When New York City dragged its feet on erecting a statue to honor Stonewall veteran and pioneering queer liberation activist Marsha P. Johnson, some local artists decided to take matters into their own hands. We sat down with sculptor Jesse Pallotta to get the story.
Tell us about yourself.
I am a queer sex-worker and for the last few years I’ve lived in a plant filled loft in Brooklyn that also functions as my studio space. Most of my time is spent working on tenant organizing, developing a trans youth art camp, or engaging with my art practice. I owe a lot of my capacity to organize and realize creative projects to my job. When I’m not working, I’m reading, and am currently revisiting my favorite authors Paul Preciado and Hannah Arendt.
What was your path to becoming an artist?
It’s kind of a sad story– I always wished it was the NYC family that took me to museums type story– but I grew up in a home with a lot of addiction and fighting. It caused me to become a recluse and spend my time in my room daydreaming, organizing patterns of color and texture, and being creative with any materials I had access to.
I completed my undergrad in an interdisciplinary art program at Evergreen State College, which allowed me to continue to develop an art practice while also studying aesthetics and political philosophy. I’ve spent the last couple years in atelier programs, (small art schools that teach technical skills in painting, drawing, and sculpting). My focus is on figurative work because it informs my understanding of being in a body, which is so related to the experience of being trans. I spent a year working in Public Programs, one of them working under gender theorist Paul Preciado, which gave me a wealth of experience with community engaging art practices.
My intellectual interest and artistic interest have existed next to each other and it has been a process to balance them. It’s really two different ways of my brain functioning. It can be easy to put too much theory into a project at an early phase, and detour from creativity, so I allow myself a few months of a project to just get lost in meaningless aesthetics.
Who was Marsha P. Johnson?
Marsha was so much. I recommend watching the documentary Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson to learn more about her life from the perspective of the people around her. She was a black trans woman, who was houseless for most of her life, yet still dedicated all of her resources to help the queer and trans community. Most of her time was spent in the West Village, a place for LGBTQ+ to find community. In the time that she was alive, the Village was a space for youth to go when they were kicked out of their house. Marsha would do sex work to support them so they didn’t have to. She was also an activist with ACT UP. She had so many admirable qualities that are necessities to marginalized communities today. Sadly, in 1992 Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River. The police didn’t care and deemed it a suicide although there is a lot of evidence to prove it was a violent crime.
How did you first find out about Marsha P. Johnson?
When I came out as queer 6 years ago I went down a rabbit hole on the Internet to understand what being queer was about. This led me to the political movements in LGBTQ+ history, which led me to the Stonewall Riots which Marsha is recognized as being a key player in initiating. I didn’t realize it at the time but much of the information on Marsha that is freely available is due to the work of the queer activist filmmaker and writer Tourmaline. She digitized, archived, and has carried on Marsha’s legacy.
What led you to undertake this project?
First, I love to sculpt anything so agreeing to sculpt Marsha wasn’t hard. Second, my own history with queerness and Marsha’s influence there. I was also interested in the public aspect of the project. Christopher Park, which is across the street from The Stonewall Inn, has a monument titled Gay Liberation which was installed in 1992 to commemorate the progress of the LGBTQ+ movement. It was done by a heterosexual male artist, George Seagull, with no community engagement in the design or artist selection. Queer activist Eli Erlick found archival documents that stated numerous members of the community had disapproved of the Seagull statues. Additionally, there is a statue of Philip Sheridan, a mid-nineteenth century general who led expeditions against indigenous people on the Western plains, that still resides in the park from the 1800s. The park’s aesthetics are rooted in colonialism, and the State’s attempt to recognize the LGBTQ+ movement in this public space has further isolated the local community from its historical landmark.
The final element, and possibly the most important, was being inspired by Marsha’s life and legacy in my day-to-day life. When I feel isolated by my job as a sex-worker, I look to Marsha’s character as a source of inspiration. Her beauty has given me the freedom to imagine myself as more than what society expects of me, and I wanted to respect her contributions to my personal life by articulating her beauty to the best of my abilities.
Could you describe for us the work process of making the sculpture?
The first month was spent going through ideas on the design of the monument. I printed out over fifty photos of Marsha and took notes on her gestures, aesthetics, and gender expression. I was looking for particular aspects of her and studied the ways in which she changed as she moved through different spaces. When she was preparing to perform it was a very different feel than when she was protesting. I was also attempting to track her gender expression through time and space to locate a particularity while also holding onto a continuity.
Once I designed it, I started sculpting in water-based clay. All of the photos were organized in a structure that rotated her in 360 degrees. The full frontal view was at the center and as the photos went to the left, it would turn her features spatially. My very good friend and collaborator, Angel Glasby, came over to model which allowed me to stay true to human anatomical structures. The entire bust used 75lbs of clay. It was sculptured around twice lifesize in order to be suitable as an outdoor monument.
Once it was sculpted it went through a mold making process. The mold is made from silicon and has a structure on the outside called a mother mold, made out of plaster, which supports the silicon. Silicon molds are reusable which makes it great for guerilla art because it can be remade if broken or taken. Once the mold was made, I casted a plaster copy of it, painted it in bronze paint, and added a subtle blue and purple patina finish. The surface has a waterproof lacquer on the inside and outside to make it waterproof.
My work process includes spiritual work. Weekly, I would set up candles and meditate on the project to keep a consistent line of inquiry on what part of Marsha I wanted to bring out. It was emotional for me to spend that much time memorizing someone’s body, kinda similar to falling in love. There was a moment when I sculptured her eye gaze out and just started crying. It was pretty intense.
