Artwork by Kenny O, Julie Blair and Tom Léger

Julie Blair is an artist and media enthusiast who loves the Internet! Tom Léger is a writer and publisher who loves buying out of print books online! With an every growing talented cast of friends, they are responsible for the blog Pretty Queer, and Topside Press, which focuses on trans narratives. With artist Kenny O, they created the artwork for, Life Chances: HIV Criminalization and Trans Politics, a conversation with Che Gossett, Dean Spade, Sean Strub, and guests.

Below Julie and Tom discuss together the process of making the artwork, invisibility, and the role creativity can play in making social change.

VISUAL AIDS: What was your inspiration making the art for the event?
Since October we’ve been working with Black and Pink to send copies of our book The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard to trans and queer prisoners, which means that we’ve been processing a lot of prison mail. One of the first things you notice when you’re going through hundreds of letters from prisoners is that a lot of them get stamped on their way out of the correctional institution with notes to warn the reader that the letter came from an inmate. The net effect of these warnings is really just stigmatizing the contents of the letter, and the author. They are a way of saying: don’t trust anything you read inside this envelope, and a way of making the inmate invisible.

Anyway, these stamps really stuck with us and when sitting down to plan out what a visual representation of this event would look like, we wanted to incorporate those stamps in some way because in the same way that HIV stigma works to invisibilize and invalidate the person whose body is carrying the virus, these stamps invisibilize and invalidate the person who wrote the letter.

All the stamps that appear on the poster are scans from real mail we got from prisoners. The postage is real, too, but it’s more ironic in this context. There’s something creepy about getting dozens of letters from prisoners that bear postage stamps that read “Justice Forever” and “Liberty Forever” and so on. One Equality stamp had been crossed out, clearly by the person sending the letter.

The flowers that appear on the poster were drawn by hand by Kenny, a queer inmate who sent us a book request. That happens sometimes, we’ll get cards or drawings because some inmates have access to art supplies. Those are always really heart-breaking because art communicates humanity and the idea that this queer guy who likes to draw flowers is going to sit in prison for the rest of his life is really awful.

I think that’s why we get so excited about cave drawings like the ones in Lascaux. It’s not that the content of the drawings are so fascinating, but they indicate so clearly that the people who drew them are not that different than us. They communicate a human connection.

VISUAL AIDS: Who is Kenny O? How did you end up working together?
Kenny O. is an inmate who wrote us to request a book, and on the outside of his envelope he drew these two daffodils. When we decided we wanted to use the image, there wasn’t enough time to ask him in advance, and not using it would mean missing an opportunity to share his art with the world. We made the decision to credit him, as well write him, thank him, and offer to pay him. We also send him a color printout of the poster.

Generally we wouldn’t want to use someone’s work without asking them first, but the idea that this guy, who is already living so isolated from the world, would not get to be included in this discussion, was a bummer, so we did what we thought was right. We credited him with his first name and last initial only for privacy reasons, since we couldn’t ask him about that ahead of time. Support Black and Pink with a donation and/or get your own prison pen pal at blackandpink.org.

VISUAL AIDS:What role can creativity play in making social change?
Creative people have an enormous amount of power to affect social change. One photograph or novel or image can move a person to act more easily than the most well reasoned logical argument. Someone who is a brain scientist probably knows more about why that is.

VISUAL AIDS: Life Chances is about exploring the connection between trans politics and HIV criminalization, based on the work you do, what you see as some of the connections, disconnects and possibilities to improve people's life chances?
HIV stigma and criminalization is a process of making the HIV positive body invisible. Even the CDC treatment recommendations are created to make us less infectious to other people, not to make us the healthiest we can possibly be by ourselves.

Trans bodies are stigmatized and criminalized for the same reason: to make us invisible, or maybe undetectable. If you can remove us from public discourse, you can render us powerless. By and large the gay political agenda has normalized the erasure of the needs of trans people and has done so completely without being challenged by their constituents.

Even this event about HIV and trans topics is being held at a museum for “gay & lesbian” art. If you’re a person who believes art means something, then you have to agree that language and words mean something. Leaving trans people out of the name or mission of your organization means something. This kind of erasure is as ubiquitous as it is insidious.

VISUAL AIDS:What do you see as the relationship between design, art, marketing, and expression?
Like any marketing, I hope it moves the audience to act. In this case, the action we want them to take is to (1) attend and (2) participate. Hopefully the poster will start a discussion in the mind of the viewer that they will want to continue at the event. Whether it is successful or not, I guess we’ll find out on April 24th.

When I work with authors on their manuscripts I always talk with them a lot about what argument they are making. Every novel, every story, has an argument. Little Red Riding Hood is making an argument about sending little girls into the woods. Lots of novels are more nuanced than that, but there’s still an argument there.

I don’t really make art for art’s sake, and I don’t really make “art for me.” If I wanted to do something to make me happy, I’d cut to the chase and just masturbate. If I am going to waste all the time it takes making art, it had better make someone do something. It had better argue a point.