be a conduit, so that people can experience this thing through me. I’m a mirror, basically. Many things would fall out of disrepair if they were not held together by a thing; that’s what caulking does, that’s what the mortar between bricks does. You can do that socially. Good hosts have all done that socially. Another version of it is a sleight of hand thing, like, “Look over here. Don’t pay attention to the fact that there’s this thing in the room!” 

Becca: I’ve definitely experienced that too, distracting from technical difficulties, unforeseen complications, or filling up airtime when something goes awry. It’s a kind of social acrobatics.

Fernando: For an audience of people at home, they’re going to experience an event [that I host] through me. I’m like an antenna. A barometer. I’m trying to open myself up to feeling as much as possible. You want to be neutral, because you don’t want to influence people. 

Becca: You’re almost a stand-in for whoever is watching, so that they can put themselves in your shoes and have that experience through you.

Fernando: Yeah, perhaps you are. Something that I know I’ve done very well is the unseen work of hosting. The visible part is the product that you see on television; the not visible part is all of the work that it took to get my interview subjects into the right frame of mind. That’s my favorite part of the job: allaying people’s fears that we’re going to make them look stupid on television, making them as comfortable as possible. The camera is a super powerful cue, it’s like having an unstable element in the room. So a lot of it is just trying to convince the guest that the camera is not going to hurt you. 

Becca: As a self-made host, how did you arrive at that value, of tending to your interview subjects and making them comfortable?

Fernando: Seeing that it was needed. In the same way that somebody might invite you to their apartment, and you’re just like, “Oh, man, if we open the shades, and put this over there, it really opens up the apartment.” I learned by doing it. I was naturally in possession of many of the soft skills that are valuable to good hosts, and that’s why I got the opportunity to learn on the fly. It was just being on enough shoots and being like, Man, the cameraman is playing with his phone, the producer is worried about getting our next interview subject, the sound guy is chomping down on a granola bar, and the people that we’re about to interview are just sitting there looking kind of scared. I should just talk to them. Somebody has to do it.

Becca: It’s almost like you’re hosting the host position, adding off-camera hospitality to a role that might normally only be hospitable when the cameras are rolling.

Fernando: [It helps to] be ultimately flexible and really be obsessed with making people comfortable. This is a shitty example in many ways, but the only reason I use it is because it’s happened to me so many times: if you spit on me in the middle of us talking, and I stop to make a deal of it, I’m making you less comfortable, and the TV is not going to be as good as it would be if I just don’t flinch. A host is egoless, if possible.

Becca: You’re saying you kind of have to suspend your humanity, while coming off as a very human person.

Fernando: If you’re extremely empathic, that is reliably a good way to bring the best out of interview subjects. The person that you’re interviewing has to trust you. If you’re sitting next to someone on a train, and they seem extremely empathic, there you are telling your life story and divulging all these crazy details that you haven’t even told your best friends. And how did that happen? They were empathic.

Another form of empathy is not being “cool.” Being a weirdo definitely helps. If you were to meet a person on the street, and they were like, “Yeah, on the weekends I like to role play as a medieval combat fighter,” if you’re just like, “Cool,” naturally, the job’s gonna be easy, right? If you’re too cool for school, [you] can’t be a good host. 

Fernando out in the field hosting a Vice Sports feature on a medieval-style MMA combat tournament. 2016. Courtesy of Vice.

Here’s another thing that’s part of it: you have to play dumb a bit. Hosting should not be an opportunity to prove that you’re super clever. The object of the game is to make people that are watching smarter, more informed, or entertained, depending on what type of television show it is. Playing dumb for me is more about, I may know the answer to something, or may think I know the answer. What’s so much better is if I ask you the question, in a way that I think sets you up for success to answer that question. And I just look at you like you’re my grandfather, or my grandmother, [like] you are right about to give me infinite wisdom. All that I’m trying to do is pull information out. That’s the game. 

Becca: Right, there are so many different ways to talk about the same thing, but it’s important to meet your audience where they’re at. 

Fernando: Meeting them where they’re at is a very lovely way to think about it. We know what it feels like to talk to a genius who is just not sounding like a genius. So what I need to do is figure out a way to get you to bring out that really fascinating information. One that always works is, “Pretend that I’m an alien that has just dropped on the planet. And I just do not understand how this works. Explain it to me like I’m an idiot, or like I’m young.” That helps people because, if you’re a scientist, you’re good at science; you’re not necessarily good at explaining science to people that don’t get science. Hosts are always bringing people into the conversation. A great host can put [things] into a context that relates to more people, or remind the experts that non-experts are in the room and want to learn. 

As a rule, it’s always really nice to make you quite certain that I’m a person who is legitimately interested in you, and that I have done some research. Almost everyone loves to be flattered. 

Becca: “Playing dumb” can also express itself as hospitality, where you open up this channel for more inclusion by exposing an ignorance of your own. Sort of as a stand in for a similar ignorance you’re sensing amongst the guests. You kind of take one for the team.

Fernando: Self-deprecation goes a long way in virtually everything. I remember, I was interviewing this woman who was a fucking NASA scientist. She was so nervous. I spent 10 minutes talking to her about aliens, telling her that I think that maybe she’s the coolest person that I’ve ever met. She said to me, “You seem so cool.” And I was just like, “Actually, I have swamp ass.” People assume since you are playing host and  looking nice, that you must be just fucking marvelous. Well, it really, really helps to kind of deprecate that. It really, really, really, always helps.  

Hosts (Fernando and me), chopping it up on Zoom. 2022.

Becca Kauffman (they/them) is an artist and performer based in New York City working within a social practice framework to create hospitable environments through the practical use of their own soft skills. Using chance encounters, conversation, and citizen journalism, they rely on resourcefulness, adaptability, communication, and problem-solving to understand and strengthen the social choreography of public spaces. They are an MFA candidate in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University, where they are researching live action role play, tactical urbanism, and hosting as a form of public stewardship. 

Fernando Perez (he/him) is the Director of Video Coaching for the San Francisco Giants. After a decade playing baseball professionally, he moved into media, hosting TV and digital content at outlets like Vice, Bleacher Report and MSG Network. He co-leads the media strategy at Canopy Collective, a reparations-centered startup advancing democracy for all in the United States. 

The Bacons

Justin Maxon with Leon Patterson and H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams PhD

“It’s always good to know where you came from.”


The Bacons by Leon Patterson. Courtesy of Leon Patterson.

This series of interviews is a part of an ongoing dialogue and serves as an entry point into a project H. Herukhuti Williams and I have been developing since 2017: a collaborative book project titled Chester: Staring Down the White Gaze. At the epicenter of this critical collaboration are two sets of images: the work I completed as a photographer and journalist covering the city of Chester, Pennsylvania from 2008-2016, and photographs from my childhood archives. Using the latter, we built a visual glossary of white racial tropes to unpack my relationship to whiteness. We use this framework to reconsider my work in Chester and other contemporary and historical local media coverage of the city, to elucidate the ways the white gaze reflects its own values when reflected off of the bodies of Black people.

The book is also a collaborative book project of artists from the city who tell their own narratives, including: Desire Grover, illustrator; Wydeen Ringgold, citizen journalist; Leon Paterson, self-taught photographer; and Jonathan King, activist and educator. Throughout the book, the co-authors are in conversation about my images through handwritten text that analyzes, critiques, questions, contextualizes, and interprets the nature of the white gaze that is placed on their community.

This interview, conducted over the phone, is a collaboration between Herukhuti, Leon Patterson, and myself. Together, Herukhuti and I formulated questions that I asked Leon during our conversation. Every co-author in the book has been interviewed for SoFA as a method to more deeply explore some of the themes present in the book that did not fit inside.

Justin Maxon: How would you describe Chester to someone who’s never been there before?

Leon Patterson: It’s a dangerous place; somewhere where you don’t want to go. It’s everybody against everybody. It’s nobody trying to see nobody get nowhere. These kids don’t have nothing to do. They sit outside or they go to the parks and watch drug dealers be idiots. And then they grow up and act like them. What’s wrong with Chester is the police and our politicians don’t care. They made the city this way. They got rid of everything. They closing our schools. We don’t have no recreational centers. Our city’s got one swimming pool, and it’s only goes to five feet. These kids don’t have no summer activities. It’s ridiculous.

It wasn’t like that in the nineties. When I was growing up. We had everything. We had summer games. We had basketball league. We had stuff to do. We got to learn and get to know people. We was in the marching group. Had the Boys and Girls Club. Everybody knew everybody. Today, if these kids do something and you say something to them, their parents cuss you out. It wasn’t like that back in the day. If you did something, somebody told your parents, and you got a chest high for it, period. That is why these kids do what they want. Not only that, back in the day, we had love, loyalty, and respect. We loved our parents. We respected our parents. There are certain things you knew just not to do.

