Rachel Wilkins: ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’ Series Honors Those Who Came Before

Judith Kasen-Windsor,Rebecca Seawright, Rachel Wilkins
Angela LaGreca

The Hamptons is filled with art shows. But this one was different. “Magical” was the operative word.

If you were part of the powerful Pride exhibit and fundraiser that presented artist Rachel Wilkins and her series Shoulders of Giants at the Chase Edwards Contemporary Gallery in Bridgehampton on June 20, you knew something larger than life was happening here.

For Wilkins, an artist of 20-plus years who was named “40 under 40” by LGBTQ business leaders, and a Woman of Influence in 2016 by the New York Business Journal, the day was “emotional” as she stood outside the gallery next to a large mixed media piece she created of Edie Windsor, the civil rights activist, LGBTQ+ icon and longtime Southampton resident who famously lead the U.S. Supreme Court challenge that ultimately lead to legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States.

“I couldn’t help but feel Edie’s presence … it felt like an incredible honor to be able to stand there and be part of that,” says Wilkins.

It was Edie Windsor’s birthday, which in itself is cause for celebration.

New York State attorney Letitia James gave a rousing speech invoking hope and the importance of defending our democracy and reminding the diverse (by Hamptons standards) crowd that “we are in this in together.”

New York State Assemblyperson Rebecca Seawright was on hand to present a proclamation declaring June 20 “Edie Windsor Day” in the State of New York.

Windsor’s surviving spouse, Judith Kasen-Windor, who presented the artist and fundraiser, joined with Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, to talk about the legacy of Edie and the Windsor Heart Project at Southampton Town Hall, where a series of interlocking stones where marriages take place can be purchased and personally engraved to support the Edie Windsor Health Care Center in Hampton Bays.

For Wilkins, the moment was not just artful, it was deeply personal.

“It felt like a full circle moment for me, having been through what my wife and I went through with Edie—to be included in the gallery and in the proclamation, and to have my named on the citation for the statewide Edie Windsor Day—that was a surprise that totally blew me away,” says Wilkins.

We hear a lot about Edie Windsor, especially this time of year. And rightly so.

By taking on the Defense of Marriage Act and suing the United States Government (and winning in 2013) after she was hit with a huge inheritance tax bill after her longtime partner and spouse Thea Spyer died, Windsor’s win effectively set the stage that led directly to the 2015 Court decision legalizing gay marriage across the country in the case of Obergefell vs. Hodges.

It was a life-changing moment for millions of Americans and a case that had Rachel Wilkins and her spouse Jennifer Blum riveted.

Much like Windsor and Spyer, the couple had had their own challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act.

“We met 10 years ago, in Park Slope—like any good lesbians,” joked Wilkins, who was born in the United Kingdom. “We quickly fell in love and married right after Marriage Equality had been passed in New York (in 2011).”

When the couple tried to apply for Wilkins to get her green card, it was an eye-opening experience. And no joke.

“We had a lot of friends, also bi-national couples, straight friends, who weren’t having any trouble getting their green cards,” recalls Wilkins. “We didn’t give it any thought.” The law at the time had other ideas.

“Because the Defense of Marriage Act defined marriage as between one man and one woman, our marriage would not be federally recognized and this meant, among 7,000 other laws, that Jen would not be able to sponsor me for immigration because immigration was federal,” she says. “Our life was here—my wife is an attorney, her practice is here, and she has aging parents,” adds Wilkins.

The couple was “left with the horror of limbo” as Wilkins’ visa had run out. Would they have to move to another country or risk Wilkins “out of status?” They took the risk.

They watched the documentary about Edie and Thea called A Very Long Engagement on Netflix and followed Windsor’s case, as it wound its way through the courts and ultimately to victory at the Supreme Court. In 2015, when gay marriage became the law of the land, Wilkins and Blum were able to successfully apply for Rachel’s citizenship, as their union was finally federally recognized.

For Wilkins, the connection to Edie Windsor and how she had impacted her life stuck with her.

