Three years ago, Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin began working on their "50 States Project," or what Margolin has called their "life’s work."
"Well, at least the next three decades," Vaughan said.
"I think it will take us twenty-five years," Margolin added.
Vaughan smiled skeptically. "Jake’s more optimistic than I am."
The project is vast in its undertaking—the married couple plans to visit each state in the Union, research lesser-known pieces of queer history, and create installation work that examines and retells the stories.
Vaughan is the official recipient of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, but the work is both his and Margolin’s. At TAF’s beginning, the fellowship wasn’t set up to accept collaborating fellows. They are now open to it for the future.
In addition to installation work, Margolin and Vaughan also hand-cut images of historic LGBT locations and of vintage gay erotica (mostly from "Physique Pictorial") on United States road maps.
"The only images that were positive images of gay men in the West were in erotica," Margolin said. But the histories they have researched show gay culture was alive in the West in other ways.
"Virile and vibrant gay identity was part of the mythology of the masculinity of the West," he continued. "As we’ve gotten into this project, learning about these histories, we’ve realized we do have a claim to the history. We aren’t just inserting ourselves—which feels like a departure from the interest in the erotica and into the real documented histories."
The maps accompany the state installation projects, but the artists think of them as sketches.
"They are a way of dealing with iconography. Getting it down allows the installation work to be more abstract," Margolin said.
Currently, the duo is working on their Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma installations. Two years ago, they moved to Houston and immersed in the region.
"We initially thought we’d move for each [project]," said Margolin, who originally hails from California. Vaughan is from Fort Collins, Colorado, and the two met in New York, where they studied and worked in theater. "As it turns out, moving every year is not awesome."
Their Oklahoma installation piece, which is still in progress, centers on gay Cherokee writer Lynn Riggs, a celebrated playwright from the early 20th century and a finalist several times for the Pulitzer Prize. Bette Davis considered him to be "one of the most important contributors to the American theatre." Riggs’ play, "Green Grow the Lilacs," became the basis for "Oklahoma!" the musical.
"But that hasn’t translated into any cultural awareness of him," Vaughan said. "There’s something beautiful about the idea that this super hetero-normative, white, manifest destiny mythology of the Midwest, Oklahoma, and the West—that version of American iconography comes from a queer Cherokee playwright."
For this piece, Vaughan and Margolin are planning a video installation utilizing reflective panels. They will project filmed scenes featuring themselves and Oklahoma drag queens through two-way mirror panels, casting a clear image on one wall, and a distorted image on another.
In one of Riggs’ poems, he wrote, "I have sung of beauty where I have seen no beauty." Vaughan and Margolin noticed this split-impulse as a theme in much of Riggs’ work.
"He had a deep love and great nostalgia for [Oklahoma], but he also couldn’t stand to be here," said Vaughan. "In a play called ‘The Cherokee Night,’ he tells this myth of a warrior who would set his life in the top of a sycamore tree before he went into battle, so he couldn’t be killed … It’s the idea that you can take a part of yourself and protect it by setting it aside. That’s a strong through line in a lot of his work. He wrote himself in [his plays], then promised they had nothing to do with his life. There’s something about the relationships between these two images [in the installation work]—the clear and the distorted—that feels right."
Each installation, like each history and state, will be a different response, fitting to the particular story.
"What we’re trying to do with all of the states is find narratives that are recently uncovered or underappreciated or peripheral."
Margolin agrees. "This project is an affirmation that the road to LGBT progress was paved by really ordinary, anonymous people who had the extraordinary bravery to live their lives the way they felt they should."
For more from Liz, read her article on Tulsa Artist Fellow Molly Dilworth.