Painting Lost Transgender Heroes

By
Catterina Vizzani aka Giovanni Bordoni 1718-1743 Italy, 2012. Photo: Courtesy the artist, and Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Artist Ria Brodell began the “Butch Heroes” project at the Boston Public Library, looking for transgender pioneers in an aisle of LGBTQ-themed books. The search led to historical figures like the Mexican army lieutenant Petra “Pedro” Ruiz, who dressed as a man and became a leader of the Constitutionalist Army, and the Native American chief Biawacheeitche, who became known as “Woman Chief”; others were from the U.S., Italy, Prussia, and Japan. Brodell found more material online with the search terms “female husband” and “deathbed discovery” — for centuries, if people identified outside gender norms, a biological identity would only be discovered after their death, during an autopsy. Brodell painted the transgender figures on prayer cards — a nod to a Catholic upbringing and religious role models with whom Brodell never identified while growing up.

In an interview, Brodell explained the premise: “I’m not trying to Catholicize these figures, I’m strictly using the prayer card as a means of remembrance, as a means to remember people that you care about and admire — to learn from [them].” The portraits are now featured in the exhibition “Butch Heroes” at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum. Each painting is accompanied by a detailed written history of the subject (which you can also view on the artist’s website).

Researching and creating the paintings informed Brodell personally as well: “I found myself being okay with just referring to myself as non-binary and trans … a little bit more comfortable in my own skin.” The artist said the paintings give viewers an array of transgender people to look up to. “I look back and I’m a kid that’s dressing in army gear, playing G.I. Joe, wanting super short hair, playing baseball on the boys’ team. How would my life have been different [if I had these role models]? Would I have had more confidence?” The show is on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College throughout the 2017–2018 academic year. Click ahead for a preview.

Painting Lost Transgender Heroes