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New exhibit tells SF gay, lesbian, leather history through art

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Chuck Arnett’s painting show a scene in the Ambush leather bar in South of Market. COURTESY GLBT HISTORY MUSEUM

Diaries, news clippings and personal artifacts are the traditional elements of some museums. But just in time for Pride, one San Francisco museum is diving into local gay history through art.

Opened in May, “30 Years of Collecting Art That Tells Our Stories” is the newest exhibit from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Society board member Elisabeth Cornu recently led the San Francisco Examiner on a tour of the sketches, sculptures and murals, which paint a portrait of San Francisco’s gay history.

The GLBT Historical Society has thousands of pieces in its archives, leading to its nickname as “the queer Smithsonian.” The museum opened in 2011, but the society is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Despite the multitude of pieces, featuring primarily art is a new spin for the museum, Cornu said.

“Even though the historical archives have mostly collected personal stories and documents,” she said, the art lets them breathe new life into LGBT history.

The earliest works showcase an unknown gay bar in the 1950s. The sketches are more impressionistic, but depict a lively bar scene that puncture any ideas that gay San Francisco began after the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the blooming of the Castro neighborhood as an LGBT mecca.

“Before the hippie movement, before the beatnik movement, gay San Francisco was coming alive,” she said.

Perhaps one of the most poignant pieces in the collection is a painting by Chuck Arnett of a scene in the Ambush leather bar in South of Market.
“We have this concept that all these leather men are tough-tough, but it gives a picture of their full life,” she said. The men in the painting play pool, smile and offer suggestive winks.

Don Romesburg, chair of women and gender studies at Sonoma State University, is also a volunteer historian with the society. He told the Examiner about the painting’s historical context.

Ambush was part of the leather scene “miracle mile,” as gay men saw a blighted SoMa and were able to buy venues to build new bars for pennies on the dollar, Romesburg said.

Then redevelopment hit the neighborhood, and along with it a historic struggle against displacement.

“People think it’s just a place to get spanked,” Romesburg said, but the leather-focused Folsom Fair, for instance, rose from the fight for the leather community’s existence.

The scene was painted in 1983, around the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The artist “couldn’t possibly have known at the time that he was capturing this world with a pandemic just around the corner,” Romesburg said.
One sculpted piece was an early example of art going “viral” well before the Internet.

In 1996, artist Mike Caffee modified a statue of Michelangelo’s David for a Folsom Street leather bar called Fe-Be’s by, of course, sculpting it so David appears to be in leather.

“He made a biker, and it was so in demand they made hundreds of copies,” Cornu said. “They went to Australia, to Boston, to Germany.”

It was an iconic statue of the leather scene, she said.

The Bulldog Baths bath-house murals are the largest pieces on display, showcasing men engaged in oral sex.

Cornu points to one man holding onto his penis with a look of pleasure on his face, and mentions a more obscure detail.

“There’s a whole leather sex scene playing out in his glasses,” she said. It’s what he’s seeing.

The murals were torn down after city bathhouses were closed by the Department of Public Health at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s, Romesburg said.

It’s an important time in local gay history other museums may hesitate to showcase, he said, because of its graphic nature.

Other pieces include drag posters by artist Todd Trexler, and pastels from Doris Fish, a local famous drag queen from “Sluts A-Go-Go.”

One prominent piece from the lesbian community is a sign from the old Artemis Cafe, a lesbian hangout on Valencia Street.

“The Artemis Cafe was an anchor” for that community, she said. The woman who started it was a well-known local lesbian, Sarah Lewenstein.

The cafe sign is a heavy wood, carved and painted in way that signs so seldom are in modern times.

“Even back then, women could not really afford to live in San Francisco,” she said, noting the recent closure of the Lexington Bar, a noted pillar in the local lesbian bar scene.

The Women’s Building on 18th street in the Mission also makes a cameo appearance in the gallery, via blueprints of the mural, and photographs of its first painting.

The mural was completed in 1994, and hailed at the time as a “Maestrapeace.” It features pregnant women, goddesses, Ohlone women, and famous women leaders.
As beautiful as the mural can appear from the sidewalk, the blueprints on display let you take the entirety of the piece in.

General admission to the exhibit is $5, and no end date has been announced.

Correction: The photo originally accompanying this story was of an unrelated art exhibit.

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