I recently had the pleasure of talking with Drew Johnson, a genderfluid Austin artist. Born and raised in the Austin area, Johnson graduated in 2008 from the Gemini School of Visual Arts, a 4-year vocational program in Cedar Park. Johnson’s Kickstarter campaign, Gender Portraits, was recently funded at 132% of it’s $7,500 goal. Through Gender Portraits, Johnson will create a series of 10-15 paintings celebrating gender diversity, as well as creating archival quaility paper prints and canvas giclees to make the artwork more affordable to the masses.

Johnson was drawn by the idea of making prints as a part of the Kickstarter because a) he can only paint so fast and b) with only original artwork there is not enough to share. Johnson is most interested in the conversations about gender which will result from people interacting with the art. “I felt like everyone fit in and I didn’t,” he said. “So many people have come out to me saying I cross-dress or my boyfriend does. It’s still taboo so people don’t talk about it, but projects that can start that conversation are good.” The more people who have access to the paintings as prints, the more conversations about gender will be possible as a result of Gender Portraits. Johnson also hopes to show the paintings in galleries and non-conventional spaces by bringing in other gender non-conforming artists to show their own work, whether that’s a drag show or gender-bending band.

The idea for Gender Portraits started with Johnson’s own self-portrait, which was originally meant for a competition. Johnson said he’d been toying with the idea of painting about gender identity, and that once he got started, he just kept getting more ideas for more paintings. By the time he was finished with the self-portrait, Johnson had decided this was a much larger endeavor than just one painting.

Johnson started the project in his off-time from work last fall, but only having evenings and weekends meant it took from August to November to complete the self-portrait. When Johnson was laid off around Christmas, he said it seemed like the perfect time to try to live off his savings for a while and commit to the project full-time.

Johnson’s current goal for Gender Portraits is 12 paintings, though he’s comfortable with adjusting that total to capture the diversity of the gender non-conforming community. However, he would rather focus on the message of the series than a specific number of paintings or a date of completion (though the series will be finished by the end of this year). Johnson also hopes proceeds from sales of the initial paintings will fund future creation.

Johnson said all the paintings will be visually different; some more modern, others less so. He didn’t start painting in any particular order, so the first four paintings currently visible on the website and Kickstarter page are more similar in style and theme than what the entire series will be. Johnson is excited that the people who ordered a print don’t know what they have to pick from yet.

A large part of the importance of Gender Portraits is visibility. “There just aren’t currently enough non-stereotypical presentations of gender non-conforming individuals in our culture,” Johnson said. Current represtentations “are slapstick, or the punchline to a joke.” Each of these portraits will be developed based on an interview with the subject. Johnson didn’t originally conceptualize the interviews being a part of the artwork themselves. Rather, they were a way to come up with ideas of what to paint and to ensure the portrait accurately depicted that individual’s gender journey.

But not everyone has met somebody who is gender non-conforming, and the view people get from media is often skewed or incorrect. Johnson realized that the interviews themselves could be educational, and that people needed to hear the stories of these people’s lives. Johnson plans to post the inverivews in an expanded gallery on his website, as well as sending a shortened version to display alongside any prints or paintings which are sold. He also hopes to develop a blog and a series of videos based on talking points from the interviews once the paintings are released.

Johnson said the interviews are also important because “there’s a lot I can’t know. I want to hear from people – even categories I identify with – because everyone’s different.” Johnson said he can draw on similarities of opinion about gender in the paintings, but enjoys the differences as well. “Every time I felt alone and crazy, someone else was feeling the same way for a different reason. We’re all unique.”

Johnson said the subjects of the paintings were originally his friends and people in the surrounding communtiy. After showing examples of the first few paintings around town, however, Johnson said people started to come to him. The Kickstarter campaign made it easier to develop out-of-state contacts, as well as drawing more people talking about themselves or recommending people good for Johnson to talk to moving forward. The biggest backer of the project – who will get an original painting – lives in California. This person has told Johnson their gender story, and said they’d be happy for that painting to be one of the prints (they had the ability to opt-out of that as a part of the pledge).

Johnson has worked to make Gender Portraits celebratory, open, and non-accusatory. He said if you feel misunderstood it’s easy to get angry and defensive, but that being hostile can polarize an audience. Johnson hopes to educate people both inside and outside the gender non-conforming community with this project, including those wishing for answers and feeling alone like he used to. “There were no examples of people like me living a normal life, being beautiful and celebrated. The more people who honestly and clearly display gender non-conforming behavior the better.”

Johnson identifies as genderfluid. “I thought I made up that word,” he said. “I didn’t fit in any box I’d ever heard of. I felt broken.” Johnson tried to bounce back and forth between crossdresser and transgendered, but finally decided he was in the middle. It was only then he discovered there was a word for it and a community of people and that there was even a genderfluid subreddit.

The project went above and beyond what he’d hoped and he’s happy with the support he has received. “You make something you care about and you don’t know how other people feel – you can never tell,” he said, noting that this experience has been touching and validating. People have contacted him about local events, and even asked for worldwide shipping for the prints during the Kickstarter process. “If people are excited now, the final project will be exhilirating.”

Since Gender Portraits was only $77 away from its first stretch goal, Johnson said he will go ahead and provide those rewards: personally signing all the prints and creating desktop backgrounds based on the paintings. Johnson has had several people who heard about the project too late to fund the Kickstarter and have offered to send him a personal check. If you’d still like to support Gender Portraits, you can contact Drew Johnson via his website, Facebook, or Twitter. Johnson also hopes to have a donate to PayPal button set up on the website soon.

“To me this just marks the beginning,” Johnson said. “I was given the gift of the beginning. I would have found a way to do the project if the Kickstarter wasn’t funded but it would have been a much harder climb.”

This article was first published by The Horn on 06/04/2014.

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