Friday, March 30, 2007

Portrait of the Portrait Artist

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #309, March 30, 2007)

PHOTOS: The artist will be sending a photograph of himself and a photograph of one of his artworks.

In the world of fine art, Morgan Monceaux is widely known as an important contemporary American portrait artist. Monceaux will be in Minneapolis for the eleventh annual Leather Leadership Conference (April 20-22), where he will be among the artists whose work is on display in the conference’s art gallery. Although he is currently undergoing treatment for lung cancer, when I interviewed him recently he sounded cheerful, strong and in good spirits.

Monceaux’s art credentials are impressive: Three of his paintings hang in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. His art has been exhibited at the Carter, Ford, Nixon and Hayes presidential libraries and at galleries and universities. He has illustrated and authored two books: Jazz: My Music, My People and My Heroes, My People: African Americans and Native Americans in the West.

Monceaux grew up in central Louisiana. His mother was a jazz singer, and “Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong were my surrogate uncle and aunt.” He aspired to be an opera singer and attended Bishop College in Dallas, Texas, studying music and theology (in addition to everything else, Monceaux is a licensed and ordained minister).

But after entering the Navy and serving in Vietnam, Monceaux says he “came back a different man.” He decided to travel, “to experience the world, to see what America was about. For my own sanity, I needed to do that.”

His travels took him to San Francisco, Seattle, New York City and Long Island, where he taught himself to paint. He now lives in Baltimore in a row house that is also his studio (and that formerly was Cab Calloway’s boyhood home).

Monceaux’s non-traditional style of portraiture makes use of pastels, paint, markers and found objects such as fabric, ribbons, jewelry, plastic toys and even Popsicle sticks. Text describing the subject of the portrait swirls around the canvas.

Every so often Monceaux chooses a theme and creates a series of pieces around it after researching the theme extensively. His first creation was a series of portraits of every American president—“George to George.” Other series include “The Royals,” “Shall We Dance” (African-American professional dancers) and “Divas” (African-American concert and opera singers). His next series, “Pages from a Black Leatherman’s Journal,” will be photographs of African-American men and women who are part of the leather community.

Monceaux, known in the leather community as Nagrom or Sir Nagrom, has been a leatherman for almost 40 years. He holds the title of Mr. Ocean State Leather 2001 and competed at the 2001 American Brotherhood Weekend. He explains that his legal name is Nagrom Morgan Monceaux: “I’m Nagrom all the time, and I’m Morgan when my paintings come out.”

He is Old Guard and proud of it. “People keep saying the Old Guard is dead. We’re far from dead. We’re just standing nearby watching you make fools out of yourselves. Because you think it’s all about the sex, about how many people you can sleep with, how much pain you can take, how many times you can be wrapped up, stuck, cut, what have you.

“It isn’t about all of that. There’s a spiritual aspect to being a leatherman that so many people miss. I want my boys to know that you can go and stand before the throne of God, and this is how you do it, and let me take you there so you can see for yourself.”

Of his cancer, Monceaux says, “It’s been a ten-year fight. It went into remission, and it came back again two years ago. At one point I had decided not to go through the chemo and radiation, because I knew what it did to me the first time, and I was afraid of having to do it alone. I had a boy with me, but unfortunately he booked, he left. I was here by myself—not a very pleasant place to be.

“I thought, if this is it, then this is it, and I want to go out like a fucking comet. I’m going to paint the greatest body of work I’ve ever done.” He was working on the “Diva” series at the time.

“But I changed my mind. My paintings talked to me, and they said, ‘You can’t give up. Why are you giving up? Look at what you’re creating, look at the story you’re telling.’ And I looked at my paintings, and it was like, you’re right. What in the hell was I thinking?”

The treatments this time have been easier, he says. “I’m a guinea pig for Johns Hopkins, and they’re using a new form of treatment for my specific type of lung cancer.” And he’s no longer alone. He currently has two slaves, “one full-time 24/7 and one part-time.”

Throughout the treatment process, he has continued to paint. “That’s the one thing that helped me make it through the sick times, the times when I was puking my guts out. It allowed me to surround myself with thirty beautiful women, each one of them singing at the top of their lungs, singing their hearts out. It let me hear them tell their stories.

