Saturday, March 02, 2013

Artist paints history’s butch heroes: Ria Brodell interview

“He-Man and St. Michael Find They Have a Lot in Common” by Ria Brodell

Queer desire, gender identity and growing up Catholic are explored by artist Ria Brodell in paintings of “Butch Heroes” and “The Handsome and the Holy.”

Brodell, a culturally Catholic gender-queer artist in the Boston area, brought together her favorite saints, pop culture icons and other seemingly paradoxical characters from her childhood in her series “The Handsome and the Holy.” For example, an angel and a hunky action figure, both warriors for good, embrace in “He-Man and St. Michael Find They Have a Lot in Common.” The series also includes self portraits of the artist as an ideal man, whether as a monk or a movie star.

Now the up-and-coming artist is working on a new series called “Butch Heroes,” using the format of traditional Catholic holy cards to present butch lesbians, queer women and female-to-male transgenders from history. They come from various continents, races and ethnicities and led surprisingly dissimilar lives. Some faced punishment, even execution, for homosexual acts or “female sodomy.”

“Catharina aka Anastasius Linck” by Ria Brodell

Brodell grew up looking at her aunt’s holy card collection for inspiration, but she didn’t find any that fulfilled her longing for queer role models.

“I see the Butch Heroes as the role models of which I was never aware,” Brodell told the Jesus in Love Blog in the interview below. “Knowing that we have always existed, struggled, survived, in some way or another, even if we were persecuted for it is important.”

So far she has completed 17 paintings of Butch Heroes, ranging from the celebrated French artist Rosa Bonheur to the infamous Catharina Linck, the last known woman executed for sodomy in Europe. She was beheaded in 1721. Brodell also depicts Butch Heroes from Asia and North America, including a Native American warrior-healer known as Sitting in the Water Grizzly. Some are shown alone and others are pictured as couples, such as British pub keeper Mary East (aka James How) and Mrs. How. All are posted now on her website ( in an online exhibition.

“Rosa Bonheur” by Ria Brodell

Brodell paints with gouache on paper in a style that is meticulous and yet evocative. The scale is intimate, with each “Butch Hero” measuring only 11 by 7 inches. Her research skills are as impeccable, precise and detailed as her artistic technique.

She scours LGBTQ history books, libraries, museum archives and other sources to uncover the true lives of gender-variant people whose stories have been censored, heterosexualized or criminalized. She studies their social class, employment, clothing and environment in an effort to be as accurate and culturally sensitive as possible. Ultimately she aims to represent the full diversity of cultures and eras in which queer women lived.

“James How aka Mary East and Mrs. How” by Ria Brodell

The artist writes a brief biography to accompany each of her Butch Heroes. Every text is an achievement of scholarship and concise readability, summarizing a queer life with eloquence. The artist also provides a list of sources for each Butch Hero. Her most frequently cited source is the 2009 book Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women by Leila J. Rupp.

Brodell has had solo exhibitions in Massachusetts and California, where she is represented by the Kopeikin Gallery. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2006 from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2002 from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.

The artist discusses her life and work in the following interview for the Jesus in Love Blog with Kittredge Cherry, art historian and author of Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.

Kittredge Cherry: On your website you say that your art makes connections between queer desire, gender identity and your Catholic upbringing. Many of my readers have struggled to reconcile LGBTQ identities with Christianity. Some developed their own post-church spiritualities. Please tell more about your spiritual journey.

Ria Brodell: Well, I have to admit that this is a very hard question to answer. Catholicism is a large part of the life of my extended family members. I, however, am not a practicing Catholic any longer. There is a bit of tension or sadness there on my part, in relation to Catholicism and my family. I feel nostalgia for it. I am attracted to the iconography, and I still feel an attachment to some of the saints and the stories. But, as a queer person, I struggle with the contemporary reality of Catholicism; their stance on homosexuality is just one sticking point. I cannot be a member of a church I disagree with on so many issues. So I suppose my spiritual journey at this point is one that I’m still contemplating, but I’m not using a church to do so.

“Self-Portrait as a Nun or a Monk, circa 1250” by Ria Brodell

KC: I am intrigued by your "Self-Portrait as a Nun or a Monk, circa 1250." What does it say about your identity and place in history? Did you ever consider joining a convent or monastery?

RB: This was one of the pieces that led up to my Butch Heroes painting series. I was thinking about history, specifically what my situation would have been had I been born into a different century. I concluded that as a queer person, and as a gender nonconforming person, I would have had few options. Basically, if I didn’t want to wear female clothing, be a wife and mother, or if I wasn’t wealthy…nun or monk would have been a possibility. Now I see that there were other, albeit risky options, as modeled by the lives of the people in Butch Heroes.

