Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Artist paints history’s gay couples: Interview with Ryan Grant Long

“Saints Sergius and Bacchus” by Ryan Grant Long

Historical men who loved men, including some gay saints, are painted by artist Ryan Grant Long in a new series titled “Fairy Tales.”

Spanning more than 4,000 years, the series includes 3rd-century Christian martyrs Sergius and Bacchus and Biblical hero David with his beloved Jonathan. The 12 scenes present a diverse and balanced assortment of a dozen male couples in various time periods, cultures and religions, starting in Egypt in 2400 BCE with the first recorded same-sex couple Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum. All are real people and most are widely accepted to have been homosexual or bisexual.

Long created “Fairy Tales” in a calendar format for his Master of Fine Arts thesis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also earned a certificate in LGBT studies in 2009. “Fairy Tales” is available for purchase as a handsome 2012 calendar at under his pseudonym “Eshto.”(Update: 2013 calendars are now available.)

The artist makes the past come alive by showing historical figures in unusual, informal slice-of-life moments. It’s almost like he was there taking candid snapshots. For example, saints Sergius and Bacchus are usually portrayed in static icons, side by side staring straight at the viewer. But Long catches them gazing into each other’s eyes during a private moment in their prison cell (above). In another image, Jonathan is depicted at the very moment he fell in love with David, soon after the young hero beheaded the giant Goliath (below).

“David and Jonathan” by Ryan Grant Long

The “Fairy Tales” series moves across the globe with figures ranging from a Chinese emperor to an Arab poet, a Japanese samurai warrior and Mayan athletes. He also presents famous pairs from Western culture: artist Leonardo Da Vinci with his assistant Salai, and poet Walt Whitman with his comrade Peter Doyle. The series continues to the present era with civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin holding hands with his partner Walter Naegle (below).

“Bayard Rustin and Walter Naegle” by Ryan Grant Long

Based in Madison, Wisconsin, Long is currently working as an assets and concept artist for mobile video games. His art covers a wide variety of subjects, but his other religion-themed work includes a design commissioned to promote “In from the Wilderness” by Rev. David Weekley. The book chronicles his journey coming out as a transgender minister in the United Methodist Church.

Recently Long took time to discuss his art with Kittredge Cherry, art historian and author of the Jesus in Love Blog.

Kittredge Cherry: Why did you decide to depict male same-sex affection throughout history?

Ryan Grant Long
in his Noah's Ark spoof
"You Shall Not Octopass"
Ryan Grant Long: My MFA was the end of my academic career, and I wanted my final project as a student to represent the culmination of all that I had learned throughout my college experience. Aside from art, I had focused on LGBT studies, sociology and anthropology. Most people do not get a formal education in LGBT issues, so I wanted to bring what I had learned into the public sphere, and use my skills as an artist to make it visually engaging and accessible to lay people. I also do not relate to much of the gay art I see, so I wanted to make something I would personally respond to as a viewer.

KC: How did you choose which couples to show?

RGL: I started by looking at the representative examples of historical lovers one would be exposed to if they took an intro college course on LGBT history. Sergius and Bacchus were a big deal in my LGBT studies classes because of how they challenge conventional notions of Christianity’s attitude toward homosexuality. I also wanted a wide breadth of cultures and time periods, to really make the point that homosexuality is not some modern invention or fluke, it’s an essential part of the human existence and has been around as long as humans have walked this planet. In general, I did not find it necessary for there to be absolute proof that the subjects had been gay as we understand it. I was looking for enough evidence to make a reasonable historian concede that they could have been lovers; and that if we saw the same affection in two people of the opposite sex, it would no doubt be taken for granted that they were romantically involved.

KC: Even in your MFA exhibition, the images are displayed as a calendar. Why did you present it in calendar format?

RGL: In keeping with my intention of normalizing and mainstreaming same-sex affection, I chose one of the most ubiquitous popular art formats I could think of. I wanted to make art that would be affordable and freely hung in homes and college dorm rooms, to facilitate getting the information out to people who wanted it. This decision put me at odds with the “fine art” mentality of my MFA program. I was pressured to blow the images up to comically huge sizes for the MFA exhibit, so they would function as museum art objects. But in truth the project was always designed with the intention of being available for everyone to purchase in a standard calendar form.

KC: Your series includes two couples that are popular with many of our readers: David/Jonathan and Sergius/Bacchus. What attracted you to those pairs in particular? How did you pick which scenes to paint from their lives?

RGL: I wanted each couple to have its own unique romantic theme based on what I felt was the most intense or characteristic moment in their respective stories. When I researched the story of David and Jonathan I was struck by the image of Jonathan removing his clothes and putting them on David. There was a humility there. The head of Goliath is included as an homage to similar depictions of David throughout art history, and I also found it a bit contradictory and amusing to contrast this violence with a very sweet gesture. It seemed to capture something of the contradictory tone of the Old Testament, being that it contains great beauty and poetry, but also some pretty horrible things like genocide and slavery. As for the saints, the moment where the ghost of Bacchus appears to his dying lover was not only very romantic, it was also a direct shot at the prevailing belief that gay people are not welcome in the Christian heaven. So like many of the images, it served the dual purpose of honoring same-sex affection, while challenging some of the common preconceptions that give rise to homophobia.

KC: Why didn't you include women who loved women? Do you have any plans to do a lesbian version? Or do you know of a female version by another artist?

RGL: This is a criticism that I received at the opening of the show, and it sort of mystified me as to why anyone would expect me, a gay man, to make art that speaks for lesbians. I think it would be wonderful if another artist tackled this subject, but not being a woman or a person who falls in love with women, I really do not have much passion for the subject matter.

KC: How have others reacted to your "Fairy Tales" project? What did your professors think? Did you face any opposition, controversy or attempts to censor it?