So at a certain point, the sculpture needed a home. How did you decide on Christopher Park?
The sculpture was placed at Christopher Park because it is across the street from the Stonewall Inn and was a place where Marsha spent a lot of her time. It was placed at the center because I wanted Marsha to be be placed in front of the exisitng Gay Liberation monument and General Sheridan statue. Since 2016, Christopher Park has been zoned as part of a federal landmark, The Stonewall National Monument, and I wanted to physically place her at the center to recognize her as a central figure to the modern LGBTQ+ movement.
How did you get permission to put up a statue there?
We did not get permission to put the statue there! In 2019, the city announced they would make monuments for Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (Marsha’s best friend). The city stalled and cancelled the program “due to Covid”. Our initial intention was to make a statement to the city for their lack of effort to follow through with projects. The week of installation, we realized that we were installing it on federal property, which meant that the city didn’t govern the area. This was pretty funny because it caused a lot of disruption on a local and national level. The journalists who were reporting on it didn’t even know the right place to contact for comments.
So you just did it yourself? How did that work?
I was in charge of building the podium structure and planning the installation. The podium was designed with the help of one of my art mentors, Anthony Adcock, who is an artist and construction worker. We designed a podium that had a 6” bathtub structure on the bottom. The bath structure allowed us to pour concrete in it which made it more difficult to remove.
Eli Erlick coordinated a group of queers from various organizations to help with installation. At 5am we woke up very tired and put the statue in a van. Once the park gates opened at 7am, we walked in with the materials, hammered the structure together, and poured 150lbs of instant setting concrete in it. The installation took around 10 minutes and the concrete took about 30 minutes to solidify. The entire process was pretty efficient.
What has the response been?
There has been a bigger response to it than I anticipated. There is a vibrant community of elder LGBTQ+ members who spend a lot of the time at the park, many of them knew Marsha when they were young. I call them “Marsha’s guardians” because they sit around the statue protecting it. One morning I was sitting at the park and watched an older, houseless man walk up to the statue and gently lay a purple flower on it. It made me tear up to witness someone who is commonly not welcome in most art spaces feel comfortable engaging with it. Other days I will visit Marsha and see houseless people drinking around Marsha, wrapping her in a blanket, and giving her kisses. People look at me like I don’t want people to touch the art, but really all I want is for the statue to be for everyone.
I’ve met a lot of younger queers from around the country visiting the statue to bring Marsha flowers, and in a way pay their respects, like a memorial. There are also queers jumping the fence at night to put flowers on Marsha’s statue. It’s great to see an object that brings younger and older queers together – something I don’t see often in the community.
The media has been very positive in reporting on it. Many of them have reached out to government agencies to ask why they didn’t follow through with the original planned monuments. This has called them out on a larger public platform for their neglect to the community.
I’ve had multiple meetings with the federal park Chief Deputies and I’m currently filling out a First Amendment permit which will temporarily legalize the statue. In order to have a statue or monument put in a federal park it has to have Congressional approval, so there have been concerns coming from Washington about the statue. Legalizing the statue is not ideal for me, but will allow more established trans organizations to interact with the project without partaking in risky activity.
There’s been a lot of controversy in the past few years about statues coming down. You put one up.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Questions like “How do monuments impact the affective atmosphere of a public space?”, “what is the best way to design monuments that can reiterate the space, day after day, in a way that aligns with the cultural values of the historical moment?” and “how do we tell history in a way that gives space for new information in the future?” have been active in my process.
Local communities have the power to imagine the spaces they want, and can create the public spaces that fits their needs best. In the creation of something new, it might naturally crumble the existing structures that should be taken down because a better option is already available. A lot of monuments that are produced by the government are generally manufactured by a production company that is dealing with a large quantity of sculptures. When people are far removed from the community’s history, I don’t think it’s possible to capture the spirit of the historical moment or figure. It’s essential that public spaces are collaborative efforts with the local community.
What advice do you have to others who may want to follow your example?
This project was giving the community something that it had wanted for a long time. Simply brainstorming questions like “what does the community want?” or “what does the community want to bring attention to?” can be a great start in designing a piece. This work is site specific which amplified it to move information across multiple social networks and government agencies.
I’d like to create (or see someone else create) a handbook for installing guerrilla art sculptures to help people feel more confident when doing a time sensitive piece. There are different types of screws, equipment, designs, etc., that allow people to install pieces quickly, and in ways that are difficult to remove. Having a plan for a successful installation is important and can allow more community engagement around it. On the day of the install, I avoided doing community engagement because I didn’t know if the structure and concrete would structurally work.
Art that has an engaging aspect can break from the traditional spectator role. A part of the project that has been impactful has been visitors being able to weave live flowers through Marsha’s crown and leave flowers on the base. The small act initiates more autonomy in people and rewrites the passivity of traditional monument viewing. I’d recommend brainstorming ways that the local community can engage in the sculpture once it is installed.
On an aesthetic level, I think about Beauty as a universal experience we share. When you bring an element of beauty to a political movement, it can awaken parts of our imagination that haven’t been accessed in other forms of movement building. People who might not have previously stood behind a cause can access the space to imagine new ways of being. Hegel describes “Beauty as the realization of the possibilities of freedom (new possibilities) in a culture.” This theory underpins all of my work.