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Artist Advisory Board Conversation : Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin

“Norma, do you realize that there is anything abnormal in your affections for Marie?”
“Nothing abnormal whatever that I know of,” said Norma, “except as to the fact of it  being love on the part of one for another of the same sex.”
“Do you realize that such a state of things is not according to nature?”
“It is according to the profoundest and most irresistible instincts of my nature,” she replied. […] I’m painfully aware that I’m not as the majority of people are, and also that I may be regarded as not in harmony with the common sentiments or wishes of society.” (Carhart 211)

Does this conversation sound familiar to you? Does it appear as something we would stumble into every day on the internet – how affections for the same gender is “abnormal” and against the nature’s law? Surprisingly, this passage was written 120 years ago as part of the novel Norma Trist; or Pure Carbon: A Story of the Inversion of the Sexes by John Wesley Carhart published in Austin, TX in 1895.


Nick and Jake in their studio at BOX 13 (left-right) Photo Credit: Taylor Hoblitzell

Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin, artists from New York City, take narratives from novels like this to uncover the nation’s queer histories and create a series of multi-disciplinary body of works as a response. Last year, they set off on their big journey to Texas to pursue this grand project: 50 State Project. Following that, they joined our Artist Advisory Board this year and are current resident artists in BOX 13.

Over the next few years, Nick and Jake plan to visit 50 states in order to rediscover each state’s under-appreciated queer histories by getting help from locals. With the vast collaboration of local experts, such as archivists, professors, PhD candidates in Gender Studies, social activists, LGBT center personnel and even government officials, they gather various research materials and obtain guidance for their project. So far, the Wyoming series is complete and Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado are in progress.

Ever since I started my internship at DiverseWorks, I would often come across this artist couple at our events, art fair, and gallery openings. I was very thrilled to seize this opportunity to get to know more about who they are and have a peek into their studio.

How did you choose Houston to be the starting place for your upcoming project?

Nick and Jake realized that their distance from their research locations was problematic for a few reasons. Their research relies heavily on their interaction with people and the stories they exchange. By being further away from their research locations Nick and Jake learned they may miss out on future events that would benefit their project.

Nick: … most of the good discoveries of the project happen from things like, “oh, this great thing is happening in two weeks or “it’s too bad that you are not going to be here in three days”… It became really clear that we needed to be on the ground and … this [Houston] could be a good home base to start from.

In fact, the 50 State Project unintentionally began when the two men traveled to Wyoming for a different purpose. They did not anticipate that their vacation would become the birth of a new project. Nick reminisced how his hometown, Colorado, was unreceptive of gay men just as Wyoming has been known to be – you may recall Matthew Shepard. However, after visiting Wyoming, knowing that it was the pleasure trip place of 100 gay men in 1843 (this is a reference to the narrative they took to create the Wyoming series), he felt the sense of honor. In turn, they decided to continue making more of those pieces for the other states as well, which is now known as 50 State Project.

Can you tell us about the process of creating your work? How do you decide what to look for and research?

Nick and Jake said that they would find random things on the internet, library, and get help a lot from local partners. They would be introduced from one person to the other people and to other sources.

Jake: … a lot of things start with people like “you guys should do this on your piece on.” … We are not historians or queer studies people, so some of the things we come across queer studies people are like “duh”, but then some of the things … are not on anyone’s radar. To us it’s all new. To us it’s something we were not raised knowing about and the more we learn about it the more of a sense of belonging in this country we have. We want to share that.

Because The 50 State Project is relatively new, they haven’t established a definite schedule that balances their time between researching, traveling, and producing the work. But they’re learning that perhaps they don’t need to structure their progress in a scheduled format. Due to the flexibility, they can spend a certain amount of time working on each task until new ideas develop.

50 State Project mainly retraces other people’s journey. How do you imagine viewers approach to your work? Do you have hard time getting rid of your voice from your work?

Nick explained that they feel they can never entirely remove themselves from their work, but hope that their perspective becomes a window, so that the audience looks through their eyes at the subject rather than looking at Nick and Jake viewing the subject.

Since I have moved to the States, several historically significant events have taken place, including the legalization of homosexual marriage. Despite the shortage of my education in American History, I do not recall any intro US history classes that reflect the perceptions of LGBT communities or demonstrate even a snippet of the nation’s queer histories even though they are already a huge part of the U.S. society. Yes, if you step out of the orthodox history courses, you’d come across classrooms that discuss such gender and sexuality issues and concerns. But it’s only by choice. I believe Nick and Jake’s artistic attempt to make that histories available and visible to the public will have a great impact on the understanding of the current society and helping people making connections to the past.

We are very excited to have Nick and Jake in DiversWorks as new Artist Advisory Board members, and look forward to seeing their project in completion. To check out their website for more information regarding the project, visit http://nickandjakestudio.com/section/315692-50-STATE-PROJECT.html

Fun Facts

  1. Favorite Place to Eat

These two New Yorkers adore the Houston’s diverse food scene! Two of the many places where they love to eat (they listed several) included the taco truck at West Alabama Ice House and the Asian Market off Cavalcade street.

  1. How They Found Each Other

Nick and Jake are an artist collective, but also a real-life married couple. They met while they were working at the TEAM, the performing arts company, based in Brooklyn, New York. Nick and Jake said that the TEAM is like a family to them and four more married couples found each other there.

  1. Their maps

Many of their works are made with cut-maps. When I walked into their studio, everywhere I looked was occupied with maps of different parts of the U.S. I was curious how they acquire them. All of their maps are actual maps – no print outs or duplicates are used. Family and friends often call them up to say they have maps they can contribute to their work. The “itness of things,” – in this case, the map – is important to the development of their work.


Interview by Joomi Lee, DiverseWorks’ Intern