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Windy City Times

Windy City Times March 14, 1996

A Painter's Passion:Artist Lorraine Inzalaco Celebrates Women's History, Form and Love
By Neda Ulaby

Lorraine Inzalaco keeps busy when she talks. While discussing transitions in her life and her passion for her work, she creates cards out of her artwork, labels them, stacks them, and draws on scraps of paper to illustrate her points.

“After 16 years of wanting to sell my lesbian art in New York and getting barred by gallery owners there, I got fed up and figured, 'you're going to have to make a decision, Lorraine.' I bought a little car, packed up my portfolio and gave up freelance display work. I went to Pittsburgh, Philly, Cincinnati and Chicago, and when I got to Chicago, people would yell out, 'Hey, hello, how're you doing?' and it felt like a very friendly city, so I became interested in staying.”

Established in Chicago after 18 months, Inzalaco is now making another kind of point. The Gerber/Hart Gay and Lesbian Archives is showing many of her tender formal portraits of love between women to celebrate Women's History Month. The exhibition is both lush and understated, combining life-size oil nudes spread in sanguine pleasure over the main gallery wall, and thoughtful charcoal drawings dotting available space.

“I've tried and tried to show my lesbian work before,” Inzalaco mused. “but galleries and juried exhibitions always choose my 'safe work' – by which I mean the gallery owner feels 'safe'showing it. Everybody thinks that the dance world, the theater world, the art world (especially in NYC) is somehow free of homophobia, and they're really not. It's not changing fast enough for me. It's taken me 25 years to get a one-person lesbian-themed show. And that sort of thing is true for plenty of other artists as well.”

Since moving to Chicago, Inzalaco has concentrated on one abiding project – the proliferation of lesbian images. She has co-curated an exhibition of lesbian work for WomanMade Gallery and embarked on an ambitious marketing strategy.

Inzalaco's paintings seem tailor-made for mass distribution. They are elegant and rich. Her moods are gentle, her compositions intelligent and her subjects are gorgeous and authentic. But success has so far been limited. “I guess the work is considered vanilla,” she said slowly. “It isn't art that is as dramatic as leather or S/M. And magazine covers are supposed to be attention-getters. You know, my work is sweet and kissy.”

“One feminist bookstore said to me, 'We're not comfortable with nude women on the covers of our books, separate or together” Inzalaco explained, 'because we don't want men to come into our bookstores and google at the women.' I said, “ It's so awful that we're still thinking that what men might do is more important than our own desires, that we have to go around protecting ourselves from nudes. I don't like the idea that being naked in itself has no safety and strength. That's wrong. I am safe when I'm naked. And so are my painted nudes”.

Some of Inzalaco's experiences with mass production have been bizarre. One gay-themed company agreed to reproduce some of her images on refrigerator magnets, but tucked her work away among male beefcake shots and Tom of Finland material.

“Not a single magnet sold, and no wonder,” Inzalaco laughed ruefully. “It wasn't what I'd call my niche. But I'm still looking. I'm always looking for appropriate venues and places to show my work and companies who would like to license my images. This would help to make the images not only more visible but very accessible to women.”

And Inzalaco has proven to be good at finding different avenues. Through the international association of Lesbian Visual Artists, she helps address a lack of venues. She has always found one or two supportive people to guide her artistic and personal development.

“In kindergarten, I remember the teacher giving us very large sheets of paper – well, they seemed big, we were all little – and telling us to lie down on our stomachs. And we had boxes of big Crayola crayons and she put classical music on a Victrola, the kind you turn, and she told us to listen to the music and draw what we felt.”

She paused. “I cry,” she said, pointing to her eyes and shrugging. “Very touching. But I tell you, as a kid I got so thrilled over the fact that I could draw what I felt! Oh, it was fantastic! I made big lines, and the teacher told all the little kids, 'feel,' and she'd play the music again. It was sensational. I think that set the tone of my studio life for years to come”

Inzalaco still listens to music when she works.

“Mostly classical, mostly classical,” she said. “The idea of drawing what I felt, the idea of a lovely, beautiful, nurturing woman walking around the room – my lovers have been my models, I've had other women pose for me – my mind always goes back to that first moment in kindergarten that made me so happy.”

But Inzalaco's childhood in suburban New Jersey wasn't always positive. Her parents ignored her desire for art supplies and refused to send her to art school or college.

But eventually, on her own and without the support of her parents, she earned a full scholarship to the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

“And I loved it. Oh, I loved it,” she exclaimed. “The clogs, the painting pants, the Afro hairdo, the bell bottoms, the sports car – I had a little '54MG TF – and I painted in a full studio with serious professors. I was out as a Lesbian. I've always been out. Even at 12 years old, I was out. That's how I was. In high school, I was out, but I was alone, always alone. But I believed it was an absolutely OK thing to be gay.”

After receiving a studio degree at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and a bachelor degree in art from the University of Cincinnati, Inzalaco had to choose between graduate programs at Yale University and Queens College in New York. She had been recruited to both painting departments.

“I thought, 'I'm a Sicilian lesbian…me go to Yale?” she said wryly. “I got so nervous. I said, 'I'll take Queens.' Thinking it might be less pressure and a better fit for me. Unfortunately, it was a horrible experience.”

At Queens College she was placed on probation for painting lesbian subject matter. “I was just beginning to paint women together – they weren't even touching. They weren't even in bed – they were just loving each other. You know, the Lesbian gaze, sorta thing. At the same time, this guy was painting a graphic rape scene in the studio across the hall and it was absolutely fine with the graduate committee. The male professors loved his work. And they were criticizing me for painting a world they called male-exclusive: I said to them, “Hey boys, welcome to lesbian sexuality. This is not about you. And you're not going to get me out of here.”

Partly in defiance, Inzalaco's paintings became even more explicit in their depictions of women in love with women. A good friend and a former painting professor of hers from Cincinnati visited at the height of her travails and urged her to follow her instincts.

“He said, 'Lorraine, take their clothes off and let them do what they want.' So I shut myself into my studio and at the end of the semester, I exhibited 37 pieces of “OUT” imagery in the graduate gallery on campus.”

“They graduated me – they decided that the merit of my painting must have made up for the fact that I was stealing their subject matter.” Her smile was ironic. “All through history, men have painted women together and this was truly the beginning of my education as to how men feel in the art world when a woman, a lesbian paints this subject because it is an authentic part of her life. I learned they don't like it and I learned of the terrible homophobia and sexism that still prevails in art departments and galleries.”

Part of a life – part of many lives – is displayed on the Gerber/Hart walls. This chance to glimpse them may not be repeated. Inzalaco is thinking about moving on. Her sweetheart is applying to graduate schools, and the SouthWest intrigues Inzalaco. She wants to circulate her art in other parts of the country. She wants, she said, to contribute to the world.

Hopefully, by now, the world will have wised up enough to thank her.

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