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 a rural area, between the late 60s and the mid-80s. “This story is about my uncle Michael growing up gay, and showing his life,” said Kelley. “I feel like if I could’ve known him personally, he would’ve been someone I was very close with.”
Michael died in the summer of 1985, before Kelley was born. His body was found at the bottom of a high ledge, and it was presumed that he had committed suicide.
The original work Kelley uses for Michael was created 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. “A lot of these pictures are based off a few different things, memories of my own, memories and speculations from other people, and also hopes and dreams in the minds of my family and myself,” said Kelley. “These things live in the imagination of the people who come in the wake of tragedy.”
However, through the use photos and other relics left behind by Michael after he passed away, Kelley has added a documentary element as well. Really, Michael is one huge collaborative piece between Kelley and his uncle. And as it progresses through Michael’s life, we see him begin to find himself.
This process begins with Michael’s move to a commune located in rural Massachusetts, where, Kelley explained, he finds space to be himself. “While he’s at the commune, he seems to be very curious,” 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. Still undiscovered by most of the people, yet throughout the pictures we see him 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. “His grandfather was someone he was close to, yet his grandfather was this very stoic, tough, stern older man who still wasn’t very accepting of his identity,” said Kelley.
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 the “Queer Mecca of the world,” 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. “There were still these silhouettes that were clearly gendered,” Kelley said. “I love that he drew on them and made obvious what was already obvious. It was like if you’re a heterosexual couple you belong here but if you’re gay, you don’t belong here.”
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 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. “It wasn’t just about getting AIDS, it was also in a way knowing that once you got AIDS, it would basically out you as being gay,” said Kelley.
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 clear HIV tests, if you were sexually active, one of the things you did was to look for skin cancers,” said Kelley. ”People would excessively look at their feet, and certain places where skin lesions would show up.”
Michael committed suicide in 1985, around the same time that the first test for HIV antibodies was approved by the FDA. Whether or not he did so out of fear of catching AIDS or a more general struggle with depression isn’t really known. But many of the people he left behind remembered him fondly, and did things to keep his memory alive. “My grandmother would always press flowers,” said Kelley. “I’m using this pressed flower that she made to operate metaphorically as this kind of flower to represent a fallen, kind of faded figure.”
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 never 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