The Provocateur: 20 Years Ago, Priest-Turned-Photographer Jan Lynch Documented Life in Knoxville’s Gay Communities

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Ed. Note: Ed White was a friend and collaborator with—and is now the official biographer for—Knoxville photographer, activist, priest, and provocateur Jan Lynch. 

On March 25, 1969, 17-year-old Jan Lynch wrote in his diary, “I have sent off to obtain a 1st class relic of St. Anne, Our Lady’s Mother. I hope I get it soon. The donation was $50.00 – WOW! I won’t need to go to Europe – I’ll have enough of a shrine in my room to have them coming here!!?!”

Jan did eventually get to Europe, many times. The first trip was the same year he made that diary entry, an ecstatic pilgrimage to Fatima, Lourdes, and other holy sites. He even got to meet Conchita de Garabandal, who only a few years before had claimed to have seen apparitions of Mary and to have received divine messages.

“Jan was always far more into Mary apparitions than I was,” says David Perkin, who was Jan’s best friend during those years. They met as young, earnest parishioners at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in downtown Knoxville. “In those early days he was quite traditional and conservative. I remember often chalking it up to his being a ‘recent’ or ‘new’ Catholic.” Jan had only converted a couple of years before then, but he converted hard and fast.

Jan ended up spending most of the next decade in Europe, at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas, a Vatican school in Rome. He was ordained in the Ruthenian Rite of the Catholic Church, a Byzantine rite that is rooted in the Carpathian region of Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine. He traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East in those and later years. He made one last pilgrimage to Fatima in the final year of his life.

Perkin spent some time at school in Rome, too, but he mostly followed a separate path to the Roman Catholic priesthood. He gradually lost touch with Jan. He is now the Vicar General in the Nashville diocese.

I was a friend of Jan in his later years, and helped clean up his rooms after he died in 1996. Relics seemed to spill out of every nook and cranny. We made a big pile of these little packets in plastic sleeves, with curious lumps in the middle of them. Relics from Saint Anne, Pius X, Catherine Laboure, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Bernadette, Alphonsus, Matthias, Francis, and on and on and on. We even found what was purported to be a piece of the cross Christ was crucified on.

Someone joked that we could spread all the relics out on the floor and probably assemble one whole saint. For all that, we could even give him a woody.

As irreverent as it sounds, Jan would have liked that joke.

Jan Lynch was no ordinary priest. If being a Byzantine Catholic from Knoxville wasn’t incongruous enough, Jan was also a gay photographer who liked to “rattle the cages” in his later years, and was often called Knoxville’s version of Robert Mapplethorpe.

When we found those relics, we were performing a ritual often done after the untimely death of a gay friend, at least in those days: cleaning their rooms to help their parents avoid uncomfortable surprises. Besides organizing his effects, we were looking to intercept personal items, you might say—such as erotica.

In Jan’s case, the erotica we were sifting through was mostly of his own making. His photographs were everywhere, piles and boxes of them, evidence of a life interrupted. But it wasn’t all erotica, by any stretch of the imagination. His work included portraits, floral studies, drag queens, architecture, celebrities, gay rights marches, politicians, statuary, and street scenes—all interspersed with those glorious nudes that made him famous.

Now, 20 years after his death from AIDS, a new retrospective of his work provides a perfect opportunity for Knoxville to reassess his life and his career as an artist. Both are woven deeply into our local community and its history. They’re largely forgotten today, but both deserve wider recognition.

cover_1006_janlynch1977Courtesy Ed White

Early Exile
Jan was born in Petersburg, Va., in 1951, during his parent’s years managing Milner Hotels. But the family had deep roots in Knoxville and East Tennessee. His ancestors included the Truans and a range of other Swiss immigrants who first came to East Tennessee in the 1840s and whose family names graced such establishments as Lynch’s Restaurant downtown and Tallman’s Produce in Fort Sanders from the 1940s through 1960s.

Jan always had a strong sense of himself as a Knoxvillian. No matter where life took him, he always returned here. After his studies in Rome, he was ordained priest in the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Toronto. He served parishes there and in Windsor from 1977 through 1979 before returning once again to Knoxville.

The circumstances of that return were dramatic and devastating. Jan was assigned to a parish that had not had a steady priest in some time and was not used to being led. In Jan’s opinion, that church had drifted too far towards Roman Catholicism, and needed a firm hand to bring it back to its Ruthenian roots.

In one of his first acts, he summarily ordered the statuary to be thrown out to the curb. (Eastern Rite Catholic traditions generally saw such depictions as approaching idolatry.) After further feuds with the lay council, things came to a head in early 1979: Without warning, Jan excommunicated the ringleaders during mass. Jan said it started a riot in the pews. Someone called the police, and Jan went into hiding for several weeks.

Jan appealed to his bishop, Isidore Borecky, to resolve the situation, but he grew frustrated waiting. Finally, he was granted an indefinite leave of absence to return to Knoxville. Here, he said, he “plotted and preened like any queen in exile.”

It was during this time that Jan first began exploring life as a gay man. I often imagine that, with his faith so dramatically tested, he simply let go of a lot of church doctrine. When I knew him, though, he always strongly denied there was ever any conflict. I remain incredulous, but he insisted he had simply been too busy, and it had not been a priority to express himself as a gay man until well into his 20s.

“There is no answer,” says Julia Tucker, one of Jan’s close friends. “I think there may be a battle with Jan that we don’t know about. But if it’s possible, he was true to both sides.”

Throughout most of the ’80s, Jan remained an active priest. He also became an integral part of Knoxville’s gay community. He mostly served as a supply priest—analogous to a substitute teacher—throughout Tennessee and several other states. He even tried to found a Ukrainian parish here in Knoxville.

As AIDS took its increasing toll throughout the ’80s, it began to radicalize the gay community nationwide, including here in Knoxville. Technically, Jan remained a priest in good standing right up to the end of his life. But as his active priesthood wound down in the late 1980s, his role as a gay activist and artist blossomed.

AIDS Walk on Volunteer Boulevard on Dec. 6, 1993Jan Lynch

AIDS Walk on Volunteer Boulevard on Dec. 6, 1993

A Knoxville Canvas
Jan admitted that he could have helped his career as an artist by moving to a major hub like New York or Los Angeles. But he drew his strength and inspiration from his Knoxville and East Tennessee roots.

“This is my canvas,” he once said. “This is very much my beat, as it were.”

He got his first camera in his early teens. Many of his earliest photographs, from long before he had any pretensions as an artist, are startlingly good. He developed a keen eye for portraiture and street photography almost by instinct.

“One of my prized possessions, currently hanging on my sitting room wall, is a black-and-white close-up profile head shot of me,” Perkin says. It was taken in the late ’60s, after he and Jan had been swimming in the Little River beside the Lynch family cabin they called Tanglewood, in Kinzel Springs. “I have always prized it because there is something quite artistic about it which I can’t explain. … Is it due to the shadows? Being slightly out of focus? I don’t know. … But I do know it is special.”

When Jan returned to Knoxville, he taught himself darkroom techniques and began entering contests. He won awards at the Tennessee Valley Fair in 1983, ’85, and ’87, and at Gatlinburg’s Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in 1985.

He began exhibiting regularly at Lawson McGhee Library in the late ’80s, then at the Candy Factory, the Art-O-Mat, and Key Antiques in the Old City.

Beyond its artistic merit, his work is also a record of the local gay community at a pivotal time. He documented it all: informal birthday parties, meetings of the Appalachian Bear Club, gay rights protests and celebrations, AIDS fundraisers, backstage shenanigans with local drag queens.

Sometimes he would arrive quietly, working diligently at the fringes. But usually his bright personality announced itself in no uncertain terms.

One of his models, who goes by the initials B.V. in Jan’s work, says, “Oh, he never had any shyness, anytime, anywhere.” B.V. recalls times Jan appeared at awkward moments in public, effusing loudly: “Why, hello there, you gorgeous man! I’d like to just tear all your clothes off and ravish you right here!”

Jan often forced anyone around him to be out as well, just by his presence.

“Yeah, he was out, and in a big way,” B.V. says. “But you know, that was who he was, and how he was, and you had to love him.”

Jan was aware of his outsized personality. “Oh, I like being me. I do,” he told me during an interview in 1992. “I can be silly and flighty and off the wall and rude and bolder and—” He trailed off, laughing. “Sometimes I like to startle people on purpose. And sometimes I do it without even meaning to. And other times I could just slap everybody around because they don’t have enough compassion in their bones for a certain event or set of circumstances. I can be read. I’m a book. I’m just so—there I am.”

