From extreme youth, I was always known as the “artistic child”; my mother 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’d 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’d 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 entirely self-taught. My “education” in art came by way of my love of history and biography. The illustrations in books, paintings of places and people, first drew me in. Palaces, clothes, jewels; all the rarefied 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, grand or humble, still completely fascinates me.
I very frequently employ the self portrait as the basis for my work. I’ve long felt that, by beginning with myself as the model, I’m able to avoid the biggest limitation of the portrait as an art form: that it’s “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 of an opportunity to find their own narrative in whatever visual scenario I might present.
A play of gender is the most recognizable thematic device in my work; I’ve often been referred to as the “man in a dress” artist. I’m often questioned about the political or psychological “choices” that I make in presenting myself in this way, but I never have a simple explanation, because my work almost always develops at a subconscious level. I feel that all the fascinating and beautiful imagery I’ve internalized along the way - my whole life - 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 didn’t think about it, I just did it. It seems it often takes a lifetime to discover - rediscover? - who we really are. And at this point in my life I clearly identify as non-binary. I may usually present as a man, but I’m decidedly both; I’ve long felt a very deep connection to the Native American concept of berdache – or two-spirit – the idea of a person who embodies a blending of both genders. So, perhaps, the way I’ve represented myself in my paintings has been a way to honor and reconcile those feelings. To create scenarios that express my ideas about beauty and my particular sense of humor. But also to live a “life in paint” that I wouldn’t otherwise find possible - physically, aesthetically - in reality.
I’ve been married since 2006 to writer and graphic designer Gigi Little. Our book, The Untold Gaze - a collection of my paintings paired with the short fiction of thirty-three authors, each piece inspired by my work - was published at the end of 2018. Along with several other joint projects, both artistic and literary, we’ve occasionally performed together as a mother and daughter singing duo – circa 1936 – Madeleine and Penny Prévert.