Painter Ria Brodell has gained fame in the way they disrupt and update both the artistic cannon and history itself. In their painted series “Butch Heroes,” Brodell takes the form of traditional Catholic Holy cards depicting saints and martyrs, and instead paints “butch heroes” on a reinterpretation of the cards. Brodell highlights queer heroes from across the world and ages, showcasing and celebrating lesser-known, “butch” (female assigned, but masculine presenting) historical figures.
Brodell’s process is research-based in terms of uncovering these buried histories. Brodell visits archives and libraries, writing textual descriptions of hero and ensuring that these always accompany the images so that this history is also brought to light.
I interviewed Brodell in 2012 before they had started showing the “Butch Heroes” series in gallery or museum spaces and was lucky enough to interview Brodell again now, six years later.
ELLEN CALDWELL: Your “Butch Heroes” series has gained a lot of attention since my last interview with you. Can you describe that process? How did the series pick up and garner more attention?
From Butch Heroes
RIA BRODELL: I guess it’s been a slow and steady climb. Shortly after our interview for New American Paintings in 2012, a writer for Autostraddle, a site for “lesbian, bisexual & otherwise inclined ladies (and their friends),” interviewed me. She saw the “Butch Heroes” at Open Studios. That interview brought the series to the general queer community’s attention for the first time. I also received some local grants, and then I think another big push was receiving an Artadia award in 2014, which brought the series some wider art world attention. I also think there is a lot of word of mouth, and social media sharing that helps.
CALDWELL: That’s great that it has been receiving such attention. The Davis Museum at Wellesley College recently acquired fourteen pieces of the collection as well. Could you tell me a little about how that came about?
BRODELL: Yes, that was an incredible lift. I credit an extraordinarily generous man, Louis Wiley Jr. He saw a couple pieces in my framer’s gallery and asked me for a studio visit. He came prepared — he had a binder full of information about my work. He told me basically that he would make it his mission to get the work into institutions that would appreciate it, and he was specifically interested in educational institutions. When I had my show at Gallery Kayafas in March of 2017 he and my gallerist reached out to a few places, like the Davis Museum. Lisa Fischman, the director at the Davis, came into the gallery to see the show and was super excited. She picked out what she wanted for the Davis, two of which Louis had purchased and he donated them to their collection.
CALDWELL: It makes me excited to think about college students getting to learn from your series — not just about the “Butch Heroes” themselves, but also about your unique research that shows alongside them. I know my students really enjoyed speaking with you this past semester! What has the reaction been to your work at the Davis Museum? Have you heard from students or faculty? And what was your reaction when a college campus wanted to collect such a large part of the series?
BRODELL: It has been great! When I heard about the acquisition I couldn’t believe it. The Davis, the students, the faculty are incredibly excited, as am I, to have them in the collection. The people at Wellesley and the Davis have been so much fun to work with, and they really care about the series, especially Lisa Fischman. I can’t thank her enough. The response has been awesome. They were on view for the 2017-18 academic year, and I keep hearing from people who saw them, or who purchased a box set or print that the Davis had made.
I also gave a talk in April and the students had great questions; everyone was very receptive. I’m so grateful that they’re in a place where they will contribute to the curriculum, where they’ll be cared for, and will be accessible for people to study.
CALDWELL: Has any other institution collected such a large portion of the series?
BRODELL: I’m really happy that all of the pieces that have been purchased so far have gone to museum collections, three of which, the Davis, the Henry Art Gallery, and the Cornell Fine Arts Museum are attached to educational institutions.
CALDWELL: Could you tell me about your research process too?
BRODELL: Initially it was pretty straight forward, going to various libraries looking for books on LGBTQIA history. Then scanning through them for chapters, or in some cases a paragraph or even just a sentence aboutthe information I was looking for— and that criteria is very specific: names and information on people who were assigned female at birth, had documented relationships with women, and whose gender presentation was more masculine than feminine. At this point my search is more tailored as I look for people from specific regions of the world. I’m also scanning bibliographies for more sources, or searching journal and newspaper databases, and thankfully there have been some helpful new books and articles published since I started the project.
CALDWELL: What is the most unique way you learned about, or were tipped off to a buried history that you wanted to uncover?
BRODELL: I think one of the most fortuitous things is when I think I’m at a dead-end, perhaps searching endlessly for someone’s name and just getting nowhere, and I find mention of an entirely different person. That’s what happened with Gregoria Piedra aka la Macho. I was searching for someone from Colombia I had read about, I had a description and even dates, but no name and I came across a mention of la Macho in a footnote.
CALDWELL: That’s great — it seems that la Macho was a real character! [See Brodell’s biography of la Macho for tales of their defiance.] Which painting has taken the most legwork or time in the archives to really learn about?
