I started this project in 2010 after painting “Self Portrait as a Nun or Monk, circa 1250.“ I was thinking about what my life would have been like had I been born into a different era, especially one as far back as the middle ages. Becoming a nun or a monk was one option for those that did not want to get married or conform to the strict gender roles of their time. As a former Catholic, I knew that “homosexuals” were called to a lifetime of chastity or service to the church, but I supposed that queer people of the past must have found other ways to live, and I wanted to find out how they did it.
I started by going to the LGBTQ sections of local libraries, including Boston Public Library, Tufts University or Boston College, and scouring books on our history for names and stories. Finding the names of actual individuals, as opposed to just generalized stories, is the most difficult part. There is a lot of reading between the lines, because so much of queer history has been brushed off as illness, romantic friendship, cross-dressing, fraud, or rewritten or censored to suit the time period.
For this project, I am looking for people in history with whom I can personally identify. People who were assigned female at birth, had documented relationships with women, and whose gender presentation was more masculine than feminine. I search for people from diverse ethnic, societal, and geographic backgrounds, and who were born before or around the turn of the twentieth century. Some of my subjects identified as women, others as men, some shifted between gender presentations throughout their lives, while others embodied both simultaneously. I use the narratives of their lives to establish their place in this project. Though some could be identified today with the terms lesbian, transgender, genderqueer, intersex, etc., the myriad of LGBTQI terms were not available to them during their lifetimes. Since it is impossible to know exactly how each person would self-identity given today’s terminology, I view this project as an ongoing effort to document a shared history within the LGBTQI community.
I include each person’s chosen name(s) and given name for historical accuracy and to aid in research purposes. To determine pronoun use, I refer to their gender presentation or chosen name at each point in their story. If it is uncertain, I use “she or he,” “him/her,” “they” or just their name.
Once I find a name and a story that interests me I try to get access to the original source, which may be a newspaper article or a personal journal entry, etc. I look for anything that includes the subject’s own voice, and hopefully a description of them. I try to find other sources to verify the information. I summarize their stories and include my sources so that others can access the original material. Each portrait involves extensive research into all aspects of the person’s life, social class, occupation, clothing and environment. I strive to be historically accurate and culturally sensitive to each individual.
Each painting is a new challenge and different journey into history. Figuring out how to represent aspects of their lives visually is the best part. For example, I’ve been in the basement of the Cabot Science Library at Harvard handling and taking notes from one of Olga Tsuberbiller’s dusty textbooks; I scoured old maps of Stockholm trying to determine what the skyline would have looked like from the Haymarket in 1679; I examined buffalo robes from the National Museum of the American Indian and at the Peabody Essex Museum; and watched YouTube videos of a father and son team (with thick Scottish accents) demonstrating how to properly plaster a traditional Scottish house for John Oliver’s portrait. I love gathering the details.
Using the format of the Catholic Holy Card is a personal and logical stylistic choice for me. I still have a collection of holy cards that belonged to my late aunt. I loved going through the collection with her and hearing her tell the stories; people had sent her holy cards from all over the world! They are beautiful, intimate objects, and are used as a teaching tool. They are a way to share the stories of the saints and present role models. They are also given out at funerals, as a way to remember those who were important to you. For me, this format is a perfect (subversive) way to present the lives of people who were long forgotten and abused during their life time, especially because so many of them were accused of “mocking God and His order” or deceiving their fellow Christians.
Finally, I have chosen the term Butch because of its dual nature: it has been slung as an insult and used as a congratulatory recognition of strength. It has a history within the LGBTQI community and is familiar to the cisgender, heterosexual community. In addition to the traditional associations of being masculine in appearance or actions, I choose to use Butch Heroes to indicate people who were strong or brave in the way they lived their lives and challenged their societies strict gender roles.