His ability to jolt people out of complacency and connect with them was part of what made him as a photographer. He collected personalities—clothed and unclothed—with his camera, as obsessively as he once collected holy relics. And with the same reverence.

For every image he collected, he gave back in good measure. Local publications like the Brass CheckPerspectivesAwareTennessee GreenQuery, and even Metro Pulse were given free use of his work. He also worked with nonprofits like the Hope Center, aRK, and Positively Living, groups that used his name and images in fundraising campaigns and auctions. His prints and postcards were almost like trading cards in the gay community. It seemed everyone had at least one or two; usually they were gifts from Jan. People frequently passed them on to friends who admired them.

“He was a character. He was so much fun,” recalls local drag queen Angel Collins. “All of the guys wanted to be photographed by Jan. You were nobody until you’re asked to be photographed by Jan.”

cover_1006_jl9Jan Lynch

Out in the ’80s
For all of the ferocious fun that swirled around Jan, the gay experience in Knoxville was far different from what it is today. The exuberance was a radical tonic in the face of a threatening world.

“The Orlando shooting was real emotional for me, because I’d forgotten how guarded we were,” Collins says. Collins has been a performer in Knoxville’s gay bars since the early 1980s. She is a chameleon who could morph from broad campy drag to Marilyn Monroe. One of Jan’s famous shots depicts a sassy, glamorous Angel in full drag at a urinal, her head thrown back, lips parted, looking at the camera from behind her sunglasses.

Collins remembers the Carousel bar, at the edge of the University of Tennessee campus, as a frequent target of harassment.

“Somebody threw a tear gas [canister] through the front door, so instantly the room was filled with smoke, and everyone was trying to get out,” she says. “You know, you never dream of that happening today. You know it could—but just people driving there nightly down the street calling names, throwing stuff. That was a nightly thing back then.”

Jan celebrated local drag personalities regularly in his work. “I regard them all as quite precious people,” he said. He was especially struck by their courage during one of the first Knoxville Pride parades in 1991, when militant white supremacist Ken Gregg staged a menacing protest with his followers. Some of Gregg’s followers wore head-to-toe surgical gear and tried to intimidate participants by videotaping them. Jan, of course, captured them all on film as well, and he exhibited them often.

“I was very, very proud of [drag queens] Brandi and Silva Lame and the others, who were very visible in that parade, because even though nothing untoward happened, we did not know if something would happen,” Jan said. “There were threats and they were to be taken seriously. And so when anyone sets themselves up as such an obvious symbol and target, and still stuck by their guns—I was very proud of them. You or I or just about anybody else could’ve disappeared into the crowd and be lost. But not them.”

It’s also important to understand just how inextricably gay activism and AIDS activism were bound at that time. They were virtually indistinguishable. If the Stonewall generation had been fighting for pride and dignity, those of the AIDS generation were fighting for their lives.

In the late 1980s, Julia Tucker established one of the first local apartments dedicated to housing PWA’s (People With AIDS): the Graham Apartments on Magnolia Avenue. Jan helped with fundraising using his photography. He helped the Appalachian Bear Club collect basic toiletries and cooking supplies for the residents, and took people to the hospital and doctor’s offices. “He showed up. He was not just talk,” Tucker says.

“At the time, people were being treated terribly. Their families were throwing them out of the house. And there were some of them living in the basement and what we used to call coal chutes, where they kept coal, that they wouldn’t let them come upstairs, some things like that. [Jan and the Bears] were so much help to me. I felt so alone doing that, because people thought I was crazy, and there was just no help for those people back then. [They] absolutely came to our rescue with things that mattered.”

All of these people can be seen throughout Jan’s work.

In 1995, when Jan first became ill from AIDS and nearly died of pneumonia, some of the Bears dropped by his house for a visit. They found him staggering around his room in a daze, mumbling incoherently. When he finally noticed them, all he could say was, “Don’t tell Julia! Don’t tell Julia!”

Which is, of course, exactly what they had to do.

cover_1006_jl5Jan Lynch

Julia Tucker and the Appalachian Bear Club

Naked in Knoxville
Like Imogen Cunningham, the photographer he called his primary influence, Jan photographed “everything that could be exposed to light.” His work was both byzantine and catholic, not to mention exuberantly gay. You could spread everything out and assemble a picture of Jan’s life, in a way, or at least his vision of it.

