Houston-based artists Jake Margolin and Nick Vaughan have completed the sixth segment of their ambitious 50 States project—focusing on Louisiana—and the results are now on display at DiverseWorks, 3400 Main Street, through April 18.
Unfortunately, the exhibit is currently unavailable to the public, due to DiverseWorks’ decision to close their space until further notice to help reduce the spread of the CODIV-19 virus. However, DiverseWorks has created a web page where the installation can be experienced virtually. And, an album of still photographs and a Vimeo video are available online.
Margolin and Vaughan, a married art team, are fascinated with LGBTQ history, and especially with pre-Stonewall history. They merge history and art by uncovering little-known community stories and building art installations around the narratives. (An “installation” combines everyday objects into artistic displays using media such as video, sound, virtual reality, and the Internet.)
Their signature project, 50 States, will take an estimated 25 years to complete. The finished work will feature 50 installations, each celebrating a “lost LGBTQ narrative” from each U.S. state. Since the project started in 2013, the artists have completed the Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana segments.
A Gay Indigo Trader and His Partner in 1724
The Louisiana installation has a one-hour audio program featuring Margolin and Vaughan talking about a gay indigo trader, and the extraordinary process of making and dyeing fabric with organic indigo.
The artists discovered a story from 1724 in which Captain Jeremge Beauchamp was busted for having an affair with his cabin boy. As punishment, the colonial authorities assigned the cabin boy to another ship and forbade them from seeing each other. Rigid as this prohibition was, Beauchamp promptly went to the other ship, stole his lover back, and the two set off for France on their ship, La Bellone.
The two men made it as far as Dauphin Island, off the coast of what is now Alabama, where the ship sank in perfectly clear weather after it purportedly hit a sand bar. Neither the captain nor the cabin boy died, and they made their way to St Louis. A solitary typewritten note card in a catalogue file in the Louisiana State History Museum Archives suggests that, in later years, Beauchamp may have owned a plantation outside of Mobile, the nearest Alabama city to the site of the shipwreck.
The artists note: “We know about Jeregme Beauchamp because his ship sank. We know because excuses had to be made. Because a lot was riding on the Bellone. Or rather, a lot was riding in the Bellone, packed securely in the hold – the first large shipment of indigo pigment to be sent back to France. This was the first return on a cash crop that would, it was hoped, make the struggling colony solvent.
“A senior Capuchin priest who worked for The Company of the Indies (the company that had a complete monopoly on all trade in the French colonial world) broke the news of this sinking, writing of this “public calamity” to his senior Abbé. He explained that the only reasonable cause for the loss was God’s vengeance, raised by the colonists’ failure to sufficiently punish Beauchamp and his Cabin Boy for their “monstrous crimes”.”
The artists discovered the story of the indigo trader in the Tulane University library while reading a 2009 Tulane University PhD dissertation by Richard Clark about 20th century queer New Orleans. In this work was a glancing mention of a gay French ship captain on the Mississippi in 1724, accompanied by the rarest of things – a footnote that pointed to a primary document in the Mississippi Provincial Archives which, coincidentally, the Rice University Fondren Library holds. This find led them to other primary documents in various libraries.
A Contemporary Sailing Connection
Margolin and Vaughan say that when they came across the story of the captain and his cabin boy and their cargo of indigo, they knew that their Louisiana installation had to include something made out of indigo. While visiting their friend free feral in New Orleans, the men were introduced to their girlfriend Jinks Holladay, who is a member of the queer radical sailing collective Telltales.
Holladay talked about this anarchist utopian collective that aims to make a safe space for queer folk and anyone else who wouldn’t normally feel comfortable in the typically heteronormative world of sailing. The men realized that Telltales was a space in which people like Captain Beauchamp and his cabin boy could have thrived.
The artists decided to make ship sails, custom-sewn by a master sailmaker in Long Island to fit the Telltales boat, a Tartan 30. The sails were constructed from muslin that were then dyed in organic indigo.
They hope to eventually be able to outfit the Telltales boat with these sails, and follow the journey that Beauchamp and his cabin boy took out to Dauphin island.
New Orleans Gay Krewes in the 1960s
The artists were also introduced to New Orleans gay activist Larry Bagneris through the late Ray Hill. Bagneris was the founder of the Houston Gay Pride Parade, among many other things. After several years in Houston, he returned to New Orleans. The men told Bagneris they were hoping to somehow connect their Louisiana art installation to the Longshoremen or the shipping industry. Bagneris suggested that they look into the balls that the gay krewes held in the 1960s at the Longshoremen’s Union Hall.
There are social groups called krewes, built around Mardi Gras. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s several gay krewes began to emerge. Their history is well documented in a coffee-table book with photos entitled Unveiling the Muse. There is also a current exhibition at the Louisiana State Historical Museum about the gay Mardi Gras krewes, featuring costumes, video, and ephemera.
In the early years, most people in New Orleans wouldn’t rent space to gay people to have a huge ball. The only spaces in New Orleans that would rent to the gay krewes to have their annual masquerade balls were African American Labor Union Halls, and in particular the African American Longshoremen’s Union Hall. When the artists discovered this, they felt that they had the beginnings of a truly interesting piece.
The men talked to one of the early presidents of the Krewe of Arminius, Albert Carey, who put them in touch with other people of interest. Of great help in their research was Wayne Phillips, Curator of Costumes and Textiles as well as Curator of Carnival Collections at the Louisiana State Museum, who was instrumental in pulling together Unveiling the Muse.
The artists note: “One of the most interesting things we learned from visiting Phillips was about the Krewe of Ishtar – the only lesbian krewe to exist, which ran from 1981 to 1986. He put us in touch with two of its founding members, Diane DiMiceli and Marsha Roberts. Their stories of the krewe were so wonderful that we commissioned our friend free feral, a podcaster and musician, to interview them and collect their oral histories and present them as a live podcast at the opening of the show at DiverseWorks this past February.”
When fabric is dyed, if one wants to leave a part of the fabric un-dyed, a material called a “resist” is used – sometimes it’s wax or another material that repels the dye so it won’t absorb into the fabric. As Margolin and Vaughn were dyeing their boat sails, they used engine oil—the current cash crop of Louisiana—as a “resist” to create the white initials of the union halls that rented space to the gay krewes of carnival in the 1960’s.
Future 50 States Installations
The artists say that most of the 50 States installations have taken about two years to research and develop before their premiere, and this was the case with the Louisiana segment. The installation is now on exhibit at DiverseWorks, but they feel it is just the beginning, and they are thinking about future iterations of the work. They plan to start raising the money to put these sails on the Telltales boat they were made for, and tour the work.
The men are also continuing to work on a performance lecture for their Arkansas piece, which premiered in New York in early 2019. They plan to develop a theatrical piece with the support of The Momentary, the new performance complex at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. They hope to premiere that work in late 2020 or early 2021.
They are now at the earliest stages of research for their next state piece, Utah. It will center on the groundbreaking work of the sociologist Nels Anderson whose landmark 1923 book The Hobo documents the vibrant homosexual subculture within the hobos who road freight trains in the early 20th century. Anderson grew up in Ogden, Utah, and the artists plan to use his work as the starting point for that project. The Utah segment will probably premiere in 2022.
For more information about Jake Margolin and Nick Vaughan’s 50 States Project, go here.