Drew Riley is a 29-year-old Austin artist and creator of “Gender Portraits,” a series of paintings accompanied by personal stories of gender nonconformists.
“When I was old enough to do my own shopping, I kept a secret box that I would hide under my bed or in my closet. I’d pull it out and dress up and then it would all go back in the box and I’d hide it away. And usually that last part would be kind of an emotion crash, because during the time I’m trying everything on I feel so high and so fulfilled and powerful and exactly the way I wanted to feel, but then as I would be hiding it all again I’d have this wave of self-loathing and guilt and just all kinds of nasty emotions. All of it was private. All of it was in isolation. I hadn’t told a single person until I was 23.
“A couple of years ago my friend sent me a link about a big art contest called the Hunting Art Prize. I was excited because if I won this prize it could maybe fund me to be a painter, and also, who doesn’t like a big cash prize? There was a strict deadline and I needed to come up with an idea that night, but nothing was coming to me. At some point I thought I should just paint myself, but then I thought, ‘A self-portrait isn’t interesting.’ Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’m transgender. Of course that would be interesting! A painting of me going through transition. I’m just going to jump in and do it.’ I met with a photographer. I set the scene. I did the photo shoot, and by the time the weekend was done I had locked myself into this painting. I thought I had two weeks to paint the whole thing but I actually got the date wrong. I had three months. So I didn’t have to come up with the idea that night, but I think if I hadn’t made that mistake I probably would have thought about it for a lot longer and come up with something less vulnerable and easier and done that instead.
“As I began my self-portrait I realized there were so many things that weren’t being told through this one painting. I thought about how this is the type of stuff I would have wanted to see, especially when I was younger—maybe I should tell people this and maybe I should tell people that. I wanted to tell my story. But then I realized that if I told my story, maybe people would think that that’s only what transgender meant, and there were a lot of trans people I met who felt very differently than me. I needed to tell lots of people’s transgender stories in order to tell what transgender was. One person can’t tell that. So that’s when I decided I would paint other people, interview them and release their stories alongside the art. I put together a Kickstarter and it got funded and that’s what I got to do for that entire year, was just paint and interview gender nonconformists. I couldn’t believe it. It was the ultimate dream come true, and that’s how the project got started.
“At the time I was still working as a man, and to most of my family I was a man, but I was spending my social life as a woman. It wasn’t until I started working on this gender-portraits project that I finally just ripped off the Band-Aid and made sure everyone knew. I decided that if I was going to do this, I didn’t want to be worried about who saw my project. I wanted everyone to see my project. So since the end of 2013 there’s been no segregation of my life. I am transgender for everybody who knows me.”