Amy Cousins and Ruben Castillo have been friends for five years. They are both artists and educators – Cousins in Philadelphia, Castillo in Kansas City – and they both often root their work in archival material as they have for their joint exhibition, All Modes Are Open to Us, which runs through August 12, 2023, in Central Library’s Guldner Gallery.
The two artists have talked a lot, comparing notes about their lives and work, so much so that they recently realized they’ve swapped how they create.
Castillo says that Cousins’ work had been about other people, never mentioning her own life, while his was extremely autobiographical. His was stark, hers was colorful.
“Now her work has become a lot more autobiographical, being about her garden, about her partner, and her home and her cats even. And my work is becoming more about other people's history, and my own identity is being removed from it more and more,” Castillo explains.
He’s not sure why it happened, but they’ll talk about the swap and other aspects of their work at the Library on June 3, 2023, to kick-off their shared gallery exhibition.
“For this show,” Cousins says, “we're both pulling from one primary archival source. He has one, and I have one. Both of our works are taking an approach of care toward those sources and also relating them to our own interests and desires.”
She says the seven or eight pieces they’re each showing in the exhibition explore the impulse and desire to surround themselves with beauty as a survival strategy.
In fact, survival is integral to the archives each has drawn inspiration from for this particular show. Cousins has been going through decades-old issues of a feminist magazine called Country Women, and Castillo has pored over two scrapbooks created by Kansas Citian Phyllis Shafer, mother of Drew Shafer, founder of the Phoenix Magazine and Phoenix House.
In the case of Country Women, Cousins says its creators and readers “were explicitly feminist and queer-leaning. … It was a lot of women who were making the choice to separate themselves from society and live off the land. Most of them were doing it, in part, to escape the hetero patriarchy in the places that they lived.”
The scrapbooks Castillo found in the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America (GLAMA) smack of another kind of survival: a mother fiercely walking beside her gay son and, later, as he battled and succumbed to HIV/AIDS.
Cousins works largely in textiles and will show two quilts as well as a few framed pieces. She’s stitched text of her own invention as well as quotations from Country Women through the three layers of the quilts.
She points to quilts as heirlooms, items passed down through generations. The stitched words work to “mend a gap” that she’s noticed.
“My practice of looking through archives is to kind of uncover history that wasn't necessarily passed down to me that I wouldn't know without really seeking it out,” Cousins says.
A lot of the words and phrases she’s sewn have to do with processing messy relationships –information that is rarely passed down from one generation to the next.
So, Cousins says, she’s included the “utopian experience of expansive love and sexuality,” which in some form may be passed down, “but also the kind of messy nuts and bolts side to it.”
The scrapbooks Castillo has drawn from offer a similar gap-mending in that their contents tie together past and present struggles and perhaps show a path forward illuminated by history.
Shafer clipped mostly LGBTQ-related headlines concerning legislation, violence, triumphs, in the 1970s and 1980s, but some as early as the 1940s. She pasted them in wallpaper sample books.
“You have these horrendous, violent headlines that she clipped and kept and juxtaposed against these great, beautiful wallpaper samples,” Castillo says. “… She was not interested in ideas of perfection; she just needed to get it done. I think that's a really beautiful message of acting with urgency to address the immediate, urgent needs of the community.”
Castillo sees the books as time capsules of the gay rights movement for “better or worse,” he says and points out parallels between early gay rights struggles and current transgender rights attacks.
He’ll show a couple of pictorial etchings in addition to about seven installation-based works that’ll include wallpaper-type patterns of his own design, like repeating letterpress fig leaves to suggest censorship that dates back centuries and, in this format, are a nod to Shafer’s project as well.
In light of June’s designation as Pride Month, Castillo reminds the public to watch for these “fig leaves” – the censorship of not just ideas but of people.
“What legislation is happening at this moment? How do we be vocal against it? And how do we make sure that we don't compromise anything or anyone and think about what the inclusive spaces are?” he asks. “There are people who are being excluded. How are their voices being considered?”
Cousins says that she hopes people find a sense of celebration when they view her work in the Library’s exhibition, “and [see] that another world is possible and even already exists in small snippets that we can find and carve out for ourselves as queer people.”
A Rabid Sense of Hope: From the Artists’ Perspective
Saturday, June 3, 2023 | 2 p.m.
Reception: 5:30 p.m. | Program: 6 p.m.
Celebrate Pride Month at the Library
Books | Events | Resources
In coordination with the exhibition, the Library has put together a collection of books and materials that talk about different members of the LGBTQIA+ communities and the art that has inspired them.