April 9th 2018

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I didn’t choose to be gay. Much like you, the person reading this, didn’t choose to be the sexuality you yourself identify as, either. What we can choose though is to be ourselves. 100%, completely, and honestly ourselves.

 

Growing up in a small town like Chippewa didn’t make me feel that way, though. In fact, as I sit in my tiny apartment in Minneapolis, I think Chippewa Falls may have hindered my growth and ability to fully accept myself for who I was until my adult life.

 

Let me take you back - like, way back. When I was a little kid (we’re talking like five years old), I think it was pretty obvious that I wasn’t like all the other “boys”, I had an affinity for dolls , babies, arts and crafts, picking flowers, and anything my mom liked, including the color purple - that was our favorite color together. Now, in 2018 I have zero patience and little tolerance for most things like hobbies, clothes, sports, and toys, being labeled as gender specific (because as we should all be well aware by now, gender is a spectrum and sexuality is fluid), but back in the 90’s a boy like me stuck out like a sore thumb. As I got older, however, I continued to be different from the rest of the boys my age and started gravitating towards the girls in my classes and on my soccer teams. My interests didn’t line up with the boys and suddenly I found myself struggling to relate to them about anything. Things didn’t get rocky until about 5th grade, though, when I switched schools because my family moved across town. I was always a friendly kid and could make conversation with just about anyone when I had to, but I remember the first few weeks of 5th grade at my new school, Hillcrest Elementary, I went home crying on a regular basis because I wanted to go back to my old school, Southview, where everything was comfortable. Looking back, I think what made the transition into Hillcrest so difficult for me was this constant fear that I wasn’t good enough for my new peers - a fear that still follows me to today, even at 25, as I continue to transition into a new city 10 months after moving here.

 

Middle school may have been the worst three developmental years of my life, though. Specifically the 7th grade. Again, most (if not all of my friends) were girls and I spent most of my time trying to befriend them all. It was during these years that the boys began to take notice. There was one day in specific that has continued to stick out in my mind. I was in 7th grade, standing outside the school in the morning with all the other kids, waiting to go inside and start the day. I had just gotten some brand new shoes that I really liked a lot and it was the first day that I had worn them to school. They were white (and like I implied, extremely cool), but a group of boys perceived them as being “girly” and began taunting me, asking if I liked wearing girls clothes, when a boy named Zach, called out over the rest of them saying “what are you, gay?!” to which the rest of the boys chimed in and kept repeating it. Gay! Gay! Gay! That was the first time in my life that I had been called gay - simply for something I liked. In fact, this was the first time I had ever been confronted with the thought itself. As a prepubescent teenager with no real idea what the term “gay” meant, I vehemently denied it and continued to until I had not just convinced them that I wasn’t gay, but also thoroughly convinced myself I wasn’t gay. A reality that I wasn’t properly prepared to confront at the age of 12 because growing up in a small community like Chippewa Falls, I hadn’t been exposed to any sort of LGBTQIA+ representation, so did I even really know what it meant to be gay? No. Even to this day, I don’t believe that representation is there for kids at that same age going through this same identity crisis. The difference? These kids can turn to the internet and their social media channels and feel some sort of acceptance from someone just like them, on the exact opposite side of the world, in times when they feel like their friends and families aren’t. Even then, that’s not enough, because eventually you have to log out and face the realities and sometimes the nightmares, directly in front of you.

 

It wasn’t until early high school that I truly began to explore my sexuality after continually being called gay by classmates over the last couple of years leading up to high school. At one point I snuck out of my parents house late at night to meet up with a boy from a neighboring town who I had met on MySpace. I made sure we didn’t share any mutual friends in fear that someone might find out. He was the first boy I kissed. Over Freshman and Sophomore year of high school, this sort of irresponsible behavior happened several more times and at one point I got nervous that someone, somewhere, was hell bent on discovering my secret - so I stopped. I tried to date girls as a way to make myself feel better about what I had done - trying to erase that part of who I was. Moving forward I had pushed the urges and notions so far to the back of my brain that I was doing myself and my mental a health a disservice. I continued to ignore the voice in my head for several years and tried to live my life as a straight man. I’m sure I was actually convincing no one, but as long as I was convincing myself at this point, that’s all I cared about, because maybe if I ignored the voice long enough, the lie I was telling myself as a straight man would hopefully eventually be true.

 

Between high school and today my journey to self acceptance and discovery has been extremely rocky. Dropping out of college (more than once), and then proceeding to run away to Los Angeles as a way of escaping my problems and insecurities in Chippewa only to be forced to move back to Chippewa several months later because my insecurities and problems were eating me alive and preventing me from actually living a normal life. I was miserable.

 

There came a point though a few years ago, I was 21 going on 22, that I knew it was time to address this suppressed feeling I was experiencing, hiding my sexuality. I will never forget the day I said the words “I’m gay” out loud for the first time ever. To spare you the long story, I was filming a friends wedding and ended up enjoying my night a little more than I should have. Drunk with no where to sleep that night, I found myself in one of the bridesmaids rooms. All night, everyone at this wedding was convinced her and I were going to “hook-up”, for lack of a better term. Her and I, however, were the only two unconvinced of this. As we were sitting in her hotel room on the bed at approximately 3am, my nerves, mind, and heart couldn’t take it anymore and I blurted out the words. I had never spent time with this girl before tonight and for some odd reason, she felt like a safe, comfortable person to lay this news on. It was my first true test at navigating peoples reactions to me telling them I was gay. Without skipping a beat, she smiled, hugged me, and we went on with talking until we both fell asleep. Her name is Molly and to this day she remains one of my closest and most loyal friends. In fact, this summer I have the honor of officiating her wedding where she will marry the love of her life, and my other dear friend, Kyle. One week after this, I went on an 18 day solo trip along the west coast. Starting in Las Vegas and ending in Seattle. I took this as the perfect opportunity to continue telling complete strangers who I had met on this trip and befriended, that I was gay. They had no idea who I was or where I came from leading up until then, and I was adamant on letting them know who I saw myself as from the get-go. It was incredibly relieving and such great practice at actually sharing this part of who I was with even those closest to me.

