Today we'd like to share some information about a forthcoming film by writer and documentary filmmaker Jean Donohue that is set to expand the range of references that folks might have at hand when they consider southern, or rural, art. Ms. Donoghue's work has been broadcast on the BBC, The Learning and Discovery Channels and on a host of public television stations across the country. Ms. Donohue explains in her biographical statement for the Media Working Group (where she serves as President) that her films are concerned with "art, spirituality, the land, earth-centered consciousness and what it means to be human in relation to the natural world," and also with "women, gay culture and their relationship to society."
Ms. Donohue's latest project, The Last of the Pagan Babies, stands at the nexus of all of these considerations and promises to share a facet of rural and southern life that's often left out of the picture. This "rich story of a rural Southern radical gay culture and underground" centers around a group of artists who found themselves part of a free-spirited and visionary arts movement in Lexington, Kentucky. Known as "The Pagan Babies," their numbers included Robert Morgan, Jimmy Gordon, Bradley Picklesimer, Henry Faulkner, Marion Broadus, and Sweet Evening Breeze.
Ms. Donohue provides a further introduction on the film's Kickstarter page:
A collective, The Pagan Babies were outrageous artists, who spoke truth to power, and made radical decisions to bring their voice into public life through drag personas, art, photography, experimental film, and guerilla theatre. The characters in this documentary speak from that underground’s moral center claiming their right of expression, refusing to be invisible while giving voice to 150 years of underground life. They are still sources of deep inspiration for generations of refugees that make up Lexington’s underground.
These stories are inhabited by the famous and infamous, including Sue Mundy aka Jerome Clarke (1860s) who joined the Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s famed Morgan's Raiders at age 17, becoming notorious as the woman marauder, Sue Mundy - - and the first in a lineage of radical transgender personalities. Next there’s Belle Breezing, madam and political powerhouse (1890s) after whom Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With Wind’s ‘Belle’ was modeled; Sweet Evening Breeze (1940s), a black intersex transvestite is fondly remembered for her evening strolls through downtown; international painter, blues singer and drag artist Henry Faulkner (1940s-1981) and his lifelong lover Tennessee ‘Tom’ Williams; and a mélange of outrageous underground icons such as Williams Burroughs, Divine (made famous by John Waters), Jamie Herlihy (author of Midnight Cowboy), Vincent Price, celebrity photographer Marie Cosindas, and Hollywood couple Rock Hudson and Gene Barry.
Lexington's North of Center recently featured a write-up of the film project and some insightful comments from Ms. Donohue's interview with Lucy Jones. Below we see the director articulate both the regional and national imperative behind this project. We'll be offering more updates on The Last of the Pagan Babies as the film nears its premiere.
Donohue’s goal in making the film is “to tell a unique story about Southern history and its intersection with gay culture and underground art. Having lived in Boston for several years, and Cincinnati for that matter, when I described what my own coming of age in Lexington was like they couldn’t believe it. Some in the Northeast don’t believe there could be a rich counterculture of art, music, sexual camp, drag, and gay life. So, in a way, my goal is to share the local underground mythos and…counter perceptions that gay culture didn’t exist in Kentucky or the South.”
The film strives not only to document the Pagan Babies and their influence on arts in Lexington, but to explore what came before them. Morgan cites Lexington’s legendary Sweet Evening Breeze as an example of the intergenerational links that have informed the town’s identity. Born in the late 1800s, “Miss Sweets” lived until 1983 and spent most of that time living openly as a cross dresser. “She was the transvestite mascot of Lexington in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.” Morgan recalls sitting with an elderly Sweets at Brezing’s Bar watching a young first time punk band perform. “She was part of this odd, unusual continuum of sexual outlaws who made contact with the next generation.”