Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Stonewall's LGBT history painted: Interview with Sandow Birk

“The Battle of Stonewall - 1969” by Sandow Birk

Queer people battle police in paintings of the Stonewall riots by California artist Sandow Birk. His monumental art honors the 1969 Stonewall uprising that launched the modern LGBT civil rights movement.

Sandow Birk
“As an artist, the Stonewall Riots were the perfect subject -- transvestites battling cops in riot gear on horses?! Who doesn't want to paint that?! Drama, chaos, and social justice all in one go!” Birk says in my interview with him below.

Birk did extensive research and used the techniques of classic historical painting to put Stonewall into heroic context in a big way. The oil paintings in his Stonewall series are enormous, measuring up to 10 feet wide. These monumental paintings honor LGBT history and inspire the ongoing struggle for liberation. The importance of the subject is matched by the talent of the artist to create masterpieces for our time. They show that the contemporary LGBT rights movement is part of a glorious history of humans fighting for freedom, equality and justice.

When LGBT people fought back against police harassment at New York City’s Stonewall Inn in June 1969, it was the first time that queer people rebelled against government persecution of homosexuality. LGBT Pride Month is celebrated every June to commemorate Stonewall.

“The riots are one of the turning points in American (if not, world) history and I’m absolutely sure there will be a monument on the Mall in Washington DC for Stonewall in the future,” Birk says.

”Portrait of Jim Fouratt and Craig Rodwell (Stonewall 1969)” by Sandow Birk

Before Stonewall, police often raided gay bars, where customers submitted willingly to arrest. The Stonewall Inn catered to the poorest and most marginalized queer people: drag queens, transgenders, hustlers and homeless youth.

Witnesses disagree about who was the first to defy the police raid in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. It was either a drag queen or a butch lesbian. Soon the crowd was pelting the officers with coins, bottles, bricks and the like. News of the uprising spread quickly. Hundreds gathered on the street and a riot-control police unit arrived. Violence continued as some chanted, “Gay power!” That night 13 people were arrested and some hospitalized. Disturbances continued for five days, getting national attention and sparking a movement that continues to the present.

“June 29, 1969 (Stonewall)” by Sandow Birk

Birk painted the series in 1999 for the 30th anniversary of Stonewall, and his Stonewall paintings have continued to gain stature. Theys have been exhibited in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The series goes beyond the Stonewall rebellion to portray scenes of customers relaxing inside the Stonewall Inn and later events inspired by Stonewall. These include the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and a 1998 candlelight vigil for Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in a high-profile gay bashing.

"The Candlelight Vigil for Matthew Shepard (NYC Oct. 19, 1998)” by Sandow Birk

The crown jewel of the series, “The Battle of Stonewall - 1969” (top), was purchased by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California for its permanent collection in 2008. The artist puts modern figures into a composition based on the classic painting “The Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle - 1304” by 19th-century French artist Charles Philippe Lariviere. It shows the 1304 battle between the French and the Flemish. In both cases, the physically superior side attacked those who were considered weaker, but the underdogs won and gained their freedom. Birk updates the scene, replacing swords with police batons and turning flags into “Gay Power” banners. The knight in shining armor is replaced by a drag queen in mascara and high heels.

“The Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle - 1304” by Charles Philippe Larivière (Wikipedia)

Birk’s art frequently addresses social issues, such as war, inner-city violence and prisons. Based in Los Angeles, Birk is a graduate of the Otis/Parson's Art Institute. He received an NEA International Travel Grant to Mexico City in 1995 to study mural painting, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, and a Fulbright Fellowship for painting to Rio de Janeiro for 1997. In 1999 he was awarded a Getty Fellowship for painting, followed by a City of Los Angeles (COLA) Fellowship in 2001. In 2007 he was an artist in residence at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris in 2008. He collaborated on an award-winning new book and film version of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which Dante and Virgil wander in the afterlife, discussing faith and philosophy with historical figures. His most recent work is American Qur'an, an ongoing project to hand-transcribe the entire Qur’an and illuminate the text with relevant scenes from contemporary American life.

Birk discusses his Stonewall series in the following interview with art historian Kittredge Cherry, author of “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.”

Kittredge Cherry: What were you doing when Stonewall happened back in June 1969? What impact did Stonewall have on you?

Sandow Birk: I'm not that old. I was 6 years old when the Stonewall Riots happened and I had no idea they were going on. I was living in suburban Los Angeles and learning to ride a skateboard. The first similar thing I remember was the Sex Pistols tour in America making it onto the nightly news when I was 15 or 16 and it blowing my mind. I was instantly super into punk rock and it changed my life - for the better.

But the Stonewall Riots have since become really important for me - as an artist and as an American. The riots are one of the turning points in American (if not, world) History and I'm absolutely sure there will be a monument on the Mall in Washington DC for Stonewall in the future. It might take a generation or two or three, but it has to happen. It is the last segment of American society who is still not "created equal", and it's been 236 years since the Constitution was written. It's time.

KC: What did you hope to communicate by creating monumental-sized paintings of the lesbian and gay rights struggle in the context of great art from history?

