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ARTIST INTERVIEW: Allen Frame

INTERVIEW WITH: Allen Frame

allen frame

Self-portrait by Allen Frame (Mexico City, 2000)

Interview by: LD Beghtol

In our current New South Journlism issue, LD Beghtol reviews William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker by Benjamin E. Wise. The book is a new biography of Walker Percy’s “funny uncle,” painting a complex portrait of an unexpected character: a gay (and racist) intellectual and accepted member of the Greenville, Mississippi, landowning elite in the early twentieth century. 

Here, Beghtol speaks with Allen Frame[1]—noted New York photographer, curator, writer/director, activist, and Greenville expat—about his mentor (and William Percy’s protégé) Leon Koury, the artist community in Greenville in the late 1970s, and growing up gay in the South. 

 


 

LD Beghtol: How and when did you meet Leon?

Allen Frame: I can’t actually recall our first meeting or any getting-to-know-you period. I just remember how close we were and comfortable with each other. After graduating from college[2] I moved back to Greenville to do photography for almost three years, and that’s when we got to know each other.

LDB: You’ve said he was a sort of guru to a “precocious group” of young artists in Greenville at the time.

AF: First, there was a group—a year older than me and very close to each other—that knew him as high-school students and included Marcius,[3] who studied sculpture with Leon, and Brooks Haxton, a poet; Kate Judy Betterton,[4] a novelist who was writing stories then; and Judi Horton, an artist. I was just among them occasionally, but one of the fun things we did together was play Murder in the Dark[5] at the local Little Theatre. Leon often did sets there, and the others sometimes worked on productions, too, so somebody had keys. Then around the time I got to know Leon, there were quite a few others often hanging out at his studio, including the photographer and chef Everett McCourt and the guitarist/composer Bo Ridgeway. 

LDB: What was most interesting to you about Leon as a person? As an artist?

AF: He was fascinated by other people, as I am, and that created a basis for making work inspired by them.

LDB: Was he “out” in the contemporary sense of the word?

AF: Yes, and he had a certain notoriety because of that—and would get crank calls from desperate people who were aware of his gayness. But most of the young people hanging out at his studio were straight. Leon was not into younger guys, but he was willing to listen to their angsty torment at times and was a nurturing, reassuring figure. His studio was a safe place to be. We valued Leon’s worldly experience of having lived in New York for years and considered him a creative role model.

southern art

Leon Koury photographed by Allen Frame (Greenville, Mississippi, circa 1972)

LDB: What was it like being young and gay in the South in the late ‘60s?

AF: Leon and his brother Mike had had a bar called The Orbit Lounge where the local hipsters would hang out, and although it was not a gay bar per se, it was gay friendly. It was ahead of its time, but they closed it before I ever met Leon, and it became his studio. Going back to Greenville after college, I discovered how many gay people there were there, and how many were in the closet. Greenville was known as a progressive cultural oasis[6] in the Deep South, and was a less hostile place for people who were different—whether gay, creative, or eccentric.

LDB: Leon had a reputation for being metaphysical. Was that an influence on you?

AF: Yes, he taught me astrology and discussed other occult ideas with me. Generally, he was very philosophical.

LDB: How did your relationship with him change over time?

AF: After I moved to New York in 1977, I would sometimes telephone him and would always visit him when I was back in Mississippi. Around 1990, Leon gave me some of his photographs taken in the 1950s in New York and New Jersey to make work with. In 1995 I had an exhibition called Buddy and Frank at Fotofeis, a photo festival in Scotland, of images of Leon’s boyfriend Buddy in the 1950s paired with mine of my then-boyfriend Frank[7] from the 1980s and ‘90s—conceptual diptychs that matched pictures of our lovers in the same sorts of situations.

LDB: One of the major themes in your work is memory—of people, of places and events, and of personal narratives both public and private. Was this something that began to develop in your youth, or did it become significant after you left the Delta?