Yes, I actually did consider joining a convent. I thought about it a lot in my late teens, though I’m not sure how serious I was. I was struggling with (confused by) my sexuality, gender identity, Catholicism, and family. I remember looking for answers in the HUGE Catholic Catechism book my parents had, I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it didn’t help. I was basically a pretty good kid, and this book was telling me (through no actions or fault of my own) that I was flawed, and that therefore, I essentially was not a good kid, or that’s how I interpreted it. That confused me, and led me to think that a convent may be a solution.

KC: Why did you choose the holy card format for your "Butch Heroes"? In what sense do you see the "Butch Heroes" as holy?

RB: The primary reason I chose the holy card format for Butch Heroes was because it was one of the formats in which role models were presented to me as a child. My aunt had a huge collection and we would look at them together. She would tell me about the various saints whose stories were depicted on them. The visuals were beautiful and the stories were fascinating. The symbolism and the graphic, sometimes gruesome, details are something I still love about them.

So, when I started researching people for Butch Heroes, I immediately thought of holy cards. The way that holy cards employ symbolism, their intimacy, colors, style etc. was perfect. They elevate a person to reverence. They are used for remembrance. I want this for the Butch Heroes. I see the Butch Heroes as the role models of which I was never aware.

I don’t necessarily think of the Butch Heroes as holy, however I do see them as important. By using the holy card format I’m not intending to say that they were saints, and I’m definitely not intending to catholicize them. My intention is to use a format that has a personal significance to me, that has an inherent reverence to it, in order to elevate them, give them a presence and tell their stories.

KC: Many of these Butch Heroes faced terrible punishments or execution. What is the value for queer people today to remember their stories?

RB: I’ve thought about this frequently, especially as things are getting better for us (slowly). Is it necessary to look to the past? Is it important? My conclusion is always yes, because history is long, and it is forgotten easily. It puts our lives in perspective. Knowing that we have always existed, struggled, survived, in some way or another, even if we were persecuted for it is important. It’s comforting for me; finding our queer ancestors, to know who came before, and that we are not “a plague that has infected the modern world.” It also debunks the heteronormative and male-centric way in which history has been presented.

KC: How do you decide who to portray as "Butch Heroes"?

RB: I try to keep it personal. This series started by me musing over how I would have managed to get by as a queer, butch or masculine-of-center person. So when looking for Butch Heroes, I look for lives I can identify with. When choosing someone to include, I have decided to use specific search criteria: female bodied people who lived outside of their society’s gender norms, who were more masculine than feminine in the way they presented themselves (i.e., clothing, appearance, employment, or role in society, etc.), and had documented relationships with women.

KC: Do you have any plans to include any Butch Heroes who were officially recognized as saints or religious leaders? Some who come to mind are the cross-dressing "transvestite" saints such as Joan of Arc, or queer colonial Quaker preacher Jemima Wilkinson aka Public Universal Friend?

RB: If I find people who were recognized saints or religious leaders that fit the personal criteria I’m using for Butch Heroes, I am very happy to include them. In fact, I have a Methodist minister, on my to-do list.

KC: I see 17 Butch Heroes on your website. How many more will be added to your Butch Heroes series?

RB: I’m not entirely sure about the final number. I’d like to continue the series until I feel that I have represented people from many different backgrounds. I’d like to show the breadth of our history, even if in reality it is just a glimpse. As of now, I’m still finding new people whenever I start researching a new area, so I know I’m not done yet.

“Sitting in the Water Grizzly” by Ria Brodell

KC: What are other ways that people can access your Butch Heroes? Are the paintings available for purchase as art objects? Do you intend to reproduce them as actual holy cards or in a book? When and where will they be exhibited again?

RB: Right now they are only available for viewing on my website ( and in my studio. I definitely plan on selling the original paintings, but only during or after they have been exhibited as a whole. I do have plans to make a book, I think that would be a wonderful way to get their stories out to a wider audience, and I am currently looking for a publisher. I would definitely consider making them into actual holy cards, perhaps in sets. As far as upcoming exhibitions, I am still researching/painting them, but they may be ready to exhibit after I finish a few more, probably here in Boston or in L.A. If people want to stay up to date on the availability of the work, upcoming publications or exhibitions, they can contact me via my website to be added to a mailing list.


March is Women's History Month, so the Jesus in Love Blog is especially pleased to highlight Brodell’s paintings of historical women this month. Many thanks for bringing these butches back to life again, restoring them to wholeness and holiness.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

This post is part of the Queer Christ series series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others.


Trudie said...

Kitt, LOVE this post. I'm looking forward to spending some real time with Ria's website. Thanks so much for the link!1

Kittredge Cherry said...

I'm glad you both are as enthusiastic as I am about Ria's art. Michael, I hope you'll come back again to see the work of more artists. Trudie, you're such a loyal reader that I KNOW you'll be back. :-)