Artists pay homage to Milk
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Born in Seoul, South Korea, Jun Yang nine years ago moved to San Francisco and has become a successful painter, with his works displayed at various galleries and included in a number of curated art shows over the years.
In January, he created a series of six paintings featuring portraits of luminaries that have inspired him, including the late bisexual Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo, models Grace Jones and Twiggy, and the late singer Amy Winehouse. Also among them was Harvey Milk, the first gay elected official in a major American city, having won a San Francisco supervisor seat in 1977.
Yang, 37, based his mixed-media painting of Milk, who was assassinated at City Hall in November of 1978, on the U.S. postal stamp that was issued in Milk's honor on May 22, 2014. The date is Milk's birthday â€" he would have turned 87 this year â€" and now a day of special significance in California celebrated across the state.
A gay man himself, Yang first learned about Milk from his former boyfriend, Rafael Mandelman, a local Democratic Party activist who serves on the board overseeing City College of San Francisco, as well as from his landlord, Tim Wolfred, a gay man who served on the college board in the early 1980s and knew Milk.
"As a gay immigrant artist I was inspired by Harvey. He encouraged me to have more compassion and love and positive messages to this community," said Yang, who is now a permanent resident of the U.S.
His painting of Milk is currently hanging in the window of Berkshire Hathaway-Drysdale Properties at 2324 Market Street in the city's gay Castro district. It is one of 15 works by local artists, and that of students at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, featured in Windows for Harvey, an initiative launched this year by the Castro Merchants business association to celebrate Harvey Milk Day and draw customers into the commercial corridor.
In addition to hearing about Milk from his friends, Yang also drew inspiration from the 2008 biopic "Milk" starring Sean Penn, who earned an Oscar for the role.
"I came here nine years ago not fully committed to living as a gay person," said Yang, adding that watching the movie "was inspiring because it was vey courageous and I feel like the reason we can walk around the street holding hands is because of him. He worked so hard to fight for gay rights and our community."
Yang submitted his work to be featured in a window so more people would see it.
"I want them to remember about his work and his message and I want them to just feel Harvey's dignity and his courageous, positive energy and message," said Yang.
The various works have been installed in storefront windows throughout the Castro and inside the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library. They will remain up through May 31, then many will be auctioned off June 1 at Spark Arts, whose founder, Angie Sticher, helped recruit the artists for the windows initiative, which the merchants are planning to organize annually to celebrate Milk Day.
Inspired by WPA posters
In a window at Canela Bistro, a gay-owned restaurant at 2272 Market Street, Oakland-based graphic designer Eva Silverman has installed prints she drew of Milk in the style of posters created by artists hired by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Both feature a drawing of Milk in a blue coat, white dress shirt, and yellow tie. One print includes his quote, "I have tasted freedom. I will not give up that which I have tasted."
"The Castro I think of as a gay man 'hood. It is nice to be a queer woman and represented as part of a project in the Castro," said Silverman, 36, who grew up in New Jersey and learned about Milk when she relocated to the Bay Area 15 years ago.
She feels a personal connection to Milk, as she is also a photographer from the East Coast whose mother's Jewish parents survived the Holocaust but saw two of their children be killed by the Nazis. They reunited at a refugee camp in Austria, where Silverman's mother was born, and relocated to the U.S.
Milk, who owned a camera shop in the Castro, was a secular Jew whose grandfather, Morris Milk, left Lithuania and settled on Long Island, New York. Harvey Milk was part of a wave of gay men who moved to San Francisco in the 1970s to settle in the Castro, which had formerly been an Irish and Italian Catholic enclave. After several failed attempts at public office, Milk's victory in 1977 marked the first time an openly LGBT person had been elected in either San Francisco or California.
"I feel like his importance is really, it is important to all the queers out there, but especially he represents so much about coming to the Bay Area to be free, to be his self," said Silverman, who included flowers and a Holga medium format camera in her window display.
She had created her prints of Milk several years ago and applied for the Castro art project after an ex-girlfriend who works for an LGBT nonprofit based in the neighborhood forwarded her an email on how to apply.