AF: Memory is related to history and storytelling, which are Southern preoccupations, so I think culturally I was predisposed toward all that. And some of the Southern writers were huge influences on my sensibility—from Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and Truman Capote, to the ones of my parents’ generation like Walker Percy and Ellen Douglas.

LDB: Your generosity towards other artists is legendary, as is your largess as a teacher—both in and out of the classroom. Do you see this as an extension of your relationship with Leon and his mentor, Will Percy?

AF: It suggests the basis for my affinity with Leon, in that we both were deeply interested in other people and the stories of their lives. I think my impulse to want to help the people around me stems from my growing up in a kindergarten run by my mother[8] in our house. It was for five-year-olds but she put me in it when I was two. It gave me a strong sense of the group, and of peers, and community.

LDB: How has this informed your work?

AF: Many artists develop in the context of a group or school. My formative experience as a photographer was as part of the Boston scene,[9] studying with Henry Horenstein, with Nan Goldin as a friend and fellow student. Then in my early New York days, most of my friends were artists, writers, and actors. In the ‘90s I curated a lot of shows and worked with arts non-profits and met many more artists that way. Then through teaching,[10] which I started to do in 1993, I have gotten to know many artists—photographers especially—of a different generation. Being in the middle of an artist-centered scene keeps me stimulated and helps me be more productive.



 

NOTES:

[1] Full disclosure: I met Allen Frame in Memphis in 1993, when he and a disparate group of other artists, curators and patrons formed Delta Axis, a Memphis-based arts organization that aimed to exploit—in a good way—the enduring affinities that exist between the Deep South, New York City, and the international contemporary art scene. Over the next two years I volunteered for general grunt work (gallery sitting, chauffeuring visiting artists, etc.) and designed promotional materials for various events. Major exhibitions from those years include Art as Artifact, Landscape and the Metaphysical, and A Line Drawn—which, variously, presented works by Andras Borocz, Robert Shatzer, Pam Butler, Danny Tisdale, Gabriel Orozco, Kiki Smith, Mariette Pathy Allen, Pinkney Herbert, Sara Good, and many other well-known and emerging artists. Allen was also enormously supportive of my own first efforts in critical writing, as well as my often absurd attempts at producing and curating exhibits—anything, really, to get people off the chaise and into the larger world. And when it was time for me to fly away, he very politely told me so.

[2] Harvard, class of ’73.

[3] Robert Marcius, who has designed jewelry, furniture, and objets d’art for Cartier, Tiffany, and other high-end clients.

[4] Her novel, Where the Lake Becomes the River: A Novel in Stories (Novello Festival Press, 2008)—an atmospheric coming-of-age story set in Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement—includes the idiosyncratic character Luigi Donatello, modeled after Leon Koury, who paints a mural of Jesus on a small-town grocery-store wall.

[5] Not the 1983 book of stories by Margaret Atwood or some obscure mystery flick by Dagen Merrill; rather, a variant of Hide and Seek involving a designated Killer and a Detective—all other participants are potential corpses—best played in utter darkness, such as might be found in a rural Little Theater.

[6] In 1939, Will Percy invited Hodding Carter II to launch the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times, which soon became an influential liberal newspaper. In 1946 Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for his outspoken, often contentious editorials.

[7] Frank Franca—also a photographer and teacher, who in 1990 co-created (with Allen and Nan Goldin) Electric Blanket, a photo-slide installation projection about AIDS. Featuring the work of over two hundred photographers, Electric Blanket subsequently toured the world and received funding from the NEA, NYSCA, ProHelvetia, The British Council, and other arts organizations.

[8] Wade Frame, who as a student interviewed Will Percy for The Pica, Greenville High School’s newspaper; she said it was a terrible experience, as Percy “didn’t help her at all!”

[9] A radical, pre-punk assemblage which also numbered Jack Pierson, Mark Morrisroe, Stephen Tashjian (aka Tabboo!), David Armstrong, Pat Hearn, and Gail Thacker among its ranks.

[10] At the International Center of Photography, School of Visual Arts, and Pratt Institute in New York, and elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad.

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