When Carmen Grace DeCristo was growing up in small-town North Carolina, she never imagined taking an art class with other queer kids or being taught by an openly-trans instructor. Now a successful Brooklyn-based portrait photographer, DeCristo — who is herself trans — says that she feels “called to share” what she’s learned.
The impetus for this, she told The Indypendent, came last spring when multiple state legislatures began introducing bills to bar trans athletes from competing in high school and college sports, make it a crime for a physician to perform gender-transition surgery or prescribe hormone therapy for minors, and bar students from using the bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender.
“I was distraught and felt lost,” DeCristo admits. That changed when she heard about the QT Art Camp, a project created by artist/sculptor Jesse Pallotta and dancer/model Angel Glasby. Although the project was then in the planning stages, its creators envisioned a series of workshops that would be led by, and be for, young members of the queer and trans community.
Pallotta, 29, and Glasby, 25, had met several years earlier when Glasby modeled for students at the Grand Central Atelier where Pallotta was studying drawing, painting and sculpture.
They became fast friends, with Glasby posing for Pallotta’s widely-heralded sculpture of trans icon Marsha P. Johnson. (The sculpture was on display in Manhattan’s Christopher Park in June and will be on display at The Gay Center on West 13th St. through Aug. 24.)
Still, Pallotta says that the process of transforming an idea into a project took significant work, and as the pair began thinking about what they hoped to create, they agreed that they wanted to both mentor queer youth and build community. Months of planning, fundraising and outreach followed.
Challenges were abundant and forced them to become quick studies in creating a non-profit, finding fiscal sponsorship (the Brooklyn Arts Council is fulfilling that role) and reaching out to youth-serving agencies and organizations to publicize the Camp and enroll students.
The first QT Art Camp kicked off in mid-August with a no-cost-to-students analog photography class taught by DeCristo.
“Our main medium is light,” DeCristo said as she introduced the class. “Light is more important than a camera. As photographers, we can capture light and freeze time.”
As the class unfolded, DeCristo talked about the benefits of using film and touched on everything from creating a scene, to using color, shadows, props and filters, shutter speeds, light meters and strobes. Working with creative directors, hair and make-up stylists, and producers gave the students an inside peek into the industry. Nonetheless, it was when the students got to experiment with a 35 mm camera and took turns as lighting designers, scene setters, and photographers that the hands-on learning began to flourish.
“Remember, using film requires you to be more intentional than when you’re using an iPhone camera,” DeCristo cautioned. “Taking a photograph offers the viewer your perspective. It’s your truth, and you can mess with, or manipulate, people’s perceptions of what’s out there. That’s your power.”
For Glasby, the instruction, however important, is secondary to providing a space where diverse teens can feel comfortable being themselves, and not have to worry about safety or being different. “QT Camp is a space where kids can just be, so they can focus on art and creativity,” they said.
Still, mastery matters. TaiLyn, a 15-year-old rising junior at Professional Performing Arts High School, better known as PPAS, told The Indy that she hoped the photography class would increase her technical expertise. “Film programs are usually really expensive. That this class is free is amazing,” she said.
Samir, a Hofstra University student who heads a campus-based LGBTQIA+ organization for students of color, agrees. Although he says that he has never done much photography, the chance to try an art form that he’d been curious about but never studied was intriguing. That it was cost-free and taught by a trans professional provided added incentive.
For her part, DeCristo says that the opportunity to teach something she loves, coupled with an opportunity to give back to the community, is priceless. ”I try to live a life that is curated by me,” the 2020 Long Island University graduate says. “I want to empower others to be who they want to be, not just in their artistic practice, but in their lives.”
QT CAMP’S remaining classes will cover portrait drawing, vogue dancing, and abstract painting and light theory. Classes are held each Wednesday, 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., and alternate locations between the Brooklyn Community Pride Center at 1561 Bedford Ave. and The Gay Center at 208 West 13 St., Manhattan. For more information go to QTArtCamp.com
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