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Pride and Presence

This drawing is called Marsha Most Permanent.

Marsha P. Johnson. In 2018, I asked myself (and others), “Who should be on the $3 bill?” Marsha P. Johnson seemed an obvious answer, right? Mother of Stonewall. Credited as thrower of the first brick. Provider of shelter to queer youth before the words “queer youth” were in the lexicon. ACT UP activist. Performer. Mayor of Christopher Street.

And also…did not get the love and acceptance and safety and respect she deserved in her time. Died violently. Written off by many. Iconized with time and distance.

Have you ever made what you consider a problematic piece of art? This is mine.

I did this piece with nothing but love, respect, and reverence. It took me six months. I meditated on her beautiful smile, on her beautiful self expression with the flowers she had arranged on her head, on the way the light from the polaroid flash lit up her skin. And what’s revered in our culture more than the almighty dollar? What’s more permanent than ink embedded in paper?

It’s big. It’s 22x30 inches on a piece of Arches. It’s done with Sakura Micron pens, one tiny mark at a time. The view behind the bill is the park across the street from the Stonewall Inn. It’s what you’d see standing in front of it looking across the street. I love this drawing.

But there are two things that bother me about this piece.

One, I don’t know who took the polaroid. You know the photo. Gorgeous smile, bottle of Evian in the background. Someone took it with affection. Someone knows who the photographer is. If you do, please clue me in. I’ve been unable to figure it out. This bothers me. A lot. The image is currently credited to Netflix everywhere I’ve looked.

Two, I’m a white woman doing this portrait, and quite honestly, I don’t think my voice needs to be in the room here. And it would be really gross to make money on this.

But also, she is really truly a hero of mine. And also, she was, at the time, NOT claimed with love and reverence by the “mainstream” (such as it was) gay community. Nor, it seems, like many in the Black community. She was problematic, optically. She was mentally ill. A sex worker. But holy shit, she sheltered and loved young homeless queer people. I have been a young homeless queer person. It sucks. And she deserved so much better than she got.

I posited this question of the piece being problematic with friends and artistic colleagues, and with consent and reciprocation, asking some of color among them to react as native informants. I pondered. I read. I meditated. I did more research.

And I still don’t have a great conclusion. The obvious answer is don’t make money off of it (despite literally everyone I talked to telling me it isn’t a problem…but it is). And don’t let it get stolen and turned into a t-shirt or AI training fodder.

But here she is, with love, reverence, and as much permanence as I can create.

Anyway, it’s not for sale. But Marsha, you deserved better in life, and I’m grateful for you having been here so I can mull over these dilemmas with my pride flag on my porch in my relatively progressive neighborhood where the queer youth bloom safely and with love. Thank you.

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