Matthew Terrell kicks off a series on the new crop of Idea Capital grant recipients. His enthusiastic account underscores why funding artists directly is meaningful and often invaluable. Idea Capital was founded in 2008 by Stuart Keeler, Susan Todd-Raque, Pam Rogers, Louise Shaw, and Cinqué Hicks. Their mission was to fund artist projects that might not otherwise receive funding, such as performance, installation, and publishing. The first year, each founder personally invested $100 and from 18 applicants selected Allison Rentz as its first recipient. The organization now solicits small donations from the arts community and holds an annual fundraiser. This year, the group, now headed up by Cinqué Hicks, Cubby West, Felicia Feaster, Margaret Kargbo, Mary Stanley, Louise E. Shaw, and Oronike Odeleye (a BURNAWAY board member), has given grants to 10 artists from a pool of 87 applicants, each of whom receives $1,500.
I was late to the cocktail reception honoring me and 11 other winners of the 2013 Idea Capital grant. I had just come from teaching aerobics and I surely stank beneath the fancy pants I threw on for the event. It was my first year out of college as an almost-starving artist; I was hustling hard to keep the lights on in my bohemian-chic apartment. Arriving late to this event mortified me, but my aerobics gig financed my creative career, so I couldn’t miss teaching.
Being awarded the Idea Capital grant was a major relief—financially, of course, but emotionally as well. They were the first organization in Atlanta to invest in my work. They saw potential in my bare-bones, just-out-of-grad-school portfolio where others didn’t. In the past year, I’d applied for literally dozens of awards, but I was so fresh in the art world that I had no street cred. I felt like there was no support for infant careers like my own, and even fewer organizations would be willing to take on a weirdo such as myself. My work can best be described as documentary drag photography and writing—with an art historical mindset. I had a lot of ideas and passion, but not a lot of support.
There aren’t many organizations that invest in the kind of projects that Idea Capital does. The grants are small ($900-$1,500) but have great impact for the recipient. The ideas being invested in are certainly not mainstream, but often focus on people in marginalized communities. My fellow recipients included DJ lynée denise, who held a live music event celebrating women DJs; Benjamin Willis, who created an art installation of paper airplanes created by incarcerated people; and Hester L. Furey and Michael Rovinsky, who created Love and Revolution, a documentary graphic novel about an early 20th-century radical political magazine in Greenwich Village. For many artists, Idea Capital is the first organization that says “yes” to their work, and this brave grant process yields great results.
Idea Capital funded the creation of a Huffington Post blog and book about Southern drag that I’m writing. I call it Sweet Tea, and it’s my absolute dream project. For years, I’ve been immersed in the drag scene (I’m not a queen, but many of my friends are), and I want to document my community in a way that shows outsiders a slice of life in the gay South. I first profiled Mo’Dest Volgare, a homeless drag queen who was kicked out of his conservative Christian home for being gay. My second piece was about David Richardson, a former Atlanta club kid who relives the heyday of ’80s debauchery through his Bowery-esque drag. I also profiled Violet Chachki, who will soon be seen on Rupaul’s Drag Race. I sit down with them in “boyface,” and interview them as they transform into divas. I photograph the entire process, and weave together text and image to show fully who they are as performers.
I believe it is extremely important to record these stories for others to see. I provide a glimpse into a world many people will never witness, and by doing so I hope to humanize what it means to be queer and Southern. Gay men have terrible generational memory, and part of me hopes that these stories will be enjoyed by future young gay men. I like to imagine Atlanta drag queens of 2035 reading stories of the divas that came before them and being inspired. Receiving a grant to pursue this work showed me that it is, indeed, a worthy subject. The only problem with an Idea Capital grant is that you see how much more your project could blossom into; I now have my eyes set on eventually covering Southern drag outside of our gay metropolis. Getting there will definitely require more funding, and this initial grant has set me on a course to get there.
Since receiving the Idea Capital grant, my creative career has advanced at a much faster clip. I was on the cover of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a blog post I wrote about finding a Keith Haring fragment. In August of that year, I attended the Djerassi Resident Artist Program—the most amazing experience I’ve ever had as an artist. I have been offered my first solo show, in San Francisco of all places, which will take place in October. Idea Capital was the jolt that made me take my own creative career seriously, and pointed the way to future successes.
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues. He is a cofounding member of Legendary Children, Atlanta’s premier queer art collective. Terrell received an Idea Capital Grant in 2014 for his project “Sweet Tea: The Story of the Queer South.” In 2014, he found a forgotten fragment of a Keith Haring mural at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta—it was his most proud achievement. Terrell received his BFA and MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design; he also has an MA in communications from Georgia State University.