Aaron McIntosh (b. 1984) is a fourth-generation quiltmaker from the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee. His work explores the intersection of queer life, archives and ecology, and is focused on understanding and preserving queer histories. Using plant archives and queer archives alike, McIntosh’s solo exhibition Entanglements looks to the past to help understand the future. Recently, Gallery360 co-op student Olivia Olson-Roberts sat down to interview McIntosh about how archival histories inform his futuristically oriented body of work.
Olivia Olson-Roberts: Throughout your work, I’ve been seeing a lot of archival images, particularly from the 1970s and 1980s. Can you speak a little bit about what is significant to you about those or what keeps you coming back to those images?
Aaron McIntosh: During my graduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, I started using a lot of print material. I was interested in exploring the materials that I have these strong feelings of kinship toward.
A lot of my family members practice collecting and hoarding. In the early 2000s, thrift stores would have these giant bookcases of romance novels, and I remember seeing piles of them in different family members’ homes. I initially started using these novels because of this interest in the material and also this interest in what the culture was throwing out or consuming in a rapacious manner. I was interested in this idea of people working their factory jobs and then escaping to read these salacious romance novels.
I started exploring this waste material that was both loaded in a familial and cultural way. In graduate school, I did a lot of investigative work with these novels. I was highlighting words, changing the narrative and trying to queer these stories. I had been doing a lot of projects with the covers by extracting the men. I was doing projects with them as these sorts of lonely avatars where I could project my own queer desires.
I started doing more research into desire, especially mediated desire and what it means to either develop or cultivate one’s sexuality and eroticism through written or visual means rather than just through contact with others. There were a lot of different sources that informed my young queer self and also helped me figure out who I am sexually, romantically and even about my gender. Coming from a rural place and coming out later in life, I wasn’t exposed to much gay mainstream media. I feel like my queerness has always been something I’ve had to work on and cultivate. I refer to it as a patchwork, like a quilt.
Later, I started working with erotic magazines and chapbooks. These gay chapbooks are similar to zines and are from the 70s through the very early 2000s. They were made by and for the queer community and had some porn-esque elements, erotic cartoons, readers’ stories and the like. Chapbooks were fascinating research subjects for me because they are exquisite documents of a gay community forming itself. Between Stonewall, gay liberation and the advent of the internet, they were a way for queer people to signal belonging and find community.
Olivia Olson-Roberts: Do you see isolating these images as a way to situate yourself within queer histories?
Aaron McIntosh: Absolutely. It never really occurred to me that going through these archives I would find such relevant or poignant content, but I’ve made several works that touch on finding myself in these archives. An example would be someone in Kansas saying how much they appreciate the magazine because it connects them to the gay world. I feel like that does mirror today in some ways. I’m out to my family but my queerness remains a somewhat untouchable subject.
Olivia Olson-Roberts: There seems to be a certain degree of futurism within your work, specifically in Exuberant Botanica. This series simultaneously deals with the past, present and imagined futures. There is a hopeful imaginative element to this piece but also a hyper-awareness of the harm that has been done to queer people throughout history. How do you think about this intersection?
Aaron McIntosh: It’s been through these art projects that a beautiful coalescence of my interest in the botanic world and research and textiles exists. Because of Invasive Queer Kudzu, I started thinking more about what plants have been historically useful as remedies to queer communities. I have also been thinking about if those plants and herbs don’t exist, how might we imagine them? In 2020, I started this Exuberant Botanica project.
Something I encounter as I’ve spent time in botanic archives researching historic herbal healing is that many of the ailments they were trying to find cures for still affect people today. Inevitably this research coincides with the erosion of rights that we’re seeing happen right in front of us. Transgender surgeries are being banned for adults in certain states and there’s no federal action protecting people. I started thinking “If we’re heading into a medieval period in terms of rights, what are the things we’re maybe going to need?”
Olivia Olson-Roberts: There is so much joy and color in your work yet there are these dark undertones. It makes sense that they start to come forward in light of the current political climate, with all the anti-trans laws that are being passed.
Aaron McIntosh: That is one reason the Kudzu project will come out of its dormancy. Queer visibility is happening to the point that now people want to take rights away, clamp back down and take us back to some “pre-queer existence.” It’s precisely why I started a project like that. The Invasive Queer Kudzu project was about turning around narratives about the South as not being queer.
Olivia Olson-Roberts: How has your work changed since you left the South?
Aaron McIntosh: The botanic work I’m doing now has a much more global scope. A lot of the things I’m reading are about the international plant trade. If you just walk into a forest, you imagine that these things have always been here but many plants were brought back through these exchanges. There was a lot of death and destruction in these plant expeditions. We like to think of only the terribleness of globalization and it does have a certain flattening aspect. There’s also the kind of cultural exchange that happened.
Nature contains total abundance, many multitudes, many different ways to be a person, be in a body, to have a gender, to have sex. It was a plastic time for plants and people and that’s kind of what I’m interested in. I want to ask “What is the future of this kind of work?” This project rests within the speculative. There’s some stuff we just don’t know. I know myself as a queer person who found when you take biology and you learn these things in a rigid heteronormative way. All kinds of queer research has been going on within science fields for a long time. Bruce Bagemihl’s landmark 1999 work Biological Exuberance. My project, Exuberant Botanica, is in relation to that. He wrote a text recording animals having same-sex non-reproductive erotic encounters, or sex, or pairings.
Olivia Olson-Roberts: I’m familiar with the paper. This comparison and this kind of imaginative element of your work is very exciting. I’m about as far from a biologist as you can get, but the gendered language that I was taught about plant reproduction is one of the only things I remember from my childhood science classes. Have plants always been a part of your practice?
Aaron McIntosh: No. I would say it started in 2013 when I was working on this project about weeds and thinking about weeds as a very potent metaphor for queer people growing of their own volition. Queer people have their ways of being and coming into this world and finding ways to thrive. It’s through human decision-making that we determine what’s going to be propagated and what’s going to be a weed. So to me, the weed is kind of a nice metaphor for queer people.
Olivia Olson-Roberts: It’s about resistance and resilience.
Aaron McIntosh: Exactly, yes! Most of the time when we think of a weed, we think of a weed that is in a place that shouldn’t be like a dandelion growing in the crack in the sidewalk. Resistance and resilience, that’s what weeds are good for. Throughout history, a lot of queer people have gotten chopped down but dandelion roots are very long. Queer communities have a way of tapping into what they know to find ways to grow and thrive.