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Artemis Singers: Deep roots in Chicago's lesbian community
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2017-09-06

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In June 1979, a group of lesbian-feminist women in Chicago came together to form Artemis Singers in order to find fellowship and share their musical talents with a wider audience.

The group, credited as the first U.S. lesbian-feminist chorus to label itself as lesbian, is set to begin its 38th season. Currently, the chorus has 35 members.

Artemis Singers is open to all women who want to be a part of a lesbian-feminist chorus and welcomes everyone regardless of their musical abilities. At the beginning of each season ( typically in September and February ) they accept new members into the group. Members can also join in a non-singing capacity as behind-the-scenes volunteers.

In addition to being a lesbian-feminist chorus, Artemis Singers members are politically motivated women who fight for progressive social-justice causes and work to elevate women's voices in the public sphere.

The chorus was the brainchild of Joel B. Carothers, whose desire to sing was awakened one day so she brought together 12 women in a church basement rehearsal space and from that gathering Artemis Singers was born. Four months later, in Octpber 1979, the chorus became affiliated with an umbrella organization for LGBT performing arts groups in Chicago—Toddlin' Town Performing Arts, Inc. [Carothers died in 2015.]

They were formally introduced in December 1980 at the second annual Chicago Gay and Lesbian Community Band and Windy City Gay Chorus concert, "Don We Now II." This was Artemis Singers' first concert performance.

Artemis Singers was invited to sing at the Lesbian and Gay Pride Week concert in June 1981 and marched in that year's Pride Parade for the first time. Since then they have participated in the parade numerous times.

"In the early years of Artemis, we always marched and sang in the Pride Parade," said long-time member Ruth Clark. "We even sang at the rally once or twice [there used to be a post-parade rally in Lincoln Park]. We were a proud and swaggering bunch of lesbians in our 20s and 30s, wearing our brightly colored t-shirts and requisite white pants."

They took their act on the road in July 1981 to the Midwest Women's Festival in the Ozarks where they performed with other women's choruses.

Soon after, they joined the Sister Singers Network—a cooperative of feminist choruses and ensembles, composers, arrangers and individual singers.

Since that time, Artemis Singers has performed at every Sister Singers Network National Women's Choral Festivals including the first National Women's Choral Festival in 1984. Not only did they perform at the festivals, Artemis Singers also hosted the third festival in 1986 at Lane Tech High School featuring choruses from Minneapolis, Kansas City, Lansing, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Madison and celebrated 30 years as a chorus by hosting the 10th festival, "Our Kind of Sound," in 2010 at Loyola University with many more choruses including those from far corners of the U.S.—Juneau, San Diego, Boston and Tampa.

"What an amazing experience for 21 of us Artemis members to host 23 choruses with 650 total attendees at the 2010 Sister Singers Network event here in Chicago," said current Artemis Singers Vice President Karen Mooney. "It was great to be able to see all the choruses support and inspire one another. There are some incredibly talented people in the world of women's music whose talents are often overlooked. Festivals like this allow us the privilege of hearing and supporting them in their creative work."

"Going to Champaign-Urbana for the 2014 Sister Singers gathering and staying at the University of Illinois for four days of singing, workshops and socializing with women chorus members from around the country was a great music immersion experience," said member Mary Rapp. "Concerts were scheduled each afternoon and evening to showcase different choruses. Two mass choruses were organized consisting of about 150 singers in each. We practiced songs with our assigned mass chorus and then gave performances on Saturday night. Singing with that many other women in a mass chorus was very powerful and thrilling."

In 1982, Artemis Singers received the Paul R. Goldman Award from the early LGBT group ONE of Chicago for outstanding contributions in the field of performing arts in Chicago. Additionally in 1982, Artemis Singers performed at the first gathering of gay and lesbian choruses in the United States ( they were the only lesbian chorus to perform ) at New York City's Lincoln Center, where they received a standing ovation before they even performed. From that event GALA Choruses, Inc. was born. GALA serves the LGBT choral movement in North America.

