Artist portrays the complexity of gender identity, sexuality, and intimacy through a compassionate lens
By: Audrey Cole/TRT Reporter—
BEVERLY, Mass.—Drawing inspiration from its own transgender and LGBQ+ students and surrounding community, Montserrat College of Art has brought in the work of internationally acclaimed artist Jess Dugan to its gallery, according to the college’s Director of Exhibitions.
“We have a large percentage of trans and LGBQ+ students, and we believe it is paramount for them to see themselves depicted and their stories told,” said Nathan Lewis, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at Montserrat College of Art, of the exhibit.
Montserrat professor Diane Ayott has followed Dugan’s work for years, ultimately culminating in the solo exhibit at the institution.
“Several years ago, when I first saw the photography of Jess Dugan at Gallery Kayafas in Boston, it resonated with me immediately,” she said. “I was struck by the presence of the images, how connected to them I felt, and began to follow the work.”
According to Dugan, the photography was first inspired through self-reflection and the artist’s own identity in the world.
“Working within the framework of queer experience and from my actively constructed sense of masculinity, my portraits examine the intersection between private, individual identity and the search for intimate connection with others,” Dugan wrote in Lens Culture about “Every Breath We Drew.”
The insider’s look is what makes this exhibit especially appealing.
“‘Every Breath We Drew’ is particularly powerful as it is not from the vantage of an outsider looking in, rather an insider looking around,” Lewis said.
“I have always used photography to understand myself and my place in the world,” Dugan said in The Rainbow Times 2016 feature. “… but it’s not always my primary need to assert my own identity over and over.”
The exhibit explores human connection, how desire and identity are formed and how intimacy is sought, all from behind a compassionate lens.
“I hope for viewers to reflect on how ordinary the people photographed are,” Lewis added. “They are not spectacle, they are not ‘freaks’ as Arbus would write, they are people. People in love, people relaxing, people in contemplation, people in struggle, people, who much like one image in particular shows, put their boots on one foot at a time.”
However, in a time where the current political climate is robust with equal rights issues, or lack thereof, perhaps Lewis poses the most important question of all that is provoked by “Every Breath We Drew.”
“There is still much fetishization in the depiction of marginalized and underrepresented groups; it is wonderful to see an exhibition made with a compassionate eye; Dugan’s intimacy with the subjects is evident,” he said. “Many of those photographed meet the viewers’ gaze, looking back as deeply as one looks in. In a time when courts are mandating who qualifies for personhood, the gazes seem to ask: “Do I?… Do you?”
With “Every Breath We Drew” and its thought-provoking nature, the lessons taught from this exhibit go beyond what meets the eye.
“Besides the work on the walls, we have created a small reading library in the gallery,” Lewis explained. “The books in the library were suggested by Dugan as introductory, further, or supplemental reading to the exhibition. All artists are researchers, and it is important to contextualize Dugan’s thought process and aesthetic eye.”
Ayott hopes that attendees will take home a simple yet profound meaning from the exhibit.
“The recognition that we are all human, with more in common than not, is embedded in this photography,” she said. “That, in itself, is something of great value. When viewers take time to really look, they are rewarded with the experience of beauty, authenticity, and a shared humanity.”
Montserrat has joined the likes of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the Grey House Gallery in Poland, the Leslie/Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and many other colleges and universities nationwide that have displayed Dugan’s work. In addition, the photographs have colored the pages of the New York Times, The Advocate and the Boston Globe.
“I trust that this extraordinary work will speak to our Montserrat students and affirm those who are in transition or a part of the LGBTQ community,” Ayott affirmed. “This work is technically sound, formally considered, and socially expressive. Therefore, there are many gifts to take away from the work of artist, Jess Dugan.”
“Every Breath We Drew” will be on display until March 16.
“Deeply, at the core,” Dugan said, “I’m interested in people and identity and kind of how we each come to be who we are … and how other people perceive us as that person that we know ourselves to be.”
To view this exhibit, visit the Montserrat Gallery at
23 Essex Street, Beverly, Mass. For more information on “Every Breath We Drew”, visit the Gallery online at https://is.gd/Jr173U.
[This story was originally published on the February 7, 2019 issue of The Rainbow Times.]