By Bellamy Crawford
Modern history is filled with evidence of the importance of artistic expression in collective movements for social justice. The Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE), a nonprofit working to build an American South where LGBTQ people are equal in every part of life, continues this historical legacy with an artist in residency program aimed at empowering queer artists to explore the intersections of personal narrative and political organizing.
The initiative began in 2018 as a writer in residence program exploring the arts as a catalyst in achieving lived and legal LGBTQ equality across the South. “The program quickly grew into a six-month residency in 2019, with the multifaceted metalworker Al Murray and digital artist Liz Williams as the first applicants to participate,” says CSE communications director Adam Polaski.
As of September 2023, four artists have participated in CSE’s artist residency program: Murray and Williams during the inaugural program, followed by interdisciplinary artist Carolyn Rose-Grayson (2021-2022) and the current resident, photographer and musician Brennan Page Henshaw. Page Henshaw’s recent exhibition Expansive, a group art show capturing the rich tapestry of trans and nonbinary lives in the South, was displayed throughout October at the Weizenblatt Gallery in Mars Hill. The show included photography, sculpture, painting, poetry, intimate collages made from personal artifacts and mementos, and audio recorded interviews with trans and nonbinary project participants. “The collection spotlights the diverse experiences and artistic expressions of gender nonconforming individuals,” says Page Henshaw, who also identifies as nonbinary.
He was first introduced to the connection between art and community engagement by his parents who were involved in community work with underprivileged children. “They would use art as a way to encourage learning and provide a source of emotional support,” he says.
Page Henshaw is a self-taught photographer and spent much of his time in CSE’s residency program producing images of queer- and trans-identified people living in Asheville. “My photographs are about capturing the fullness of a person and being able to represent who they are on the inside,” he says. “I wanted to let the people in my photos be seen as a part of nature, with an inherent beauty and form.”
Former artist in residence Williams is now the director of CSE’s Southern Equality Studios and facilitates monthly artist gatherings and discussion groups allowing artists to connect around LGBTQ-themed work. “Brennan’s unwavering dedication to his projects holds immense potential to uplift marginalized voices—a mission that aligns perfectly with Southern Equality Studios and CSE’s important work,” Williams says.
In addition to enriching the local community by offering a vital platform for resident artists, CSE’s residency helps make funding and exhibition opportunities more accessible, particularly for artists who have been historically underrepresented. “There are so many queer Southerners creating amazing artwork and expressing themselves creatively,” Williams says. “We’re honored to be able to bring folks together who are focused on leveraging their talent and artistic expression for social change.”
Learn more about the Campaign for Southern Equality, Southern Equality Studios and Brennan Page Henshaw’s art at SouthernEquality.org.