“So, when you said I sound cheerful and chipper, I am cheerful and chipper. Damn right. I am a man who’s very happy to be alive today, to be able to have this conversation with you.”

Friday, March 16, 2007

“Not In My Neighborhood!”

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #308, March 16, 2007)

Small town or big city, alternate lifestyles face hostility from the neighbors

PHOTO: Rosemont Manor in Weirton, W. Va.

Whenever I become too complacent with my standing in society as a gay leatherman, something happens to jolt me back to reality. There are still a lot of folks out there who aren’t comfortable having alt-lifestylers in their midst, as demonstrated by recent events in northern West Virginia and San Francisco.

Rosemont Manor, in Weirton, West Virginia, is a gracious old mansion perched high on a hill overlooking the Ohio River. The house was built in the early 1930s by steel baron Ernest T. Weir, the founder of the Weirton Steel Corporation. Since Weir’s death in 1957, the corporation had used the house as a lodging facility—”an exclusive haven for the upper echelon of National and Weirton Steel Corporations,” in the words of the <> web site.

When Rose Susko bought the Rosemont Manor property at auction she planned to use it as a bed-and-breakfast, and also to host meetings and social events, weddings and receptions, and to offer tours of the house. (The house is also her residence.)

The city, however, told Susko the property was zoned R1 (residential). “So is the golf course and country club next door,” said Susko. Nevertheless, it was a struggle to the property’s zoning changed to “R1 non-conforming usage,” which allowed commercial use of the property.

When Susko decided to make the mansion available to alternate-lifestyle groups for hosting events, she did so carefully and quietly. Other bed-and-breakfasts in the area advertise in alternate-lifestyle media, but Susko chose to set up a completely separate and private website (<>) and to market the facility by word-of-mouth.

The Our House on the Hill web site’s main page welcomed “BDSM, fetish, master/slave, lesbian/gay, transgender, fem-dom, leather, swingers, naturalists, and CFNM” (clothed female, nude male) individuals and groups and offered the facility for hosting munches, parties, meet-and-greets, educational events and as play space. The local and regional alternate-lifestyle community responded favorably to the invitation, as evidenced by the site’s calendar of events.

On the weekend of Sept. 8-10, 2006, Ms. Olympus 2006 Lady Raven held Lady Raven’s Leather Ball at the mansion. Somehow a local TV station, WTOV9 (the NBC affiliate in Steubenville, Ohio and Wheeling, W. Va.), heard about the event and decided to go for blood. The station’s Nov. 10, 2006 news program started with a florid and inflammatory “Target 9” investigative report: “What’s going on behind the doors of this mansion? . . . What we’ve uncovered will have your head spinning! . . . One day it’s a place for weddings, the next day it can transform into a place for alternative living—including a place for nudists!

On January 16, 2007, the station followed up with a second story: Weirton’s UDO (Unified Development Ordinance) administrator Jim McHenry had sent Susko a letter saying, “Your permit was approved for a Bed and Breakfast/Wedding and Reception facility . . . any additional uses must be likewise approved by this office.” (According to the city, “additional uses” include things such as meetings and social gatherings.) “Since, no application for expanded use has been made . . . this is a violation of the City of Weirton, Unified Development Ordinance.”

The city subsequently changed the zoning of the property back to R1 (residential) and refused to renew her business license, effectively prohibiting Susko from doing any business at all.

Susko subsequently appealed to the zoning board, which allowed WTOV9 to broadcast yet another story about the fracas. (Susko asks the question: “Who else gets television news coverage when they file a zoning-board appeal?”) At a hearing on March 6, the zoning board denied Susko’s appeal. She said she now will appeal to district court.

What’s behind the hostility Susko has experienced? Rural conservatism? Provincial prudery? “No, it’s not that,” said Susko. “There’s a lot of swinging activity in this area. It’s just hypocrisy.”

One might think something like this would not happen in a major metropolitan area like San Francisco, but one would be wrong., a web-based adult entertainment company, recently purchased the historic San Francisco Armory building, which had been vacant for over thirty years. plans to use the building as a film studio, both for themselves and to attract “mainstream” movie companies back to San Francisco. The company has said it intends to fix the broken windows, refurbish the building’s exterior security lighting and plant trees around the perimeter, but otherwise plans no major changes to the historic building.