BRODELL: The pieces that take the longest generally are those for which I need help accessing the sources,with language translation, or verifying aspects of the composition, like their clothing, tools, or location. Each piece has different challenges. Petra “Pedro” Ruiz or Sakuma Hideka & Chiyoka for instance, I reached out to friends for help accessing and translating my sources. Pieces like Carl Lapp or Woman Chief took longer because they had unique elements to their clothing, and I wanted to be sure I was getting those details as accurate as possible.
CALDWELL: In some ways, I see your paintings and your research as a call to action for more people to get involved in uncovering such histories. Have you heard from anyone who is taking the baton from where you left off?
BRODELL: Definitely, I hope it inspires people to do their own research into the histories that interest them. I should say that I haven’t left off yet; I still have a lot of work to do. I do know of other artists who are doing similar projects. Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo and Andrew Mroczek, or Jess Dugan, for instance, working in photography and documenting contemporary queer and trans lives.
From Kindom Animalia
CALDWELL: How do you see “Butch Heroes” as interacting with and speaking to your other series or work, such as “Kingdom Animalia” or “The Distant Lands”? These are seemingly different in terms of their detailed and playful focus on animals, but I have a feeling you might see some connections or undercurrents there…
BRODELL: I can definitely see the relationship between “Kingdom Animalia” and “The Distant Lands,” in terms of my interests in animals and conservation. But their relationship to “Butch Heroes” is more general. I think the common thread is my desire to make work that addresses subjects that I feel strongly about.
Slideshow: From Kindom Animalia
CALDWELL: Yes, a form of personal activism via painting. Since you started “Butch Heroes,” have you heard from (or about) other artists who are utilizing or appropriating Catholic holy cards in similar or unique ways?
BRODELL: I haven’t. I’m sure there are people utilizing the holy card in different ways, but I haven’t run across them yet. I can think of artists that are using other devotional objects or formats, altarpieces, devotional candles, or stained glass for instance.
CALDWELL: Do you have a favorite “Butch Hero” so far?
BRODELL: That’s always a hard question because it’s hard for me to separate the people from my ability to paint them. There are certain paintings I like for different reasons — likeI’m happy with the way I painted the trees in Sammy William’s portrait for instance, and vice versa, there are paintings I feel I could have done differently. In terms of the people, there are definitely aspects of all of them that I can identify with or admire. Currently, and maybe it’s because I just finished their portrait, but when I found la Macho I was instantly excited. They obviously had a sense of humor and were a little mischievous. I love when I can get a sense of their personality.
CALDWELL: How many heroes do you hope to include in the series — or will it be indefinitely ongoing?
BRODELL: It’s definitely ongoing. From the beginning I’ve tried to include a wide range of people from different social backgrounds, different races and ethnicities and I still feel like I have a long way to go.
CALDWELL: This has already been a longtime passion project for you. How do you see the artistic process of making the series as impacting you, either artistically or personally?
BRODELL: It’s impacted me in more ways than I anticipated. Artistically, it has been incredibly gratifying to see such a personal project receive recognition. That recognition, for the paintings and for the book, has really helped my confidence as an artist.
Personally, I’ve definitely become more comfortable identifying the way that I do queer, non binary, trans. I’m more confident in allowing myself to just BE, and present myself the way I feel comfortable. I think that has come from learning about our history. Knowing that despite opposition in one way or another queer people made lives for themselves in every corner of the world, in every time period. That this is nothing new. That we have always been here, that we belong here and have a right to be here in all of our forms.
From Butch Heroes
CALDWELL: Wonderful. You just mentioned the “Butch Heroes” book — could you tell me a little bit about that? When can readers and viewers expect to see that?
BRODELL: I knew early on that I wanted to put a book together once I had completed a number of paintings. I felt like it was a natural format to present the paintings with the text and all of my research sources, especially once the paintings went off into the world. I self published the first edition, Butch Heroes: Paintings by Ria Brodell, through Edition One Books in Berkeley, California. We made an edition of three hundred, all signed and numbered.
I had the book available for my exhibition at Gallery Kayafas, and I took it to the Boston Art Book Fair last October. In January I received an email from MIT Press expressing interest in publishing it for wider distribution. They had seen the book at the Boston Art Book Fair. We had (an incredibly exciting) meeting and now the MIT Press edition, Butch Heroes, will be released in August 2018. It will be hardcover, and will include the new paintings I’ve made since the exhibition last March.
Ria Brodell is a Boston-based artist whose work has been shown across the United States and featured in the Guardian, ARTNews, the Boston Globe, and New American Paintings. Brodell is a part-time lecturer at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University.
Ellen C. Caldwell, an LA-born-and-based art historian, writer, and educator, reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of Ms. Caldwell’s work, visit eclaire.me.