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Toy soldiers of fortune

In the multicolored pop-art assemblages of sculptor Ed Stevens, themes of gay acceptance, sexuality and private turmoil take the form of plastic Army soldiers from his childhood. Hand-painted in the colors of the rainbow, dozens of the miniature figurines in the Fort Lauderdale artist's "Ask, Tell!" exhibit are glued to shadowboxes and canvasses, and positioned single-file around a rainbow globe. Another company of the gun-toting toys stands in columns on a vinyl LP in "March!" which is connected to an MP3 player.

During a recent afternoon at his home, Stevens pressed "play" on the device, which is loaded with patriotic songs recorded by the Boston Pops Orchestra, including "Seventy-Six Trombones" and "The Stars and Stripes Forever," a nod to the Boston native's hometown. Every toy soldier is a tribute to the repeal of the controversial military policy "Don't Ask Don't Tell," but if it seems that Stevens' pieces are taking on a subject of national significance, he says these works are also quite personal.

"It's funny how all my personal memories subconsciously feed into my artworks, and that I can't seem to really initiate it or control it," says Stevens, whose exhibit will debut May 2 at Tedds Art Works in Wilton Manors. "It started as a celebration of our big achievement in the military, even though we have a ways to go before we're fully integrated. But then, I started remembering myself as a kid, digging foxholes and playing Army, or going to [Boston's Charles River] Esplanade to hear the Pops do the '1812 Overture.'"

Sales of the 13 works in the gallery, opened in early February by owner Tedd Davis, will benefit the Florida Gold Coast chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights, a Fort Lauderdale-based LGBT advocacy group. They were all created within the past year, begun after what he calls an "unfulfilling" decade spent in Tampa as a playwright, theater director and set designer for musicals such as "Auntie Mame." To create the canvas work "Ask, Tell! #2," Stevens glued his plastic soldiers onto a backdrop of comic-book cutouts of superheroes from "Blackhawk" and "Our Fighting Forces."

"I loved reading war comics when I was growing up," he says. "I hate to generalize, but I think gay men tend to idolize strong male figures, and comics created the fantasy through which I channeled my self-esteem. I wanted to be Superman."

Accompanying his "Ask, Tell!" series are several unrelated sculptures, including "Museum: All Fathers Love Their Gay Sons at Some Point," which contains personal artifacts inside a beaten-up toolbox. The interior is collaged with text and pictures of his father, a leather craftsman who used to beat Stevens with a leather whip. A replica of the whip appears in the toolbox, alongside a cribbage game board and a 20-second video of an infant Stevens playing with his smiling dad in a swimming pool.

"At some point, we had a close relationship, and I think the video is proof," Stevens says. "All of the physical objects I work with have a certain emotional magic."

Ask, Tell!

When: May 3-29

Where: Tedds Art Works, 2422 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors

Cost: Free

Contact: 703-269-8244 or "like" Tedds Art Works on Facebook

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