Posted on | August 27, 2009 | 2 Comments
The most courageous thing you can do is to be yourself. When your self-expression extends to those around you with love and sincerity, the world becomes a better place. With joy in my heart and a smile on my face, I am thrilled to introduce you to the paintings of Paul Richmond.
When did you begin painting and how has your style evolved? My parents sought the mentorship of a fabulous local artist/teacher named Linda Regula when I was three years old. It may have been that they didn’t know what else to do with a boy who spent every waking moment with Crayolas in hand, creating hundreds of drawings a day. Usually these crude illustrations depicted my imagined adventures as a fairy tale princess.
Linda had an incredibly intuitive gift for nurturing my creativity. Rather than focusing exclusively on technical skills, she taught me that the story was what mattered. Technique was simply the language used to communicate it. I began oil painting with her when I was four, mostly depicting cartoon muses in large-scale canvas form. My parents turned their home into a gallery of my work, and I quickly (and proudly) learned to identify myself as an artist.
Eventually I went to art school and studied how to be a “serious” artist, though much of this I’ve had to un-learn in order to resume the more-important task of “playing” again. With recent influence from the Pop Surrealism movement, I find myself going full circle toward the storybook-inspired work that first teased my imagination as a youngster, infused with the personal narrative that I discovered shortly thereafter. Sure, my technique has improved over the years, but as Linda so aptly taught me years ago, I still believe the story matters most – and I have some interesting stories to tell these days!
The images you create have a soft, playful feel to them that is very disarming, yet there’s an emotional intensity to them as well. How do you approach this balance of forces? I intend for my work to be approachable and the universal themes to be apparent for viewers of all origins. My hope is to draw people in and start conversations, to open eyes, not scare people away or blend into the background.
My philosophy about art is undoubtedly rooted in my upbringing. I grew up in a tiny, Midwestern community surround by people with conservative ideologies. Imagine a flaming gay boy in a small-town Catholic school, with a Rush Limbaugh-idolizing father. Yet, while this background may seem like a formula for rebellion, there was an equally strong force at play – the genuine love and support that I also felt from my parents, sister, and friends. Contrasted by the rampant homophobia that kept me closeted until adulthood, my childhood was also filled with a lot of joy.
My dad may be conservative, but he also supported his artistic son in ways that I am endlessly grateful for – he drove enough miles to circle the globe between all of my art classes, writing groups, and other creative ventures, not to mention the amazing studio he built for me in the basement. I always knew I could count on him for anything, and he’s never let me down.
Life isn’t black and white, and ultimately I learned that prejudice comes from fear and ignorance. It doesn’t take away any of the good that exists around us, and like a misinformed line in a drawing, it can also be erased. Depending on it’s thickness, this may take time, but I’m not one to easily give up on people. I’m very proud of how supportive my family has become of their gay son, simply by realizing that in reality, I’m still just their son after all.
My work documents this journey of self-discovery and acceptance, and I believe that’s something everyone can relate to on some level. I’m not interested in muddying up the message with pompous displays of intellectualism. I’m usually not thinking about the viewer when I’m alone in my studio working on a painting. At that point, I’m lost somewhere in my own head. But when the canvas is signed, I eagerly welcome everyone, regardless of their background or views, to enjoy my crazy, colorful world.
By painting your own story and experiences, you’ve become an activist for understanding and open-mindedness. Can you talk about art as activism and the role it plays in your life? It’s hard for me to think of myself as an activist because that term conjures images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Harvey Milk in my mind. Yet I know without doubt that the arts have been integral in influencing change throughout history. I certainly aspire to do my part in creating dialogue about important issues, and counteracting generalized prejudices with genuine expressions of my own individuality.
It wasn’t long ago when I strove for just the opposite. As a repressed college student with baggy clothes and a secret fondness for moody art boys, I spent most of my time mimicking what others around me painted. Not surprisingly, gray landscapes and non-objective color studies left me a tad bit uninspired. When I graduated, I formed a mural painting partnership with my talented friend, Melissa Forman. I learned so much from her, both as an artist and as a person. She was the first friend I came out to and she very gently helped me through that complicated process.
One evening, beneath the red glow of the Cher mural she helped me paint on my apartment wall, I started a sketch that would eventually become the painting First Time Out. It explored the turmoil I felt – the simultaneous expansion and contraction – that resulted from my first intentional relationship with another man. I was only out to a few close friends, and I never intended to share this painting with anyone. I kept it hidden beneath my bed and only dragged it out when I was alone in my apartment. I was even scared to show it to Melissa, and when that time came, I remember hiding in the other room while she looked it over. Her reaction that day left me speechless. She loved it and said that I should submit it to a local juried exhibition. I burst out laughing. She might as well have suggested that I strip off my clothes and parade down High Street!
