From extreme youth, I was always known as the “artistic child”; my mother often tells of my first career as a very young muralist – the medium was crayon – and how I happily adorned the walls of whatever rented house we happened to live in at the time. My parents are both native to Portland, Oregon, but my father was in the Air Force, and we moved every few years; the great majority of my childhood was spent near various Air Force bases in California. When I was nineteen, my father retired and my parents and siblings moved back to Portland. I stayed in California.
I had always been the star art pupil in school. Shy, overweight, and the perpetual new kid, being “artistic” was my established persona at home and in the world. I got a lot of attention for it, I found some acceptance through it. It was the one place in my life where I could be certain of respect. As a teenager, I participated in competitions and exhibitions in all four of the high schools I attended, I did commissioned portraiture, and it was expected that I would go on and study art in college. Instead, I made almost no art for the next decade.
I moved to San Francisco in 1980. For the next six years, I did almost everything but make art: I designed and made costumes for the Shakespeare Festival; I took acting workshops, which I later helped facilitate; I taught vocal performance workshops; I wrote a lot. But mainly I focused on singing, most often performing in San Francisco’s cabaret scene. I even sang back-up on one rather obscure album. They were six very mixed-up years, but I was doing what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles in 1986, that I gradually started painting again.
I know one of the biggest reasons that I didn’t go to college to study art is that I rebelled against just being an artist. I had always wanted to do a lot of different things, to explore all the creative channels that interested me and that I felt I had some talent for. Proving to myself that I could do those other things, too, helped bring me back to what I did first and probably best. I had absolutely no thought of doing anything with this new work, never thought it could be marketable. I was just doing it to honor my need to make art. But, then, living back in Portland – at the age of thirty-six – I finally said “why not?” and showed my work to a gallery owner for the first time. Two months later, that gallery presented my first solo exhibition.
As a painter, I’m almost entirely self-taught. My “education” in art came mostly as a adjunct to my love of history and biography. The illustrations in books, paintings of places and people, first drew me in. Palaces, clothes, jewels; all the rarified externals. My broader interest in painting and art history and design was rooted there. Great classical paintings – and often, very bad ones, too – are where I always return for my inspiration and ongoing instruction. In so many obvious ways, I’m not really a “modern artist”. And I’m not at all an artist who paints the world around him; I paint the world of paintings. I don’t want to paint a tree that looks like a tree, but one that looks like a wonderful painting of a tree. And being as retrograde in my tastes as I am, my greatest artistic enjoyment and appreciation still lies with the great portraiture of history. As an art form, the portrait, whether recording aristocracy or something much humbler, still completely fascinates me.
I almost always employ the self portrait as the basis for my work. I have long felt that, by beginning with myself as the model, I am able to avoid the biggest limitation of the portrait as a form: that it is “about” someone specific. In my paintings, because the portrait is only of the artist, the viewer, while including whatever they might perceive of the artist, still has more opportunity to find their own narrative in whatever visual scenario I might present.
A play of gender is my most recognizable thematic device; I’m often referred to as the “man in a dress” artist. And I’m constantly questioned about the political or psychological “choices” that I make in presenting myself in this way. I never have a simple explanation for this, because my work almost always develops at a subconscious level. I feel that all the wonderful images – all the things of beauty – that I’ve internalized are constantly being sorted and arranged in my brain. Filtering through my beliefs, my experience. To coalesce and “appear” in my head as fully worked-out designs for new paintings. When I first started showing my work, I often dealt pictorially with the issues of being a “sissy” boy, which I certainly had been as a child. As my work progressed, more and more I painted myself as a man in women’s clothing. I strongly identify with women, especially the great female archetypes and famous women of history. But it’s more than that. I’ve done my share of drag and, in a way, this is a more permanent – and less physically taxing – extension of that art form. On a deeper level, too, I feel a connection to the Native American concept of berdache – or two-spirit – the idea of a person who embodies a blending of both genders. I may dress as a man, but I think I do feel some degree of being both. So, perhaps, the way I represent myself in my paintings is a way to honor and reconcile those feelings. To create scenarios that express my ideas about beauty and my particular sense of humor. Even to glamorize myself. To live a “life in paint” that isn’t possible in reality.
I’ve been married since 2006 to writer Gigi Little. Along with several other artistic and literary projects, we perform together as a mother and daughter singing duo – circa 1936 – Madeleine and Penny Prévert.