Back in the day, you might have one bad kid out the whole house, but now every kid in the house is bad. And then with this virtual school, that’s making it even worse. These kids aren’t going to know nothing. So how you expect a kid that don’t know nothing to do something? That don’t make sense.

Justin: Is your description of Chester similar or different from the way the news media represents Chester?

Leon: The news media represents Chester like it’s nothing but a violent city. The only time you hear about Chester is when somebody gets shot. They don’t talk about Chester, period. They talk about what’s going on, but they don’t talk about what’s really going on. You got these kids out here that’ve been on probation for years. Delaware County has a 98.9% conviction rate? You go to the courthouse and nine outta ten, yo ass get convicted. They tell everybody, “If you sign right here, you can go home today. And not only that, all you gonna be on probation is for a year.” They don’t know they just signed their life away. I got a year of probation in 1996. I didn’t get off it until 2019.

Justin: So fucked up! Big business.

Leon:  The media’s corrupt. That’s what they do. They gotta hold you. That’s why these kids act the way they act. You get into a situation, where you out on the streets, and you got bills.  You in jail, and you got bills. You come home, and you got bills. They only give you so much time to pay it, but you really can’t. So, it’s either, I go to McDonald’s, do these little jobs, and make these little checks every two weeks. Or if not, I gotta go out on the street and get it the best way I know how, just to keep my freedom. Either way you screwed. It just boils down to the point where, you going to jail, just put it that way. As soon as you signed that probation, you stuck in the system for the rest of your life. After a while, I just stopped caring. I stopped going to see them. Every time they come lock me up for 30 [days]. Oh, well.  Nobody sees what they doing to these kids. They make it so you fail. They make more money off you in jail.

Justin: How do you feel like photography has helped you?

Leon: It helps not think about the way corporate America’s doing the world. Like corporate America sucks. They make it to the point where you do or die.

Justin: Do you consider yourself a photographer, an artist or something else?

Leon: I consider myself a photographer. I like to take pictures and use them for different things.

Justin: What things do you like to do with them?          

Leon: Put them on t-shirts and I just started to learn how to rap cards.

Justin: What kind of t-shirts?

Leon: It’s a clothing line. I’m teaching my son how to make clothes.

Justin: That’s great. Where can I see this?

Leon: Well, as soon as I move into a house, and I can get my printing press back up and running.

Justin: Awesome. I want to see them!

Who do you photograph and why?

Leon: I photograph my family, and people in general. I take photos of all types of stuff. Sometimes random pictures.

Justin: Why do you take pictures of your family?

Leon: I take pictures for memories, so you can look back on time and you’ll know what you was doing at certain times of your life.

Justin: Why are memories important to you?

Leon: I like to remember things that I did, and you learn from your mistakes. The things that you’ve been through teach you about the things that you’re going to go through.

Justin: Do you feel like photographs help with that?

Leon: You look and notice when things weren’t wrong. You can remember your kids. I got pictures of all my kids when they was first born. I got recordings of my kids when they was first born. So I could show it to them when they get grown.

I took photographs and noticed how I was living, and it made me change a lot of things that I was doing wrong. Like not cleaning up, and just laying stuff around and being a hoarder.

Justin: Oh, so you noticed in your photographs that you were a hoarder?

Leon: Yeah, like you just got stuff everywhere. It was like never ending. I can’t stand that. I wasn’t brought up that way.

Justin: So, what has motivated you to document your family with your camera over the years?

Leon: You be here today and gone tomorrow. I grew up around a lot of deaths. Like a lot of people get killed. My friends, family members. I come from a dangerous city.

Justin: I mean, even now you mentioned, you just lost how many people close to you?

Leon: Eight people over the last year.

Justin: Wow, my heart goes out to you.

How does a photograph help you remember your loved ones?

Leon: The good memories. Like you could still see it, man. Remember that time… when you was there and when y’all was taking pictures, what y’all was doing at that moment, it could have been a birthday party or a reunion.

Justin: So, it’s about holding them in your mind for longer.

Leon: Yeah. And then I can show it when they get older. Like what you was doing at five years old, This your first cry, this your first…

Justin: When you’ve shown that to your older kids, what’s been their response?

Leon: “Wow. I didn’t know. That was me, that’s how I looked when I was a baby.” “Yeah. That was you. These are the things that you did when you were small. Just how bad you was!”

Justin: And that brings you closer?

Leon: Yeah. My kids like to take pictures. That’s all they do with their phones is take pictures.

Justin: Why do you think they do it?

Leon: I show them different things that you can do with it. Like you can post it, you can make art with it, you can decorate your room with it. I be doing all types of stuff with my kids. Kids can’t go outside these days. Kids gotta stay in the house. You can’t have them in the house and have them bored too.

Justin: What has it been like getting to know your family through your camera?

Leon: I just like to show people good memories. When I have my camera it’s exciting for the kids because they know I’m taking pictures. When I don’t have my camera, everybody is not paying attention, they doing their own little thing.

Justin: It brings everyone together in the moment?

Leon: Yeah. Everyone poses for the camera. Everybody is present with each other. Everybody is doing different things, like some people put up fingers, some people smile, some people make funny faces. People know when the camera comes out

Justin: What’s something that you’ve learned about your family that you only learned by photographing them?

Leon: Certain kids only do things with certain kids. The relationship that they have with their siblings. The way they hug each other. The way they act towards one another. You can see like this kid runs to this kid or that kid runs to that kid.

Justin: Does it have to do with personality types, too?

Leon: I guess it’s their age. The little ones stick with the little ones, the middle ones stick with the middle ones and the older ones.

Justin:  When you’re taking photographs what are you thinking about or feeling?

Leon: Peace of mind. It gives me things to think about. I take pictures and then I look and be like, why did I take this picture? I analyze it. I take pictures of just the sky. I take pictures of trees. I take pictures of animals. I just like to take pictures. I like to take adventures. I walk through woods, in my own world sometimes. I just like to explore and look around, see what I can find. Sometimes you just forget about all your problems, focus on something else and not always be angry. Certain moments give you a peace of mind so you can have some type of happiness in your life. There is always something going on. There’s always an issue. Never a chill moment. It’s like once something happens, it’s just a series of things that follow; like we are going through a situation now: we are in a hotel, my truck is down, my hours are getting cut at work. Never a dull moment.

Justin: Taking pictures is a break, a pause.

Leon: Yeah. It makes you feel free.

Justin: So there’s some control in it? How do control and freedom work together for you?

Leon: Control and freedom. You can do what you wanna do, how you wanna do it. Everybody’s telling you what to do, but ain’t nobody helping you do nothing. It’s like therapy. It takes your mind off.  Sometimes when you’re taking pictures you gotta focus. You gotta make sure that the setting on the camera will allow you to take the picture you want.  There’s no one to boss you around, telling you, you shouldn’t have taken the picture that way, or you shouldn’t have done this.

Justin: So what are you looking for when you’re out taking pictures?

Leon: I take pictures so I can remember where I’ve been, things I saw. And if you blow the picture up, you can see stuff that you didn’t see in the moment. Like walking through the woods, you blow the picture up, you see different animals. You take pictures of trees, you blow it up, you see different kinds of little bugs.

Justin: That’s interesting. I love that idea of seeing the little things you miss in life.

 How has your family reacted to being photographed and to you as a photographer?

Leon: My family at first didn’t like it at all. They used to hide from the camera. But after years of doing it, they just don’t care anymore.

Justin: What’s it been like showing your family the photographs that you’ve taken?

Leon:  Oh, when I show ’em the pictures, I like to see their reaction. Especially pictures that they don’t know I took. Like when I first caught my step-daughter, Jasmine smoking weed. I took the picture and she didn’t know. She tried to lie to me, telling me she never smoked before. And I had to show her!

Justin: And wait, what did she say?

Leon: “You always taking pictures.” I said, “Don’t worry about it. That’s just what I do.” She was surprised that I caught her in a lie. 

Also, showing my daughter her face when she found out she was pregnant. That was hilarious! It was when we found out at the hospital that she was pregnant. We had to figure out how we was gonna go home and tell her mother that she was pregnant. And as you know, her mother always got an attitude and act crazy. [Laughs] She had a surprised look on her. She was surprised because the day that I caught her, I was supposed to be at work.

Justin: What’s one of the most memorable photographs you’ve taken?

Leon: The most memorable photographs I took were when I was in Jamaica. It was my first time in a different country. They live totally different from us. Over there, I had no worries. Here, I worry all day.

Justin: What type of photographs have generated the most interest within your family?

