“What inspires you?” Is a question I’m often asked, and I never seem to have the quick response that some people are looking for. It’s more complicated than saying “rainbows inspire me” or “queer people inspire me”. Those things may be true, but they come out sounding shallow and silly in comparison to what has actually inspired my art over time.
I started painting heavily around age 12. I’ve been “arting” for as long as I can remember, but I began painting seriously around age 12. I started with tropical themes, because I loved the beach and sunsets so so much. The colors of the sunsets, tropical flowers, lava, and the ocean are all vibrant and bright, so that’s the palette I used (and it stuck!). They were true to my subject, and besides, those colors made me happy, so why not? I used vacation photos and pictures from Hawaii calendars for images to work from. This was my main body of work from middle school and into high school.
The tropical theme was great and I've revisited it over the years, but I wanted to paint people. Not just any people, though. I wanted to depict the people that I wanted to depict (crazy for a teenager, right?!). I wasn’t very good at it, but that didn’t matter. The idea of painting certain people made me come alive. Let’s come back to this.
In my early high school drawing classes we didn’t draw the human form…it was mostly still-life’s and horses…ugh the horses. I learned to draw a horse skeleton before I had any formal training on drawing the human form (which I largely taught myself over time). At home I drew women. Many, many women. Women in dresses. Dresses with fringe and feathers. And those hats! Great Judy Garland did I love to design women’s clothing! I drew other things of course. Floor plans and renderings for houses, hotels, restaurants, entire islands…I loved to design EVERYTHING. I taught myself to draw many things, but painting…painting is different. It’s not only an advanced skill level but painting on canvas just felt more permanent. Something I’d have to show off. A canvas painting is too big to tuck away, I can’t just toss it in a sketchbook.
Back to people…there’s something about painting a person that inherently tells a story. It says a lot about the artist, as well as the subject. Ok, fashion…I loved that, but I also wanted to portray something more. Something more passionate, more raw, more (let’s face it, I was a teenager) sexual. I wanted to paint gay people. I didn’t know exactly how I would go about it at that point, but I wanted to. What’s something adjacent? Hmm, passionate, raw, sexual, AND something I can have out on a canvas for everyone to see... Ah yes. Marilyn Monroe. Classic. Not the skirt-blowing scene from “Seven Year Itch”, but shiny gold dress Marilyn (I did pencil drawings of her in many outfits but that shimmery gold dress was the winner).
It was during these painting exercises when I began to realize why gay people loved Marilyn, and Lucy, and Judy, and Liza, and Princess Diana, and all the divas so much. The stories they exuded through their iconic imagery alone was enough for me at the time. Their real stories were attractive too. They drew me in, so I drew them. Princess Di could be seen in situations from high fashion pageantry to physically embracing people dying of AIDS. That meant a lot. Both of those things. The imagery. All of it. And besides, I kinda had a crush on Prince William. I looked up to Lucy. She was an enormous talent, funny yet fashionable...amazing. I wanted to be like her but my own version. I didn't know of many publicly gay people at that time. Few queer celebrities for me to look up to, to paint, to model myself after. I did love Christine Jorgensen, as I had seen "The Christine Jorgensen Story" from 1970 several times. Her image made it to the idea board in my room, but I never portrayed her in art. Transgender is still under the rainbow umbrella, and I just wasn't ready to paint anything under that umbrella, as much as I wanted to.
I wanted my own brand of realness. If I couldn’t have it for real at that age and stage of my life, then I would paint it. So, I edged closer. I created a small 8 inch by 10 inch painting of two people headed in for a kiss…two men…silhouettes in the night. Surely no one would guess that they were two men, right? I mean, they are just silhouettes. The thing is, while I had an abundance of passion and drive, I was sorely lacking courage (I once rocked a Cowardly Lion costume...no acting needed!). After I took a good mental picture of the two men, I painted over one of them to make him look more feminine. There. It still has the meaning behind it for me, but no one will ever know. I didn't even sign this travesty of pride expression...I've always signed my pieces, even the ones I thought weren't great. Not this one.
Eventually we painted people in a high school painting class…a self-portrait. Great. Do I paint in the acne that is all over my face, or nah? I chose nah. I preferred the abstract Peter. I painted a version of myself with wild, super tall hair in red and blue color scheme. Abstract was better. Abstract allowed for the imagination to go wherever the visual journey takes it. My next foray into painting art including gay people was my “People of Color” series. You see, these were literally people of different colors…red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. They had triangle heads, and the whole idea was that they could be representing people who were black, white, brown, etc., but most importantly for me at the time, they could be any gender. I played with the masculinity/femininity of each character and would laugh to myself when people would refer to a specific person as a “man” or a “woman” when I had a different thought in mind while painting. They weren’t necessarily wrong…they just had a different vision of the character, than I did. In this way, I’ve learned a lot about people’s backgrounds and worldviews from exhibiting my artwork over the past 21 years. What one sees in a painting says as much about them as it does the piece they are looking at (I don’t judge though-I promise!).
Eventually I got me some courage. It took a while. I tiptoed into LGBTQ art with rainbows and other subtle imagery, but no longer. In the last 25 years since I began painting heavily, I’ve been passionate about beaches, and fashion, and architecture, and nature…it just makes sense that who I am, who my friends are, who my allies are, who my family is, would eventually find a way off of my inspiration board and onto canvases, and walls, and computer screens for everyone to see.
About 8 years ago I started volunteering for Youth Outlook, a local northern Illinois LGBTQ youth group. My teenage self had attended this group around the time I was painting beaches and figuring out how to paint two people who are gay, but only to a gay eye. I see the youth once a week, as a leader for one of our local drop-in sites. I created my Pride series because of them…because we tell them every week that they can be their authentic selves. In turn, they are a reminder for me to practice what I preach.
I haven’t changed all that much in the past 25 years…I’m still inspired by several items from the life buffet. I’ve always had a high art drive, and while I’ve honed my skills, and my knowledge and experience have expanded, on the inside I’m still inspired by many of the things I was as a teen. The difference as an adult is that I’ve fully embraced my community, which has helped to give me the courage to create authentically in a way I never could have before.
No one has time for this answer to the inspiration question at an art exhibit. For me, the answer is less of an individual flame and more of a smoldering ember that sparks my fire along the road. That takes time to explain authentically.
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As an acrylic painter, I use my soft bristle brushes to tell a story of love and pride in vivid, contrasting colors and strong whimsical line work. I portray a love for life and the magnificent creations this world has to offer, and love of the diverse array of people that occupy our spaces and the relationships they enter into. In my work I celebrate pride in the communities we come from and live in, and pride in ourselves, embracing who we are in bold fashion.