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Queer Pioneers

Houston artists Jake Margolin and Nick Vaughan tell forgotten LGBTQ stories in 50 States project.

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H ouston artists Jake Margolin and Nick Vaughan say they’ve found their calling: using their talent and passion to help change the world. 

“Creating something meaningful and making an impact is what drives me,” Margolin says. 

“If you’re not doing something important, you’re wasting your life,” Vaughan adds.

Margolin and Vaughan, who are also a married couple, have long been fascinated with LGBTQ history, especially pre-Stonewall. Now, they are merging history and art by uncovering little-known LGBTQ stories and building art installations around them.  

 Their signature project, 50 States, will take an estimated 25 years to complete. The finished work will have 50 installations that will celebrate “lost LGBTQ narratives” from all 50 states. Since beginning the project in 2013, the artists have completed the Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas segments. “The project’s structure is one that will never get boring,” Vaughan says.

TEAMing up

Margolin and Vaughan met in New York City in 2005 while working with TEAM, a Brooklyn-based ensemble. Margolin was an actor and singer, and Vaughan was a set and costume designer. They recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of their 2008 marriage in Toronto. 

“We not only enjoyed living together, we liked working together and admired the thought processes of the other,” Margolin says. Merging Vaughan’s graphic talent and Margolin’s sense of narrative, they were able to create works that would have been impossible alone. 

Their 2008 wedding brought into focus several issues surrounding gay marriage. The couple felt ambivalent about being mainstreamed, and gave a lot of thought to the iconography of American masculinity at its two poles. On one end of the spectrum lies domestication and the small space offered by suburbia, and on the other lies the loner in a wide-open frontier, epitomized by the Marlboro Man.   

They became fascinated with the American cowboy, and discovered that gay cowboys were popular in homosexual erotica that took heterosexual imagery and gave it a gay twist. The couple created a series of art pieces from this early gay erotica, aptly calling it Pinups. But they felt something was still missing—not just from their art, but from their lives. 

An epiphany at 5 below 

That elusive element finally revealed itself during an artistic journey in 2013. The couple had discovered the book Men in Eden, about early-1800s pioneer Sir William Drummond Stewart and his Native American-French Canadian lover, Antoine Clément.

The intimate relationship of the highly-admired and colorful duo was no secret in the fur-trading world of that era. Margolin and Vaughan realized that gay men must have existed as an integral part of the Old West—and not just as gay versions of straight men. 

They decided to follow the trail of a 1,200-mile expedition that Stewart and Clément led in 1843, from St. Louis to the stunningly beautiful Lake Fremont in Wyoming. They planned to then build an art installation to honor it. The couple carried with them a series of pigmented wax panels. Every 80 miles, they spread dirt on a panel and drove over it, creating an artistic tire-track record of Stewart and Clément’s pilgrimage.  

50 States Wyoming

Two-thirds of the way through their journey, on a bitter, five-degrees-below-zero morning, they stood on the banks of the North Platte River outside of Casper, Wyoming, surrounded by a majestic vista.

Until that moment, they say they had felt like outsiders looking in. “For the first time in our lives, we felt like we belonged there,” Margolin says. “It was a complete paradigm shift.” The couple finally realized, “Our community has always been there throughout history, but our stories have been ignored by the dominant culture in their history books and classrooms. This has [prevented us] from developing a healthy sense of identity.”   

This realization led them to commit to building an art installation for each state, revealing hidden histories of the gay community and showing how they fit into the bigger picture of American life.  

“We spent so long in our work trying to find our political teeth—that point where we could merge our love for making things with wanting to bring about change in the world,” Margolin says. “Now, we’ve started to feel like this is where we could make a difference.”

In praise of everyday courage

Margolin and Vaughan view the lives of early LGBTQ Americans as noble acts of courage—individuals bucking established societal norms and existing genuinely. 

This perspective is apparent in their one-off installation, The Scene. After resettling in Houston in November 2014, they visited Vaughan’s aunt, photographer Janice Rubin. 

