Chris Bogia and The Fire Island Artist Residency

Artists in Residence at FIAR.

I want to devote this entry to Chris Bogia who envisioned and created (along with co/founder, curator, and writer Evan Garza) the Fire Island Island Artist Residency (FIAR).

About a year ago at Chris’s house, he told me about his idea of creating a queer emerging artist residency program. I thought it sounded like a great thing to do, and was a little surprised that there really wasn’t anything like it already out there. Last summer, having lost touch with Chris for a few months, I heard through the grapevine about the Fire Island Artist Residency because a friend of mine was applying! Immediately I text messaged Chris: “WTF ? You Did it?” He texted back: “Yes!!!!!”

I ran into Chris yesterday at the new building where I just moved studios; he has a space there as well. We sat down and he told me all about the Residency. I was so excited to hear about it, and am so proud of him, that I wanted to reproduce our conversation here.

Rachel Mason: So how did you get the idea in the first place?

Chris Bogia: I’ll start by saying I lived in New York for eleven years before even setting foot on Fire Island. I had a pre-conceived notion that it was for party boys, Chelsea gym types, and wealthy gays only. About four years ago my friend George had a summer share in Cherry Grove, one of the two LGBT communities on the island. He asked me to come stay for a weekend – he was cute – I decided to take a chance and go.

As I got off the ferry I had a very immediate sense that I had been completely wrong about Fire Island. Cherry Grove was funky. The dock was full of one of the most diverse tribes of queers I’d ever seen: old-timers on electric scooters, kids, bears, drag queens, hippies. Every gender variation, and all colors (and their pets) milled from the boat towards the tiny village center and its branching wooden plank “walks” that led through dunes to charming cottages, nude beaches, aggressive deer, and mysterious sunken forests (I would later learn that much of what I had originally feared about Fire Island resided in the Pines, the OTHER gay community on Fire Island–no hate).

The Walk.

The Grove was magical. I could really go on and on and on, but I will just say that I was instantly hooked. Nude beaches, hippy freaks, radical fairies doing hula hoop in saris on the beach…it was my kind of town. I wanted to live there. I wanted to make art there. I was walking my dog the very first morning I woke up in Cherry Grove and I started thinking about how there should be some kind of juried residency for emerging queer artists (and any artist working with themes of queerness). Doubts regarding the modest state of my own art career prevented me from believing I could have the pull to execute what I was fantasizing about, so I put my neat-o, clothing optional queer artist super-residency in the “dream drawer” for safe-keeping, and the next summer I got a vacation share of my own so I could be out there more.

Last summer a buddy of mine, Evan Garza, came out to the little shack my friends and I were sharing. Evan is a curator and writer for a number of cool art publications, so I told him about my fantasy and my inhibitions. Over the next few late summer and early fall months Evan gave me the encouragement I needed to just go for it. It was too big a job for one artist (with a 40 hour a week day job…ahem), and I knew I needed someone brilliant like Evan to share the load. We would build the thing together.

Founders Chris (L) and Evan (R).

RM: How did the first official summer go?

CB: We kept things manageable: five artists, two weeks, room and board and studio space provided, and four incredible visiting artists (AA Bronson, Nayland Blake, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Marlene McCarty). We did an open call for submissions. It was crazy. During the two-week window of announcing the opportunity (thanks Facebook) and the deadline for submissions, we received over 70 applications – the majority of them very strong. We knew in order to keep things fair we needed to find a jury fast and remove ourselves from the final selection of the residents. AA Bronson and Bill Arning answered the call, and selected five incredible artists to be a part of our maiden voyage. We found a fiscal sponsor (the Long Island LGBT Resources Network), raised money, rented a house, and organized groceries (my boyfriend Rod became our “residential coordinator”, handling much of the more tedious logistics with aplomb – thanks baby).