 

I came home from this trip with a new found confidence. I finally came to terms with who I was and I was ready to fully embrace it. I told all my friends individually as the time felt right over the following year, even going on dates with boys I met on Tinder. Fast forward to 23 years old and I had yet to share the news with my family. I had just began dating a boy from Tinder who lived in Minneapolis and it was going really well, I really liked him and it felt right not just with him, but it felt right with me to finally share this part of me with my family.

 

It was October 28th of 2016, and I was standing in the kitchen with just my mom and dad gossiping about something irrelevant when I knew I had to tell them. After all, this boy was coming from Minneapolis to Chippewa Falls for the entire weekend and I couldn’t really hide him from everyone.

 

I swallowed my breath and said, “Hey mom, you might want to clean the house, I have company coming to town tomorrow” She replied kind of confused, “What? Company? You never invite people over here. Who is it? Do we know them?” There was no turning around now. “A guy I’ve been seeing. He’s coming to visit for the weekend” I said. “What?!” She said in return, kind of shocked. “Don’t act like you never suspected that about me.” I responded. “I’m not surprised, I just actually have to clean the house now!” I’ve been dating this boy ever since. His name is Kian and he’s the most supportive, encouraging, and kind person I know and I am deeply in love with him. Every member of my family, both immediate and extended, have been nothing short of supportive and accepting of me (and him) since. However, I know this isn’t the case for a lot of other queer identifying individuals. A large number can be ostracized by their families. Some, sent to conversion therapy. Too many kicked out and left homeless. Some suppressing themselves for so long that they don’t ever get to fully live their lives as themselves. Its heartbreaking that even in 2018 LGBTQIA+ individuals are still seen as less. Less human, less lovable, and less important.

 

I would be lying if I said since coming out, I haven’t felt disparaged once or twice. I’ve been called a “fucking faggot” on more than one occasion. I’ve even had dirt thrown at my car by a pedestrian who saw my boyfriend and I kiss in public. It stings every time. I’ll even admit that there are still times where I get uncomfortable bringing my boyfriend out in public in Chippewa Falls, and showing him any sort of display of affection, even something as little as holding his hand, because even in a community like Chippewa, there is still a disproportionate amount of people who have yet to be exposed to a same sex couple - let alone a trans individual. Its disappointing that a place I called home for nearly my whole life up until recently, is still loaded with ignorance and hate.

 

Moving to Minneapolis has been the greatest joy and best decision I have ever made for my own personal development. Every single day Im surrounded by people from all walks of life, choosing to live their best lives as themselves. Most of my closest friends here are queer identifying, too, and It’s cathartic to finally be somewhere that I am not an outlier.

 

I didn’t choose to be gay. Much like you, the person reading this, didn’t choose to be the sexuality you yourself identify as, either. What we can choose though is to be ourselves. 100%, completely, and honestly ourselves. Most importantly, though, we can choose to be loving and accepting. Why would you choose to be anything else?

 

February 26th 2018

 
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On a crisp February morning in a large studio space located in Northeast Minneapolis, I found Ashley Mary. An artist whose creativity sees no bounds and whose artistry is bursting at the seams with color and funky shapes.

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Her process unique, and the outcome original. She begins by digging through a bin of scrap paper, magazine clippings, and old paint chips. The end product is a small scale collage which eventually becomes the inspiration to her large scale paintings. 

 
 
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These collages turned paintings have become the catalyst for Ashley’s career over the last several years. Her talents have led her to creating dozens of custom pieces for clients and friends all across the country. Most recently her art has been picked up by West Elm where she’ll be creating upwards of 30 original, made to order, paintings. On top of that, she also has a line of phone cases sold through Target stores nationwide, an original yoga mat with Manduka, as well as several mural installations such as the one you can find inside the Store at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, or if you happened to attend Super Bowl Live in downtown Minneapolis, you may have seen her interactive mural in collaboration with Explore Minnesota.

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Her creativity extends well past her paintings, though. She also has an eye for fashion and on any given day you can catch her incorporating as much vintage and thrifted pieces into her wardrobe as possible. Ashley also loves to draw inspiration from interior design and upon entering her studio its clear that her paintings lend themselves well with mid-century modern design.

Outside of being an incredible painter, you can also catch Ashley freelancing as an Illustrator, Graphic Designer, Prop Stylist, and Creative Director for a number of companies and brands.

 
 
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About her work, Ashley says “There are no rules; just a celebration of lines that dance, shapes that nestle together and paint that looks thick and textured” and continues by saying that her work is a constant exploration full of happy accidents, lively compositions and positive energy she hopes to put out in the world.

“When I'm making art, I'm looking for more of an emotional response from my audience than I am a making a statement. I love the exchange of energy a painting or collage can give off and I hope when people see my art or spend time with a piece, they leave feeling lighter, joyful, energized, possibly peaceful. I'm looking to create both a gentle balance and a playfulness.”

Her studio is filled with bright color, loud patterns, and loads of natural light. In a sense, its the perfect reflection of who she is not just as an artist, but as a person - a friend.

 

You can find Ashley's Instagram here and her website here.

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