Rubin recalled that she had photographed a “USO Drag Show” event on the back patio area of Mary’s, the now-closed Houston gay bar. The artists were struck by those images of people excluded from society who were having an exuberantly good time.   

To honor their new city, Vaughan and Margolin created eight pieces that can either be displayed alone or hung together to form the shape of Houston’s freeway map. Each piece features imagery on glass backed by sequins. Turn your head slightly, and the whole work sparkles. Among the entertainers featured are The Fantastic Five, a 1970s drag ensemble that performed in Houston. Three members of that group were lost to the AIDS epidemic. 

The Scene

Houstonians got a firsthand look at this tribute to Houston’s drag culture from 1969 to 1980 (Stonewall to AIDS) when it was displayed at Houston’s Devin Borden Gallery in April.

The late Naomi Sims, Donna Day, and Tiffany Jones look out from the piece confidently—even somewhat defiantly. Margolin and Vaughan flew to Las Vegas and Dallas to visit surviving Fantastic Five members Hot Chocolate and Tasha Kohl. As the artists studied Rubin’s photos of the Mary’s show, they looked beyond the entertaining performance images and were struck by the everyday courage of LGBTQs of the era.

In addition to The Scene, the gallery exhibit included a darkened exhibit room with two “infinity” pieces made up of mirrors reflecting mirrors in plexiglass cubes. Revolutionary Implements: Molotov Cocktails combined high-heel shoes, microcrystalline wax, canvas, and ash. The title explores the power of a pair of heels worn by a drag queen who becomes an instrument of revolution simply by being herself. Revolutionary Implements: Nail Polish featured a bullhorn painted with pink nail lacquer. Once again, the couple emphasized the revolutionary aspect of drag queens being themselves in a judgmental world.   

A Fireside Chat with Kelly Lauren featured a video interview with Lauren that was projected onto the wall of the building that used to house The Old Plantation bar, where she once performed.     

The men continued to expand their artistic portfolio at the Aurora Picture Show in May, with the five-channel video installation Political Gestures. The installation was then taken to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, as part of the city’s TahlEquality Pride festival.

The monumental 50 States project

The theme of everyday courage is evident throughout the four 50 States installations already completed. 

50 States Oklahoma introduces Lynn Riggs, the gay Cherokee playwright whose Green Grow the Lilacs eventually became the iconic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! 

50 States Colorado celebrates a pioneering late-19th century trans man, Charles “Frenchy” Vosbaugh, who was assigned female at birth but lived as a man for more than 60 years in Trinidad, Colorado.  

50 States Texas is based on an 1895 romantic lesbian novel, Norma Trist, written by John Wesley Carhart of La Grange. A lesbian, who is on trial for murdering a lover who had left her for a man, is acquitted after making the case that her sexuality is innate, and therefore God-given.  

For the Texas installation, the artists made stencils of the entire novel and applied graphite onto 100 linear feet of parchment paper. The piece emphasizes the temporal ephemerality of life. The slightest breeze could blow the raw carbon from the parchment, showing how delicate our history is and how easily it can be lost. 

The four completed installations are now in storage, and are brought out for gallery exhibitions. The couple has a studio in the Box 13 Artspace gallery on Houston’s east side. They say they create enough artwork to pay the bills. Beyond that, their riches lie in the fulfillment of political and social agendas—and creating imagery of neglected LGBTQ history. Their installations cost tens of thousands of dollars to create, and part of those expenses are offset by art grants.   

This project, they say, is “an affirmation that the road to LGBTQ progress was paved by really ordinary, anonymous people who had the extraordinary bravery to live their lives the way they felt they should.”  

The artists are currently working on their 50 States Arkansas piece, and “staying as involved in saving some semblance of our democracy as we can.”

For more, visit NickandJakeStudio.com. 

At 7:30 p.m. on November 8 and November 9, the Alley Theatre will host Margolin and Vaughan for “A Landing on the Bayou,” an artists’ lecture/performance exploring Houston’s diverse, rich and political drag scene in the years between the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic (1969-1985). The event will be followed by a reception and an opportunity to view Margolin and Vaughan’s The Scene. For tickets, go here

This article appears in the September 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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