Photographer Dona Ann McAdams and her husband, writer Brad Kessler, live quietly in Sandgate, raising American Nubian goats on their rocky hillside farm. Although she is not well known as an artist in Vermont, McAdams’ photography has been exhibited and collected nationally and internationally, including in museums, galleries, and libraries in New York, Los Angeles, Barcelona, and Paris. This spring, she is featured in a number of exhibitions and publications that should raise her profile in our state.
Her work was included in an exhibition that opened in April, “Art After Stonewall,” at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Alongside paintings, sculpture, film clips, video, music and historical documents, documentary photography plays a central role in the exhibition. Insightful essays, reminiscences and interviews highlight forgotten pioneers and contextualize the next generation of artists politicized by the Stonewall riots that jumpstarted the queer liberation movement 50 years ago.
In one section of the catalogue, Dona Ann McAdams writes about New York’s WOW (Women’s One World) Café in the 1980s as a safe space for women, particularly lesbian artists, to perform and develop their craft. A selection of her theatrical photographs is in the exhibition, most prominently documentation of an early work by Tony Award-winning playwright and performer Lisa Kron, a piece titled “Paradykes Lost” that mischievously played with butch–femme tropes within a “whodunit” murder mystery.
Two new books also feature McAdams’ photography. Matthew Riemer & Leighton Brown, creators of the influential Instagram account @lgbt_history just published a gorgeously illustrated book, “We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation” (Ten Speed Press), documenting LGBTQ activism from its roots in late 19th century Europe to the present day. Meticulous research accompanies indelible images depicting ferocious outrage, glorious celebration, and profound mourning. McAdams’ images are rightly included, as she adroitly captured the urgency of early dyke marches, ACT UP actions, and LGBTQ military members marching in Washington in solidarity against the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” directives in the mid 1990s.
Writer and performer Tim Miller’s latest memoir, “A Body in the O” (University of Wisconsin Press), utilizes a photograph by McAdams on its cover. This is the fourth cover she has created for his books. Miller’s compelling essays amplify and provide insightful backstories for his social justice-infused performance scripts. In the opening chapter, he reminisces about McAdams photographing him in the “O” of the Hollywood hills sign in 1984. This image, in fact, became the inspiration for his new book.
McAdams’ photographs are also the subject of a 45-year retrospective exhibition I am curating for Brattleboro Museum and Art Center. “Dona Ann McAdams: Performative Acts” opens June 22. Augmenting photographs of avant-garde performers and pioneers of LGBTQ liberation, the exhibition includes her resplendent black-and-white photographs of people living with schizophrenia, cloistered nuns, and racetrack workers, along with luminous images of horses, oxen, and goats.
The artist is best known for her performance images, captured while she was the house photographer for the innovative New York performance space, P.S. 122. She won an Obie Award for this body of work in 1997 for Distinguished Contribution to Off Broadway. Her iconic images of the raw splendor of such provocateurs as Karen Finley and Ron Athey, who became lightning rods for malicious conservative outrage in the Culture Wars of the 1990s, are key images in the exhibition.
Visual artist David Wojnarowicz became another conservative target during this time when his images were presented out of context and exploited as part of a fundraising campaign by Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association. Wojnarowicz sued this organization for illegal use of his art and eventually won in the Supreme Court, shortly before his death from AIDS at age 37 in 1992. McAdams’ photograph of Wojnarowicz’ fragile fierceness exemplifies her palpable empathy with her subjects, who are being photographed not as some exotic “other” but instead as participants in the act of portraiture.
Concurrent with her theater work, McAdams ran an arts workshop in Coney Island for people living with schizophrenia. Subsequently, McAdams photographed farmers in rural West Virginia, back stretch workers at Saratoga Racetrack, and a group of cloistered nuns in rural upstate New York, capturing the vitality and resiliency of these “unseen” or overlooked communities. This community component of McAdams’ work is an essential part of her impressive oeuvre and will be shown in the Brattleboro exhibition.
Her work is not that of a detached photojournalist but of a fully engaged social activist. She invites the viewer into the particularity of place and into the innate humanity of her subjects. Participatory politics are also a through-line in her aesthetic sensibility, including her anti-nuclear, pro-choice, war protest, and feminist rallies. Documentation of her recent work includes anti-Trump protests in Washington and Vermont’s transgender gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist marching in a Burlington Pride parade last summer bringing the viewer up to date in the exhibition.
After Brattleboro, the exhibit will be presented at: Castleton University Bank Gallery, Rutland, Oct. 13-January 4, 2020; Catamount Arts, St. Johnsbury, Feb. 5-April 3, 2020; Helen Day Art Center, Stowe, June 19-Aug. 22, 2020; and Amy E. Tarrant Gallery at the Flynn, Burlington, Aug. 29-Nov. 21, 2020.
John Killacky is a State Representative in the Vermont General Assembly and former executive director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, curated this exhibit.