Ballroom is an unavoidable cultural phenomenon today. You would have to be entirely oblivious to not encounter some aspect of Ballroom in at least one corner of our world. However, it is possible to broach noticeable aspects of the culture— language, dress, or gestures—and be unaware that it stems from this unique space. And that is where my investment as a visual artist has intervened. I want this mural to offer a face to a particular local history that may be largely unknown or obscured by Philadelphia Ballroom and its recent mainstream posture.
The mural honors cultural forbearers who established Philly’s scene with little external fanfare and plenty of local need from a community countering numerous oppressive attacks. This mural is our attempt at giving legendary Philadelphia
Ballroom figures their flowers, which includes Michael Gaston, Tina Cartier, Kerri Mizahri, Renee Karan, Aber Cartier, Kelly Harper, Alvernian Prestigue, Jay Blahnik, Meechie Lanvin, and Jacen Bowman, just to name a few. This undertaking has revealed the historical arch and social responsibility I have as a visual artist.
I conducted intensive research by surveying the living ballroom figures to learn more about Philly’s Ballroom scene, event locations, key figures from Philadelphia’s local history, and vocabulary that defines critical moments in Ballroom.
In the age of social media, my first thought was that I should start by searching the internet to see what I could find about the local Philadelphia ballroom scene. I wanted to represent Philly Ballroom’s greats as authentically and unencumbered as possible. But I quickly realized that regardless of the seeming common-ness of social media, many of these essential cultural workers had little to no digital presence. This void exists for many reasons, including the absence of multi-purpose technology at that scene’s underground apex. Unfortunately, some beloved community members have passed on due to common causes, and others were tragically and prematurely taken from us. Navigating this dynamic added another layer of archival responsibility for me. I felt it was mandatory to create a visual of Philly Ballroom changemakers in transcendent glory that resonates with folx who experienced their presence in real-time and for future generations who will make generous use of this vital history.
Any peek of knowledge my mural design might offer the public is informed by the scene’s open and vulnerable community, particularly those people who tapped into their personal archives to speak a truer word about the Ballroom scene in Philadelphia. Jacen Bowman, in particular, has been extraordinarily generous in sharing his knowledge, resources, and heart with me for this project. I also obtained copies of archival ballroom programs and invitations from Alvernian, as well as photos, vocabulary terms, and stories from a few other key figures from Philly Ballroom’s scene. Despite a general assertion that America has progressed regarding this community; that is simply not true. I am acutely aware of the social ignorance and rejection that warranted the creation of alternative social spaces for the LGBTQIA community, especially Black communities. Many members of color exist on the extreme margins of economic instability, are virtually exempted from quality healthcare, and, if they are legibly different they occupy positions of heightened vulnerability that threaten every part of their livelihood.
The Ballroom scene functions as a social redress and a life-giving space for the community. In its extended capacity as “houses” Ballroom repurposes the mother figure, re-defines what a home space can be for folx, and Ballroom honors the dimensions of queer being in a complicated world. Ballroom is a celebratory event that encourages indulgence in our sartorial and physical eccentricities. Ballroom molds the fullness of LGBTQ life.
My last note is that the colorful illustrative method I used to design this mural is intended to communicate the vastness of the scene as a living space. The Mural Arts Program chose the wall in the gayborhood to ensure that the mural’s vibrance matches the lives of the people coming into their being in this small section of the city.
I want this piece to reflect folx outside gathering, laughing, drinking, smoking, arguing, competing, and celebrating so that our Philadelphia community can see the importance of seemingly mundane moments. We are whole human beings whose capacity for life transgresses joy, humor, pain, and grief. I want to give a special thanks to Jane Golden from Mural Arts who always supports my vision since I started in the program as a high school student over 20 years ago, the design review committee who pushed me to grow immensely through the critical process of reviewing my work, as well as the Project Managers Nayasa Hendrix, Conrad Benner, and Phil Asbury for their support. Ernel Martinez was especially encouraging as a mentor and peer artist through this process. I cannot leave out the uplifting support I received from my fiancé and life partner, Jaz Riley, for behind-the-scenes encouragement, research, and support through many mural designs before this design was landed on. My Mother and Father are also rocks in my life. My Mother always ensures my Father can come draw with me when I’m working on an art project so that we lean over to the other person at any point and share a fresh perspective on our work and offer fun suggestions to enhance the artwork. I want to thank my family and friends who came out today. Last but not least, I want to send thanks and recognition to the artists who have been in the Summer heat almost daily painting the design onto the wall, including, again, Ernel Martinez, Donna Grace Kroh, Yuliya Sermenova, Jingle Masters, Rosie Morales, and De’von Downes. Thank you to everyone who came out today to celebrate this mural dedication with us.