Metro Weekly

“Portraits” is a Grand Creation Years in the Making

The Gay Men's Chorus of Washington's season-closing concert, "Portraits," is the group's most thrilling and ambitious project yet.

Nicole Wandera’s “Strange Fruit”

Sometimes, art simply happens. Whistling a novel tune, doodling a flower, or jotting a cute haiku, for example. Portraits, a new production from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington debuting at the Kennedy Center on June 16, is not that. It is so absolutely not that.

Portraits is a grand creation years in the making. How many? By one count, four, going back to 2020 when longtime GMCW singing member Bill Lipsett brought an idea, along with funding, to the chorus. By another count, Portraits has been slowly jelling for closer to 14 years.

“The idea had been floating in my head for years,” says Lipsett, recalling his visit to the 2010 installation of “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The exhibit explored an intersection of the LGBTQ experience and portraiture, featuring Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keefe, and many other artists. “I was really taken by this exhibit. I was blown away by it. I thought it was such a great idea, and wouldn’t it be great if we, the chorus, put choral music with some of these paintings?”

That idea essentially sat in Lipsett’s mind for nearly a decade. Not growing, but not dying, either. Just waiting. It finally evolved to its next stage in 2019, thanks to another intersection: Lipsett’s retirement and a gift of some family money. He found himself with spare time to craft a proposal for the chorus, along with the means to help fund it. By early 2020, Lipsett brought his strong seedling to the chorus, primarily Dr. Thea Kano, their artistic director. She became the seedling’s new gardener.

Thanks to her education and years of experience in the arts, Kano weighed practical considerations alongside her very ambitious vision for just how fruitful this idea might be made real.

“After talking with Bill and our production team and artistic staff, noodling on the idea, we came up with the Portraits project,” Kano says. “The idea of pulling together an exhibition of art that represents the spectrum of human identity, expression, orientation…. That’s a very tall order, obviously.”

It’s a particularly tall order when that exhibition is composed of nine portraits, each of which is accompanied by a new choral music composition, and choreography. In all, the chorus reports receiving more than 500 portraiture submissions in 2021 from 25 countries.

Next, in 2022, the call for musical scores returned dozens of compositions. That this occurred amid an unforeseen global pandemic may have even been a mixed blessing, allowing everyone extra time and isolation to focus on the monumental task of building Portraits. Come 2023, it was time to approach choreographers.

Whether the metaphor is a growing plant, a piece of complicated machinery, or a grand journey, Portraits is a huge undertaking, involving all of the GMCW, nine visual artists, choreographers and composers, as well as dancers from the chorus’ 17th Street Dance ensemble.

Nicole Wandera is an integral member of this village. Her painting, “Strange Fruit,” is among the nine chosen to launch Portraits. Originally from Nairobi, Kenya, a communication arts graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, and now a Fairfax, Va., resident, Wandera says her piece speaks to mental health in the Black community, particularly regarding struggles faced by Black men searching for safe spaces.

“My experience with homophobia comes from toxic masculinity, and toxic masculinity is derived from mental health struggles, like not feeling good enough,” says Wandera when discussing “Strange Fruit,” the model for which was her late husband. “I think that can be generalized, not just for Black men and women, but for members of the LGBTQ community. Especially, Black members of the LGBTQ community have the intersectionality of racism and homophobia. I thought this would be a good way to connect all those together in one painting.”

Wandera adds that she is particularly eager to see her portrait, already stunningly vibrant in gold and blue and orange, gain new depth through Portraits.

“I’m especially excited to see the aspect of synesthesia,” she says, referring to a sense of multiple sensations, such as music conjuring a color, or visual art evoking a physical movement. “I’ve never seen somebody bring a painting to life, to incorporate music… I can’t wait to see everything! To see how different people from different backgrounds have come together to create something beautiful is a positive mark for art and culture. It enriches our idea of what culture is when we have different viewpoints.”

Kano has certainly strived to bring that diversity to Portraits. And while this Kennedy Center performance is a one-night-only engagement, it will hardly be the end of the project, which will be featured in July at the GALA Choruses Festival in Minneapolis. From there, it will continue to grow.

“We’re calling this the first installation, if you will,” Kano says. “It’s evergreen. We really hope to continue to bring artists into the fold, continue to give an opportunity for artists to have a voice, particularly Trans and nonbinary, BIPOC artists who haven’t otherwise had a chance before. We’ll continue adding on these pieces to it in the name of the Portraits project.”

As for Lipsett, Portraits will live on as a kind of legacy.

“My blood relatives are pretty much gone now,” he says of what he will someday leave behind. “Sometimes I’m over the moon about this. Like, wow, I can’t believe this has become such a big thing. And it just keeps getting bigger and bigger! I’m glad I spoke up.”

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington premieres Portraits on Sunday, June 16, at 5 p.m., at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets are $25 to $80. Call 202-467-4600 or visit or

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!