Butch Heroes is a book of portraits in the style of Catholic holy cards, accompanied by a concise history of the person depicted. Brodell, as they note in the introduction, tells the stories of people who, “were assigned female at birth, had documented relationships with women, and whose gender presentation was more masculine than feminine.” Holy cards have historically served as tangible gateways to past struggles, to remember and rely on humans whose trials both lift them to divinity and ground them in humanity.
Despite every effort to burn the roots of our family tree, queer people exist and we study and make art and love each other. Always have. In Butch Heroes there is proof, in that proof is validation.
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Portraits and texts recover lost queer history: the lives of people who didn't conform to gender norms, from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries.
"A serious--and seriously successful--queer history recovery project."
Katherina Hetzeldorfer, tried "for a crime that didn't have a name" (same sex sexual relations) and sentenced to death by drowning in 1477; Charles aka Mary Hamilton, publicly whipped for impersonating a man in eighteenth-century England; Clara, aka "Big Ben," over whom two jealous women fought in 1926 New York: these are just three of the lives that the artist Ria Brodell has reclaimed for queer history in Butch Heroes. Brodell offers a series of twenty-eight portraits of forgotten but heroic figures, each accompanied by a brief biographical note. They are individuals who were assigned female at birth but whose gender presentation was more masculine than feminine, who did not want to enter into heterosexual marriage, and who often faced dire punishment for being themselves.
Brodell's detailed and witty paintings are modeled on Catholic holy cards, slyly subverting a religious template. The portraits and the texts offer intriguing hints of lost lives: cats lounge in the background of domestic settings; one of the figures is said to have been employed variously as "a prophet, a soldier, or a textile worker"; another casually holds a lit cigarette. Brodell did extensive research for each portrait, piecing together a life from historical accounts, maps, journals, paintings, drawings, and photographs, finding the heroic in the forgotten.