‘Not Like the Other Girls’ — Easthampton photo exhibit explores the different dimensions of butch women

Last modified: Thursday, May 22, 2014
Amiee Ross says she’s had any number of people approach her over the years who want to take her picture — not because of who she is, she says, but for what the would-be photographers think she represents.

Ross, who’s known in these parts as The Bearded Lady, does in fact have facial hair, and she identifies as a butch lesbian. But that’s just part of who she is, she says, and sometimes she suspects people who want to take her picture view her as a curiosity at best.

“My question is, ‘Why do you want to take my picture?’ ” she said in a recent interview in her Easthampton home. “When you look at me, what do you see? Because I’m more than just a label.”

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To help get beyond labels, Ross, who’s long run a body piercing business in the area, has happily taken part in a photo exhibition opening in Easthampton that explores the world of female masculinity. “BUTCH: Not Like the Other Girls,” which opens Friday in the Mill Arts Project (MAP) in the Eastworks building, is a celebration of butch women that aims to provide a broader definition of just what that term encompasses.

The exhibit is the work of SD Holman, a photographic artist based in Vancouver, Canada, who is bringing the show to Easthampton for its American debut. The show has been curated by Ross, who met Holman by chance five years ago during a visit to Vancouver; Holman insisted on photographing her for her project, then in its beginning stages, and Ross has reciprocated by working to find a place to stage the exhibit in the Valley.

“I did this for our community,” said Holman, who also identifies as butch, in a phone call from Vancouver, where she directs the National Queer Arts Festival, a three-week event held annually in the city. “I’m hoping this can be a meaningful and transformative experience [for viewers], something that can give them a better understanding of the range of women who identify as butch.”

The Easthampton show, which runs through May 4, will feature about 30 photographs of women, 12 of which will be large portraits standing 64 inches high. These images have been culled from well over 100 women that Holman photographed; 50 photos are featured in a catalog she’s prepared, in part as a reference for other galleries that might be interested in staging the show.

As Holman sees it, most images of women in the mainstream media fall within a pretty narrow range, defined largely by class, race, body size and gender expression. Even within the lesbian and trans community, she notes, “butch” has had a limited definition — the masculine side, as opposed to the more feminine side known as “femme.”

“I’m really interested in looking beyond the gender binary, at the spaces in between,” she said. She notes that “butch” has a negative connotation in the general public — that of an overly mannish-looking, unattractive woman. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘You’re not butch!’ as if being that way is an insult.”

Holman, who’s originally from Los Angeles, for years dressed and presented herself as femme, trying to fit into a more conventional image of a woman. “But that just wasn’t me. So one of the best parts of doing [the exhibit] has been photographing women who have never been told they’re beautiful or handsome just the way they are.”

The photos in the exhibit, including a number of Ross, show a range of women displaying varying degrees of masculinity, some with cropped hair and casual clothes, others dressed more formally with suits or ties. The images can be playful, like one of a young woman standing on the back of a child’s tricycle, her hands obscuring the tiny handlebar grips.

Many of the women are from western Canada, but there’s also a contingent from the northwest United States; others, including some from New York and England, became part of the show when Holman met them at conferences and art events.

The show has had a long gestation period. Not long after Holman met Ross in Vancouver and took some photographs of her, her wife, Catherine White Holman, died in a plane crash. “I really crashed, too,” said Holman, who went through a long period of mourning that brought her work to a halt.

But she eventually revived the project, in part, she said, because “Catherine had really wanted me to do this. I wanted to finish it for her.” Last year, Holman displayed many of the photographs in public art spaces in bus shelters in Vancouver. That led to a show in a cultural center in Vancouver that attracted the center’s largest-ever opening audience, Holman says, and also sparked much interest on social media, including from overseas.

A Kickstarter campaign quickly raised over $12,000 to bring the show to Easthampton. Ross was eager to help but didn’t know where to begin. “But I found this amazing support network,” she said, noting that Easthampton’s arts coordinator, Burns Maxey, steered her to the MAP space and others, like artist Kim Carlino and City Councilor Tamara Smith, helped her with tasks like publicity and planning.

“They’ll really help you and hold your hand,” she said with a laugh.

Ross, a New Mexico native who led a peripatetic existence before landing in the Valley in 1993 — "I ran out of gas here,” she said — has been featured in a number of previous photo exhibits, including one by Leonard Nimoy. But she’s particularly excited about appearing in “Butch” because she sees the show offering a broader look at a community usually depicted in stereotypical terms.

“Labels are just a starting point for a conversation,” she said. “This opens up a dialogue — it’s a way of crossing divides.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

There will be an opening reception for “BUTCH: Not Like the Other Girls” Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Mill Arts Project, Suite 117 in the Eastworks building, at 116 Pleasant St. in Easthampton. Gallery hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays from 1 to 6 p.m. to May 4. All visits are free and open to the public. Volunteers interested in staffing the exhibit can contact http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10C0B4DABAB2AABFD0-volunteers. SD Holman’s website is sdholman.com.