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Cultivating queer community on campus through literature, art and performance at unCoverstories

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All photos courtesy of Hayley Vanstrum

Saturday morning, Nov. 23, was bright, breezy and beautiful, the perfect fall weather for flipping through sketchbooks, chatting with friends and picking up some exciting new reading material at New College’s first ever LGBTQ+ book fair, unCoverstories. This ambitious event, which featured a wide variety of literature, poetry, art, zines, crafts and live performances by students and local artists, started out as a point of casual conversation regarding queer literature on campus between Queery Co-Presidents Freddie O’Brion and Emily Garcia and Pride Hall RA Sarah Lane during the Spring 2019 semester. 

“Sarah was always interested in the concept of a book swap activity and I was especially passionate about bringing authors and artists to campus,” O’Brion said. “As we started planning the event formally, Sarah had the idea of reaching out to Jamie because including a writing component seemed like a natural fit for the event.”

Writing LLC RA Jamie Christos was happy to help the trio plan the event, knowing that unCoverstories would be a great opportunity to encourage students to actively participate in the world of queer literature while also making more intentional connections with their peers. 

“I think that ‘community’ goes far deeper than sharing a commonality with others,” Christos said. “Community arises out of a shared need, and a mutualistic ability to meet that need. So I think that the book fair, in centering and promoting queer art and experience, plays an important part in cultivating and strengthening the queer community on campus.”

Lane echoed similar sentiments, affirming that unCoverstories was less about queer visibility on campus and more about encouraging and supporting meaningful relations between queer New College students. 

“I think that visibility is important, but I think the emphasis here is more on connection and representation,” Lane said. “We want queer students and artists to feel empowered and we wanted to create a space for them.”

O’Brion, Garcia, Lane and Christos, joined by Queery Vice President Sierra Lamb, the New College Student Alliance (NSCA) archives and T-Party, undeniably succeeded in their efforts to bring a positive and impactful queer space to campus with unCoverstories. The fair itself, made up of a large procession of local and student vendors, brought students out of their dorms and into the artfully decorated Nook to speak with members of queer-focused clubs and organizations, sample different genres of queer literature and shop for hand-crafted wares. Recent New College graduate Jackie Lebouitz (‘19), who sets up shop under the name ‘illudens,’ definitely provided in terms of unique handmade items with her collection of one of a kind copper jewelry and pillows.

“[For pillows] I make an original design on paper and then trace over it onto unbleached muslin fabric,” Lebouitz explained. “From there, I have a whole bunch of powdered pigments I’ll use. I’ll make up some dyes and it’s like probably a two day process to make a batch of pillows but it’s so much fun and you get such interesting colors from the powdered pigments. They don’t blend up like liquid dyes do, so you get all these little surprise pinks and blues and things when you were just expecting a gold, so I love that, it’s been a lot of fun.”

Third-year Katie Thomas, who showcased several of their eye-catching original paintings at the fair, also enjoys the process of incorporating color in their work, which they accomplish through the use of bold acrylic and watercolor paints. 

“I really like doing abstract work and focusing a lot on color and the quality of the paints,” Thomas said. “I guess I’m inspired by forms and the absence of forms. I know that sounds pretentious, but I just really like color and watercolor is fun to paint with.”

Lindsay Scali, a local artist who enjoys incorporating crafty elements such as felt, stickers and tape into her glitter-infused, collage-like work, takes a very different approach to her art, which is often inspired by memories and experiences from her personal life. 

“I use a lot of specific life events, like this piece right here I got really mad at playing bingo because everyone else was having fun and I was mad at everyone for having fun while I was pissed,” Scali explained. “[My work is] all very childlike to remind you that it’s not all that serious and you don’t have to grow up. The childlike mind is so innocent and pure and it’s like, why can’t we all just be like that?”

While unCoverstories featured the works of many talented visual artists, the event remained a book fair at heart. Several local groups, including Rebel Hearts Publishing and Shelf Indulgence, presented impressive displays of queer-centric zines and books for event-goers to look through and purchase. Bluebird Books, a travelling library, brought their book-filled bus right up to the green, allowing event-goers to step inside and browse the collective’s current, cultivated stock. Mitzi Gordon, artist, writer and founder of Bluebird Books, describes the mobile library as a “travelling book culture project” that takes the books to the people rather than making the people come to the books. 

“We travel to different spaces, mostly within the Tampa Bay area and share tangible, handheld book culture in as many ways as we possibly can,” Gordon said. “We have an exchange library where people can take books and we bring activities like zine making and  bookmark making and typewriters [to events] so people can get hands on with reading and writing in as many creative ways as possible.”

Bluebird Books’ zine making workshop, led by local artist and zine maker Emily Stone, was one of several opportunities for event-goers to get hands on experience with literature at unCoverstories. Lamb set up a blackout poetry station, where crafters could tear out pages from old copies of Twilight books and make their own meaning from the iconic novels, while Lane led a snack-filled gay book club meeting for those who wanted to share their current favorite reads and collaborate on a queer book reccomendation list. Christos, who spent time prior to the event collecting recommendations from websites, friends, faculty and staff, stressed the importance of getting fellow students to contribute to this list, which will be distributed to the student body upon completion. 

“[Sarah, Freddie and Emily] saw this as an opportunity to cultivate a sense of community within the LGBTQ+ student body by creating a space that is as much theirs as it is ours,” Christos said. “So we’re providing our personal book recommendations, but we’re also encouraging students to contribute their own favorites to a collaborative book recommendation  list, and I really appreciate that. Not only are we sharing our love for queer literature with the New College community, but we want New to share their love for queer lit with us, too!”

In addition to the vendors, book club and crafting events, unCoverstories also provided a  venue for students to make their voices heard during an open mic hour. While some event-goers had fun with dramatic karaoke renditions of Spongebob songs, others used the open mic as an opportunity to present their own original works. Performers, including Beca Hadwen and Clayton Bauldree, shared moving poetry and stories about their own personal lives and queer identities.

“A big reason we decided to do an open-mic is because it creates a space for students to express their queer experience through writing and become part of the work that they want to see,” Christos said. “There’s something really inspiring about people speaking the words that they’ve written on paper.”

Although all of the planning and preparing for unCoverstories only just wrapped up with the conclusion of the event on Saturday afternoon, O’Brion already has plans in action for the next big queer events on campus this upcoming semester. 

“Queery is involved with a variety of unique events,” O’Brion said. “We are looking forward to the hair-shaving event we’re hosting on December 5th and there will be plenty of events in the spring.”

To be the first to know when events similar to unCoverstories pop up in the future, be sure to sign up for Queery’s email list through O’Brion, Garcia or Lamb and keep up to date on the Catalyst’s weekly column, the Activist Newsletter.

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