Ria Brodell’s Butch Heroes

In her series Butch Heroes, Ria Brodell (NAP #74 & #98) reinterprets Catholic holy cards in larger, hand-painted versions that look to buried and near-endangered histories of earlier generations of LGBTQ heroes, role models, and martyrs.

Ria Brodell | Helen Oliver aka John Oliver, c.1795- c.1820 (Scotland), gouache on paper, 11 x 7 inches, 2011.

Mimicking the same poses and styles of saints in existing holy cards, Brodell imbues her new “cards” with the biographical stories and portraits of LGBTQ heroes who she has found by scouring history books, archives, and the internet.  She noted that because terms, phrasing, and identification has obviously changed so drastically over the years, her heroes were not self-identified as LGBTQ, but rather they lived a life that defied society’s traditional gender roles in some way and partook in a same-sex relationship.  Brodell is careful to triple-check her sources and takes every effort to present a true history in her series—and as such, she is doing a real service for everyone—both in and outside of the art world.  In a poignant part of our interview, she imagined a childhood where her set of Butch Heroes cards were interspersed with her holy cards.  What a different, more compassionate, sensitive, and tolerant world and church we might have if this were a true history. - Ellen Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

Ria Brodell | He-Man and St. Michael Find They Have a Lot in Common, gouache on paper, 11 x 7", 2008.

Ellen Caldwell:  I think your holy card-inspired series of portraits is a perfect combination of being wonderfully creative, totally necessary, and humorous too.  Could you discuss how you came to work on this series?

Ria Brodell: My previous series, The Handsome & The Holy, was all about my childhood.  I depicted myself as various men I identified with or admired as a kid, alongside vignettes of my favorite saints. While making that series I kept thinking about history, what would my fate have been if I had been born in a different century?  What were the lives of LGBTQ people like in the past?  I started to do the research and I was amazed at what I found.  I knew I wanted to do something with it.

EC: What has the response to these portraits been?

RB: The response has been great so far.  People are very excited by the stories and often amazed by the circumstances in which these individuals lived.  They always want to know more, which is nice.

Ria Brodell | Catharina aka Anastasius Linck, c. 1687 - 1721 (Prussia), gouache on paper, 11 x 7 inches, 2010.

EC: In NAP # 98, you discuss how "many of these individuals have been heterosexualized, criminalized, or their stories were intentionally censored in an effort to hide their queer identity."  Could you explain how you have been able to find and uncover these lesser-known histories?

RB: Thankfully, I’ve been able to find them because of scholars and writers who came before me.  Thanks to them I have LGBTQ history books to scour.  I search through these history books, their bibliographies, and other sources, like newspaper archives etc. for names and stories.  One name or source will lead me to another and I search for multiple sources in order to verify specific details about people’s lives.

Even with these resources however, it’s still remarkably hard to find queer women’s or FTM trans history.  And because LGBTQ terminology developed and changed gradually, the people I’m researching would not have self-identified with today’s terms, so I often need to read-between-the-lines to find people whose life stories and actions meet the criteria in which I’m interested: born female bodied, lived outside of their society’s traditional female gender roles, and were in documented love/sexual relationships with women.

Ria Brodell | Katherina Hetzeldorfer, c.1477 (Germany), gouache on paper, 11 x 7 inches, 2012.

EC: The process and history of criminalization (particularly through imagery) is really interesting and something I am fascinated by.  Could you discuss this a bit too?

RB: Yes, one example is female homosexuality in Europe.  It was generally thought that sex was not possible without a man, so sex between two women was inconceivable and for this reason, sexual relationships between women were often invisible.  However, if discovered there were arguments about what the crime was, if it was sodomy, “female sodomy,” or something else.  Authorities could not figure out how to punish a crime they could not name.  So, the “crimes” often became a complex mix of the individual’s sexuality, gender expression, and how it was perceived as imitating or usurping men. Two interesting examples are the stories and punishment surrounding the lives of Anastasius Linck and Katherina Hetzeldorfer, particularly because of their gender expression and their use of a sexual “instrument.”

Example of holy cards: Saint Hubert

Example of holy cards: Saint Lucy

EC: That concept of not being able to punish an unnamed crime is really fascinating. What inspired you to appropriate the Catholic holy card format?

RB: I was raised Catholic.  My Aunt had quite a collection of holy cards and we’d look through them together.  I loved the symbolism and the stories of the saints they depicted.  They were definitely inspirational role models.  When I started Butch Heroes, I thought the holy card format would be perfect.  I had this vision of me as a kid with Butch Heroes cards amongst all of my holy cards, and I was really excited by that idea: the idea of presenting queer role models.

Ria Brodell | Carl Lapp, c. 1694 (Swedish Sápmi), gouache on paper, 11 x 7 inches, 2012.

EC: It is terrific imagery picturing you as a kid with the complete set of "Butch Heroes" cards -- Any chance you will make the paintings into actual cards in addition to a catalogue?

RB: Yes, I've given that some thought, perhaps with a summary of their story on the back.  It's definitely a possibility.

EC: And if you know, what themes and subjects are you exploring in your next shows?  

RB: Right now I am still very focused on Butch Heroes and my goal is to show them as a large group with their stories, and hopefully with an accompanying book/catalogue.  I am currently working on the 16th painting in the series.

After that, we’ll see.  I have thought of continuing the series into the present day, but, because information about queer 20th and 21st century people is much more readily available to the general public, I’ve decided to stick with the lesser-known histories for now.


Ria Brodell is represented by the Kopeikin Gallery and you can view her Butch Heroesseries online.  For an interesting article about the resurgence of holy cards and the concept of “visual faith,” see “Holy Cards Inspire Visual Faith.”

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.


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