"To me, Harvey is somebody who represents the underdog, who stood up for what he loved and who he was and did not hide that," said Silverman. "He, for me, is an important figure and important symbol for standing up for what you believe in. And for organizing those around you to create change."
Photography is at the heart of the installation Billy Douglas has mounted in two glass cases in the lobby entrance of the Castro's branch library at 1 Jose Sarria Court (16th Street at Pond) as well as in a glass case in the reading area. It features black and white photos he took at protest marches since the November election of President Donald Trump as well as older photos of his.
"Milk's activism and the personal work I have been doing I thought fit nicely," said Douglas, 58, a straight man who has lived in the Castro district since he moved to town in 1980 from Kentucky after graduating college with a degree in journalism.
He recalled seeing the media coverage of Dan White's trial for murdering both Milk and Mayor George Moscone. White's conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter led to rioting outside City Hall.
"It wasn't a big adjustment for me to go from not knowing a lot about gay culture to having a lot of gay friends, artists, photographers. I started to understand more historically," said Douglas, whose friends had personally known Milk. "When I saw the Windows for Harvey call for artists, I thought I would love to have some of my work exhibited in the neighborhood. It has been a very influential neighborhood for me."
His Resist Series photos on display come from 30 he posted to his Facebook page to mark Trump's 100 days in office. For Douglas, he sees "obvious parallels" between his capturing participants in the various protests of the Trump administration, including those led by women and scientists, and the work Milk undertook to fight for equal rights and other causes.
"The power of resistance â€" that is absolutely my message," he said.
Many of the window installations zero in on Milk's political organizing and social activism. A onetime political columnist for the Bay Area Reporter, Milk was a vocal proponent for having LGBT community members come out of the closet and publicly fight for their rights.
The iconic image of Milk sitting in the back of a car in an early gay pride parade holding up a sign that said "I'm from Woodmere, NY" inspired the mural created by Danyol Leon for the window of restaurant La Mediterranee at 288 Noe Street. Inside the outline of Milk's body and the sign he is holding up are recreations of vintage posters created by the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP.
"I think he taught a lot of people it was OK to march in the streets for what you believe in," said Leon, 47, a gay Castro resident who grew up in southern California and didn't learn about Milk until he came out in 1991. "When the AIDS epidemic hit, people followed suit and, like Harvey, took to the streets to march for what they believed in. He gave a lot of gay men the courage to do that."
Leon said he is honored to have his work included in the show, having admired Milk and his legacy for nearly three decades. Rather than remember him as a politician, he thinks of Milk as being a community organizer.
"You didn't see him as a politician sitting behind a desk. He was going door-to-door; he was active in the community he was representing," said Leon. "He wasn't afraid to be a queer public figure."
Milk's activism, and the bullhorn he used at rallies that was featured in the movie and is on display at the GLBT History Museum in the Castro, inspired the decal that drag queen Juanita More! used to decorate two doors leading to the patio at QBar at 456 Castro Street.
Co-designed by graphic artists and DJs Elaine Denham and Robin Simmons, a straight couple More! has collaborated with in the past, it also features the image of Milk from the LGBT rights march with his right fist raised in the air. Flowing out of the bullhorn are flowers, and different protest signs are embedded in the petals.
They feature sayings and campaigns Milk was involved in, from supporting small businesses and the Castro Street Fair, the annual fall event Milk launched, to picking up your dog's poop and daycare for working mothers. One sign urges "Juanita For Prez."
"I really wanted to, of course, represent Harvey in this but not just have it be Harvey's face all over it. I wanted the spirit of Harvey to be there," said More!, who was asked to participate in the windows display by the owners of the bar, where for eight years More! hosted a weekly Wednesday night party until she ended it in 2015.
More! and the two DJs hosted a party Wednesday night at QBar to kick off the windows initiative and raise money to compensate the participating artists. In the bar's back room More! had artist Matt Picon reinterpret the Milk decal as a photo backdrop.
"It feels great to see the Castro community come together for a thing that is our project and that is being seen for free all over the neighborhood," said More! "That I love because I am such a big art fan in general."
For a map of all the participating businesses with Milk-inspired artworks in their windows, as well information about the individual artists, visit https://www.windowsforharvey.com/.