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.