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‘Queer Threads’ Weaves Together LGBTQ Trauma, Hope and Resilience

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a man with glasses stands smiling in front of a painting in a museum
Curator John Chaich with 'Guess Jeans: I Just Want to Have My Titties Out,' by April Bey. Digitally woven blanket with hand-sewn fabric and glitter, 80" x 240", 2022 (Cherri Lakey)

Independent curator John Chaich’s fascination with textile arts traces back to the 1990s, when he witnessed the AIDS memorial quilt at the Washington Monument. Chaich remembers thinking it was a magnificent and expansive narrative tribute — something crafted by countless anonymous hands, honoring numerous individuals.

Not only did it shape his sense of identity and deepen his understanding of the impact of HIV and AIDS on the gay community, it also left him profoundly moved. That pivotal moment helped ignite Chaich’s passion for textile arts and the LGBTQ artists working in this medium.

Chaich’s visionary exhibition, Queer Threads, debuted in 2014 at the Leslie Lohman Museum in New York City, and has since traveled to Baltimore and Boston. Now, it showcases its fourth iteration at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. The exhibition, which opened May 12, features 38 works by 37 artists primarily from the West Coast, with a diverse range of artistic techniques and narratives.

Traditional fiber textile methods like embroidery and weaving intersect with queer narratives, resulting in pieces where every stitch tells a story. The exhibition also embraces a “queer as a verb” approach, incorporating mixed media elements such as painting with felt, drawing with yarn, fabric collages and fabric sculptures. The choice of material in each artwork is intentionally intertwined with the meaning, adding layers of symbolism.

Erika Diamond, ‘Overshot Safety Blanket (lapghan),’ 2018. Bulletproof Kevlar thread, acrylic and linen yarn. 45″ x 35″. Collection of San Jose Museum of Quilts (Photo by Cherri Lakey)

This deliberate intertwining of material and message permeates Overshot Safety Blanket, by Erika Diamond. Created in response to the Pulse nightclub massacre, the piece comments powerfully on queer visibility and safety with its use of Kevlar, the material used for bulletproof vests.

Angela Hennessy, “Black Rainbow,” 2017. Crocheted synthetic and human hair, artist’s hair, LED light strip, and frame. 10 x 15 x 5 feet. (Photo by Cherri Lakey)

Oakland  artist Angela Hennessy’s colossal crocheted work, titled Black Rainbow, incorporates hair, traditionally associated with mourning, as a signifier of cultural and personal identity, further enhanced by the intimate process of crochet.


Each artist’s dedication to their craft shines through in endless crocheting, weaving, sewing and meticulous work at the loom. The artworks evoke a range of emotions, from heart-wrenching narratives to humorous, celebratory and even spiritual expressions.

Diedrick Brackens, ‘summer somewhere (for Danez),’ 2020. Woven cotton and acrylic yarn, 100” x 105”. (Photo by Cherri Lakey)

Diedrick Brackens’ stunning summer somewhere (for Danez), draws inspiration from Danez Smith’s poignant poem. Together, the poem and Brackens’ weaving embark on an exploration of the experiences of Black and brown men who have sex with men, delving into the profound impact of HIV/AIDS on their lives. The solitary figure depicted evokes imagery reminiscent of William Blake’s haunting A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows, or the evocative visuals conjured by Billie Holiday’s iconic song,  Strange Fruit. However, Brackens’ artwork goes beyond these dark historical allusions and embraces the radiance of the sun and the fullness of the Tree of Life, symbolizing transcendence and exultation in the face of adversity.

Beyond their inherent LGBTQ themes, these artworks possess a universal quality — an “otherness,” as Chaich describes it — that has the power to stir empathy in all viewers. The artists skillfully weave storytelling into their fine art objects, inviting introspection and emotional engagement.

Artist Nathan Vincent, ‘Locker Room,’ 2011. Lion Brand yarn over Styrofoam and wood structure. 113″ x 209″ x 190.” (Photo by Cherri Lakey)

During the opening reception, a viewer shared with artist Nathan Vincent that his installation, Locker Room, stirred up feelings of anxiety reminiscent of their high school experience. Chaich agrees that Vincent’s life-sized crocheted lockers, benches, urinals and showers might invite intensely personal reflections for viewers, especially aorund themes of inclusion, attraction and repulsion. “The gendered nature of locker rooms can raise thought-provoking questions about safety, potential for violence and even eroticism,” says Chaich.

Race, gender, sexuality and class all play a role in shaping one’s identity, and these factors are present throughout the exhibition, interwoven in intricate ways, challenging the viewer to think beyond simplistic labels. In a landscape marred by escalating violence and uncertainty for the LGBTQ community, the exhibition captures the spirit of the times, and themes of hope and healing alongside collective and individual trauma feel more resonant than ever.

Chaich’s curation makes space for it all. Over the past few decades, he notes, there has been a remarkable expansion in our language surrounding queerness, enabling a broader range of self-expression and identification. “The celebration of queer culture, and embracing LGBTQIA identities, has fostered a sense of belonging and unity within our community and among our allies,” he says. “However, it is crucial to acknowledge the recent setbacks and challenges that persist.”

Mikki Yamashiro, ‘Take Me to Your Leader,’ 2018. Acrylic,  Yarn. 38″ x 26″. (Photo by Cherri Lakey)

That gets to the heart of why Queer Threads is such a powerful and thought-provoking exhibition. It speaks to the ongoing struggles and triumphs of the queer community. It celebrates the beauty and diversity of queer culture while also highlighting the ongoing fight for acceptance and representation.

“As queer people we have this resilience and industriousness, and creativity and spirit, and a kind of vibrancy, to really fight forward,”  says Chaich.

‘Queer Threads’ is on view at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles through Aug. 20, 2023.  Tickets and more info here. The museum will host a drag show at 7:30 p.m. on June 2 as part of the SubZERO Festival. Details here.

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