Eventually though, as I continued delving into this area of subject matter (and ran out of space under my bed to hide my work), I started considering Melissa’s idea more seriously. After all, what good would these paintings do anyone collecting dust in my bedroom? I reluctantly brought them out and began showing them in local group exhibitions. The response they received from people of every sexual orientation baffled me. They could actually relate to what I was saying! I had always felt so incredibly alone, yet thanks to these shows, I quickly started to locate myself as a member of a much larger community. It wasn’t long before First Time Out was on the cover of a local magazine with the title “Coming Out on Canvas.” There was no turning back now!
Since then, my work and I have been on parallel journeys of ever-increasing gayness. As I’ve grown more comfortable in my own skin, so too have my compositions. By stripping away the layers that kept me guarded during my childhood, my art has become more intense and revealing as well. What began as art therapy during a transformative period of my life has evolved into an incredible way of sharing my point of view with others, and publicly questioning ideas that disregard the value of individuality.
What would we be surprised to find out about you? Well, I’m a sappy romantic at heart. Over the last three years, I’ve surprised myself (and some of my friends) by settling down a bit from the partying that came with my initial embrace of gay culture. I don’t regret any of those fun, wild experiences, but these days I prefer to live out my craziest fantasies through my work instead.
My partner (and fiancée), Dennis Niekro, has completely stolen my heart and somehow made lying in bed and watching “Little House on the Prairie” seem so damn appealing. I may even secretly enjoy the show a little bit now, though I will always deny it when asked! And on the flipside, he’s more than willing to indulge my need for spontaneous adventure, which often leads him in dizzyingly unexpected directions. Case in point, a few years ago we were invited to the Tammy Faye Memorial Celebration because of a portrait I made of the late televangelist. Suddenly, Dennis and I (along with Melissa and her boyfriend, Michael) found ourselves in the Palm Springs home of Tammy Faye’s manager alongside Larry King and Charlene Tilton. Dennis almost fell out of his chair when Cloris Leachman strolled past to play us a tune on the piano, and we have a photo with Ron Jeremy from the event that I will cherish forever.
It’s really quite amazing how well Dennis and I compliment each other. He is an incredibly caring, devoted, and ambitious person who is currently working hard to complete his graduate degree and become a nurse practitioner. His more practical, grounded side helps me bring into focus the countless ideas and crazy schemes I concoct daily. In return, I like to think I’ve been able to help elevate his ability to dream big with a little less interference from reality.
We’re going to get married when he finishes his program in two years, with or without legal-recognition (though I believe it’s only a matter of time).
What are you currently working on? I’m excited to be preparing for a solo exhibition at the Halsted Gallery in Chicago which is tentatively scheduled for June 2010. The show is called Gay Day at Paulyworld, and I plan to make it a Pride Month for Boystown to remember! Currently, I’m finishing a triptych called Pin-Up Payback which features heartthrobs Justin Timberlake, Zac Effron, and Robert Pattenson caught in classic, underwear-exposing pin-up predicaments while 50’s-era cheesecake girls look on admiringly from windows and doorways in the background.
I’ve branched into licensing my work for publication, and I have seven novel covers and a series of wacky greeting cards also in the works at the moment. I released a collection of my most personal paintings in a book called “Ins & Outs” earlier this year, and I was thrilled to be included in an erotic anthology called Stripped Uncensored that came out this month.
Additionally, I’m developing a book and exhibition called Self-Made with San Francisco-based artist Jason Driskill that addresses the construction of male sexuality in the context of self-portraiture. I’m also collaborating with my fabulous childhood mentor, Linda Regula, on a book to help inspire other art educators with her unconventional methods for nurturing students’ creativity.
Anything you’d like to add? Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my artwork with your readers, and for asking such great questions! I’d just like to close by acknowledging the countless young people who continue to be marginalized because of their sexuality, in spite of the great progress we’ve made through human rights initiatives. I wish I could go and tell each of them individually to hang in there, be true to themselves – that they’re not as alone as they might feel. I hope my work can help spread that message for me.
I once gave a presentation to a group of LGBTQ teens in a gallery where I was hosting a benefit for their community center. I wasn’t sure what to expect, because as a teenager myself, I couldn’t even bring myself to utter the word “gay.” I was told that some of them had been disowned by their parents because of their sexual orientation, or were participating in the group secretly to avoid reprimand at home. I couldn’t imagine being that brave when I was their age! When they arrived, their level of self-awareness and the articulate way they freely discussed their experiences amazed me.
I was prepared to walk them around the space and share the stories behind each of my paintings, maybe answer a few questions. Instead, I was treated to an enlightening dialogue in which they did most of the talking. I stood back at times and just listened as they absorbed my work and told me their versions of the stories depicted. They had lived it, and they understood.
I hope my career is filled with days like that.
Get in touch with Paul through his website www.paulrichmondstudio.com