Eli Thorne in his Oakland studio. Graham Holoch/KQED
Eli Thorne in his Oakland studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

Redefining Pride: Eli Thorne Paints at the Edges of Discomfort

Redefining Pride: Eli Thorne Paints at the Edges of Discomfort

Welcome to KQED Arts’ Redefining Pride: The East Bay’s Queer Artists, a series highlighting the work of queer-identified artists in Oakland and Berkeley. Through printmaking, photography, painting and interdisciplinary work, these visual artists celebrate people, histories and causes often sidelined within mainstream presentations of the queer community.

Discomfort, as much as we try to avoid it, can be a site for discovery and growth. Analyzing the what and why behind our reactions is instructive of what we value and fear; in the process, we can unearth useful information about ourselves and our relationship to the world around us.

Oakland-based artist Eli Thorne knows there is much to be learned from exploring discomfort. To make his paintings, sculptures and drawings, he frequently plays with the edge of ease and anxiety, letting intuition act as his guide. The resulting works are intensely personal, yet still evoke universally resonant emotional states and a broader social critique.

'Monster on a Country Road,' 2018 in Thorne's Oakland studio.
'Monster on a Country Road,' 2018 in Thorne's Oakland studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

Monster of Zayante Creek, Thorne’s recent series of paintings exhibited at Berkeley’s Totally Rad Gallery, finds the artist contemplating his childhood from his current perspective—now that of an adult trans man. In these paintings, Thorne depicts dream-like scenes filled with animals, faces and natural environments informed by growing up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in houses near the 10-mile-long Zayante Creek. Rather than recreate literal snapshots of the region, Thorne portrays emotional states—such as fear, hope, courage, sorrow—painted in landscape-style sites filled with symbolism.

Childhood, of course, is where binary gender norms are hammered into us, and where deviating from the status quo can be treated as suspect or shameful. For people who have transitioned genders as adults, looking back at their youth can bring up an array of complicated memories. In Thorne’s exhibition description, he wonders about the concept of a “lost boyhood” and a “nostalgia for a time in his life he never had” while being socialized as a girl. He treats these ideas with curiosity, rather than seeking than a definitive set of conclusions.

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Thorne’s gestural lines are reminiscent of children’s art in their vigorous and smeary renderings, untethered from the constraints of scale, perspective and depth of field. The style of painting is intentional, Thorne notes. “It’s mostly just how my body wants to paint, which is very physical and fast,” he says. “But it is playful and childlike [while] dealing with darker themes.”

Sketches in Thorne's Oakland studio.
Sketches in Thorne's Oakland studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

To that end, I ask to what “monster” the exhibition title refers. Thorne says that the primary motivation for using the phrase was to connote “how trans bodies can be seen as illegitimate and like monsters,” or as “half-human.” However, Thorne explains, after this starting point, multiple manifestations of fear-inducing creatures and constructs began to appear in the series.

Growing up (and continuing to live) within the gender binary is one monstrous experience he cites, as well as the childhood memories of imagination in outdoors play, such as “this fantastical monster that my sisters and I would run away from.” Alternately, another horrendous construct is “an internal shadow or demon, or the monster being really dark stuff," he says. "Like in one of the paintings with tombstones and bones, the monster there being the impulse to commit suicide because you’re not seen the way you should be, or society or family isn’t accepting you,” he trails off. In the Monster of Zayante Creek, he says, “the monster is—there are many. I don’t have one.”

Although some of these monsters might be familiar to other trans-identified people, Thorne is quick to acknowledge his specific experiences are not representative of anyone’s other than his own. “I am only making these paintings coming from my trans experience,” he says. “I never want it to be thought that I'm trying to represent a population of people, because folks have pasts that they loved, and they may have identified as a different gender and still had a beautiful, lovely time. I definitely had that. Now that they're a different-gendered body, and that doesn't mean they can't love their old self.”

Eli Thorne in his Oakland studio.
Eli Thorne in his Oakland studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

Thorne further resists the mainstream preconception that there’s one singular “trans experience” of gender. There’s the common popular narrative that “you're born in the wrong body, you hate your life until you've had surgery and taken hormones,” he comments. “I mean, that's ridiculous to think that's the one way, the only way.”

In his consideration of his own narrative, both real and imagined, Thorne’s paintings feature a host of symbolic characters and icons, including some menacing actors. It’s not always clear which figures represent an aggressor or protector, or if some of the figures may contain elements of both. One recurring symbol, who often hovers like an omnipotent mythological creature, is a “queer ancestor/oracle,” represented through a long-haired, sometimes bearded face. The oracle’s facial expression is indeterminate, not exactly smiling but not necessarily frowning; this character’s intense, wide-eyed gaze is hard to meet.

Other key icons include animals full of personal significance. The snake, Throne says, represents rebirth and personal growth through shedding skin—a less frightening but nevertheless powerful process. “They’re always shedding a layer, and that really rings true to me, just in my process as a trans person,” he says. “The idea of shedding layers daily, whether it be with every shot of testosterone, or a conversation I have to have with someone about being trans.”

'Dark Heart Forest,' 2018 in Thorne's Oakland studio.
'Dark Heart Forest,' 2018 in Thorne's Oakland studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

Tigers, similarly, are painted mid-roar with fierce eyes, and to Thorne, they stand for courage, self-determination, and strength. Perhaps the tigers represent a longing to stand up against the status quo and against the multitude of fears that come and go, or came and went in childhood. Even without a legend to translate all the personal symbols in his work, Thorne’s paintings are richly, if uncomfortably, emotional works.

In addition to the works specific to childhood, some of Thorne’s other landscape paintings included scrawled phrases on the canvas, such as, “Swipe right, I won’t bite,” “They won’t date me because I’m trans,” and “At 24 Hr Fitness, no door on the shower” in messy, all-caps print. But even on the paintings that don’t show a message on the front, it’s possible he has inscribed it elsewhere.

“I do love to add little messages,” Thorne says. “Written messages, either on the sides [of a canvas] or I'll write something on the back of the painting. I started to do that because I wanted to limit the amount of text I was using, because I tend to want to go all out! I'm very impulsive, and the way to mitigate that is to write a little something on the back. But it's really embarrassing to [later] read what I've written—it's like my diary or something.”

Eli Thorne, 'Trans Ancestor,' 2018.
Eli Thorne, 'Trans Ancestor,' 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)

This not-so-secret revealing of personal messages fits within Thorne’s continued practice to explore and expand his comfort levels through art. “I'm trying to go to my boundaries as to what feels comfortable, and then pull back a little bit and soften,” he says.

He’s found good company in the Bay Area, including access to resources and community who have helped him along the way. “It’s the queer community that has kept me here,” he says. “There’s a lot of queer artists, too, and that’s really exciting to me—seeing what they’re making and how they’re using their experiences... making new and exciting stuff that isn’t super derivative to identity.”

This December during a residency at the Growlery, Thorne will experiment further by incorporating his community into the art-making process. He intends to work with other trans male-identified friends’ recollections from childhood to produce symbols and imagery for paintings. “I’m going to collaborate with them about whatever their boyhood, girlhood, or childhood was like, and make paintings based on that—as a gift, to honor them and their past selves, as a way to breathe it out and let it go.”

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