I’ve always used drawing as a way to express myself. I think we all did as children, before we decided our drawings weren’t good enough and moved on. It’s funny how “that’s not how its supposed to look” can stop us from trying to get there, isn’t it? I’ve learned not to let that stop me.
As a child, in between all the drawings of Link, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, I used to vent through my pictures. I vividly remember drawing a grotesque mouth pulled into a smile with wires when I was feeling depressed at around age eight. (Although I could blame watching Pink Floyd’s: The Wall one too many times for that one.)
As I got older and my interest in drawing and creating images grew. I found myself doing art at college, and while I was still drawing Mario and Sonic because I loved cartoons and videogames, I also started to learn about “real art”.
My personal art preferences never made it into the classroom until we were asked to bring in a picture during a textiles class. No specific rules were included in this request. Simply to bring in a picture. Any picture that we liked, in order to take the colours from it for a project.
I was excited by this prospect. I could finally share something that was important to me. Some of the artwork that had inspired me to study art in the first place! I went home and used our newly gotten internet to find a picture from my favorite book series at the time, Dragonlance. It was “The Death of Strum” by Larry Elmore which I bought into class.
When it was my turn to show the picture that I had bought in, I happily presented it to the teacher, a very Ann Robinson-esque woman. Just looking at the picture filled me with inspiration. However, the second the teacher set eyes on it she immediately told me, “That’s not art.”
I was crushed. She gave me no explanation as to why the image I had chosen “wasn’t art”. There was no feedback, and no understanding to be had then or any other time during my art course. The image I cared about, which I considered art because it spoke to me, wasn’t good enough and I was made to feel utterly ashamed.
This phrase “That’s not art” came back several times afterwards during my entire art education. If I happened to doodle a cartoon in my spare time or talk about my love of comic books, japanese animation or video game artwork. “That’s not art” would surely follow.
So there I was, an art student who apparently didn’t like real art.
It was disheartening that my means to express myself had seemingly been cut off. I thought that these cartoon and fantasy drawings – which I related to and helped me vent the things I was going through – were art. It had turned out that they were less than nothing.
“I know many transgender people related to Disney’s film Mulan and the song “Reflection.” That style of animation that spoke to all those people? Not art, apparently.”
The same goes for the video game Metroid. Back when all we had were pixelated heroes, this game managed to take us on an epic quest only to reveal at the very end of it all that the bad-ass main character Samus Aran was a woman the entire time. So many women felt empowered by that character design. It was a fantastic moment designed and executed beautifully, but I knew if I showed it to my peers in college the reaction would be negative.
Or what about the illustrative work of Brian Froud? He gave us beautiful escapism, androgynous fae and magical worlds to lose ourselves in. Was illustration not important enough to be called art?
It wasn’t until much later in life that I started to question what my teachers had told me. Surely art was an image that was made to express something? An image that could reach out to people or convey creativity and emotion. If something was created to be art, surely art is just what it was?
Being born female and transitioning to male I learnt that people are what they say they are. It doesn’t matter what they look like. If I say I’m male, then I’m male no matter what stage of transition. I wondered if that might be the same for art.
If I say my drawing is art, is it?
I decided to go with the definition of art I found online.
“Art. The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
With that in mind, I decided to share my drawings online. I’d been hiding them for quite some time just using them to vent my own feelings and thoughts. They were my way of working through my transition. Once I started sharing them I found out how many people this ‘not art’ could reach.
I started to meet other people who were transitioning. People who I didn’t even know would send me messages telling me that my drawings had really spoken to them, and had given them courage. I even managed to help one or two people by donating my old binders to them post-surgery because I found them via my drawings.
I had always thought that the way I chose to draw wasn’t real art. That my cartoon inspired format was not right for the serious issue of transitioning. Now I know that’s not true. I’ve had such positive feedback about my work and I know in my heart that if it’s even reached one person then I’m glad to have made it.
I even found out there is a tumblr group called Trans Toons where loads of other people are sharing the exact same thing! So many trans people use drawing and creating as a positive outlet to reach out to others, and it really works. It’s an accessible form of communication when words can be too much to handle, and it can transcend a common language barrier. I’m happy to add to the pile: Because trans people have courage and guts. Trans people are creative and passionate. Trans people are all artists, shaping themselves into the visual image that can always be appreciated for its emotional power.
If “that’s not art” then in the end, I don’t care. I chose to believe differently.