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Memories and Speculations: A Closer Look at Forest Kelley’s Michael

GayRVA Staff | May 10, 2018

Michael, Forest Kelley‘s photographic solo exhibition, is currently on display at 1708 Gallery. With the exhibition, Kelley seeks to capture and display the history of his uncle Michael, a gay man living in rural New England, between the late 60s and the mid-80s. “I was trying to finding this self, this person that I might have been if he hadn’t passed. I think he would have been a significant figure in my life,” said Kelley.

Michael committed suicide in the summer of 1985, shortly after the first test for HIV antibody was approved by the FDA. Whether or not he did so out of fear of dying from AIDS or a more general struggle with depression isn’t known.

The original work Kelley created for Michael was crafted as an attempt to evoke Michael’s life, from various evidence left behind. But Kelley emphasized that the story he tells through the work isn’t intended to be read as documentary. “Many of these pictures are based on my own memories, the memories and speculation of others, and also the hopes and fears in the minds of my family and community,” said Kelley. “These stories and mythologies endure in the imagination of those who live in the wake of tragedy.”

However, through the use photos and other relics left behind by Michael after he passed away, Kelley has drawn from documentary techniques as well. Really, Michael is one huge collaborative piece between Kelley and his uncle. “I started using his 8mm film, in part, because this project is about visualizing his life and these are things he saw, but, also, to realize him as an artist. I think of this project as collaborative. We’re sharing in the story telling,” said Kelley. And as the story progresses through Michael’s life, we see him begin to find himself.

Forest Kelley, Untitled, 2008

This process begins with Michael’s visiting Butterworth Farm, a back-to-the-land commune located in rural Massachusetts that was founded by five gay men, where, Kelley explained, he finds space to be himself. While he’s visiting the commune, “he seems curious and happy to be there,” said Kelley. “It’s such a loaded and coded space, because even though it’s an open queer place, it’s still a place that’s open and back to the land.” Throughout the pictures in the exhibition we see Michael smiling and becoming more comfortable.

Part of the reason Michael needed a separate community like this one in order to be open and feel comfortable with himself is because of the social climate that existed at the time — even within his family. As Kelley explains, a photograph in the exhibition depicts Michael’s grandfather, “a very stoic, tough, masculine character,” said Kelley. This photograph parallels Kelley’s understanding of Michael’s father, who, he said, “wasn’t very accepting.” “In this small town, where that kind of masculinity is the expectation, you can imagine that it was difficult to have an identity that didn’t align easily, or to have your subjectivity suppressed.”

However, the commune wasn’t the only place where Michael found some acceptance within the wider world. A trip to visit San Francisco, considered to be “a queer mecca,” according to Kelley, was a happy experience in his uncle’s life. However, even San Francisco wasn’t a perfect place to visit for Michael to visit, as Kelley makes clear with the inclusion of an advertisement for San Francisco tourism that once belonged to Michael. It depicts a vacationing couple in silhouette beside the headline “Put Yourself In This Vacation Scene!” Michal drew genitals on the otherwise featureless heterosexual couple.  “Even though the figures are cut out—silhouettes—they are still so clearly gendered,” Kelley said. “I love that he drew on them to make obvious what was already evident.”

Michael’s self-acceptance and growth as a person was happening, albeit at a slow, careful pace. However, in the midst of this, a cataclysm hit the LGBTQ community. “Where we are now in the narrative of the show is thinking about discovery and figuring who he was as a person, and then having all of that interrupted by AIDS,” Kelley said of the exhibition’s final portion.

Kelley explained that fears of contracting the disease carried additional ramifications beyond health. “AIDS, in that time, wasn’t simply about dying. You knew it was a death sentence, but you also knew it would out you,” said Kelley.

Forest Kelley, Untitled, 2014

At this point in the history of the disease, not much research had been done about AIDS, which only added to the frightening implications of the disease for Michael and other gay men of his generation. For example, no one really knew how to detect it in oneself, or in potential partners. “Before there were decisive HIV tests, if you were sexually active, one of the things you did was look for skin cancers,” said Kelley. “Men would inspect their bodies, often obsessively, for lesions.”

The way things ended for Michael, and just how much this had to do with his status as a gay man in a time when the LGBTQ community received even less recognition of our civil rights than we do now, is part of the point Forest Kelley’s Michael is making. Mostly, though, the work included in this show is a way for Forest Kelley to better understand the life, feelings, and experiences of a close relative he hardly knew.

Michael is on display until Saturday, June 9 during regular gallery hours at 1708 Gallery, located at 319 W. Broad St. For more info, click here.

Written by Daniel Brickhouse and Marilyn Drew Necci. Top image: Forest Kelley, Untitled, 2013