Zee Kilpack grew up in Willard, a small town in northern Utah, where they spent every Sunday in church, surrounded by family and community members.
In high school, Kilpack remembers having a crush on their same-sex best friend and not understanding why they felt that way. Worse, Kilpack didn’t feel like they could confront this feeling after watching a fellow student come out as gay and suffer community backlash.
“Their family were treated unfairly, and unfortunately, the kid eventually committed suicide,” Kilpack said. “This experience showed me that I shouldn’t come out to my family.”
It wasn’t until they moved to Salt Lake City that Kilpack found the language and understanding to find a community in which they belonged. Once Kilpack met other young queer people like them, it was easier to open up and find their identity.
“My family was still in Willard … it’s such a closed community that I was worried that if I came out – even if I didn’t live at home anymore – I was worried that … reputation would follow my family and they’d be excluded from the community there,” Kilpack said.
These experiences motivated Kilpack, along with other members of the LBGTQ+ community, to spread awareness about suicide prevention through art. Lilian Agar, a queer artist from Mexico, brought these voices together with an art exhibit called “A Hug Away,” which premiered at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in January and opened at Salt Lake Community College in May.
On her website, Agar described the project as “a tribute to life, focused on Suicide Awareness and more specifically, the LGBTQ+ youth in living in Utah.” The exhibit, Agar said, also serves as an important reminder to the community that love and kindness are necessary in a world filled with prejudice and hate.
“During the pandemic, we couldn’t be around our loved ones and [we] couldn’t touch them, and we were suddenly hyper aware of how much we wanted to hug our loved ones,” she said.
The exhibit included four paintings and one mirror with copper tape, all of which provided a glimpse into the life story and growth of four LGBTQ+ community members. Each painting was connected to a motion sensor to allow the listener to learn about the subject’s past, present and future.
Agar shared her own personal story about growing up in Mexico and moving in with her mother at 14 years old.
“[My mother] was very concerned that I was becoming ‘machona,’ which is a term in Mexico to say a female that is more manly,” Agar said. “She threw away my clothing and she was like, ‘now you’re going to wear pink.’”
Agar said she wanted those who didn’t even know they were queer to hear stories about people like them and to not feel alone. That sentiment motivated Maddison Cam, who is trans-nonbinary, to become a part of the project.
“I knew that it was going to be in service to the queer community here in the valley,” Cam said. “So that’s what really got me. It was just knowing that anything I did was going to be in service to a greater purpose.”
Cam, a Salt Lake City performance artist, is no stranger to sharing stories through art. Their one-person puppetry drag and burlesque show, first performed at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, shared a message about what Cam called the “ridiculous nature of gender.”
Cam believes visual messages can make a difference to the queer community. “I never regret coming out as non-binary. How can you regret your truth?” they said.
The in-person exhibit ran until late July, but those who wish to view the work can still do so on Agar’s website. The online showing features behind-the-scenes photos, artist’s notes, LGBTQ+ suicide prevention resources, and a virtual, three-dimensional space of the exhibit.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Agar’s exhibit premiered at SLCC. The headline and story have been corrected.