Unicorn Booty recently spoke to artist Janet Bruesselbach about her ongoing project Daughters of Mercury (link NSFW), a series of oil portraits of trans women.
[Disclosure: Bruesselbach is good friends with one of the editors of this website.]
Unicorn Booty: Can you tell me what inspired you to start Daughters of Mercury?
Janel Bruesselbach: I felt very close to trans women in the past few years. My way of expressing love or admiration is usually to paint a portrait of someone, but just doing it for fun wasn’t very motivating, and many of them don’t live nearby.
Why the name “Daughters of Mercury”?
It was unique, I suppose. Andromeda [one of the models] is kind of into alchemical symbology, and I had seen the Mercury symbol floating around as an alternative to an elaborated Venus or the usual catch-all trans symbol. It still feels a little too mystical for me, but essentially it’s capturing how trans women are born of the possibilities of technologies of medicine and those available to build communication. It’s fundamentally about embracing change.
Is that why your description of the project includes the phrase “Portraits of trans women as they want to be seen”?
I felt like I wasn’t seeing the huge variety of lives and personalities occupied by trans women in most representations of them, and I particularly felt like in representational oil painting nobody else was doing it, at least not in the respectful way I try to.
In a very brief and wonderful encounter with Janet Mock, she said “as they want to be seen” was the best part of the project description. So I try to keep it up front and remind myself what the goal is: it’s about avoiding projecting my beliefs on my subjects and letting the effort they’ve put into grappling with gendered appearances show as much as they want, or altering as they want. That’s sometimes difficult for me when it involves painting differently from how I paint, but usually they give me too much freedom, if anything.
What kind of a response did you get to part I of Daughters of Mercury?
Well, a lot of backing, pretty much entirely positive feedback! This is Part II pretty much because even when I started Part I, I knew I had too many people I wanted to paint. And since this is my only job right now, I’m trying to focus on it before I find other things to occupy my time — which may actually grow out of this, either by starting an art nonprofit or working on starting a [homeless] shelter (which I have zero experience in, unlike art nonprofits).
One of the models for the first cycle, Rebeka Refuse, runs Trans Housing Network, and has been looking into establishing a shelter for homeless trans and queer youth, probably in Baltimore. A couple of other models in the second cycle also have experience in working in group shelters.
You’ve mentioned that traditional oil painting tends to present women as objects. How did you avoid or subvert that trope in your work?
I don’t even think the feminist critique is that simple. It’s a pretty old way of thinking about it. I don’t necessarily consider objects to lack agency, and don’t even get me into the boundaries of sentience. The entire context of how an image is produced goes into whether or not it uses the tropes of pose and anatomy in an exploitative way.
I do struggle with how I as a cis woman may fundamentally be exploiting trans women, but I hope the way this works is that I am a woman depicting women. It’s up to who I paint to say that, and when they do respond critically I change what I can and I amplify what they say.
I’ve found that a lot of the posing tropes that go along with photography go away when you ask someone to pose comfortably for a long time.
Can you tell me what you mean by “a more cyborg feminist future” on your Kickstarter page? What connections do you see between technological progress and gender expression?
I mean, trans women have always existed. It’s not like they were created by the internet or artificial hormones. But those have made it more possible for them to live as they want, and medical technology in particular (I hope) can move toward allowing people to configure their minds and bodies as they want. I don’t think it’s inherently going to do that (in fact patriarchal medicine has a long history of applying binary gender to limit the bodily autonomy of almost everyone), but I feel that technology will be the thing that works in favor of breaking down patriarchy’s boundaries.