mannequins

Gainesville artists are coming together to transform a batch of retired mannequins into works of art — celebrating the legacy of pride.

If you went to High Dive on Sunday evening, you might have been confused as to why you were surrounded by naked mannequins. When Terry Fleming, 56, walked into a room full of mannequins of all different shapes, sizes and colors just over a month ago, he was not confused for a second. He called it his first “light bulb over the head” eureka moment.

Fleming is the co-president of the Pride Community Center of North Florida. While shopping the closing sale in the former The Oaks Mall Macy’s, he was struck with a fundraising idea. Adamant he is an not artist himself, Fleming quickly called his friend Tom Miller, 53.

Miller, a multifaceted artist, told his friend to flip the mannequins on eBay to make a quick buck and leave the artists out of it. But Miller says Fleming was insistent. Fleming had a vision.

According to Miller, Fleming said, “I want this to be about our community. I want this to be about art. About music. About pride. About diversity. About embracing what we have in common and appreciating our differences for the power they give us.”

Miller caved. The two enlisted the help of the coordinator of Arts Market Family Art & Music, Brian Wilson, 52, and together the trio set off rounding up artists.

The idea was simple: there was 22 mannequins and 22 artists. Each artist adopts a mannequin and turns it into Rainbow Spirits. There are no rules. The mannequins can come back as anything.

On July 21 at 8 p.m., there will be a grand unveiling of the Rainbow Spirits at the Pride Community Center. Amid food, drink, music and entertainment, the public will be able to bid to purchase the Spirits. All proceeds will go to the Pride Community Center.

The Pride Center, located at 3131 NW 13th St., does more than put on the annual Gainesville Pride Parade and Festival in October. They provide year-round assistance like HIV testing, women’s health services and transgender and youth support groups.

Sunday night was the adoption ceremony. Mostly, it was just the artists and their loved ones at High Dive. It was not a particularly large crowd but a lively one. The room had an air of familiarity and friendship in it. A theme emerged when the artists explained what this meant to them: community and acceptance.

Some are like Jasmine Hardin, 26, who is enjoying her first experience celebrating pride. Hardin comes from Vernon, Florida, a town of fewer than 700 people. She has openly identified as pansexual for years but said that in a small town like hers, the LGBTQ+ community is generally pretty hidden. This is her first year in a community that actually celebrates pride.

Some are like Lizzi Nehls, 46, who’s been out as part of the Gainesville LGBTQ+ community for 25 years now. She said the meaning of pride has evolved for her. Nehls said the LGBTQ+ community has made huge strides since she first came out, but the importance of the movement has been renewed in the current political climate.

Alisha Evans, a 40-year-old bisexual burlesque performer from Jacksonville, said pride means: “We are here. We are part of society. We have always been a part of society, like it or not. All we care about is that we have acceptance and love, and that love is universal.” She and her husband, Justin Evans, 40, have both adopted Rainbow Spirits.

Although most of the artists said they needed to get to know their mannequins before decorating them, there are some aspects you may expect to see in the July 21 event.

Wilson’s torso will likely come back with wings and crystals. Nehls, knew for certain her large, black, male mannequin would be wearing a pink tutu. Alix Mathia, a 26-year-old registered nurse, explained her idea to incorporate the actual anatomy of the human body with her typically somewhat abstract style to show similarity between all humans.

June has been celebrated as Pride Month since the Stonewall riots in 1969. Plenty of artists were quick to celebrate how far the community has come. However, all were eager to also mention how much hate and aggression towards the LGBTQ+ community is still present in today’s society. Gibson Cash, 27, said that events like this are a “way of neutering the beast.”

In the face of hatred, however, this group talked much more of love, community and support. Almost 50 years after the Stonewall riots, the pride community in Gainesville will honor the memorial with the work of talented artists who will craft what were department store mannequins into vibrant Rainbow Spirits.