Drawing People with Love

by | Aug 31, 2021 | 0 comments

  • Photo by Ian DeGraff
  • Photo by Ian DeGraff
  • Photo by Ian DeGraff

Love is audacious. Love is action. Love is not passive or blasé. Love is being brave in the face of criticism and judgement. Love is showing up. Love is standing up for the vulnerable. Love is empathy. Love is the foundation from which I build my art.

As a multi-disciplinary artist, all of my artwork fits under the umbrella of my personal mission to empower and celebrate community by changing the narrative to love, joy, and acceptance.

Being a transgender/nonbinary person, I am very familiar with the onslaught of attacks on our humanity, our morality, on our very existence. It’s an old and tired refrain from people who are fearful of us, and who turn that fear outward into anger and judgement.

Instead of reacting in argument to these attacks (fighting is a tool of white supremacy and patriarchal power systems to divide, distract, and conquer) my strategy is to flip the script. There’s a Buddhist saying that “holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” I try to not take on their anger, even though it is incredibly difficult at times, particularly this year, when right-wing fear-mongers have been directly targeting trans children. It does anger me greatly. But I choose to make art that combats this fear and anger through channeling my love of my community. 

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The message of “you are loved” came in direct response to these attacks by lawmakers who would try to criminalize and further ostracize trans children. I thought about what I wanted to say to those trans kids. If I could give them each a hug and tell them one thing, it would be this simple message. Now, countless others are carrying this message out even further into the world, with bumper stickers, yard signs and billboards across the nation. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that art is not powerful.

Art has always been there

Art has been the one thing in my life that has always been there for me and allowed me to express myself. I have been interested in and practicing art since I was a small child. My mother was a very talented artist and I was able to learn a lot from her before she died by suicide when I was just 11 years old. The rest of my childhood I spent in survival mode, living with my father and step-mother who subscribed to a rigidly restrictive Christian church. Art was always the one place where I could find and express my inner world.

Coming out

After being kicked out of my parents house during my senior year of high school, I discovered I was attracted to women and came out as a lesbian. I attended my freshman year of college and then dropped out due to getting an “F” in my first painting class. I just wasn’t ready to be in college and had too much to figure out at that time in my life. I went back to get my BFA when I was 25, graduating at 29 with a graphic design degree. At 32, I came out as transgender/nonbinary and began my medical transition. I stayed focused on my commercial art career and found a great deal of satisfaction through my work as a scientific illustrator at the University of Washington, working with an international cohort of epigenetic scientists. 

Diagnosis

Then, at the age of 35, my world was turned upside down. My wife and I were living in Portland, OR, saving up to buy a house when we found out I had cancer. Luckily, we caught it early and my prognosis was good. But this sudden look at an early death hit me hard. I had recently lost a dear childhood friend to cancer and had another friend who was losing her battle when I was diagnosed. Her memorial service fell on the same day as my surgery to remove the cancer from my body. Survivor’s guilt swelled up in my newly flat chest.

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Enduring a near-death experience often fundamentally shifts one’s perspective. I’m not alone in this. Facing imminent death made me realize the things that were important in my life. Namely, to prioritize my relationships, to tell people that I love them, to express and center gratitude in my daily routine, and to carve out space in my life for my own art.

10 minutes per day

I promised myself that I would spend at least 10 minutes per day making the art I wanted to make. I could spend the whole rest of the day making art that makes money. But for a minimum of 10 minutes per day, I would go into my studio and make art for ME. I made a commitment to treat my fine art with the same respect that I treat my day job. 

At first, I had no idea what to create. But I went into my studio every day and often that 10 minutes would turn into 30 minutes or even a couple of hours. Once I am in my studio, even if I’m tired and it’s the end of the day, because I am making art that I’m interested in, it generates energy instead of draining it from me. 

It’s surprising how fast a body of work can add up with a commitment to 10 minutes per day. After two years I found myself making art that I knew was different. I was onto something. I had found my thing. For me, my thing is making portraits of my community. 

