Forest Kelley looks for his uncle and finds a community

In researching his uncle’s mysterious death, a photographer finds a kindred spirit he barely knew and resurrects LGBTQ history. 934 Gallery’s ‘Tunnel Vision: Select Works from Michael’ opens April 2.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"Untitled, 2014" from Forest Kelley's "Tunnel Vision: Select Works from 'Michael,'" on view at 934 Gallery

Forest Kelley has only a few hazy childhood memories of his uncle, Michael Kelley. He remembers Michael teaching him the Charleston dance. He remembers Michael drying off naked in the sun on his parents’ porch, located on the same rural Massachusetts property where his uncle lived in a one-room cabin without water or electricity. He remembers parts of Michael’s funeral. 

In June of 1985, when Kelley was just shy of 5 years old, Michael’s lifeless body was found at the base of a rock ledge, presumably from a suicide, though no one could say for sure. 

From that day on, Kelley lived in the wake of Michael's death, though he knew very little about his uncle’s life. He knew Michael was gay, and that he was a creative person, but over time the empty, rustic, one-room shack — “Michael’s cabin,” as they called it growing up — became a stand-in for his uncle, who became a mysterious, almost mythical figure to Kelley over the years. 

"Michael's Cabin, 2017"

The older Kelley got, the more questions he had: “What led [Michael] to presumably kill himself? What were the circumstances? Was his life difficult because of things like homophobia or other issues? Or was it an accident? And what would it have meant for me to have grown up with this person in my life?” 

Around 2003, after graduating from college, Kelley took possession of an old trunk containing all that was left of Michael’s belongings. He began sorting through them, initially approaching the project like a documentarian. He wanted answers to his questions, particularly regarding the circumstances of Michael’s death, which occurred shortly after the FDA licensed the first HIV antibody test. Kelley wondered if Michael had tested positive for HIV and soon after chose to end his life. 

Over time, though, the endeavor turned into a wide-ranging art project that Kelley, now an assistant professor of photography at the University of Kentucky, titled “Michael.” Today (Friday, April 2), 934 Gallery will begin hosting a portion of that project in an exhibition titled “Tunnel Vision: Select Works from Michael.” (The virtual opening begins at 6 p.m., followed by an in-person opening at 7 p.m., with hours by appointment thereafter.) 

“Tunnel Vision: Select Works from 'Michael'” at 934 Gallery

While going through the ephemera in Michael’s trunk, Kelley discovered that he and his uncle were kindred spirits. Michael was an artist with filmmaking aspirations. He was a free spirit, with interests in poetry and photography — a connection that came to light thanks to a gift from Kelley’s mom.  

“I was leaving my mother's house one day. I had been there all weekend, and as I was leaving the driveway, she comes running out of the house and stops me, and she gave me this cassette tape that Michael recorded,” said Kelley, who listened to the tape and heard his uncle chatting with some of his friends. “My uncle talks about reading the book The Jungle and how heavy it was; he's basically this small town intellectual, creative person. And not only that, there's this whole segment where he's having a conversation about photography and debating whether a photograph can be true or if it represents truth. And as a photographer, these are the conversations that I’m having, too.” 

Kelley also discovered Michael’s connection to Butterworth Farm, a commune founded by five gay men in 1973, and eventually made contact with one the founders, Allen Young, who knew Michael. (The other four founders later died of AIDS.) Young helped introduce Kelley to an extended network of Michael’s former peers, widening the scope of Michael’s life even further. Young showed him a postcard Michael had sent to some Butterworth friends in 1978, writing, “Thank you for the wonderful and pleasant week I spent with you people. I think I learned a little bit about Eden. Also, the party was a real good time and the reefer was fine. See you in the future.” 

Kelley found 8mm films that Michael shot, some of which documented his time at Butterworth. In stills from one film strip featured in “Tunnel Vision” that Kelley titled “Allen, Queen of Hearts,” Young raises his camera to take a picture of Michael as he films. Young later provided Kelley with the photo he took of Michael in that same moment, completing both sides of the interaction. Young's photo, which hangs next to Michael's film strip at 934 Gallery, depicts Michael as shaggy-haired and bearded with a painted face, grinning from ear to ear.  

From "Tunnel Vision: Select Works from 'Michael'" at 934 Gallery

“Seeing him with face paint on, really sincerely smiling, so happy to be there, it kind of blew my mind,” Kelley said. “My vision of Michael was this depressive person. He was the person who ended up at the bottom of a cliff. A lot of the writing and stuff in the trunk — poems and journals — showed him grappling with difficult stuff. … So I was not expecting a picture like this. It really changed how I saw him.” 

In another series of 8mm stills from “Tunnel Vision,” Michael films himself in the mirror. “By the end [of the film strip], he starts making funny faces, but he looks very shy in the middle,” Kelley said. “It made me think that he was sort of discovering himself or finding himself or seeing himself in a new way. Even in just these few seconds, it's like he’s gaining some sort of confidence in terms of understanding himself. And I think a lot of that self-discovery came from finding this commune, Butterworth Farm.” 

Michael attended the tenth anniversary celebration of Butterworth in 1983, and in 2013, Kelley decided to go to the 40th anniversary event. Kelley had already been interested in making his own photos as part of the “Michael” project, and while he was at Butterworth, he met someone that kickstarted a new part of that creative process. “I was introduced to this person who was wearing this paisley shirt and was talking about his collection of psychedelic music from the ’60s and ’70s, and it really kind of felt like my uncle,” Kelley said. “We ended up collaborating and making pictures together for a couple of years after that.”  

In “Tunnel Vision,” these fictionalized photos hang alongside some of Michael’s film strips, making the show a collaboration, of sorts. Some of Kelley’s photos are reenactments of his own memories or someone else’s memories, while others imagine the context of Michael’s life. The bottom of each mounted photo begins at the same height, creating an artificial horizon on 934 Gallery’s white walls, with some of the film strips extending upward toward the ceiling, making the top sections difficult to view clearly. Nearby, Kelley also mounted a magazine clipping he found in the trunk; in it, a boy looks up at an airplane he holds above his head.

“This verticality is allowed to go up for two reasons. One, to lean on the metaphor of falling and the precariousness of his death or suicide,” he said. “But also, the same way this boy is looking up aspirationally at this plane, as a viewer, you're expected to look up. You're kind of mimicking that process of looking up and of aspiration, maybe wishing you could see closer.” 

At the beginning of this project, Kelley wanted specific answers to burning questions about his uncle. But over time, those answers began to seem less important. “I realized in making the work that it's not just about knowing, or whether you can know those things. It's also about trying to find a way to have [Michael] be present in my life, or coming to know who I would have been if he had lived,” Kelley said. “In a way, I was able to do that, because all of a sudden I was going to the party at the commune. I was meeting and hanging out with his friends. I was learning about all of these things. I didn't ever get to meet him as an adult, but I got to meet the whole context of his life. I got to meet this community and these people and his friends. And that was kind of amazing.” 

"Ted's Farm, 2015"