Artemis Singers' first solo concert was at the now-defunct Mountain Moving Coffeehouse for Womyn and Children music venue on a hot evening in July 1982. During Artemis Singers first 14 months they did 18 performances and grew to about 30 members. Each member was required to be on one of the many committees that met each month and at the time they had one paid director who decided what music the group would sing and the focus of each concert.

Over the past 30-plus years, Artemis Singers has performed at a variety of Chicago institutions including the Center on Halsted, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Chicago History Museum, Women and Children First Bookstore, the Harold Washington and Sulzer Regional Libraries, Kindred Hearts' Coffeehouse, the James R. Thompson Center, Columbia College, Old Town School of Folk Music and Block 37 Holiday Hub Chicago Loop Pedway among other locales.

Artemis Singers has also been invited to perform at DePaul University's Pride Week, the Field Museum for the Ibeji International Women's Festival, First Unitarian Church of Chicago's Winter WomanSpirit Conference, Palmer House Hilton for the Lesbian Gay Police Association/Gay Officers Action League—LGPA/GOAL, the Illinois State NOW Conference, Judy Chicago's Dinner Party Exhibit, Gerber/Hart Library's Gala Benefit, the Unsettling Feminism Conference at the University of Illinois at Chicago ( UIC ), the National Anthem for the Lady Flames game at UIC Pavilion, Rape Victims Advocates benefit performances, the National Women's Music Festival at Indiana University and Take Back the Night rallies.

The chorus has been involved in many fundraisers since its founding. They participated in the 1987 AIDS Foundation of Chicago fundraiser, "A Show of Concern: The Heart of America Responds," hosted by Angela Lansbury at the Chicago Theater.

"It was a great honor for Artemis to be a participant in the AIDS Foundation of Chicago fundraiser," said Clark. "All of the Chicago gay and lesbian choruses performed, and a very gracious Angela Lansbury was emcee. There were also performances by Oprah Winfrey and Peter Allen. Because there were so many singers, we were all staged in a building across the street and watched the show on closed-circuit TV until it was time for us to go on."

In 2003, they produced a concert to benefit the Lesbian Community Cancer Project where they performed Diane Benjamin's seven-movement oratorio about breast cancer, "Where I Live."

In 2005, Artemis Singers produced its first CD to celebrate the chorus' 25th anniversary and the following year they performed with other LGBT choruses at the 2006 Gay Games VII at Millennium Park's Jay Pritkzer Pavilion. On Dec. 13, 2008 Artemis Singers was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.

Artemis Singers began holding a dance with a live DJ after the group's annual Pride concert in June 2011 and has done so every year since. More recently, Artemis has performed at Lakeside Pride Music Ensemble's Women in Music celebration at the Preston Bradley Center in 2014 hosted by Orange is the New Black star Lea DeLaria. They also sang at the Oct. 22, 2013 March on Springfield for Marriage Equality rally and the Nov. 21, 2013 Illinois Marriage Equality Bill signing ceremony at UIC Forum.

"It was truly an awe-inspiring experience to be there at the Illinois Marriage Equality Bill signing ceremony," said long-time member Laurie Lee Moses. "We stood right next to Abraham Lincoln's desk, where Gov. Pat Quinn later signed with many pens, and looked out onto a huge celebratory gathering of politicians, media and community as we sang. I do not think I have ever been in a room with so many powerful and influential people seriously supporting my rights as a lesbian. It was all the more moving for me and my partner, as our daughter was also there to witness this bill being signed into law. Now her moms could get married like everybody else."

In recent years Artemis Singers has developed a relationship with Affinity Community Services.

"Artemis is interested in increasing the diversity of our membership to better reflect the lesbian-feminist community in Chicago," said long-time member Diana Clegg. "We felt that it was important for us to be performing in communities of color and find ways to actively engage with other lesbians of color. Our first step was to start performing on the South Side at least once a year. In June of 2015, we held our 'Proud to Be Me' concert at Beverly Unitarian Church and donated the proceeds to Affinity Community Services in honor of its 20th anniversary. In 2016 ( 'Voices of Joyful Rebellion' ) and 2017 ( 'Family of Friends' ), we built on that relationship with Affinity by co-hosting our Pride concerts with them. These events were held at First Unitarian Church of Chicago in Hyde Park with a DJ provided by Affinity for the post-concert dances."