In March of 2020, when the pandemic forced shut the arts business Wilkins had created and focused on for the past 10 years called Conception Arts—which helps artists navigate opportunities and events across the country–Wilkins “returned to the studio” where “her heart is.”

She wanted to create a work of art that was “meaningful and thoughtful … something that is going to resonate with you,” recalls Wilkins.

“I said, ‘You know, I’m going to do a painting of Edie’. It was originally for my wife’s law office … she wanted a painting of Edie there. … So I created the piece, shared it on social media and Judith (Kasen-Windsor—who married Edie Windsor in 2015. Windsor died suddenly in 2017) saw it in May 2020. We connected, she loved it and she ended up buying the piece—much to my wife’s delight and disappointment,” says Wilkins laughing.

Wilkins continued with the project, working for eight weeks straight to create “30 Heroes for 30 Days” for the month of Pride—mixed media images of “a broad spectrum of icons, heroes and people who were change makers who helped to move the needle forward for LGBTQ people in terms of visibility and rights, including Larry Kramer, Elton John, Pete Buttigieg, and Barbara Giddins,” says Wilkins. She partnered with the LGBTQ Task force and donated 50% of sales last year to the cause.

Then “a couple of months ago” Kasen-Windsor asked Wilkins if she wanted to do a show in the Hamptons. She connected Wilkins with curator MAGO who “was the point person with the gallery,” and out of the 30 Heroes for 30 Days project,  the Shoulders of Giants show was born.

“Judith has been an amazing advocate, she has gone above and beyond with this project and I wouldn’t be doing any of it without her support,” says Wilkins, who also spent the weekend with her spouse “at Edie Windsor’s house” which “Judith kindly opened up to us … an incredible experience.  I’m so humbled and grateful for the whole experience,” adds Wilkins.

"Edie Windsor" mixed media by Rachel Wilkins
“Edie Windsor” mixed media by Rachel Wilkins

The show at Chase Edwards features eight large (4’ x 3’), mixed media pieces (five LGBTQ heroes: Edie Windsor, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Harvey Milk, David Mixner) and a wall/grid of nine smaller pieces, plus depictions of “Don’t Postpone Joy” (a favorite saying of Edie Windsor’s) and Harvey Milks’ “Hope Will Never Be Silenced.”

“I was deeply moved by Rachel’s work,” says Bonnie Edwards, the gallery’s owner. “Her power is in her passion which exudes onto the canvas; it is truly very deep and meaningful for her—and you can see it in her work.”

Wilkins’ piece of Windsor uses “an image of Edie that was featured in Time magazine,” says Wilkins. “It is a really bold, striking image that I distorted in Photoshop, and then I create these kinds of backgrounds that I feel are fitting for the person I’m profiling … so some images of the Supreme Court are in there. … I had a lot of fun with it—a kind of mismatch of all the styles that I have explored during my career: A bit of digital work, mixed media and a kind of intuitive abstract painting that I’m always drawn to.”

In the series, Wilkins wanted the icons to be “standing in the same position—standing proud and facing forward,” which meant “starting with a baseline photograph and then actually creating a body and style of dress that match the time,” she says.

As the project evolved, Wilkins felt the pieces “needed to be used as educational pieces, or at least show people of my generation and younger who went before … the whole idea of standing on the shoulders of giants—to understand who these people were,” she says.

A book proposal is in the works with an added element: A collection of thank you letters Wilkins asked members of the LGBTQ+ community to write expressing thanks to their personal heroes that Wilkins will pair with the artwork.

For Wilkins, the gallery show on Edie Windsor Day is a memory that lives on:

“It wasn’t all about me, that show…this is a moment for all the community to celebrate.”

Rachel Wilkins’ work at Chase Edwards can be viewed through the July 4th weekend. Chase Edwards Contemporary Gallery is located at 2462 Main Street, Bridgehampton. Visit chaseedwardsgallery.com for more info. And for more information about Rachel Wilkins, visit rachel-wilkins.com