Transpainter

I create larger-than-life paintings of transgender and nonbinary people because I love going to art museums and galleries. I love seeing giant artworks taking up bold space, and I see a huge lack of representation of my community in the fine art world. 

My goal as an artist is to help generate respect and understanding for the transgender and nonbinary community. I use my art to communicate our complexity, our humanity, our divinity, our sacred beauty.

Unique people, unique stories

Being transgender/nonbinary is not linear and not simple. How people experience and express being trans is incredibly nuanced and diverse. There are so many factors that play into this, including (but not limited to) age, race, class, location, access to health care, safe housing, education, support, etc. I want to celebrate our differences and help tell these complex and beautiful stories of resilience and self-acceptance. My portrait subjects are people who are living their lives out in the open, with integrity and courage. Each of these folks are telling their own unique stories in their own ways. They are poets and writers, musicians and teachers, activists and speakers, athletes and modern dancers, photographers, organizers, and artists—and they each have a story to tell.

Adversity feeds creativity

I believe that adversity and challenges directly inspire creativity. It is important to find and create happiness and peace in one’s life. But in my experience, the most compassionate and creative individuals I know have been through incredible hardships and challenges. Not every person who lives through challenging times becomes an artist or considers themself a creative. But nearly every truly inspired creative that I can think of has been through difficult things. To be creative is to understand and be comfortable with failure. One can’t be truly creative without trying and failing and trying again. The creative process itself is one of continual risk. It’s how we grow. It’s how we come up with new ideas. Failure is part of the process. And people who are comfortable with that have most often been through really hard things in their lives and know just how strong they are. They know that they can survive hard things. And they are willing to think and act differently in order to express themselves.

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I see myself reflected in every portrait I paint. I see the humanity, the beautiful and joyous self-expression of those in my community, and I celebrate that with every brush stroke. I think I had to go through a pretty radical shift with my battle with cancer to begin to love myself. And now that self-love is what allows me to love others. My view of the world is that it will be a better place as more people begin to love themselves.

Divine humanity

When I see people viewing my portraits, I watch them get drawn into the exquisite beauty and power of the subjects. My hope is that the viewer is able to witness the divine humanity of the trans/nonbinary person in the piece. I chose the title “transcend” for my first portrait series because I want to rise above the confusion and chaos perpetuated by people who are trapped in systems of fear—my art aims beyond binary systems.

I feel like most people have been shamed at different points in their lives for their gender expression. Cisgender people are not immune from this. It’s everywhere. Society has narrowed the “acceptable” behaviors into these two rigid extremes of hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine. When in reality, these expressions exist in all of us. Most cisgender people have been taught at early ages to conform and to not buck the system. To suppress any expression that might get them made fun of, laughed at, or beaten up.

What I mean when I say it’s okay to go beyond those gender lines is to encourage people to be able to freely express themselves. That will look, feel, and sound different for every individual. Allowing yourself to fully express the different aspects of YOU is a powerful and freeing experience. It is when we repress these things in ourselves that we often will turn and lash out at those who are expressing themselves freely.

Choose expression

To express or repress: those are really your options. And I choose expression every time. It is a much more full and enjoyable way to live, and I encourage cisgender people to explore their own self-expression, however that may look and feel to them.

I am one who believes in the artistic creativity of everyone. Again, many of us are criticized for our artistic expression at early ages and stop creating. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say, “Well, I’m not an artist.” I don’t buy it. All of us are creative. If you have been told that you’re not creative, and you hear those voices in your head when you think about taking up some creative project, give yourself permission to do it. Tell that voice that they are wrong. You are allowed to create just for creativity’s sake! You don’t have to show anyone your art, or let anyone hear you sing, or watch you dance—or whatever it is that your heart is yearning for or just plain curious about. You can do this, you can express yourself JUST FOR YOU.

I am endlessly curious about our varied experiences and expressions. I will use whatever methods are at my disposal—whether creating bumper stickers, protest banners, country-wide billboard projects, speaking, typography messages, or larger-than-life portraits—my goal is to draw people in with love. This is my call to action, my call to love. Go paint tonight. Go run a marathon. Go do whatever that thing is that heart yearns for.

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