The residents arrived, and we transformed our rickety beach rental into a lean mean art making space, making desks out of doors, and covering lots of surfaces in plastic. The two weeks that followed were truly the fulfillment of my dream. Residents created work alongside one another, shared chores, met locals, had amazing experiences with incredibly generous visiting artists, and of course, skinny dipped in the ocean by moonlight. We had a really cool event halfway through sponsored by Visual Aids that was attended by a leather man reporter for the local paper, curious locals, friends, NYC art folks, and even some pretty famous gallery and curatorial folks (Dan Cameron came and wrote good things about us on Facebook!). At the end of the program, one of our biggest donors, Percy Steinhart, threw us an incredible party at his house in the Pines, forcing me to let go of my final prejudices and acknowledge that the Pines too has its own special magic.

Visual Aids’ sponsored event “Here We Are” attendees.

RM: Were you nervous that anything might go wrong?

CB: Yes. Constantly. There were frantic runs to the dock for provisions that would wind up not showing up, a determined real estate agent bent on derailing our big event the day before we had it, a terrifying bed bugs scare (no bedbugs – whew!), the impending hurricane Irene, and of course my own anxieties about wanting the residents to have their needs met and be happy (they often told me not to worry and thankfully to relax–I’m looking at you Katie Hubbard). Evan and I had a lot at stake. We had to succeed to be able to continue next year.

RM: What are your plans for next year?

CB: We are going to get our 501c3 in order by next summer so we can really call ourselves a non-profit. Having a fiscal sponsor was wonderful and made it possible to accept tax-deductable donations, but we are ready to do this on our own now.

We hope to raise a lot more money this year so that we can extend the length of FIAR another two weeks, giving the residents a full month to work, and allowing time for more visiting artists to come out for a couple days at a time. I’m very excited that already Jim Hodges, one of my all-time favorite artists and current chair of Yale’s sculpture program, has expressed interest in coming out to visit.

Travis and Elijah at the Percy’s pool.

RM: Who were the residents, and what kinds of things did they work on?

CB: The 2011 FIAR residents were: Elijah Burgher (Chicago), Travis Boyer (Brooklyn), A.K. Burns (Brooklyn), Katie Hubbard (Brooklyn), and Ryan Brewer (Brooklyn). Fire Island has a decades-old legacy as a historically queer site, and a number of artists sought to pull from this legacy to activate and engage their own practices. A.K. Burns and Katie Hubbard interviewed Cherry Grove lesbians for their growing project, “The Brown Bear,” a social archive of feminist histories. Ryan Brewer fasted for a vision quest in the Meat Rack (the Island’s legendary gay male cruising ground and forest separating Cherry Grove from the Pines), where he remained within a drawn, 10-foot circle in the dunes for two days. Elijah Burgher drew text-based sigils, symbols considered to contain magical or spiritual power, and performed a private ritual with AA Bronson. Painter, textile artist, and performance artist Travis Boyer transformed the back deck of the house into an outdoor studio for the creation of cyanotypes, painted fabric, and readymades.

Elijah and Travis at work.

Travis' deck studio at FIAR.

RM: What are your plans for the future of the residency program?

CB: When I look in my dream drawer nowadays I see us in 5 years, FIAR spanning from May to September, and plans being drawn up for a permanent home (The FIAR House?). There is an abandoned Coast Guard property left in disrepair in the dunes that separate the two queer communities on the island, and I would love to see that site built out into a glistening, beautiful live/work space, which would include an exhibition and crit space as well (and since I’m dreaming, a pool).

Fire Island has a legendary history of queer artists inhabiting and creating there for a century (Peter Hujar, Paul Thek, Paul Cadmus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, Tennesee Williams, W.H. Auden….and on and on…). Sadly, it’s no secret that a generation of artists were lost during the AIDS crises – a generation of mentors and teachers to those of us who are now just emerging. I want FIAR to honor the legacy of our queer art history, become a symbol of all the great queer works that have come before it, and foster new generations of artists who will continue that legacy.

I’m looking at you David Geffen-type gay billionaires – let’s make history!

To learn more about the Fire Island Artist Residency, visit their website and Facebook page.