It started with a suitcase.
Multimedia artist and filmmaker Billy Gerard Frank hadn’t returned to his homeland, the Caribbean island state of Grenada in decades.
He left as a teenager after becoming estranged from a part of the world where living as a gay person meant exile, or worse. Grenada still has so-called buggery laws, which prohibit sexual contact between two men.
Frank came back for the first time five years ago after the death of his father, and the long-awaited return was both cathartic and creatively inspiring.
“I found this briefcase he had that was filled with letters, mementos and cards,” he said. “That kind of became the impetus to mine his life and also my life next to his.”
The result was a series of works that will be on display at Elizabeth Moss Galleries on Portland’s Fore Street from this month through mid-August. His solo exhibition, ‘Eulogies’, includes a film installation, mainly set in Grenada, accompanied by multimedia collage canvases, mixed-media photographs and sculptures. The series explores themes of exile, colonialism and sexuality, all personal to the artist.
Frank, who is in his late forties, has received a lot of attention in the art world – he has represented Grenada twice at the Venice Biennale, a major art and cultural exhibition in Italy, and at shows in New York, where he now lives. – but this is his first exhibition in Maine.
However, he is no stranger to the state. In the 1990s and 2000s, Frank dated a resident of Maine, and he also spent five years working as a studio assistant to New York abstract expressionist painter John Hultberg, who had deep ties to the state.
Hultberg – along with his then wife, artist Lynne Drexler – had been coming to the artist colony on Monhegan Island for years, and Frank sometimes accompanied Hultberg there.
“I grew up on a small island known for boat building and fishing, and my own father was a boat builder, so I felt a lot of connection to Maine,” Frank said.
“Except it’s different again,” he added with a laugh.
Moss, whose original Falmouth gallery has been in business since 2004, opened the downtown location last year.
“I was interested in showing more national artists in the Portland gallery, as well as a more diverse perspective,” she said. “I looked at his work and immediately fell in love with his eye.”
FIND ITS PLACE
Grenada is a chain of islands in the southern Caribbean, northeast of Venezuela, with a population of just over 100,000. Most live on the larger main island, but Frank grew up on a smaller island – Petit Martinique – with less than 1,000 inhabitants.
Like many island nations in the region, Grenada was under British control for centuries and only gained independence in 1974. Yet life there changed little. It was still predominantly Christian, and its collective attitude toward homosexuality remained hostile.
Frank said he realized early on that “there was no place for me to grow up gay in the Caribbean there.”
At the age of 16 he left his home and family for the UK where he began painting and exploring experimental video and art installations. He then moved to New York as a young man to continue studying studio art. That’s how he got to know each other and came to work at Hultberg.
While still interested in painting, Frank began to branch out even more. He studied production design and filmmaking and even founded a film festival in Brooklyn, the Nova Frontier Film Festival & Lab, which showcases work by filmmakers and artists from and across the African diaspora, the Middle East and Latin America.
“I think I’m mostly a multidisciplinary artist now,” he said. “Painting, sculpting, movies. Whatever the specific series needs, it’s how I develop the work.”
Frank has always drawn from his own life for inspiration, but never again in his current series ‘Eulogies’.
One of the things he realized as he learned about his father and his own upbringing is how much he was exposed to art, albeit in non-traditional ways.
“My father, who was primarily a boat builder, was an incredible carpenter. He had a deep appreciation for aesthetics,” said Frank. “He was an artist himself, just not by name. Whenever he built something, he knew it had to be beautiful.”
Frank’s mother had similar sensitivities. She worked as a seamstress, sometimes even for local theater companies in Grenada.
“She never thought of herself as an artist either, and I think about that quite a lot now,” he said. “All those people who have a certain profession, those are art forms to which less attention is paid.”
A mixed media canvas by artist Billy Gerard Frank as part of his exhibition ‘Eulogies’, on view this summer at Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Portland. Courtesy of Elizabeth Moss Galleries
breaking down barriers
Frank’s Portland exhibition is not a traditional paintings-on-the-wall presentation.
The centerpiece is a 40-minute film, “2nd Eulogy: Mind The Gap,” which will play on a single screen in Moss Galleries, complemented by other pieces, including photographic stills from the film, a hand-stitched canvas collage, and a sculpture .
The film, said Frank, is about Nelson, a fisherman, whose gay son James comes of age in a changing island landscape. The story is fictional, but James’s story mirrors Frank’s.
Moss said it was no challenge to exhibit Frank’s work, even though it crossed mediums.
“He’s such a strong artist that each of those different media is connected to the themes of what he’s trying to explore,” she said.
Moss said the film’s photographic stills are particularly evocative — “complex but visually sensual.”
The suitcase is also part of the exhibition.
Frank said the object symbolizes a larger conversation about the geographical displacement and generations of exile of his own family, which has roots in Africa and Scotland.
“I’ve always adopted the philosophy that artists are here to disturb the peace,” he said. “People like me come from specific regions of the world, we can’t help but be political. It’s a natural part of who I am.”
“I think it’s important to bring this work to places like Maine, which probably need it more than New York, for example, because in New York we have a little chat with the choir,” he added. “Maine may not be as exposed to black and queer issues in art.”
Frank has plans to spend more time in Maine than his exhibit, perhaps even as part of a residency program where he would create new work. He is also interested in fostering conversations about art that break down the barriers between traditional gallery owners and the wider community.
“I think it’s an intimidation that the general public can have,” Frank said. “For many years, both institutions and galleries have taken a white-glove approach and, in a sense, catered to an elite society. And that society has been the patron saint of the art world.”
Moss said that was one of the reasons she wanted to open a second gallery.
“In Portland, I hope to provide more of a platform for national voices that may not always reach Maine, and also for young artists coming out of art school to help them get on their feet,” she said. “Because there is a void.”
Society Notebook: Portland Chamber Recognizes Leaders Who Drive Change
Next one ”