(Editor’s Note: We are deeply saddened by the passing of Amanda Arkansassy Harris. Amanda was a talented artist, a beacon for the queer femme community and an absolute joy to work with. Our hearts go out to everyone in mourning.)
Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2016. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Curator and photographer Amanda Arkansassy Harris, a self-proclaimed “queer high femme charmer from the South,” aims to foster safe and creative spaces for marginalized communities through her strikingly intimate photographs. Her most recent portrait series, Femme Space, is a collaborative project that explores the reclamation of spaces by the queer femme community.
Where do you live?
Cole Valley, San Francisco — originally from a one-stoplight town in Arkansas.
Describe yourself in one word?
What did you do last night?
I went to one of my favorite monthly queer bar nights, Uptown Homo at the Uptown in the Mission. With the closing of the Lexington, women and queers have found ways to keep community alive in events like these. It’s a fun, friendly crowd where you can find yourself in conversations about anything from gentrification to kink to a killer BBQ ribs recipe.
What can’t you live without?
Arkansas flatland, femme community and solidarity, big gender outfits.
If you could travel any where in the world, where would it be?
I have always wanted to visit Dollywood in Tennessee. New Zealand is also at the top of the list for its breathtaking landscapes.
Who is your personal hero? Why?
My sheroes are all feminist country divas like Dolly Parton and Wanda Jackson and femme writers like Dorothy Allison and Amber Hollibaugh. I love each of them for very specific reasons, but what they all have in common is bold strength, individuality, and different ways of thinking and shaping the world — all while still holding onto their roots.
How did you find your creative voice?
I was really lucky to be raised by an artistic grandmother, my Meme. She would probably never call herself an artist, as a working class rural woman from the South, but I have always viewed her as a huge artistic influence. After I came out at 19, I got involved with an arts-activist organization in Arkansas called Center for Artistic Revolution that used arts for social justice, which really helped hone some of my creative drive for social change movements. At 26 I bought my first SLR camera at B&H in New York and fell in love. I realized just this year at 31 that the things I love photographing the most are queer community and my homeland, which is really just an artistic evolution of the things that matter the most to me and my drive to explore identity, place and belonging.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I am a former pageant queen.
What do you do when you feel uninspired?
I get in my car and drive a couple hours outside of the city — I find some remote and quirky place to visit, usually with a rural vibe. I take my camera and I try to let my surroundings revive a sense of discovery and curiosity inside of me.
What’s your biggest ‘learning moment,’ and what did you take from the experience?
Moving to New York from Arkansas when I was 23 was a big “a-ha” for me, but not in the ways that most would expect. I learned a lot about myself, including coming to terms with some of my identities and passions. But I also learned that the South will really always be my home. Around this time I also came out as femme, and I became much more aware of how both straight and queer communities view queer feminine people — often as not “authentic” or “queer enough,” because masculinity is the most valued in our culture.
What’s your greatest achievement and how has it shaped you?
My greatest achievement was coming out as queer and femme — it has shaped so much about my decisions, including where I live, what kind of causes I care about, what kind of friends I have, and generally my lens on the world. Queerness literally saved me.
Coffee or tea? What kind?
Soy latte, please.
What does a perfect day look like for you?
There are so many kinds of perfect days in my world. Whether it’s discovering a new place to adventure, going thrifting with femmes, or simply taking my eight-pound Chihuahua-Shiba Inu pup to the dog park, I love little moments of simple joy in a society that consistently tells us we do not have enough to be happy.
Who are your local inspirations?
I love so many local artists and activists! Virgie Tovar for her on-point self-love, pro-fat revolutionary teachings; Lex Non Scripta for their beautiful art about queerness and resistance; femme photographers and mentors Sarah Deragon and Sophie Spinelle who have both taught me a lot about a femme-inist lens in photography. I also have to plug my partner’s swoon-worthy electro band, GAYmous, which shares clever tunes on queer topics like polyamorous dating, femme-on-femme love, and the art of queer sex.
My Meme’s biscuits and gravy.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
As a better version of myself with more life lessons under my garter belt.
If you could live in a book, TV show, movie, play or painting, what would it be?
It hasn’t been written yet (to my knowledge), but I’m looking forward to media exploring a futuristic femme oligarchy. Until then, Steel Magnolias will do.
Curious about who else made the list? Check out the Women to Watch series page, including photo galleries, interviews, and videos.