Art & Design

Way Gay on Display: Art Exhibition Features Staff Picks and New Acquisitions

April 2, 2024 | by Stacia Friedman

The current art exhibition at William Way LBGT Community Center is a veritable time capsule. Here you will find not just compelling drawings, paintings, and prints, but a visual history of Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ community. William Way at 1315 Spruce Street is housed in a Colonial Revival building that dates back to 1890s and previously served as the Engineer’s Club. The organization has been actively collecting artworks since at 2005. WayGay on Display: Staff Picks and New Acquisitions from the Permanent Art Collection was selected from the almost 700 works in William Way’s permanent art collection.

Alchemy, Ada Bello, 2005, by artist Deborah Caiola. | Image courtesy of William Way LBGT Community Center 

While some of the art in this exhibition jump off the wall in their audacity and sophistication, others require a closer look. A smiling portrait of Ada Bello could easily be mistaken for that of any other woman of a certain age unless you know her story. Bello was a Cuban-American who co-founded the Philadelphia chapter of Daughters of Bilitis in 1967. The national organization, founded in 1955, was the first lesbian rights organization in the United States. “The painting is from a show of influential women. It was donated in 2006,” said John Anderies, director of the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives at William Way. Born in Havana in 1933, Bello came to America in 1958. After earning a degree in chemistry, she moved to Philadelphia in 1962 and worked in medical research at the University of Pennsylvania and the Food and Drug Administration, while blazing a path of social and political activism. Bello served in advocacy roles including as a board member of the LGBT Elder Initiative. She was also co-chairman at William Way. Bello died in Philadelphia of complications from COVID-19 in 2023. In the portrait, Bello appears to be smiling down on the result of her lifelong efforts.

Waterworks by transgender architect and artist Roberta Dickinson. | Image courtesy of William Way LBGT Community Center 

Waterworks, an exceptional watercolor that can stand on its on, demands a deeper appreciation once you know the artist’s backstory. “Roberta Dickinson was a transgender architect and artist who transitioned in the mid-1970’s,” explained Anderies. In that respect, Dickinson was more than a pioneer. She was a trailblazer. After training under architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Dickinson taught watercolor at Drexel University. She also painted revealing nude self-portraits before and after surgical transition, which are in the William Way collection, but not displayed in this exhibition.

The artwork that commands the most attention is a naturalistic, larger-than-life drawing of a nude male rendered in classical style. Part Greek god, part the guy next door. “It was done by a PAFA student for his senior show and donated to William Way by a collector,” said Anderies.

A portrait by photographer Kaltoum Alibrahimi. | Photo courtesy of William Way LBGT Community Center 

Another piece that demands a second look is a black and white photograph by Kaltoum Alibrahimi. It is an extreme close-up of what seems to be a side and frontal view of the same male subject. Or is it two men? The answer is up to the viewer.

If you are puzzled by a collection of whimsical tombstones on the wall, there is an explanation. “They were done for a Pew Project, a lesbian haunted house, and the work represents lesbian feminist history,” Anderies explained. Perhaps the most compelling work of lesbian art in the current show is an untitled, intimate black and white photo taken in 2012 by Kathy McLean expressing the synergy between two half-dressed women. However, it isn’t the subject matter that makes this photo magnetic. It is the artist’s handling of light and shadows and knowing how to use her lens to capture a kiss before it happens.

Untitled by photographer Kathy McLean. | Photo courtesy of William Way LBGT Community Center 

Equally strong is David Lebe’s Seth which, at first glance, appears to be a collage, but at closer inspection is a hand-colored photograph.

Another work that could be mistaken for what it isn’t is indeed a collage. It is comprised of photos of Les Harrison, one of Philadelphia’s longest-performing drag queen and female impersonator of color, from his scrapbook dating back to the 1960s. Harrison passed away at 77 in 2020.

“We have six exhibitions a year. Most are calls to the community, but one is our annual juried exhibition. We also have a biennial show for art students. The works in this exhibition include those selected by the staff at William Way and myself, as well as a handful of new acquisitions since 2020,” explained Anderies. “Through those chosen by staff we hope to present an eclectic selection of styles, themes, and media, suggesting the range of works in the collection as well as the aesthetic preferences, convictions, and whimsies of our dedicated staff.”

Digital prints on poster board photo collage created from the scrapbook of the late Les Harrison by Defiant Archives curators, 2015. Harrison was Philadelphia’s longest-performing Black drag queen. | Images courtesy of William Way LBGT Community Center 

“The new acquisitions include some favorites we have added to the collection in recent years. We invite you to see our collection through the eyes of our staff and to imagine how it will continue to grow into the future to reflect our diverse communities.” said Anderies.

WayGay on Display: Staff Picks and New Acquisitions from the Permanent Art Collection is on view until April 25. For more information and hours of operation see William Way’s website:


About the Author

Stacia Friedman is a Philadelphia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and Los Angeles on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, Broad Street Review, and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history, and vibrant arts scene.

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