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Bandana Bunch: Queer Ecology Hanky Project Explores Nature And Sexuality

From the brows of backpackers to the necks of dogs catching Frisbees, bandanas have accompanied many an outdoor activity.

The Queer Ecology Hanky Project opening reception: 7-10 p.m. Fri., Feb. 7. Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, 5006 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. Exhibit continues through March 6

As organizers of the Queer Ecology Hanky Project note, they’ve catalyzed quite a few indoor adventures, as well: Starting in the 1970s, a subculture of gay men used bandanas of different colors (and tucked into select hip pockets) to signal their sexual preferences.

The Queer Ecology Hanky Project builds on both those histories to offer something unique: wearable art that explores the affinities between nature, environmental issues, and human sexuality.

The Project, with more than 90 contributors from across North America, makes its full-scale debut Friday, at the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination.

The organizers are Pittsburgh-based artists and educators Vanessa Adams and Mary Tremonte. They are among about 20 artists from Pittsburgh with work in the show. (Tremonte is also a founding member of the politically minded, internationally known Justseeds Artists Cooperative.)

The colorful hankies will be printed with an array of imagery, from abstractions and diagrams to images of plants, animals and even fungi. (Some of Tremonte’s own art hankies feature the faces and silhouettes of raccoons and bear, for instance.) One goal is to evoke different kinds of “signaling” – taking gay men’s use of hankies and “expanding it in a contemporary context to different bodies, and not just different genders, but different species and how they signal to each other, and how that can intersect with the bandana or hanky as an object,” said Tremonte.

"What can humans learn from non-human species, or what are different ways of being the world that aren't human-centric?”

“I think we’re thinking even multi-directionally … like what can humans learn from non-human species, or what are different ways of being the world that aren’t human-centric?” she added.

Adams says the show’s emphasis on the often-overlooked mycelia – the vegetative part of fungi like mushrooms – is key. “There are a bunch of different pieces within the show that look at mycelia as a source of resilience and inspiration,” Adams says. The seemingly humble slime mold also figures in: A slime mold is a sort of community of single-celled organisms that aggregate to form multicellular reproductive beings.

Adams said another goal is to deconstruct our conventional ideas about nature – for instance, that it’s all about survival of the fittest.

“Queer ecology can kind of look at interdependence and ways of mutual support and resilience,” said Adams.

The show also includes references to same-sex partnering among animals including the Laysan crane.

"Queer ecology can kind of look at interdependence and ways of mutual support and resilience"

On the technical side, the Project showcases a diversity of contributors.

“One of the cool things is that we’ve got in the show, biologists, architects, we’ve got animators, art academics, but also like DIY artists,” said Adams. “And so you see a lot of different ways of representing the ideas involved.

The Queer Hanky Ecology Project received a soft opening in October at White Page Gallery, in Minneapolis. The Freeman Center show will be the first to feature all contributing artists. The Center’s front room will show selected works hung gallery-style. In the back room, the art hankies will be displayed overhead, on clotheslines.

All the works are for sale. Each artist was asked to contribute works in editions of 20 or more. While all the hankies are suitable for wall display, Adams and Tremonte say they hope patrons will put these utilitarian artworks to use.

“They can go out in the world, which is exciting for us,” says Adams. “So they can live in the gallery, but they can also go on walks in the woods, and around your dog’s neck, or accompany you to a dance party, and that’s part of the project.”

The exhibit, in fact, includes a Feb. 15 hanky-code dance party, called Sappho: Hanky Situation. There will also be an artist market, craft workshops, and artist talks through the month-long run of the show.

The Project’s opening-night reception is part of the Penn Avenue art crawl Unblurred. For more information, see here.


Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: