Friday, February 28, 1997

The Art of Leather, Part 1

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #46, February 28, 1997)

Throughout human history, societies and cultures have created art as an expression of themselves. Ancient civilizations painted pictures of animals on the walls of caves. History books tell us those paintings were put there to give visual expression to their wishes for good hunting. Thousands of years later, in certain respects not much has changed: we still create and view images of the objects of our desire, as well as scenes of a successful hunt. My partner Ken, who knows art and design (he has taught college-level art classes), wishes to interject at this point that “Nowadays, however, the hunt is for much more interesting meat.” Thank you, Ken.

While cultures may create art in response to certain immediate needs and desires, a culture’s art also represents both a gift to members of other cultures and a legacy to the future. A culture’s art testifies that the culture exists, and that it has the strength and vitality to express itself.

The development of the modern-day leather community is intertwined with the development of the modern-day gay community. [Homosexual culture was forced underground during the period between the two World Wars. But after World War II a few brave souls started to speak out against society’s oppression of homosexuals. At the same time, perhaps as a by-product of the intense male-to-male soldiering situations of World War II, the beginnings of the leather subculture started quietly appearing in major cities. These two movements were destined to “blossom” at the same time: The Stonewall riots in 1969 proclaimed the existence of the gay community as a social institution, and the founding of Drummer Magazine at about the same time proclaimed leathermen as a subset of that community.

]In much the same fashion, early homoerotic art was dominated by the hypermasculine symbolism of the budding leather community. The trailblazing art of George Quaintance was featured in the covertly-gay male physique magazines of the 1950’s. In the Technicolor hues of the era, he painted breathtaking homoerotic scenes populated by beautifully muscular and handsome men: cowboys around a campfire after a storm wringing out their wet clothing; ancient roman baths anachronistically populated by 50’s musclemen; and a vaguely native-American scene with two warriors, impaled with arrows, dying at the feet of another man chained against a wall. This picture caused an outcry from the censors — not because of the gore or elements of bondage, but because of the bare buttocks on the two dying warriors.

To modern-day eyes, Quaintance’s art sometimes seems, well, quaint — in the same way that a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical or an episode of “Father Knows Best” seem to reflect a gentler, more innocent time. [The men, while muscular, were relentlessly pretty and showed no basket at all. They couldn’t — this was the 50’s, after all, and even gay society wasn’t yet ready for that. ]It’s easy to forget how revolutionary and shocking these paintings were at the time, and what a courageous and defiant act it was to create such openly sexual art.

Quaintance died in 1957, and shortly thereafter his mantle was taken up by Tom of Finland, probably the most celebrated leather artist in history. Tom became the first leather-art superstar, and “Tom’s Men” continue to be icons for countless leatherfolk of all genders. The Tom of Finland Foundation oversees his artistic legacy and also seeks to foster emerging leather artists (more about that next issue).

Another emerging leather artist of the time was Dom Orejudos, also known as Etienne. Among his accomplishments were the murals on the walls of Chicago’s Gold Coast, one of the most famous leather bars of all time (which was owned by his partner Chuck Renslow).

Today’s established leather artists include Leon, who inherited (from Etienne) the privilege of drawing the official portrait of each year’s International Mr. Leather; The Hun, whose comic-style drawings often include signs posted in the background which make sly comments on the hot, sweaty action taking place in the foreground; and Gary Van Velsor, whose canvas is a thick pane of glass and whose brush is a sandblaster. His engraved images of nude and clothed torsos, often decorated with harnesses or nipple rings, almost spring to life when displayed on a lighted base. These and other established and emerging leather artists — of all races, genders and orientations — are on display at leather trade fairs and in the pages of magazines such as Drummer, International Leatherman, Bear, Honcho, The Leather Journal, and Eagle.

Today there are enough leather artists out there that last fall the San Francisco Leather Daddies held at leather art auction during Leather Pride Week. Most of the artists were from the west coast, but the invitation was issued to leather artists around the world who wanted to be included in next year’s event. Three local artists who might want to answer that call will be profiled in the next issue.

Upcoming Leather Events

Tank Grand Opening featuring Donnie Russo
Sunday, March 9, 6-10 pm, The Tank at The Saloon
The Saloon’s new Sunday-night Leatherspace kicks off with an appearance by omnipresent porn star Donnie Russo. Enter through the patio gate in back of the bar; leather/levi/skin dress code will be enforced. $5 cover includes drink specials.

Other Upcoming Events

Mark your calendar and watch for upcoming details:

Sunday, March 16: Mr. Minnesota Leather Fundraiser

Sunday, March 23: Ms. Minnesota Leather Fundraiser

Saturday, April 12: Atons Bar Night at the Chicago Eagle

Memorial Day Weekend: International Mr. Leather Contest, Chicago. Make your reservations now — area hotels are either already full or are filling up fast.

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