RSA: New Contemporaries 2017, Interview

What was your creative process in beginning and developing this collection?

“Depicting friends from the LGBTQ+ community is something that has naturally come into focus for me over a few years, before developing into the collection Pink is for Boys (2017), which showed at this year’s RSA: New Contemporaries. It started with a friend whose journey I observed to becoming a transgender woman, she has always inspired me on an emotional level and has a striking androgyny. In 2015 after being awarded the Richard Ford Award Travel Scholarship to draw in Madrid, I was struck by a 15th Century Ideal Beauty Portrait of a woman by Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, a beautiful yet constructed male view of female beauty. Stripping the image of traditional motifs, I recreated the pose with her own identity at the fore. We have very similar tastes in Art History and I try not to cast a character when I refer back to particular Old Master paintings. I called it Ideal Portait of a Man, not because I see her as such, but to make people think about the predicament of gender for some people, whilst also highlighting it’s possibilities.  

I meet many inspirational people who do not fit into a particular gender category, and see male and female stereotypes disintegrating with people taking fashion into their hands and being a lot more expressive, really curating their own signals through subtle style choices and accessories. It felt right to do a collection that documents and celebrates the many types of masculinity I was seeing around me in the UK.” 

How did you work with the subjects in both interpreting and capturing their gender expressions?

“I take pictures and do drawings, I rarely work with people I do not know at all, even then it is essential to spend time getting to know how one identifies and what one stands for, many of my subjects are chosen because I see them as having a strong impact in the LGBTQ+ community around them and already have a recognisable style which I try to work with. It makes it easier but sometimes more tricky picking out clothes with them and finding adornements that symbolise their personality as well as my vision for the painting; be it clothes they have made themselves or sentimental objects, there is usually a moment when they bring something out and I know it is going to work. There has to be a certain level of trust on both sides to get the most out of that encounter, I try and create an image that is timeless, but also of the moment, reflecting how someone feels about their identity right then, on that day - and that goes for any portrait - regardless of fixed or fluid gender, we all have different moods. Many have a performative look or a dressed up and down character; I usually try to capture both sides of a personality.” 

“Items of clothing are symbolic in a gendered way, so you have to be sensitive to someones’ personal style and not impose anything on them with which they do not identify. I have got a bit of costume and fashion history knowledge which is helpful; things that were once masculine are now feminine, and vise versa. In the Renaissance, colour of clothing was strongly symbolic, for example, pink was for boys, as a deliniate of red it symbolised power, virility - traditional masculinity, but now its widely considered a feminine colour. I feel like there is definately a trend for these types of androgynous styles and power dressing, that are being re-invented by LGBTQ+ designers and artists like Flint James McDonald, Glasgow, Matty Bovan, London/York and William Dill – Russell, London, to name a few and that really excites me, so I think I have tended to focus on this trend within a particular group of people because it coincides with my interest in historic costume and where that fits into  contemporary artistic culture.”  

What is the importance to you of LGBT+ people being represented in fine arts and portraiture?

“I would like to see continued diversity in the traditional pictoral genre, I hope to be able to give power to those that inspire me, who are not always recognized by society in the way they might be, or treated by others fairly and equally. By attempting to elevate them through the canon of traditional portraiture, all the works in their very format have the potential to command attention in the same way they might have done in the 15th and 16th Centuries. There is also something almost perverse about the very act of doing a painted portrait now that photography is so advanced,  to me it has another level of permanence and significance, but also has to be giving something more, I try to pack everything I can into an image so that it has the emotional intensity of that human. I hope that makes people think about the gendered artifice of the traditional pictoral genre and in turn what is actually important now - freedom of expression and equality.”

What would you say is revealed or explored through focussing on LGBT+ people and the spectrum of masculinities?

“I have always seen great power and liberty in a person being able to be themselves and focusing on what makes them happy. I have tried to make each portrait like a small window into someone else’s life, but I realise that my view is potentially also limited in terms of the spectrum of masculinities, for which I can only apologise!” 

What, if anything, do you hope for audiences to take from your work?

“I hope people feel empowered and inspired by the people I have painted, as I was by them, and I hope it makes people think what strength there is in expression and difference.”