Leon: The kids and baby pictures. They get to see how much they have changed throughout their life. It’s always good to know where you came from. If you know where you came from, it teaches how to respect life better. When we were kids, we had nothing. So that’s why I try to make sure my kids have everything they want.

Justin: So, the camera has helped. It made you realize what you do differently.

Leon: It helped me do things differently.

Leon Patterson (he/him), a community photographer, who has photographed his life as a member of the Bacon family since 2009. He has no formal training in photography. His training is experience. His archive of images is in the thousands, moments featuring the history of his relationship to the family: birthdays, Christmas mornings, the birth of his children, the daily moments of connection between him, Dinah and their children; all exquisitely captured. 

Justin Maxon (he/him) is a visual journalist, arts educator, and social practice artist. His work takes an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the socio-historical context from which issues are born and incorporates multiple voices that texture stories. He seeks to understand how positionally plays out in his work as a storyteller. 

Dreams to Reality

Kiara Walls with Harrell Fletcher 

“Ideas will occur to me when I’m not really focused on trying to figure out the idea. “


Creativity and manifestation go hand in hand but how exactly does the process happen from start to finish? I spoke with Harrell Fletcher, PSU Art + Social Practice MFA Founder/Co-Director, to discuss his personal relationship to manifesting his ideas into reality. Harrell is currently on sabbatical and spends most of his time at the Oregon coast. When he’s not there, you can find him working on an ongoing project with Lisa Jarrett, Co-Director of the A + SP program. Their collaborative project, the King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), is a contemporary art museum and social practice art project inside and in partnership with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, a Pre K – 5th grade public school in NE Portland, OR. During our conversation, we discuss the ways in which ideas come to life and the impact outer environments have on them.  

Kiara Walls: How has your art practice transformed from when you first started to now?

Harrell Fletcher: Well, I guess it sort of depends on when I think of my practice starting. In some ways that would be when I was a kid. But I think for this purpose, I would think of it going back about 30 years. And so around 1992 is when I started working with Jon Rubin, in Oakland. We started doing work together that was collaborative and socially engaged, even though the term “social practice” hadn’t emerged yet, but that was the kind of work that we’re doing. And we were doing that work initially just in our own neighborhood in Oakland. I think, interestingly, back then, in the early 90s, when I was starting out, most of the work was self-initiated. We borrowed a vacant store building that was on College Avenue in Oakland, and asked if we could use it to do exhibitions in. The owners let us do that for free. We ended up using that space for about a year and a half. We did all of the exhibitions about people we met in the neighborhood. No one was paying us to do that work, there was no curator, or anybody else that had given us approval, we just formalized it by ourselves. We not only put the shows together, but we would do the press releases and all of those things too.  We did everything ourselves. 

Eventually we started doing commissioned projects at various places around the Bay Area and then Jon and I stopped working together after about six years and I started doing collaborations with lots of other people and traveled all over the world doing my work. It took five years of ramping up to that, 10 or 15 years of doing that work steadily and then five or 10 years of ramping back down. And as it ramped back down, I kind of moved back into the localized self-initiated model I’d started doing in the beginning. So for instance, doing KSMoCA with Lisa, or the project that happened at the prison at Columbia River Correctional Institution. Those weren’t commissions. Nobody was asking me to do a project in a grade school or a project in a prison, I was with my collaborators self-initiating those projects. 

And so it’s kind of interesting that my work is bookended by the self-initiated projects that were taking the form of institutions. We created our own gallery and I created my own library in those very early days, and now I’ve collaborated on a museum at a grade school and a comedy program at a prison. Also both sets of work were really local— the early work in Oakland, and the recent work is based in Portland. In between was a period of traveling all over the place and doing projects internationally.  All of that work in between was mostly commissioned, so it transformed, but then it came back to its origins. The difference, I guess, is that I didn’t have a teaching job in the early days, I didn’t have a house, I didn’t have a kid and any sort of responsibilities like that, and now I do. And so that’s changed my practice, but the work is kind of similar. It’s like it’s come back around full circle.

Kiara: I was just thinking that when you were describing that, it sounds like a cycle: a beginning to an end, or a birth and rebirth repeated over time. If you could describe your social practice in one word, what would it be?

Harrell: Maybe “Self-educational.” I think there’s that word “autodidactic,” which means something like self-educated, giving yourself an education – but we’ll go with self-educational. The whole experience has been very interesting and educational for me. I’ve always had a hard time with one word answers, as you can see.

Kiara: Yeah, I mean, it takes a lot of thought to put it all into one thing, so I understand. How do you go about manifesting your ideas into reality?

Harrell: Probably why I gravitated to being an artist person was because I just didn’t do well with writing academic papers, things like that. It just wasn’t my thing. I liked writing. I was able to find ways of fulfilling writing papers (for instance I would just write a letter to a friend about an assignment I had and then make a Xerox of that and turn it in). 

I just feel more comfortable doing things in low-key casual kinds of ways. And that has worked for me for the most part. That’s how I’ve operated— by finding less formal systems where I can just talk to somebody directly or write a simple email to explain a project or something like that. I also avoid contracts and releases or anything like that in my work if I can. I just don’t like the way they look or how they make me feel so I have always avoided them. No paperwork if there is any way to avoid it. I just started making work, I’d come up with an idea and then I’d just do it. 

I learned this early on about myself: if I say I was going to do something, when I was an undergrad in college at Humboldt State, before working with Jon Rubin and everything, I felt I had to do it. I got into performance art, first just learning about it, and then I wanted to experience it myself. So I started setting up these performances, weird things I got myself to do, endurance projects like Chris Burden. I would just tell a few people that I was going to do something and it was kind of like making a deadline or making a commitment for myself. Once I make a commitment, I have a really hard time breaking it. That’s part of the way I work. If I pitch an idea to someone, I’m making a commitment to them. I usually enjoy doing whatever it is once I start, but sometimes I’ll have a resistance, procrastination and not want to have to do it, but I’ll force myself to do it anyway. 

Kiara: That makes me think about this idea of accountability partners: when you tell someone you’re going to do something and then they check in on you to make sure that you’re actually doing it. But it’s worth doing that with your projects.What type of impact has the pandemic had on your practice, if any?

Harrell: Well, if I think of my practice as including teaching and running the MFA program, that part was pretty fluid. Everything was able to shift over remotely because we already had an online component going in the program, it didn’t change that much. But for KSMoCA and the prison, those things really changed. For KSMoCA, we tried to make it work online, but it was pretty different than being there in-person all the time. And then with the prison, we just couldn’t go back into the prison at all. And so that ended everything with that project. I had been going there one or two times a week for almost three years. So it was a pretty big shift in my life. I’m still talking with the program manager and I have a proposal that I pitched to him to start back up, but it keeps getting delayed. I’d pretty much stopped traveling just before the pandemic started, and so that was convenient because there was not a lot to cancel or postpone, just a few things here and there. Most of my work prior to that meant traveling to places. But I’d finally gotten to the point where I wasn’t really traveling anymore. I had burnt out on that and was just instead focusing on Portland projects. But then because the pandemic meant not being able to go to the grade school in person and at the prison we couldn’t go in at all and there wasn’t an online option there. 

And so it just suddenly gave me a lot of time on my hands that I hadn’t had in a really long time and it allowed me to start to think about some other things I wanted to do. So I’ve been writing. I’d like to write more, but I’ve been writing a bit and taking photographs and things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time but haven’t. It wound up being a good time for me to be forced to take a break and reassess and get back into some stuff that I was doing before I was really doing socially engaged work. What Alyse Emdur called “anti-social practice” where I could just do work by myself. And that’s been nice. It hasn’t really turned into much but it’s still been good to just sort of be more in touch with that.

Kiara: What does your environment look like when you have an “aha” moment?

Harrell: I don’t know if there’s just a single environment for that. Because a lot of times when I’m having that kind of experience, I’ve been walking. Ideas will occur to me when I’m not really focused on trying to figure out the idea. I’ve always liked walking in general, but for idea generation, it’s been really useful for me because the projects are just in the back of my head. I try to intentionally think, “Okay, I need to figure out what I’m gonna do for this place somewhere. And I would think, “Okay, I’m just going to go for a walk.” And I think about it before I start walking. And then I stop thinking about it as I walk, and it would just come to me while I was walking while I was not trying— kind of like that thing where you’re trying to remember the name of a song that you have in your head, but you can’t, so you say “Forget it, I’m not gonna bother,” and then it just pops into your head. That is the technique that I either consciously or unconsciously use to come up with ideas that seem to just spring into my head. I’ve laid the groundwork for them. But they happen when I’m not trying, while walking, swimming, or doing something else.

Kiara: Oh, that’s interesting. I can definitely relate to that process. Sometimes I’ll get ideas when I’m just waking up out of a nap or from a night’s slumber, and I’ll actually say it out loud when I wake up. I wasn’t thinking about it at all before, but it just comes out and then I text myself the idea. I have a text thread in my phone with all of the thoughts that just come to my mind.

Harrell’s Notebook

Harrell: Yeah, I definitely have a notebook and I write down my ideas in there, I put an asterisk next to the ideas, so I can find them. I like the idea of dreaming ideas too. I think I did dream one once. I can’t remember what it was now but I woke up and thought, “That’s actually pretty good,” and wrote it down. Sometimes I’ve thought I had a good idea during a dream and then I think, “That’s a terrible idea,” when I wake up. But I know that one time it actually worked and it was a solid idea but I can’t remember which one it was now. But I really sleep with ideas, especially napping, which more than just regular sleep at night is potentially conducive to idea generation. I’m trying to explore that more these days. 

Kiara: I heard 30 minute naps are very effective. I’ve been listening to different podcasts about how the brain works and they were talking about how sleep helps us process things. For example, when we’ve gone through something traumatic or stressful, going to sleep actually lets you process the emotions and feelings. Then you wake up feeling lighter because your brain was doing all of that work to cope with the trauma and stress.

Harrell: I’ve actually heard it described as “cleaning your brain.” I don’t know if that’s exactly right. But I like that idea, it’s always nice to have a little brain cleaning.

Kiara: Do you feel that your environment affects your creativity, or that your creativity affects your environment?

Harrell: I definitely am affected by my environment. I think I’ve gravitated away from office jobs because I usually don’t feel good inside of offices, especially if there’s no windows. So windowless places aren’t good for my creativity or me in general. I don’t have to be in nature to feel creative. I do go to the coast a lot and spend time in this pretty dramatic, beautiful nature, but I don’t feel particularly creative there really— it’s almost a little bit too beautiful. There’s something nice about a low key neighborhood environment, because there’s nothing too dramatic about it. But it’s nice, there are trees, birds, and parks, but nothing too distracting. I think of a place where I’m not anxious. I’ve done work in New York or London, and I battle urban anxiety. So super urban places don’t work well for me, but maybe nature isn’t quite right either. I have been here now living in this house[in Portland, Oregon] for 21 years, which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my life. I’ve done a lot of my work while living here. I have those associations with this neighborhood, just walking around getting ideas and all that. I came here to this house and neighborhood because of a project I did for PICA in 2001. I guess my creativity created this environment for me here in this neighborhood in Northeast Portland, and this environment has enabled my creativity. 

Kiara: It seems there’s a sense of balance with the relationship between your environment and your creativity and it feeds into one another. 

Harrell: Since the pandemic, and not being able to do as many of the other kinds of projects that I was doing before, I have been walking a lot more than I had been even before. I also have been taking a lot of photographs with my phone as I walk around. When I was younger, and started taking photographs with a 35 millimeter camera, I would walk around with the camera too. I remember in Arcata in Humboldt County, going for walks and just by having the camera with me it put me in this mindset that was my zone, where I was very sensitive to whatever I was seeing. I would sort of blur out, go into a spacey mindset, and suddenly the world would look different to me. I could see everything in a new light because I could use the camera to point to things and say, Tthis looks interesting to me.” I would feel very relaxed, and I would start to see things that I couldn’t see when I wasn’t in that zone. I would just walk around by myself looking around. And I’ve been doing that again recently. Those two places, here in NE Portland and back in Arcata, kind of have similar neighborhood vibes. There’s nothing all that spectacular about either place, but I can start seeing these compositions in that brain zone. It has something to do with walking and thinking that I might take a photograph that puts me in that tripped out space. It feels meditative. It’s very relaxing, kind of like a walking nap with dreams that are just variations on reality.

Kiara Walls (she/her) is a multi-disciplinary arts educator and restorative justice practitioner currently working out of Portland, OR. Her practice explores the relationship between trauma and repair as a pathway to healing. This work is manifested through a lens of reparation resulting in site-specific installations, conflict resolution and conversations. Walls currently serves as the Dean of Students at Northwest Academy where she combines her disciplines to navigate and cultivate community amongst students and teachers.

Harrell Fletcher is an interdisciplinary artist. He is the founder and co-director of the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA program.

The Tapes, Conversation II

Rebecca Copper with Marti Clemmons, Gilah Tenenbaum, and Katharine English

“Now listen, dress up, okay? You want to look really, really nice. So, dress up… Up stride my clients, up the stairs in their finest leathers. Oh, my God, they had jackets and pants, and a hat. They just looked super grand, and super butch.”


This interview is the second in an ongoing series. It is part of a larger collaboration between Rebecca Copper and Marti Clemmons. Marti Clemmons wrote the introduction for this conversation.

This project, The Tapes, and this piece, Conversation II, is based around the 1970s-1980s history of lesbian parents in custody battles for their children. The places and identities are specific to Portland, OR― but these battles took place nationwide and set the stage for parental and partner rights leading into the AIDS epidemic. The Tapes is part of the Single Parent Archive, which Rebecca Copper and I started in March 2021. We created the archive in hopes of connecting with others around the often forgotten traumas of single parenthood, as well the triumphs. 

As a queer single parent and an archivist at Portland State University’s Special Collections and University Archives, I had a difficult time knowing which ‘self’ to present during this conversation– my queer self? The parent? The archivist? We all have various forms of self. Identities that we embrace and shadows that we hide. Yet, my queer identity is one that leads all others. It guides me as I raise two children, and it steers my archival practices. 

Judy Grahn, an American poet, clarifies my purpose in searching for queerness in archives in her piece “Tracking Past and Present”: “I just knew the outrage, roused to a white-hot anger, because we could not read about ourselves, could not learn about, or from, people like ourselves. And so like others of my generation, and those before, and after, I determined to make changes so that we could find ourselves – resolute to leave plenty of tracks for others to follow.”

Finding queerness in archives can be about subversion and, many times, perversion. 

It is about information and experience. Identifying queerness in archives and creating ways to make it accessible is something I am deeply passionate about. To connect, be present, and learn from the voices and names lost in the heteronormative narrative. Even in queer-identified archives, particular themes, events, and history is whitewashed, ignored or forgotten because of a lasting controlled narrative. We have been constantly relegated to queer sadness, shame, trauma, violence, and death. 

In the following conversation, there are elements of those themes, but there is also community building, awareness, support, and optimism. There is hope that an additional narrative will eventually be told. Who better to join the conversation than some who were present during a turbulent time of custody battles, diminished parental rights and rampant homophobia and patriarchy within the court system? 

These conversations will eventually be archived at Portland State University’s Millar Library, arranged under the Single Parent Archive sub-series in The Art + Social Practice Archive at Portland State University. I hope that this conversation between us, which brought together our various identities, helps those that engage with it to understand our shared world a little better.

This conversation continues from Conversation I. We engage in a conversation with Gilah Tenenbaum, a gay lawyer whose name was found on one of the tapes, and Katharine English, who won the first lesbian custody case in Oregon. 

Newsclipping, Willamette Week Dec. 12th 1984, “Referee Appointed, A Gay First”. Image courtesy of Women’s Community Education Project/In Other Words Archive, 1993-2018. Portland State University Library Special Collections and University Archives. Portland, Oregon.

Gilah Tenenbaum: What is our purpose for today?

Rebecca Copper: Currently, these tapes are not legally available to the public. There’s no information in terms of release forms, so no one can listen to them. This conversation is a documented process that Marti and I are going through in attempts to uncover who are the people recorded on the tapes. We hear multiple voices on these recordings, but there’s little or no identifying information. In order to share these tapes with the public, we need to figure out who’s on them. We are having conversations about everything that was happening at that time that is related to queer mothering, specifically the use of courts as a kind of abuse through custody battles. So, that’s what we’re doing today: we’re having the second conversation, which will eventually be published. These conversations will hopefully lead us to figure out how we can get these tapes to be accessible.

Katharine English: Can we not sign releases now, Becca?

Rebecca: So far, the only two people that we’ve found who are on these tapes are you and Gilah.

Katharine: And, Gilah and I cannot sign release forms?

Marti Clemmons: Yes, you can. The only problem is that there is a person interviewing you [that needs to be identified], I’ll just show you [showing audiotape through Zoom screen]—because this [tape] doesn’t have any other name on it besides yours. Katharine, can you see that? 

Katharine: Yes. 

Marti: Gilah, this is your tape. [showing audiotape on screen] 

Gilah: Okay.

Marti: The introduction on Gilah’s tape cuts off the interviewer’s name, so I don’t know who did the interviews.

