Theresa "Teafly" Peterson arrived in Bend in 2003 when her van broke down and she decided to stick around for the winter. Around that same time, a gay man was beaten at a Bend nightclub, leading to the passage of the Bend Equal Rights Ordinance.Peterson had grown up in a Massachusetts town with a sizeable gay community, but the crime and the fallout that followed forced her to realize that there was some work to be done in her new hometown. Since then, Peterson has solidified a place for herself in the area's artistic landscape - making short films, shooting photographs, painting and teaching for the Caldera program while also exploring other creative endeavors. But she's also remained a close ally of Central Oregon's LGBTQ (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community.
This month, Peterson is unveiling her latest project, entitled "We Live Here, Too," a photo essay and multimedia presentation that profiles the gay community in our area. Her goal was simple: Help Central Oregonians learn a little more about their neighbors, especially the LGBTQ and its allies, a community that isn't always the most visible in Central Oregon. The show, a collaboration with the Human Dignity Coalition that debuts at the tbd Loft on Friday night for the monthly downtown Art Hop, is a massive spread of photographs, all capturing different people - some gay, some not - in their natural element. The intent is to point out how people are sometimes marginalized. In short, Peterson says she wants to start a conversation.
"I think it's a very segregated community and I don't know if the gay community here has ever found a safe space to thrive," says Peterson, adding that she hopes to bridge this gap.
By day, Peterson is a teacher at Caldera, a non-profit educational organization that gives kids an artistic and outdoors education with an innovative twist. She's been teaching there since 2006, but her educational background stretches back a decade to when she was teaching high school in her Massachusetts hometown. While teaching seems to come naturally to Peterson, who speaks in a soft measured cadence that sounds built for the classroom, she's always had a desire to create that stretches back before her time of hanging out with the renowned street artist Shepard Fairey during her Boston days.
"I've always had this need to make something that's really huge," says Peterson, over a cup of coffee on one of the few warm days we've had this spring.
That "something huge" has sometimes extended beyond her artwork and into her everyday life. It is part of the reason she's been standing up against bigotry for just about as long as she can remember.
"Some people might not feel like they have the power to speak out, but their point of view and experience is necessary," she says. "There's a lot of people who fall in the cracks and if you're not in the cracks, it's not a bad idea to help those people out."
And that's what she hopes to do with "We Live Here, Too." This is a lofty ideal and Peterson realizes that, but she thinks the photographs and stories of the individuals, couples and families pictured - almost categorically joyfully - in her project need to be heard and that this is a way to introduce a community that really isn't widely seen in this region. Short narratives pulled from the responses to questions Peterson posed while she was shooting the project accompany the photos, which place subjects in some familiar spots around town or out in nature. Among the questions Peterson asks are: "Who are you?, what do you consider the greatest love of your life?" and "What is a passion that helps you drive your life forward?"
The results are engaging, and not just because of the background of the project, but because Peterson gets these people to expound on things like relationships and personal emotions that we, as a society or a community, don't discuss - at all. The project, which spans the length of an entire wall with images and stories and required some significant legwork, will remain in the tbd loft for the month of June in order to coincide with Pride Month. And while the photos won't stay on the wall forever, Peterson hopes the conversation will endure.
"I think one of the things I want people to realize through this is that there are more things that connect us than there are that disconnect us," she says.