"Artemis Singers has been a long-time and wonderful community partner to Affinity," said Affinity Community Services Executive Director Imani Rupert-Gordon. "Not only have they donated the proceeds of their events to Affinity for several years, but they have intentionally hosted performances on the South Side, making them accessible to the Affinity constituency. They are a wonderful organization, and we have been happy to partner with them."

This past January, Artemis Singers drew audiences from many locales for two performances of their original musical, "Wanting the Music," celebrating the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival at the Irish American Heritage Center.

"Participating in the original Artemis musical was an artistic high I had never expected to reach," said member Allison Downing. "It was a labor of love and a smashing success. Everyone involved from the chorus was a volunteer and we covered all aspects of producing a musical, from the creation of an original book with original music to stage direction, set design, costumes and professional makeup. There were 500 people in attendance over two nights, from 17 states and Canada, many of whom had attended the yearly week-long Michigan Womyn's Music Festival many times during its 40-year existence. At one point in the show, the chorus sang 'Amazon womyn gonna rise again!' accompanied by a jamming instrumental team. What happened then cannot be printed except to say it involved dancing. To find out more you will just have to ask us personally."

They have also performed at the Ethical Humanist Society in Skokie and Broadway United Methodist Church many times over the years; at memorial services for Kay Gardner, Joy Rosenblatt and long-time Artemis member Michaeline Chvatal as well as many commitment ceremonies and weddings.

Artemis Singers is a self-directed chorus and only performs music that is written or arranged by women composers, arrangers and lyricists. Since the early 1990s, they have had no paid director and operate in an organic non-hierarchical way. As a 501( c )( 3 ) organization, Artemis Singers is required to have a president ( Meta Hellman ), vice-president ( Mooney ), secretary ( Tina Beacock ), treasurer ( Loraine Edwalds ) and several directors at large. The group holds monthly business meetings and quarterly board meetings, both of which are open to all members.

They make all of their major operating decisions via a consensus model. Every member may participate in selecting the music the chorus sings at each concert and every season includes two main performances. Any member of the chorus can become a music director and all concerts have multiple music directors. Music directors are responsible for their pieces including visioning and teaching the others during rehearsals.

Each concert has one or two artistic directors who drive the entire performance, including shaping the music selected by the members and making the final decisions on what pieces will be used that best fit the artistic vision of the concert. The artistic directors also seek out smaller groups within the chorus to perform certain pieces. They also oversee set design and venue decoration; select song order, concert attire and narration choices; secure guest performers and the emcee; approve the artwork and thematic wording for all printed materials; and work with the music librarian to secure the sheet music for the rehearsals.

Production managers are in charge of all logistical aspects of the performance including securing a venue, creating the budget with the treasurer, identifying any technical needs, working with the volunteer coordinator to ensure enough volunteers are available and with the director of public relations and marketing lead on the marketing plan.

As for the future of Artemis Singers, Hellman said she hopes it will continue to grow and thrive for many years to come.

"I want others to experience the joy and love, and even the challenges, that I have found," said Hellman. "If we are to continue, I believe we have to be flexible and open. Lesbians are not the persecuted minority they once were, and, while that is wonderful, it also presents its own challenges. It is no longer enough to be a lesbian organization. I want young women, women of color and women with disabilities to join us so we can more closely showcase the diversity of Chicago within our ranks.

"We are in the process of preparing for our next concert, which will be in January of next year entitled 'Rise Up!.' Artemis is also very concerned about the current political climate. We hope this concert will present many songs that inspire all of us to get busy making a better world."

The group's new member night is Thursday, Sept. 7 at 7: p.m. Send membership queries to info@artemissingers.org . No audition is required.

To purchase the CD visit artemissingers.org/order-cds/ .

See www.artemissingers.org, www.facebook.com/ArtemisSingers and twitter.com/artemissingers for more information .

Related article at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Artemis-Singers-members-reflect-on-their-many-years-with-the-chorus/60289.html


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