The South is known for a few things – comfort food, good music, historic, institutionalized racism – and Richmond’s definitely got some experience in all three. The South’s conservative tendencies can seem to be at odds with being part of the LGBTQ community, and recent events tend to confirm that.
But artist and community facilitator Aaron McIntosh has other ways of conceptualizing the relationship members of the LGBTQ community have with their home states. His community art project, Invasive Queer Kudzu, seeks to increase visibility and share the individual stories of queer Southerners through unique community art workshops where small quilts resembling the leaves of kudzu vines are made by attendees – all part of a larger project spanning several years, beginning in 2015. The workshop will be coming to Richmond this weekend.
Kudzu vines are considered an invasive species in the Southern United States. Most people, especially in farming communities, consider the vines a nuisance more than anything. You might have seen them around yourself – the long, lush vines can grow to envelope telephone poles and even whole abandoned homes. The vine’s inevitable ability to thrive struck a chord in McIntosh. Just like the LGBTQ community, people described kudzu in similarly pejorative ways – invasive, alien, bothersome.
Originally from Tennessee’s Appalachian foothills, McIntosh’s current artwork is heavily influenced by his upbringing. McIntosh is a 4th generation quilt maker, and working with textiles to both create and tell stories in his current art practice is something he in large part got from his family. It’s also what initially brought him to start Invasive.
The origin and meaning of the Richmond-based project stems to the time he spends when he’s back home with his parents, helping them weed their garden. “I started thinking a lot about the weeds as sort of a separate, but very similar metaphor for queerness,” said McIntosh. “These weeds for the most part are natural, they’re plants, they grow of their own volition. But it’s through human culture we decide what’s valuable and what’s not.”
McIntosh, currently a professor in VCU’s Craft and Materials Department, went on to create works that included all of the weeds he had helped pull from his parents’ garden as a way of integrating the relationship that his family had with himself and his queerness. From the exploration of these weeds, he got to thinking about what the “quintessential Southern weed” would be – and that weed was the kudzu vine that had always been present in his surroundings. He researched kudzu for about a year before starting to make the quilted versions of the vine’s leaves, which would come to be what attendees would eventually be making in the community workshops.
“It seemed like the perfect metaphorical tool to talk about two things…It’s about queer stories invading and taking over these dominant Southern narratives we have: that the South is where largely it’s stepped on race relations, that is projected to the rest of the world as heavily white, heteronormative, Christian, religious, very backwards, uneducated,” McIntosh explained. “They don’t really acknowledge that the South flourishes with many people of color, a very large and uprising historic queer population, across different cities across the South. So I’m interested in the way the kudzu itself can invade those narratives on the national level.” The other side of the metaphor is that the kudzu more directly represents the somewhat rapid expansion of LGBTQ rights and with it, an increase in homophobia and anti-LGBTQ legislation, particularly at the state level. According to McIntosh, it grew with a similar voracity that the kudzu does.
For the project itself, McIntosh conceptualized it as more of a community project rather than his own piece of artwork. He’s at the workshop to facilitate and instruct, not to control what the work itself will look like. These quilt making workshops are held in cities all over the Southeast, where members of each community can attend at no cost to tell their stories through creation. The pieces themselves take two different forms; one is slightly more informal, often at events like Richmond Pride, where people can simply walk up to the booth and write and decorate the leaves. The other way to participate is to attend a workshop and actually sew and quilt the leaves; however, it’s ultimately up to the attendees what the end product will look like, leaf-shape aside. McIntosh provides 25 different prompts to inspire the attendees to think deeply about their experiences, in order capture a wide array of stories and perspectives.
There is a catch, though. The kudzu leaves are returned to McIntosh and other workshop facilitators for a phase of the project to begin in 2018, after enough leaves have been collected. “Each leaf has a channel in the center where each participate can insert a wire – like a stem – so the leaves can be sculpted to look more like actual leaves. Those get wound onto a vine or a vine net. If we have the vines at the vent, before they leave the participants can add them to the vine.” After the participant finishes their lead, as long as they give permission, their picture is taken with it and posted to their blog and website to more permanently document the process and reach a wider audience.
Then, starting in 2018 and expected to run up through 2020, the completed leaf-decorated vines will be displayed in exhibition spaces and public events all over the South. McIntosh is already in the process of securing locations; as of right now, the exhibition is slated to start in Baltimore, where the quilted kudzu will over take the now closed storefront of one of the oldest gay bars on the East Coast, the Hippo. McIntosh also plans to place them in areas that weren’t so LGBTQ-friendly. Displaying them this way not only mimics the way the kudzu literally grows, but can also draw attention to areas that aren’t exactly known for being forward thinking to show the true diversity of the South.
Although initially meant for folks in the LGBTQ community to express themselves, McIntosh has seen even more of a diverse crowd attend, including allies, family members and coworkers of queer folk, and more children than he had imagined.
“I’ve actually done workshops where no LGBTQIA people were present,” said McIntosh. “I had one with a really little kid, about six-years-old, that totally got the project. His mother told me that he’s friends with [two kids] in his kindergarten class that already are questioning their gender and that he stands up for them. He made a leaf about the experience.”
According to McIntosh, he’s surprised with the artwork participants create every time he facilitates a workshop. Since 2015, over 3,200 leaves and stories have been collected.
“People are usually focused on the celebratory aspects, although I haven’t done a workshop since the Trump election so I’m very interested to see how things go with that,” said McIntosh. “I think that in this new political climate, artist’s voices are so important… we’re going to need art to dig deeper into the psyche of our different communities. I hope that this project can be a catalyst for queer Southern artists to pick up what ever material they work in and get their message out there.”
This weekend, you too can proudly contribute to the “undeniable mass of Southern queerness” at Invasive: A Queer Quilting Bee Sunday, March 19th from 12 PM to 4 PM at Studio 23. All materials are provided and it is free to attend, but donations are encouraged and a portion of the proceeds will be given to the folks at Side by Side Richmond.
If you’re a community organization that’s interested in hosting Invasive events or displaying the final products, Aaron McIntosh can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.