Utah’s LGBTQ+ youth find connection with art exhibition ‘A Hug Away’

Artist Lilian Agar’s exhibition was on display at SLCC this summer, and is at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute through October.

(Matthew Parent) Artist Lilian Agar mounts one of the portraits in her exhibition "A Hug Away" at Salt Lake Community College's South City Campus. The exhibition ran over the summer at SLCC, and is at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah through October 2022.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

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 said they remembered 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 — 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.”

The exhibition ran in January at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in January, and ran May through July at Salt Lake Community College.

Agar’s art now can be seen on her website, LillyAgar.com. There, Agar also features behind-the-scenes photos, artist’s notes, LGBTQ+ suicide prevention resources, and a virtual, three-dimensional representation of the exhibit.

Agar said the exhibition is on display at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, on the University of Utah campus, now through the end of October — though efforts to open it to the public are still in the works. Agar said she has joined the institute’s campaign to end the stigma about mental health.

(Agar also is producing a series of events in October to mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month. One of those involves a project, “New Perspective,” that she first displayed in Los Angeles in 2019.)

On her website, Agar described “A Hug Away” 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 — accompanied by headphones for audio — 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.

(Matthew Parent) Students at Salt Lake Community College listen to the audio accompanying one of the portraits in artist Lilian Agar's exhibition "A Hug Away" at Salt Lake Community College's South City Campus. The exhibition ran over the summer at SLCC, and is at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah through October 2022.

Agar shared her 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 said they believe visual messages can make a difference to the queer community. “I never regret coming out as nonbinary,” they said. “How can you regret your truth?”

Editor’s note If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support by dialing 988, or 1-800-273-8255.

Jonnathan Yi wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.