Gilah: Interviewer or interviewee? 

Marti: Interviewer. 

Katharine: It was Pat.

Marti: Pat Young? 

Katharine: Right.

Marti: Okay, that’s what I thought. I took a class with Pat (1). When I heard Gilah’s tape, I was like, “That’s got to be Pat. I know Pat’s voice.” But, when I emailed Pat about these tapes, Pat didn’t know anything about it. Which was very surprising. Anyway, to answer your question, yes. If you sign a release form, and if we’re able to identify it as Pat on the tape, then we would have Pat sign the form, and then that would be like the first public tape that would be able to be digitized and released.

Katharine: Gilah, was your interviewer Pat Young?

Gilah: To tell you the truth, as I’ve told Rebecca and Marti, I have only the vaguest recollection of any of this. Do you remember it happening?

Katharine: Yes, I do. 

Gilah: Oh, good. [laughter]

Katharine: I remember it happening at Old Wives’ Tales (2) and that Pat was the interviewer.

Gilah: OH! [in response to Old Wives’ Tales] Okay. Well, sure. I remember Pat.

Katharine: I’m surprised she doesn’t recall any of it.

Gilah: Maybe if you remind her about Old Wives’ Tales?

Marti: Maybe! Yeah, I mean, all of this is new information. And, Katharine, you remember Pat?

Katharine: Yes. We were at Old Wives’ Tales and we were having the interview. Then, Cindy Cumfer came and interrupted us. She sat down with us. So, maybe that will trigger Pat’s memory. Pat and I agreed to finish the interview at some other time. We tried a couple of times unsuccessfully.

Marti: Yeah, I haven’t listened to yours [audiotape], Katharine. I’ve only listened to and digitized Gilah’s tape. I don’t know how long it is. Rebecca, I know that you wanted to email Pat? Maybe, CC all of us on it?

Rebecca: I’d be happy to. 

Katharine: Yeah. And, then can you send Gilah and I release forms that we can sign and return to you?

Marti: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Gilah, you introduced us to Katharine’s name in the last conversation. 

Gilah: I remember telling you that Katharine was the person you should talk to, I promoted her extensively. I talked about how she, and whoever was working with her, was responsible for educating the Multnomah county courts. Wasn’t it Judge Lennon, Katharine? 

Katharine: Well, it was not Judge Lennon, he was the final holdout. I don’t know that he ever really transformed. It was mostly Judge Herrell, Judge Nactigul. and Judge Deiz, who were the primary recipients of our educational project (3). In 1979, maybe it was even 1978, when I first began to work on lesbian custody cases, there were no victories. What we sought at that time were visitation rights, and sometimes even just contact. The fights were fairly brutal, with arguments being that lesbians would raise lesbian children, would raise queer men, would influence these children badly. So often, we settled for supervised contact. It was very tragic how many queer parents lost custody, lost contact, and lost visitation rights. 

I was working at the Community Law Project, which was a law firm of all women, mostly lesbians. Ruth Gundel and I worked on a particular case. I was just an intern at the time. Ruth was the supervising lawyer. We decided we would take this particular case to trial, we weren’t going to settle it. We had quite a preparation where we issued subpoenas for depositions. We would set them at six o’clock in the morning. We would file motions. We strategized on how to bring this case to fruition. Finally, it was set for trial. Then, we found out that it was set in front of a very homophobic judge. So we prepared what is known as a Brandeis brief, which is not just a brief that sets out the facts of the case, but attaches all kinds of studies, all kinds of personal affidavits. It was very thick [laughter] and very imposing. We served it to the other lawyer the day before the trial and served it to the judge. We fully expected to lose the case, because the judge was known for being homophobic. But, when we got to the courthouse, the other lawyer caved. She said that she just wasn’t going to go to trial. She was not going to fight this huge case. It may be that she had not prepared. It may be that she knew her client couldn’t afford it. For whatever reason, she said she would settle. Well, the judge had the brief. And I knew that when the judge read the brief, the judge was not going to let us settle it. And, so we strategized.

Rebecca:  Can I ask a question? Excuse my ignorance of law— can a judge do that? If there’s a settlement that’s been agreed upon between two parties, can the judge disrupt that settlement and say no?

Katharine: Yes. The judge has a right to say, “I won’t accept the settlement.” We were very fearful that that would happen. So, I went into the judge’s chambers and I took the brief back. By the time we got in to say that we had settled the case, the judge was not really aware of all the issues involved and accepted the settlement. That was the first time a lesbian had secured custody of her children (4). We were really quite thrilled. The next time that we had lesbian custody cases, Ruth and I decided that the best way was to educate the judges off the bench. We began to set up lunches for the judges and invite them to come. We would provide lunch, and we would provide a little lecture for them. We had several of those lunches where we showed videos. There was a movie called In The Best Interests of the Child. We showed that movie, we got a panel together of lesbian parents, and one gay man, a parent. They talked about their experiences. I came out to the judges and told them that I was gay. And, we took them to lunch.

We worked on this for about six months before we ever took another case to trial. The first case we actually won in-trial was— I don’t think she’d want me to reveal her name, so I won’t— but she had sued for custody. Her husband was in a cult religion. So, we thought we had a pretty good case. He wanted to raise the children in this cult. He wanted to tell them how evil lesbianism was. He demeaned his wife in the trial. He was generally a very despicable man. The judge, when he came back to rule, said he thought that lesbianism, per se, was not a factor that would lead him to award custody to the father. He awarded custody to the mother. And, he required visitation to be supervised with the father because of the father’s terrible feelings about the mother. He was afraid the father would bad mouth the mother. That was our first real victory. 

That was in front of Judge Herrell, who was a Catholic judge. We were very surprised. We [originally] thought we might get visitation out of it. We were very surprised that we won custody. That started a string of victories. By then, Kathleen Nactigul (5) was very much of the mind that lesbianism per se was not a factor. Judge Deiz really came around. She was an African American judge who compared the discrimination against gay people with her own experiences of being an African American woman. We had many conversations about that with her. There were a couple of the other judges who were very willing to come to these lunches. That’s how that project began. By then I was a practicing lawyer. It took many years for us to bring this about. Now, I don’t even think judges blink. They look at the parent or parents themselves, instead of who the parent is in a relationship with.

Newsclipping, City on a Hill Press, Oct. 16th 1980, “Lesbian mothers win in Oregon”. Image courtesy of Women’s Community Education Project/In Other Words Archive, 1993-2018. Portland State University Library Special Collections and University Archives. Portland, Oregon.

Gilah: I remember a case, Katharine, if my memory serves me, of somebody moving from somewhere else in Oregon to Multnomah County so that they could get in front of one of these judges. 

Katharine: That’s right. These were two women from Tillamook, who had worked in the fish factory there. They came to me for a consultation. I told them if they filed in Tillamook County they didn’t have a chance in hell. That they should move to Multnomah County and wait to file for the divorce. So, they did that. They moved to Multnomah County and resided here for six months, so they could file in my county. We did a lot of that kind of underground work in order to prepare clients before they filed for divorce. Those two particular women were both motorcyclists. This is a fun story. They both were rabid motorcyclists. When we got set for trial, I told them, “Now listen, dress up, okay? You want to look really, really nice. So, dress up.” We were all sitting there in the courthouse lobby waiting for the trial to begin. Up stride my clients, up the stairs in their finest leathers. Oh, my God, they had jackets and pants, and a hat. They just looked super grand, and super butch. [laughter] The other lawyer was Nancy Snow. She was with legal aid, she was representing the father. I looked at her and she looked at me. I said, “Oh, Nancy, please do me this favor.” She and I went to the judge and said, “ Something has come up that is just terribly important.” So we sent them home. Nancy, I could never repay her for that, because our clients won custody. They never would have in their leathers. That was a very fun case. 

Rebecca: I was just thinking about how hard it can be for some parents to relocate with their children.

Katharine: They agreed to relocate. One of them moved to Multnomah County first and got a job and found an apartment. Then, they moved with the children. But, they drove back and forth so the father could have equal custody. They would drive to pick them up, drive home, drive to Tillamook, and drive home. 

Another interesting case I had was in Washington County, our first case in Washington County. The mother was a heavy machinery operator, she operated a crane. She was very, very strong and very big. She looked like the typical dyke. Her partner, not that she was not feminine, but she was not quite as virtuous as my client. The father was a mechanical engineer. We had a lot of fears about that. The judge, his perception of strong women was of course very skewed. That was a very difficult trial. That was a five-day trial. I think the only reason we won it, is because she’s a very good mother, and so was her partner. He was not a bad father, but we advised the mother to videotape him when he did weird things. He was kind of a strange man. She happened to get a videotape of him in the empty swimming pool. He jumped down into the empty swimming pool, where he lay and watched the stars. She videotaped him in the morning when he couldn’t get out of the swimming pool. It showed him trying to climb out of the swimming pool. He tried over and over and over again. I was very reluctant to show that videotape because it was so strange, but we did. So I’ve always wondered if I did the right thing in that case, he was a very nice man and a very good father.