RGL: What’s interesting, and perhaps a bit unfortunate, is that a lot of people were thrown off by the “PG” nature of the images. So much gay art is focused on sex and “otherness”. I think most people were expecting Tom of Finland, but I made this series because I was tired of this stereotype. Being gay is a whole human experience. It’s not just about sex or minority status, but also love, friendship, community, etc. I wanted to see the same kind of celebrations of same-sex affection that heterosexual people take for granted. Also as I mentioned, my interest in popular art and illustration ran up against some of the faculty’s notions of what “fine art” is supposed to be, so I had to fight and compromise to get the idea approved.

KC: How does your perspective as an openly gay man influence "Fairy Tales"?

RGL: Well as I said, I was a bit tired of seeing gay art that was overtly sexual and superficial. And that’s not all gay-themed art but it seems to me like it is overrepresented. I was born in a small tourist town and raised with relatively conservative social values. I wanted to normalize gay relationships and same-sex affection, and make this information relatable to people who don’t necessarily identify with stereotypically urban gay culture. Despite that these are infamous historical figures, I wanted the depictions of their affections to be down-to-earth, heartwarming, inspiring - human - not shocking or outrageous or confusing, as so much contemporary art is, especially when the subject matter is alternative sexualities. As you said, they look like candid “slice of life” snapshots, and that is exactly what I was going for.

Kukai (774–835), also known as Kōbō-Daishi, is a monk who founded Shingon Buddhism in Japan. He is one of Japan’s most beloved Buddhist figures, credited with everything from inventing the kana alphabet to introducing homosexuality to Japan. He is shown with his male lover among the falling cherry blossoms in “Kukai” by Ryan Grant Long

KC: I was especially drawn to your picture of the Japanese Buddhist monk Kukai because I lived in Japan for three years as a young adult, and because some of our readers are Buddhists. Why didn't you include Kukai in the calendar? What are the legends about Kukai's homosexuality?

RGL: I needed twelve images to complete the calendar theme, and I just felt Kukai’s story was not as engaging in an intimate way as the other couples I ended up with. Even Abu-Nuwas, who was known to be quite promiscuous and downright filthy at times, was passionate about his lovers and his story lent itself to an interesting romantic image, but Kukai’s story didn’t have much in the way of romantic tropes. According to legend Kukai introduced homosexuality to Japan. It’s a fascinating tale, but I didn’t find anything about actual relationships and what their character might have been.

KC: What did you personally learn from researching and painting "Fairy Tales"?

RGL: Since I had been studying LGBT history throughout my undergrad and grad careers, the information I learned while researching this was fascinating, but not exactly mind-blowing; I was generally familiar with it. Most of what I learned while creating the project had to do with how to overcome formal and technical concerns in designing the images, and then getting blowing them up and printing them at a large size. After the show I had to completely revisit the formatting in order to fit the work to the calendar dimensions required by the DeviantArt website, where it’s currently available for purchase. That is when I added an extra vertical information bar on the right of each image, which was not present at the MFA show.

KC: When we planned this interview, you said that use of your images must be for a clear secular purpose that both religious and non-religious people can share in. Please explain for our readers why you have this policy.

RGL: A straightforward reason is that I am an atheist and often critical of religion, so I would not want my images to be used to promote a worldview or ideology I simply do not agree with. But I am also a humanist and progressive, and I think it’s imperative to build bridges between others who are interested in social justice. This is part of how I ended up making art for Reverend David Weekley. David had seen the Noah’s Ark spoof I created for, which had widespread appeal among both Christians and non-Christians. He thought it was cute and funny, and his wife approached me about designing a t-shirt to celebrate his book In from the Wilderness (ISBN: 978-1-60899-544-8).
Ryan Grant Long’s design
for “In From the Wilderness”
Despite that I am not a Christian, I absolutely loved the book, and I found David’s story to be perfectly accessible and engaging on a human level; I have recommended it to theist and non-theist friends alike as well as university professors teaching LGBT studies courses. Despite our differences, David and I probably agree on political and social issues 90% of the time, and so I have much more in common with someone like him than, say, a libertarian atheist like Penn Jillette. And generally the ways in which we will get to equality will be the same for everyone, I think. Education, legal and economic fairness, and (speaking as an American here) keeping the United States a secular nation in which religion is separate from politics and nobody has the right to impose their personal beliefs on others. So I can freely count many gay-affirming Christians among my friends and allies, even if we disagree on religious matters. And since my goal is a secular society where everyone is free to hold their own beliefs, I want my art to be enjoyed by everyone, not just those who follow a particular ideology.
Update in August 2012:
You saw Ryan Grant’s “Fairy Tales” first here at Jesus in Love. Now it’s featured in the Advocate. To see all 12 images in the “Fairy Tales” series, visit
Artist Spotlight on Ryan Grant Long (
This post is part of the Artists series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series profiles artists who use lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and queer spiritual and religious imagery.


graybw said...

Enjoyed the interview. Beautiful works - very thought provoking.

Trudie said...

Wonderful presentation! Kitt, I think these interviews with the artists and authors are incredibly valuable!

thegayte-keeper said...

I am in LOVE with these images!

KittKatt said...

Thanks Gray, Trudie and Gayte Keeper. I’m glad that you share my excitement about Long’s “Fairy Tales.” I hope that you followed the link to see all 12 images in the calendar: I bought one and am looking forward to using it in 2012. Here’s the link again:

Trudie, I’m glad you mentioned the interview format. I think I’ve found a format that really works well for me. I’ve never had a knack for writing reviews, but the Q&A style comes naturally.

KittKatt said...

Hmm… the original link to all 12 images doesn't seem to work anymore. You can try this one instead: