Pride flag display prompts conversation, reaction at Salem Art Association

As Jessica Reffield-Griffith sewed flags together in the Salem Art Association Annex, the Salem artist hoped the colorful array would start conversations.

Rayfield-Griffith spent the month of September as an artist-in-residence, creating a massive flag sewn from a dozen different pride flags representing their own identities — bisexual, gender fluid and Jewish, among others — along with that of their wife. The work is now on display alongside photos from the couple’s July wedding in Manzanita as an exhibit titled “My Own Flag to Raise.”

In an era of efforts to limit mentions of gender or sexuality in schools in some states, Rayfield-Griffith said the process of creating the flag and its display were intended to provide a counter-narrative to words often directed at LGBTQ people as “unnatural,” “perverted” or “deviant”.

“I can show people when they come into the space – we’re real people,” they said.

Not everyone was receptive.

An Instagram post about the work on the Salem Art Assocation’s Facebook page drew a comment that read, “This is pure indoctrination. So sad!” according to a screenshot of the page.

Rehfield-Griffith said it came from a Portland artist.

“This man literally knew nothing about the exhibition. They didn’t come to see the exhibit, they didn’t talk to me,” said Rayfield-Griffith.

Another comment in the exhibit’s guest book read: “Where is the heterosexual wedding exhibit?”

In an exhibition designed to humanize people like Rayfield-Griffith and his wife, the artist said the comments were upsetting because there was no effort to understand or talk to them about the art.

“Not only did she not have any conversation with me about the piece, but she labeled it with a term that is also used to force people to lie about their identity,” Rayfield-Griffith said, referring to the depiction of a constellation of Pride flags as “indoctrination”.

To them, the comments felt like saying, ‘You can’t be represented,'” Rayfield-Griffith said.

Jessica Reffield-Griffith’s “My Own Flag to Raise” unfolds during the artist’s work at the Salem Art Association app. (Courtesy/Jessica Reffield-Griffith)

In response, the art association deleted the comment and posted a statement of support on its Facebook page denouncing hate speech.

“At SAA, we believe in the power of art to open our eyes to vistas we never imagined. We believe in the power of art to inspire, heal, enrich and entertain. And perhaps most importantly, we believe in the power of art to make us more human, more empathetic, more loving, more joyful,” the statement said.

Executive director Matthew Bulay said the association’s position is to redouble its efforts by planning additional events focused on queer art.

“Spread your message and further support programming,” he said.

While they were working on the flag, Rayfield-Griffith said many Salem residents stopped by to ask questions. Some shared stories about a loved one’s journey to discover their gender identity. Some had questions about the language around gender and sexuality or had never heard of some of the concepts represented by the flags.

“A lot of people, it was the first discussion about how there are different sexualities and different gender identities,” they said.

The exhibit is on display at the Salem Art Association’s Bush Barn Art House at Bush’s Pasture Park, 600 Mission St. SE, through Nov. 5.

Her guestbook contains comments from people sharing different experiences with their own gender and sexuality, some of whom are still waiting for acceptance from their parents.

Reffield-Griffith said the act of making the flag, sewing every stitch by hand, is an act of love representing the LGBTQ community as well as their marriage.

When the exhibit is over, they intend to display the flag at their home in Salem.

Rayfield-Griffith compared the Pride flag to a menorah, which according to Jewish tradition is lit in part to make the Jewish community visible and to show other Jews that they are not alone.

“We are here, we have the strength, we have the numbers,” they said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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