SB: I have to admit that I sort of stumbled on the Stonewall Riots and then really took them to heart. As a straight kid growing up I had never heard of them, of course, and then when searching for something contemporary and at the same "historic" as a theme for my first show in New York, I sort of stumbled on Stonewall and started learning more about it. The more I learned the more fascinated I became, both with the Riots and struggle for Civil Rights in America. As an artist, the Stonewall Riots were the perfect subject - transvestites battling cops in riot gear on horses?! Who doesn't want to paint that?! Drama, chaos, and social justice all in one go! It's a perfect and valid subject and I keep meaning to go back to it. But in the more serious sense, the idea that the civil rights struggle was still going on - that was something I hadn't really considered, that there was something I could do and be involved in and believe and paint about. It was an interesting project for me as it took my artwork from being about the history of art and painting in our times, to being about those things and more, about social justice in our times. And it's been something I've remained interested in as an artist in the world today.

KC: How many paintings are in the series? I have seen the 8 on your website plus "The Provocation." 

SB: I believe there were about 15 or 16 works in the whole series, which was all shown at once in New York over the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in the summer of 1999. They were shown at the Earl McGrath Gallery on 57th St. Besides the paintings you mentioned, there were a series of small ink drawings and wall panel texts that were meant to be taken as a whole in the exhibition. The exhibition was meant as if it was an actual historical exhibit about the events, albeit with humor and history and the idea of 20th Century History Painting combining into an odd, hopefully thought-provoking show.

KC: Your Stonewall series has a photojournalistic quality. Are these real individuals in real scenes that actually happened as pictured? What process did you use to ensure historical accuracy?

SB: The idea of "historical accuracy" in the role of painting in contemporary times was actually the crux of the concept of the show for me. I had done a series of paintings about a fictional war in California that were basically spoofs of the idea of History painting being worthwhile in contemporary Los Angeles. But with the Stonewall paintings I was actually asking myself, what if I attempted to do "serious" History paintings in the 20th/21st Century? Is that possible? So I spent a lot of time in attempting to do just that - paint history. I went to the places in West Village where the events occurred and took photos and did sketches. I contacted people who had been there and researched as much as I could. I even got fashion magazines from 1969 and painted the characters in my paintings dressed in the clothes of the time. One example I remember is that a lot of the oral history of the beginning of the riots mentions beer bottles and cans being thrown. So I looked up what beer would have been served at the bars in the Village in 1969 and made sure I used Rolling Rock and Schlitz cans in the paintings.

KC: I know that "The Battle of Stonewall" borrows design elements from "The Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle" by Larivière. Do all your Stonewall paintings include references to great art from history? What other works are these based on?

SB: Not all of my works are based on historical artworks but many of them are. Since one of my main concerns as a contemporary artist was really dealing with the idea of what History Painting might be at the turn of the 21st Century, I was always looking back to what History Painting was and how I could tie the glories and the tropes and the bombast of 18th and 19th Century History Painting into the events of our own lives, to reconsider how painting might remain relevant. So I liked when I could find traditional History Painting compositions from the past to use as frameworks to create new works about our own times, so that the connection between the past and the history of painting were evident in my own works. The fact that the painting by Larviere is rather unknown isn't important, but by using his composition what I hoped to convey was that - even if you don't know Larviere - one would get the sense that my own painting is coming out of that tradition.

KC: How does the Stonewall series relate to your current work such as the American Qur'an project?

SB: It doesn't really, except in the slow, pondering, step-by-step evolution of an artist that I'm not going to bore you with here. There are similar issues, but it would be too long to go into right now, and they mostly involve my interest in social issues, in artworks from the past that relate to our own times, and to themes and ideas that have been overlooked in America yet are crucial to understanding our country today.

Images courtesy of Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Culver City, CA
Related links:
Artist’s website:

Sandow Birk page at

Sacto museum acquires Stonewall piece (

History Repeats Itself – Stonewall Museum Art Piece (

Saints of Stonewall launched LGBT rights movement (Jesus in Love)

Book: “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution” by David Carter

Book: “Stonewall” by Martin Bauml Duberman

Video: “American Experience: Stonewall Uprising

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.


Anonymous A said...

I am absolutely stunned by this set of paintings! I am impressed by the historical reference to “The Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle - 1304” by 19th-century French artist Charles Philippe Lariviere. But, more impressed by the expertise with which these large works are completed - just beautiful!

Trudie said...

Magnificent paintings, wonderful interview. For me, this is another example of synchronicity, since I just read and reviewed "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution" by Linda Hirshman in which, of course, the Stonewall riots featured largely.

Kitt, you've done it again!

Kittredge Cherry said...

The new book "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution" fits well with the Stonewall history presented here, so I am adding a link to it here and at the bottom of this post. Thanks, Trudie, for alerting me to this major new book. I enjoyed your review of it and clicked to show that I “liked” it.

John and Trudie, I’m glad that you share my enthusiasm for these heroic Stonewall paintings. Thanks for taking time to post your opinion.