The City of San Francisco says’s intended use for the Armory building is in line with its zoning. Nonetheless, some of the neighbors are taking the Armory purchase badly. A group called the Mission Armory Collective attracted about 50 people for a protest march outside the armory on Feb. 7. San Francisco resident Marc Holcomb said, as part of a story on KGO-TV (San Francisco channel 7, an ABC affiliate): “Just having the thought in my head that I’m right next to this, living right next to this is nasty.”

Whatever our progress politically and socially in the last few decades, statements and attitudes like that show there is still a long way to go.

Friday, March 2, 2007

That’s Mr. Leather to You

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #307, March 2, 2007)


The world of contemporary leather contests has been captured in Mr. Leather, a sexy, humorous, touching and ultimately inspiring film by Jason Garrett. I caught a screening of the film, which documents the 2003 Mr. Los Angeles Leather Contest, at the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago during the annual Pantheon of Leather Awards weekend.

Why a documentary about the Mr. Los Angeles Leather Contest? First, because it’s Los Angeles, where they have the movie-industry infrastructure in place for both creating and promoting documentaries such as this. But Los Angeles also has a gay men’s leather community that is large enough to support nine feeder (i.e. bar-title) contests to produce the nine contestants in the Mr. Los Angeles Leather Contest.

In a sense, the story of Mr. L.A. Leather 2003 is the story of almost every leather contest nowadays. Mr. Leather shows us this part of the GLBT leather subculture in ways that wouldn’t be possible in a film about a larger contest such as International Mr. Leather or Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather.

Because there are nine contestants, a fair amount of time can be spent telling each contestant’s story and showing his personal world.

The film begins with the thrill of victory: each of the contestants winning their respective feeder bar contests, thereby becoming eligible to compete in Mr. L.A. Leather. During their introductions in the film we discover they’re a good group of basically nice, happy guys. They cover a wide range of personality, intellect, and physique, but they all have leather in common.

The nine contestants tell us why they’re leathermen and why they’ve decided to get involved in the community by holding a leather title. They share their hopes, dreams and kink preferences. We meet friends, neighbors, partners and pets, and get glimpses of their daily lives, from the mundane to the esoteric.

In addition to the wide sweep and excitement of the contest as it approaches, the film also shows deliciously memorable, intimate moments such as the scene in which one contestant, aided by his partner, fumbles with and tries to zip his chaps (“Stop! You’re hurting me!”). We’ve all been there, but has it ever before been so nicely captured on film?

Filmmaker Garrett also captures small but telling details such as the fact that one contestant’s pickup truck is adorned with a studded-leather steering-wheel cover. (Where did he get it? I want one!)

As the contest date draws nearer we see the men preparing for competition—studying leather history, hitting the gym, polishing their leathers and doing some last-minute shopping. We hear them talking about their own chances, and those of their fellow contestants. Then it’s showtime, and we witness the thrills and heartbreaks, the personal victories and disappointments common to every leather competition.

Entertaining background commentary about leather, contests and the leather community is provided by Guy Baldwin and Tony Mills, M.D. (International Mr. Leather for 1989 and 1998, respectively). And it is marvelous to behold the screen presence that Daddy Don Anspauch, Mr. L.A. Leather 2002, projects as he looks back on his title year and prepares to sash his successor.

Presented by Here! Films and Regent Releasing, Mr. Leather has already appeared on the Here! premium GLBT cable-television network and will be available on DVD in May, 2007. Distribution plans also call for theatrical showings in 2007. (Clips of the film can be viewed at <>.)

This is a film to be cherished within our community and to be shared with our allies.

Leather Comes to Chicago for Pantheon/Olympus Weekend

The leather world converged on Chicago the weekend of February 16-18 for the annual Pantheon of Leather weekend.

PHOTO: The Pantheon of Leather Community Service Awards were presented Saturday afternoon, Feb. 17, at the Leather Archives & Museum. A total of 34 crystal trophies were awarded in 29 categories. Here Dean Ogren, at the microphone, and John Prather accept their award for Couple of the Year.

PHOTO: Sunday evening, Feb. 18, Sir Jeff of Florida and Angela Albert of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, were named Mr. and Ms Olympus Leather 2007. The contest took place in the auditorium of the Chicago Eagle.