That judge called me into chambers toward the end of the trial. He said, “Katharine, I’m going to rule for your client.” I was shocked because lawyers are not supposed to go in front of the judges without other lawyers there. But, the judge had asked me to come into his chambers. He said, “I want you to know, I’m going to rule for you.” I thought, “This is so inappropriate.” Before I could say anything, he said, “I want to ask you, what do you girls do in the bedroom?” I was stunned. And I said, “Judge ‘so and so’, I think this is really inappropriate.” He said, “That’s all right. If you don’t want to tell me, you don’t have to.” And, I left. I always wondered why we won that case. I was always grateful that we won the case because she was a good mother. What relieved my conscience was that she and her husband got along very well. They shared the children. That made me feel a little bit better.

Marti: Were you afraid of losing the case because you didn’t answer the judge?

Katharine: Oh, I had no clue what was going on. It’s never happened to me before or since. I was very surprised. I told Peter, who was the other lawyer. I said, “The judge called me into his chambers.” I didn’t tell Peter what he said. If I had, Peter would have probably declared a mistrial. This was at the end of the fourth day. Peter said, “That’s okay. I don’t care. Let’s just keep going with the trial.” I don’t know Gilah, [laughter] you’re the ethicist here. Should I have declared a mistrial? [laughter]

Gilah: No, you revealed it to the other attorney on good enough terms. I think that’s as far as you had to go.

Katharine: That was my most peculiar incident. We lost other cases. Oh, the first case, I’ll tell you about the first case I ever tried. I tried as an intern with Bill Riggs, who became a Supreme Court justice there in Oregon. He’s retired now. He represented a champion, Olympic gold medalist (6).

Gilah: Oh, I remember the case.

Katharine: A teacher of the year! She was beautiful. She was perfect. He had no idea that we would lose because she was in a lesbian relationship. I was just an intern, but I said, “Bill, you gotta understand, this is going to be an issue.” He said, “It’s no issue. It’s no issue at all.”

[On screen, Rebecca holds up a copy of Tough Girl: Lessons in Courage and Heart from Olympic Gold to the Camino de Santiago]

Marti: Wait, hold on, what is Rebecca showing here?

Rebecca: It’s a book! The last time I had a conversation with Katharine she told me about who she’s talking about now. There’s a book published. I just bought it, but I haven’t read it yet.

Katharine: Carolyn Wood. She refers to her custody case in there. So, I guess I’m not revealing anything. I said, “Bill, your expert has five rings on his finger. He may not be gay, but the judge is going to think he’s gay.” He was effeminate and he had five rings on his finger. He had a wife and five children. He wasn’t gay. Sure enough, this guy came on to testify on Carolyn’s behalf. The judge was so put off by the expert’s rings and Carolyn lost. Her husband was a lawyer. It was a fiercely fought case. Her son called me when he became an adult to ask me about her case. He turned into a fine adult and that’s great. But, I think Carolyn was very wounded by that case.

Marti: That’s the thing with these tapes, the parents discuss the custody cases. I don’t think they mention their kids’ by name, but now you have to wonder about the children. For these tapes to be public, do we need to get the children’s authorization? It’s their lives that are discussed. 

Katharine: I don’t think her [Carolyn] son’s name is in the book. I read her book, and I don’t think she revealed her son’s name. That’s a good point, Marti. I would never talk about my personal custody case without my children’s permission, especially my one child. My other child, Greg, went on The Geraldo Show as “the son of lesbians.” He was sixteen years old. Geraldo Rivera called me and asked me if I would go on the show as a lawyer representing lesbians. I said, “I will not. I’m not going on your tacky little show.” Oh, it was so disgusting. When I got home from work that day, my son said, “Guess who called me…” It was Geraldo! He was going to go on the show. I said, “Greg, how can you do that? Those are conservative, republican, prejudiced people you’ll be talking to.” He said, “Well, that’s who I should be talking to, isn’t it?”

Rebecca: I’m not super familiar with The Geraldo Show.

Katharine: Oh, it was one of those spectacular shows that take everything and turn it into this great, big show. How do I describe it? What would you say it was like, Marti or Gilah?

Marti: Pre-Jerry Springer. Think of what Jerry Springer became. Geraldo was like the roadmap. I mean, I remember seeing fights on Geraldo.

Gilah: As sensationalist as they could make it.

Katharine: I have to say Geraldo was just darling to my son. He protected him. One person in the audience said, “Don’t you think your mother should have thrown you both in the river rather than raise you like an albatross around her neck?” Geraldo said, “Now, wait a minute. Does this look like a fine young man? Does this look like somebody who’s suffered?” You know, I mean, Geraldo was really good. I was very grateful to him. [laughter] But anyway, Greg wouldn’t mind if I spread it to the world, but my other son might care.

Gilah: I remember a case that you had in which the mother got custody, but had the condition that her partner could never come in the house or something like that.

Katharine: Right. The partner could never be there when the child was there. She was awarded custody and the condition was the child should never see the partner. So, the partner could not come over to the house or be anywhere near when the child was around. It was a pretty cheap shot. I can’t remember if they defied the order secretly, or if they split up. I can’t remember, Gilah. We had to endure, sit and listen to things like that. Judge Lennon was particularly bad. Bless his heart. This is all public record. Well, let me think.. Yeah, divorce cases were public records. I would always tell my clients, “Here’s a list of the names that Judge Lennon is going to call you. Let’s check them off, as he calls you. Don’t take it personally. He does this to everybody.” And he would say, “You, young lady, are a slut. You are sexually obsessed. You are slovenly and supine.” We would mentally check off all these, “Okay, he’s gonna call you slut. He’s gonna call you a pervert.” One client I had when we lost custody of her children as he was lecturing her, she actually smiled. She was, in her mind, checking off the adjectives of what he would call her. Judge Lennon always assumed all my clients were gay. If I had a straight client I would try to not get him as a judge. It was really hard to sit through lectures from him, and from other judges who were dismissive of lesbians and gay men. It was a very difficult six or seven years. I never held it against the judges because it’s a matter of education, how people grew up, and what they’re taught. But I did hold it against him. I felt he was very inappropriate, but he was a much-beloved judge.

Flier calling for letters of support for a lesbian custody case being represented by the Community Law Project. Image courtesy of Women’s Community Education Project/In Other Words Archive, 1993-2018. Portland State University Library Special Collections and University Archives. Portland, Oregon.

Rebecca: Was he a judge in Multnomah County? 

Katharine: Yes, he was a judge in Multnomah County. When he retired, I went to his retirement party, and he shook my hand. He said, “Well, it was nice having you appear in front of me.” I said, “I am so glad I never have to appear in front of you again.” He never changed, to his last day. I don’t know if you should print his name. I’m trying to think about that. Eventually, up until 1984, that was my primary practice: gay and lesbian custody. I represented gay men, too. I represented clients whose who were leaving their husbands or leaving their wives for same-sex partners. It was very, very rewarding, but very difficult work. Gilah, you never had a lesbian custody case?

Gilah: No. If I had a client that was in that position, I’m sure I referred them to you because you were the queen of this.

Katharine: Oh, how interesting. I always think of you as being involved [in these cases].

Gilah: I was involved in other ways, as you say: being an advocate for lesbians. Katharine, do you have a copy of the book that we put together? I think it was called Know Your Rights.

Katharine: Oh, Women’s Rights? You know, I don’t!

Gilah: I did, but I’ve been unable to find it.

Katharine: I wonder… Mary Forest keeps a lot of stuff. Ruth Gundel keeps a lot of stuff. That book we put out, wasn’t it while I was at the Community Law Project?

Gilah: I believe so.

Katharine: I think so. I bet Ruth, who is a massive collector of things, has a copy. What was it called? Know Your Rights? 

Gilah: That’s what comes to mind.

Katharine: Or, Women’s Legal Rights in Oregon? Oh, I’d love to see a copy of that.

Gilah: I know that I wrote an article for it, but I don’t even remember what it was on. [laughter]

Katharine: Oh, that’s so funny. There was another book. What was that big national book about lesbian rights? Shoot, I can’t remember. We had articles in that too. It was a pretty active time, Becca. There was a lot happening, it was a very thrilling and exciting time. Lon Mabon, if you haven’t heard his name, from the Oregon Citizens Alliance, started this huge group in Oregon. He proposed all this legislation (7) throughout the state that banned gay people from doing this, that, and the other. It would have jeopardized teachers, judges, and all kinds of women in these jobs. The backlash was very exciting. All of us decided, “You know what, the only way we’re going to fight all this stuff is for everybody to come out. Come out to your parents, come out to your friends, come out to your neighbors.” I think it just galvanized the gay community. It was a very, very exciting time. We had all kinds of groups: the Oregon Women’s Feminist Federal Credit Union, the Woman’s Place bookstore, the Domestic Violence Alliance. There were just all kinds of things that happened for lesbians and gay men. That was the period of time during which I practiced, and I had a lot of support. I was not isolated in any regard. I had a lot of support from my women lawyer friends and a lot of support from the community.

Gilah: We were at an age, you know, early 30s-ish, that we had all this energy. 

Katharine: Gilah, were you part of the Oregon Gay and Lesbian Lawyers Association that started, the OGALLA? Now, it’s just ho-hum. It’s just another arm of the Oregon State Bar. But back then, we met in apartment houses, people’s places, with our feet up on the hassock. Sharing bonbons and, you know, talking about, “Ooh, can we do this? Do you think we could? Do you think anybody would join?” It was just a real thrill. 

Gilah: I’m thinking I must have been. Why wouldn’t I have been? I was out. 

Katharine: I think you were. Not the first meeting, which happened in George’s apartment. What’s his last name? 

Gilah: Eighmey? E I GH..

Katharine: George Eighmey— yeah, yeah! [laughter] He and Peter, his partner, thought, “Let’s start the Gay Lawyers Association.” We all thought, “Oh, I don’t know. Do I dare?” Then, when Lon Mabon and the Oregon Citizens Alliance came out with this horrible, horrible statute that they were trying to pass, the Oregon State Bar, which never did anything political before, came out against it. After a very exciting bar conference down at the coast, several people spoke, they decided, “Yes, we need to do this for our fellow gay lawyers.” They came out opposing Lon Mabon’s terrible legislative statute, I think it was called Measure 9?

Marti: Yeah.

Katharine: It was a real thrill of a time.

Gilah: There must have been half a dozen lesbian bars in town. 

Katharine: Oh, yeah. I remember Rising Moon, Tasha’s, and The Other Side of Midnight.

Gilah: Wow, good memory Katharine! [laughter]

Marti: Keep going, keep going…[laughter]

Katharine: [laughter] We’d go and we would dance with each other. We’d feel so liberated, so free, and so secretive. [laughter]. It was really quite fun.

Marti: It’s always fascinating to hear about the lesbian bar scene, just because there aren’t really any spaces now. It’s a disappearing space across the United States, which is really unfortunate.

Katharine: It’s unfortunate and it’s fortunate. It’s like a two-sided coin. It’s really good that women can go to bars now and dance with each other. I remember going out with Sid Lezak and his wife, Muriel. We went to a western bar and Sid wouldn’t dance. So, Muriel and I got up and danced. They threw us off the dance floor. They said, “We don’t let women dance with women.” Sid Lezak, he was the U.S. Attorney! It was so funny. 

Rising Moon was one of the first lesbian bars. Before I came out, I was nine months pregnant with my second son. I was involved in planning a conference. There were all these lesbians who were planning this conference. I thought, “Oh, this is disgusting, but I’ve got to keep going because I’m a straight woman. I’ve got to manage the conference so that it serves straight women, too.” So one night, they all asked me if I wanted to go dancing. I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty neat.” I was eight and a half months pregnant, huge belly, and I thought, “Well, I can go down to the bar with them. Nobody’s going to bother me because I’m pregnant.” I went down, and they swarmed around me, “Oh, can I hear the baby kick? Oh, can I feel your belly?” [laughter] It was so hilarious. I just froze in my tracks, all these women who were accosting me! [laughter] It was really very affirming for me. That was before we knew that drinking was not good for children. So, I got smashed. I had a wonderful time! I don’t think I ever shaved my legs again! [laughter]

Rebecca: [laugher] That’s wonderful. I was born in 1989. There’s so much information that I don’t know. I feel like there’s a lot of people who are my age or younger who have none of this context. 

Katharine: That’s right. And that’s really sad in some ways. It’s really not too bad in other ways. When I came to Utah, I taught high school at Roland Hall, which is this private school. It was all rich people. All the girls were just completely oblivious to the women’s suffrage movement, to the gay rights movement. We had a lot of gay teachers. The girls would say, “Yeah, it’s no big deal.” And, I would think, “Oh, you have no idea. It’s no big deal, because some of us suffered in making it true.”

Gilah: Well, look what’s happening with abortion now. Fighting the fights that we fought, you know, in the 60s and 70s.

Katharine: Right? That’s just shocking. It really is shocking. Here we go again. But you know, we passed the torch to younger women like you, Becca, and Marti, you guys.

Rebecca: I mean, we wouldn’t be here without Marti. Marti found the tapes. 

Marti: From my point of view as an archivist, I very much want to see more of myself in archives as a queer person, a queer person of color. When I saw these tapes, you know, I knew that it’s not a known history, the lesbian custody battles. Any chance I get, I want to make queer history accessible to the public. 

Katharine: Oh, that’s wonderful.

Gilah: Marti, do you think that there might be a copy of Know Your Rights in your archives? 

Marti: Yeah, it sounds familiar. With the In Other Words (8) collection, we have numerous zines from back then. I want to look through the newsletters they have and see if I can come across it. 

Katharine: Ruth Gundle? G- U -N -D- L-E. She’s very accessible. Flight of the Mind is her literary side. She offers lots of workshops, two of which I’m taking right now. She can be very easily found. She’s the partner of Judith Barrington, B- A-R-R-I-N-G-T-O-N: a poet. A pretty well-known poet in the literary community.

Marti: Yeah. Ruth is on one of these tapes.

Katharine: Good, good. She was the founder of Community Law Project, which was a great law firm. How long have you been there [at Portland State] for Marti? 

Marti: I’ve been here since 2012. 

Katharine: Wonderful. 

Marti: We have a really good relationship with the WGSS: the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, and with Johanna Brenner. The students, they’re very eager to come in and view the collections. I do feel that in that way the torch is being passed. It’s good when they learn about this history. 

Gilah: In our day, it was just called Women’s Studies! [laughter]

Katharine: Gilah, are you retired now?

Gilah: Oh, yes. I retired in 2007 at 59, which was early.

Katharine: Oh, yeah! I didn’t finally retire ‘til 72. [laughter] I’m 77 now. 

Marti: You know, for me, on a personal level, as a divorced parent with kids, this history is hard to hear about. At the same time, I can imagine that living through it, that sense of community and the support that you had was exciting at times. 

Katharine: That’s not to say that it was all just a barrel of laughs. The other side of it, of course, was really hard. I don’t know what it’s like now for lesbians, if they have the same kind of community. I’ve been out of that community for quite some time here in Utah. Don’t get me started on Utah!

Gilah: I wish that there was still a strong community in that way. Especially in the old days, you know, lesbians were often cut off from their families. You had to create your own community.

Katharine: Yeah, there was a place in Southeast Portland, that was known as Lesbian Lane.

Gilah: Yes, I lived on it! [laughter]

Katharine: [laughter] All of the lesbians lived on it! Within about a three-block radius, you could find all these apartment houses with tons of lesbians. It was quite a community.

Marti: It’s still here. It’s just in pockets. You just have to find it.

Katharine: Gilah, all the old dykes are moving to Rosevilla or Rosewherever. [laughter]

Gilah: They’ve had my deposit for several years!

Katharine:  [laughter] Oh, that’s funny. Well, Judith, Mary Forest, and Ruth Gundle, everybody is talking about doing it now that everyone is in their 70s.

Gilah: Rosevilla is a CCRC, a Continuing Care Retirement Community. That means that you can opt for independent living, assisted living, or memory care if necessary. They have a little nursing home. It was started, I believe, by some men who moved from Willamette View, which is another CCRC down the road from it. They were gay men who wanted a place that was more friendly to lesbians and gays. I mean, you have to have money, that’s really the bottom line, but it’s a wonderful place. It’s really quite lovely. Nothing is taller than three stories. There are a lot of lesbians moving there if they weren’t already there.

Marti: Here in Portland?

Gilah: Well, actually just over the line in Milwaukee on River Road.

Katharine: In fact, that would be a very interesting article. If somebody does this big spread, “Where have all the old dykes gone?” [laughter]

Marti: I get asked that question all the time, “Where are all the old dykes?”

Katharine: Really?! Oh, how Interesting!

Marti: Oh, yeah. People are curious.


(1)  Pat Young taught an LGBTQ History Capstone at Portland State University. (

(2)  A restaurant and women’s center on Burnside Street in Portland, Oregon; it opened in the 1980s and recently shuttered in 2014.

(3)  Casual luncheons set up with the local judges to educate them about gay and lesbian parents.

(4)  In Oregon, one of few nationally. 

(5)  Oregon judge

(6)  Carolyn Wood was an Olympic swimmer and wrote an autobiographical book, Tough Girl: Lessons in Courage and Heart from Olympic Gold to the Camino de Santiago.

(7)  In the 1980s Lon Mabon began an anti-gay campaign which led to Meaure 9 in 1992. Meaure 9 proposed language to the Oregon Constiution which denied recognition of gay rights.

(8)  A well-known feminist bookstore in Portland, Oregon. 

Rebecca Copper (she/her) is currently a graduate candidate at Portland State University, through the Art + Social Practice MFA Program, where she worked in 2020 as a research assistant for Portland State University’s Art + Social Practice Archive. Rebecca’s work centers on ontology; how our being and perceptions of reality exist against one another. And, how that reality is mediated, dictated back to us in varying forms. She is deeply invested in vast inversion of imperial/masculine archetypes, power dynamics, and ideologies. And, the reduction of hyper categorical, industrialized research. 

Marti Clemmons (they/them) is an Archives Technician at Portland State University’s Special Collections and University Archives located in the Millar Library and previously worked as the Archivist for KBOO Radio. They are interested in using archives as a place for Queer activism.

Gilah Tenenbaum (she/her) was born and raised near Boston. B.A. Government and Political Science, Boston University, 1970; J.D. Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College;  Member Cornelius Honor Society and recipient of the first Wold Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Progress of Women’s Rights Through Law,1978. Admitted to Oregon State Bar 1978.

Katharine English (she/her) practiced law from 1977 to 1984, then was a juvenile court referee and pro tem judge from 1984 to 1998, and then the Chief Judge of the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde from 1998 to 2003. 

Nice to Re-meet You

Caryn Aasness with Wesley Chung

“We’re always asking questions about information. ‘What did you do?’ The better question is, ‘What did it mean?'”


I met Wesley Chung in the mid to late 2000s when I was a middle schooler and he was a youth mentor a bit older than me. He was the lead singer and songwriter of the indie pop collective, Boris Smile, at the time. Wesley recorded audio of various curated conversations from his life that sometimes made it into the music. Recently, as I reflected on my own artistic influences, I realized that my desire to ask people open-ended questions and document the answers was partly based on what I had seen Wesley doing in those years before I called myself an artist. I wanted to hear what he remembered about that time and how he would describe his own creative influences.

Caryn Aasness: I think a lot of the work that I’m interested in is just asking people questions. I started thinking about how, when I was in junior high, you were asking people questions that were interesting and recording their answers. And in my memory, I think you had a tape recorder. 

Wesley Chung: It was a Dictaphone. Yeah.

Caryn: Okay. That’s what I was gonna ask, because I don’t know. What is it? What is a Dictaphone?

Wesley: It’s like an old fashioned thing. It has a small cassette, but it was for people to take notes or minutes. For lawyers, that’s what they use. It’s like the more grown up thing of the Talkboy FX, you know, from Home Alone 2. But the same idea, it’s just a simple recorder, but I like the sound of the tape. There’s a nice nostalgic sound to it.

The Talkboy recorder featured in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

Caryn: Where did you get the idea of using it for music?

Wesley: I think the band Bright Eyes would do some things where you hear some recording. I always like tracks where suddenly the curtain is lifted and you can hear the band talking a little bit. I think it was the band, The Books. That was the first time I stopped in my tracks at Fingerprints and I was just like, “Who is this?” Because it’s all field recordings— the sounds of footsteps, and then another recording of someone humming. Not in the way that hip hop would do that in a really creative way of turning it into the beat, which I also really like. I like sampling in hip hop and now when I think about it, probably the very first time I heard it was in what I think is one of the greatest albums of the 20th century, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. If you listen to that album, there’s one song where at the end, they’re just in a classroom. It’s some older person asking kids questions like, “What do they think love is?” It’s this snapshot of a certain time. It feels very 90s but it could be any time. There’s no pretense to it, because it’s just whatever people said, whether it’s dumb or funny or profound. It’s kind of wildly exciting because you don’t know what people are gonna say. I was just like, so you’re human.

Caryn: And so then where did you get your Dictaphone?

Wesley: My dad had one. For the first album I did, I just randomly recorded people speaking and then put music underneath. By the second album, called Young and it Feels so Good, I was asking people questions that were kind of connected to the theme of the album: Why do you like being young? 

Boris Smile Albums; Chapter 1 (2007), Young and it Feels So Good (2008), and My Love Powered by 10,000 Practice Amps (2011)

Caryn: I remember. 

Wesley: I was a young adult, working with young people, and it’s still close enough for me to remember the time and age and the awkwardness of that period of time. But I was just curious how different it was for people that were younger than me experiencing youth compared to myself. It ties to the theme of the album, just hearing young people’s voices. That album,, if I listened back to it, which I haven’t in a bit, will be a snapshot of my life and the people that I was around. I was spending so much time being a youth leader. It’s like old family movies or something like that. I think the question is broad enough to still be kind of interesting, and even talking about it now will make me want to listen back to it. What did people say? How different is it now?

Caryn: I think I was in middle school when that came out. There’s a song on the album about middle school that felt very real to me in the moment.

Wesley: Yeah. I think it’s rare to find the artists who are able to create a piece of work that’s still self-reflective enough both for themselves as well as the culture they’re living in. 

Caryn: Do you have a favorite question to ask people?

Wesley: Well, I guess whatever question gets to what’s important. I’m always trying to figure out what people’s opinions are and what makes people tick. We’re always asking questions about information. Like, “What did you do?” “We did this.” But that’s only half. That’s like one aspect of it and it’s not the most important thing; it’s not what moves people. The better question is, “What did it mean? What did you do, and what did it mean?” It reveals a bit about that individual or maybe a bit about the community they’re a part of.

Caryn: You said before that you hadn’t listened to Young and it Feels so Good in a long time. How often do you go back to things that you’ve made in the past?

Wesley: Probably more often than other artists revisit their work. Some people are really shy, but like, to me, I made it for myself and for other people to enjoy. I have to listen back to stuff to go, does it still hold up? As I’m writing new work, sometimes I’ll reference back to stuff I’ve done previously and go, “Am I just repeating what I’m doing? Has it gotten a little bit better?” Because if I’m doing a song that’s quite similar to another song that I’ve done previously, that’s fine. That’s just called having a style. But if I’m not improving on it, or if I’m not getting closer to something that I find a bit more interesting or adding some twist to it, then I feel like I’m getting bored of my own songwriting. 

Caryn: Do you currently have a tape recorder or Dictaphone now?

Wesley: Yeah, I’m using my phone a lot, but also something called a Zoom recorder. It’s digital and it’s much better for sound recordings. I have a recording of my nephew and my mom and me because we were trying to get this dog to howl and I just started recording it. And I used it for one of the tracks because I like the ending. It’s something just for me. I’m just like, that’s three generations of the Chung family all howling together, and the song title is “Rumspringa,” that idea of sowing your wild oats in the Amish community. So I like the idea that it’s the Chung wolf pack. There’s something that has all these layers of meaning for me, but for other people it might just be like, “Oh, that’s a cool sound.”

Caryn: Do you have the desire to share that information in any way with the listeners who want to dive deeper into it?

Wesley: No, but I guess that’s the way I approach albums and songs. If people want to dig deeper, oh there’s plenty. There’s plenty to find, but if people want to hear it just on the surface level then I just like to make sure that the melody is something that is pretty or it’s catchy, or something that people can enjoy from a lot of different angles.

Caryn: Do you have any final thoughts?

Wesley: It’s nice to re-meet you again as an adult. We’re so much further on in our lives. It’s just really cool, what you’re doing. I think that’s a great place, the intersection of art and how it reaches out of gallery spaces. That’s more punk rock.

Caryn: Yeah! More punk rock, that’s the goal!

Caryn Aasness: (They/them) is a Social Practice artist living in Portland Oregon. Originally from Long Beach California. When they were in middle school and Wesley asked why they liked being young, they said “You can move faster.” 

Wesley Chung: (He/him) is a songwriter and musician living in Scotland now with his family. Wesley works at Flourish House, which is part of the Clubhouse movement that aims to support people living with mental illness outside of a medical model. He also writes and records music as a solo artist as A. Wesley Chung. You can check out his music here and here and here.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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