“I certainly do have a view, vision of the world, which I am trying to convey,” Jan explained to Norris Dryer in 1993 on a WUOT call-in program radio. Sometimes, Jan explained, he just liked to show something for its own sake. “And then other things, I’m trying to convey a story, trying to perhaps subtly tell you something about yourself or about the world, or about the circumstances of yourself in the world. … If I can add some dignity to that, then I feel that I have accomplished something. … I think there’s a great many more things in life than just what most people suspect.”

Also like Cunningham, and many of the street photographers his work echoes, Jan worked simply. “I don’t like any bells and whistles on my cameras,” Jan said. He preferred to keep his process intuitive. “I’m very lazy,” he said. “I like to take the easy way out, which is just to set it and go do it. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time I hit the shutter button.”

Jan’s pared-down approach was part of his overall aesthetic. Local author and photographer Reed Massengill, in an article about Jan for A&U Magazine, wrote, “Jan’s approach was to strip away any artifice and expose something true—sometimes brutally truthful—about the model or subject matter he was photographing.”

This stripping down was literal in many ways beyond the obvious. His earliest nudes, for instance, were done in makeshift studio settings, but often with the studio trappings themselves exposed—the light stands and the room beyond the simple sheet backdrop are part of the shot. One of his signatures was to leave a model’s clothes in the shot: pants down around the ankles, or visible in a pile off to the side, like a shed skin.

Many outdoor public settings are recognizable in his photos, heightening the tension. Tom Black Track and the UT Aquatic Center were frequent backdrops. So was the University Center parking garage. The Cumberland Avenue Strip, downtown, and Old City appear, too, as do various graveyards, rail yards, and Tyson Park. Some shots are planned, but people were known to impulsively drop their pants for Jan’s camera in the unlikeliest places.

It was easier to accomplish than you might imagine. Jan often chose the golden hour, just after sunrise, when the light was best and few people were about, or UT home football games, when the stadium fills up and the rest of campus is deserted.

All of these evocative touches make his shots more than simply nudes. They are bold statements about ordinary people baring themselves to the world, stripped down to their essential selves by Jan. They weren’t all gay, but they all were coming out in a way.

Jan titled his last exhibit before he died Naikkid in Knoxville. He chose the photographs for the show in his final months, from his hospital bed. The show opened to glowing reviews at Key Antiques in the Old City. As with most of his exhibits, the nudes were only a modest part of an extraordinary range of images. But as the show’s title made clear, everything on display was laid bare by Jan’s gaze, presented for our consideration.

cover_1006_janlynch_fatelvis1996Jan Lynch

Even as he lay in a bed at Fort Sanders Hospital, slowly dying, portraits of his great aunt Maude and of Knoxville drag queen Champale Denise were being seen in Danish newspapers in connection with Europride celebrations. The Tom of Finland Foundation, in Los Angeles, published a newsletter with a celebration about Jan near the end of his life, too, with the title “Dying in a Public Place.”

That was all 20 years ago. After his death, Jan’s photographic archives fell into a kind of limbo from which they have still not surfaced, uncataloged and largely unseen since then. There is no money or expertise to deal with his estate. It will take an enormous amount of care to find a proper lasting home for it all.

The situation is not likely to improve if Jan is forgotten. In hopes of resurrecting Jan, as it were, I brought some of his work to Broadway Studios and Gallery last winter, and proposed a retrospective. The show will open on Friday, Oct. 7, and run through Oct. 29.

It didn’t take much more than a glance at his photos to convince the gallery organizers to stage an exhibit. Jan’s work, like his life, is extraordinary. For some, this will be a homecoming, a chance to celebrate their memories of Jan and the local events and people he documented. For others, it is a chance to learn things they never knew and to see what all the fuss was about.

But it’s hard to imagine that something good won’t come from it all one day. It’s all that Jan wanted, and it’s exactly what the world needs and deserves.

Jan Lynch: A Retrospective will be on display at Broadway Studios and Gallery Oct. 7-29. An opening reception will be held on Friday, Oct. 7, from 5-10 p.m. 

cover_1006_sistermissionarypdelightJan Lynch

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