By James Gunn
In 1998, ’25 Lives: Out and Proud’ was planned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. The project, co-curated by Bruce Jones, CLGA president Edward Tompkins and vice-president Robin Brownlie, was originally conceived as ‘9 Lives: Canadian Lesbians and Gays and the Building of Our Community’, and grew to honour 25 members of LGBTQ communities. The initial inductees were chosen by a CLGA committee using three criteria: contribution to the growth of diverse out and proud communities, nationwide representation, and gender parity.
I asked Bruce to speak to the history of the National Portrait Collection. We met at a cafe in the city’s east-end where he recalled his engagement that led to its genesis. “I had been aware of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, now The ArQuives, for some time through The Body Politic and Xtra. I liked the idea of collecting and preserving old magazines, especially the physique publications of the 50s and 60s”. His first visit to the archives was at their location on Yonge Street, in 1994. Soon after, the organization moved to Temperance Street where Bruce started his volunteer work.
Ray Brillinger was president when the CLGA received funding to mount an exhibit at the Toronto Historical Board. Bruce joined the committee and, after a few initial meetings, presented a concept and mock-up outlining the history of the gay and lesbian movement in Toronto. The idea was well received and together the committee came up with the title ‘Pass It On’, referring to the passing on of stories to younger generations. The display consisted of six standing wooden panels designed like closets, with doors that opened to reveal collages and descriptive texts in elegant script. The themes included Remembering the Past, Creating Community, Facing Adversity, and Celebrating Diversity. The exhibit ran from September 11 to November 23, 1995. It was a success, and the exhibit travelled to other venues across Canada.
“On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the CLGA, I was asked to come up with an idea to celebrate the event. My solution was ’25 Lives’, a series of twenty-five portraits by twenty-five LGBTQ (or LGBTQ-friendly) artists of twenty-five LGBTQ persons who had made important contributions to our community. Dennis O’Connor, who ran the O’Connor Gallery on Maitland Street at the time, was instrumental in putting me in touch with artists across Canada.” A group of volunteers and activists were gathered to come up with a diverse list of nominees. “I recall the involvement of archivists Harold Averill, Alan Miller, and Don McLeod. Among those celebrated were Jane Rule, k.d. lang, Makeda Silvera, Billy Merasty, Richard Fung and Jim Egan. It was a rich line-up… the cream of the crop… both the artists and those celebrated.” The exhibit opened at the 519 Church Street Community Centre on June 26th, 1998.
“The works were in oil, watercolour, ink, photography and the burgeoning digital medium. Andrew McPhail did painstaking coloured pencil work on three portraits: Billy Merasty, Jim Egan and Susan Ursel. Maurice Vellekoop, who has won the highest award for comic art, did coloured ink drawings of Svend Robinson and k.d. lang. Honouree Richard Fung was photographed by Gilberto Prioste. Makeda Silvera and Stephanie Martin co-founded Sister Vision Press, and Stephanie graciously did Makeda’s mixed-media portrait which included an actual pair of Makeda’s signature ‘shades’. Painter Mark Reid did a gentle pencil portrait of Black activist Douglas Stewart, and so on.”
When Ray Brillinger resigned as president, he was replaced by Edward Tompkins who had previously worked at the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. Edward made the decision to continue celebrating commendable LGBTQ persons, creating The National Portrait Collection. At present, there are more than 75 portraits in the collection, all of which are often on display at The ArQuives. A large call for nominations will be held in 2021, in preparation for The ArQuives 50th Anniversary celebrations which will take place in 2023.
This year will see four new portraits added to the collection. The inductees are: El-Farouk Khaki, David Rayside, Mirha-Soleil Ross, and Eve Zaremba. Their stories will be shared in our forthcoming newsletters.
As we endeavour to expand the collection, it is worth remembering the words of the inaugural exhibition’s introductory panel, “We hope that you will all be inspired…and will, in your own everyday contributions to out and proud communities, consider yourself in their company.”
The writer would like to thank Sorcha Beirne for her invaluable research in piecing together this story.