Do oil paintings make you think of The Mona Lisa or The Venus Of Urbino? Artist Janet Bruesselbach is modernizing the medium with a series of gorgeous, full-body oil portraits of transgender women called Daughters Of Mercury.

With the goal of “celebrating the beauty and diversity of trans women,” Bruesselbach is currently running her second fundraiser for the project on Indiegogo. Each portrait is a collaboration between the artist and the subject, showing the subject as they want to be seen - meaning the results are everything from fully clothed women enjoying a cup of coffee to provocative nudes.

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Red, September 2014, oils on linen, 30x40in
 

This fall, Daughters Of Mercury will also get an exhibition at New York’s babycastles from November 11-25, and the portraits are also available to view online or to buy as a 2016 calendar.

In an email interview, we talked with Bruesselbach about Daughters Of Mercury:

Kate, March 2015, oil on canvas, 48x24in

 

How did you get the idea for the series Daughters Of Mercury?

For several years, I had been becoming friends with more and more of [the portrait subjects] on social media. I am in the habit of painting people when I like them a lot, but paintings cost a lot to make, and trans women in particular are spending whatever money they have on the ongoing costs of transition.

I particularly wanted to do justice to the work they often put into presentation with really big, narratively involved art, especially considering the standards in representative figure painting that take cis women as a default. This was my way of trying to respond to what my friends were saying and leveraging my privilege to bring resources to people I cared about, while introducing each subject's unique greatness to the world as best I could.

Sybil Lamb, June 2015, oil on canvas, 36x48in

 

Tell us about the name Daughters Of Mercury. Where does it come from?

I saw some trans feminists using the Mercury symbol (a Venus symbol with horns) to signify trans women specifically, as opposed to the combined triple-armed trans symbol. I liked the associations from alchemy that Mercury is the fluid, malleable mother of metals, plus its association with chemistry, medicine, and communication (the possibilities for online community and connection).

Others have mentioned the "silent sisters" and the classical Hermaphrodite (if she flashes you it's good luck!), which are okay, but not the core intent. Mostly I only saw a few uses of the name in an astrological context and it's too goofy to pick up steam colloquially so I knew it would be unique to the project.

Alex, January 2015, oil on canvas, 29x48

 

How does the collaboration process with the subjects work? How do you find subjects for the paintings?

The first subjects were close friends of mine, or women I admired. I reached out to trans women I knew about posing and connecting me with more subjects, particularly for greater diversity, which I'm now particularly focused on. I'm honored to have been able to work with people like Cecilia Gentili, Casey Plett, and Tobi Hill-Meyer. There are more I reached out to that I wish I could have painted, or painted earlier.

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My main problem has actually been having to turn models down, because the paintings are so much effort and I know too many gorgeous trans women; I often favored those I knew could use the work.

Making sure everyone wrote something (and it explicitly could have been anything, since I didn't want to be manufacturing for the cis gaze) to publish with the portraits was surprisingly hard. I try to be a transparent medium as much as possible, and every painting is dictated by how the subject imagined it. It's really a collaboration, and luckily most of the subjects like my style and understood its limitations, and would let me improvise a background based on their personality.

 

A Lady Betwixt (Robin), April 2015, oil on canvas, 30x60in

 

What are some of the reactions you've gotten from the series?

Most of the feedback has been positive! Some of the [first] Kickstarter backers felt like their concept of what women or trans women could be was expanded by the paintings. I did get some negative feedback from a few trans women who were suspicious of the premise and felt that I shouldn't be representing them, or that I was fetishizing them, or didn't understand where the money was going.

I took it seriously, but it came after  I had done both what they were asking me not to do (represent trans women) and what they were asking me to do (give money to trans women). 

Most trans women I've talked to like the project and especially the variety of presentations and bodies. And there's been far less transmisogyny than I imagined, although I suspect that's another feature of cis privilege. I'm really eager to hear more from those who see it, since it's probably the most ambitious and extensive work I've ever done, and the least self-indulgent.

Serene, July 2015, oil on canvas, 32x64in

 

What's next for "Daughters of Mercury" and for you?

There's the Indiegogo campaign I set up for ongoing funding, so we should mention that! It seems overwhelming, but I hope to have 24 paintings (4 of the last 5 being women of color whose portraits I put off far too long) finished by November, enabling me to print a 2017 calendar that will include the later favorites that I couldn't put in the 2016 calendar.

The space hosting the show is definitely too small to fit everything, so I would like to show it all again in a larger space. Really, I'd like to sell enough paintings and prints that the rest of the paintings can go wherever the subjects want them. I'll call it finished once it's nicely rounded off that way, while making way and promoting trans women representing themselves and each other (Catherine Graffam, Sybil Lamb, Juliana Huxtable, definitely more to come).

As for me, I tend to go through fallow periods in between personal projects like these, as I consider what it means to be an oil portrait painter in a dystopic future world.

Read more on BUST.com:

"About Ray" Gets Trans Stories Wrong: Movie Review

Lena Dunham's Sibling Grace "Walked Like A Boy" At NYFW

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge Interviews Against Me! Singer Laura Jane Grace About Transitioning, Gender And Caitlyn Jenner

 

 

Erika W. Smith is BUST's digital editorial director. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @erikawynn and email her at erikawsmith@bust.com.

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