Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Queer Portraits in History: An Interview w/ Illustrator Michele Rosenthal

At the beginning of 2014, illustrator Michele Rosenthal launched a fascinating project - Queer Portraits in History. The premise is simple. On a regular basis, Michele illustrates an important gay figure active before the 21st century and gives a paragraph or two about their careers. The result is incredible. Michele's labor of love is turning out to be the  most comprehensive, entertaining look into LGBT history available on the internet. She does a great job featuring names that everyone recognizes like Andy Warhol and Rock Hudson, but an even better job featuring people that may have been forgotten or unknown to a younger generation such as artist Tamara De Lempicka or director Nicholas Ray.

Aside from the Queer Portraits project, Michele is an author and freelance illustrator with a client list full of big time websites, magazines, universities, and more. You should check out her exceptionally charming children's book for the iPad The Trouble With Falling Asleep.  The digital interface allows the book to be interactive,  so the reader can change the way the characters look or even rewrite their own version of the events in the plot line. It's pretty brilliant.

Michele's online bio was fairly concise. She only took credit for being a dance party instigator and winner of the 5th grade Math Olympiad. So, of course, I had to ask for a bit more background:
I said I wanted to be an illustrator in second grade, and although it wasn't a straight line from then to now, I think second-grade-me would be pleased. I grew up in suburban Pennsylvania, studied illustration at Syracuse University, then moved to New York City and spent a few years designing Hello Kitty watches. I started freelancing in 2010, and I plan on never going back to an office. I also plan on never leaving New York.
After reading the interview below, if you would like to discover more about Michele Rosenthal on your own, I suggest her Website, Blog, Twitter, and Dribble. And, be sure to visit Queer Portraits in History frequently to see her new additions!

KEITH HARING 1958–1990

Q: What was your eureka moment for undertaking the Queer Portraits in History project?

Michele: It was an idea that had been percolating for a long time before I actually started it. I'm always motivated to draw the things that are meaningful to me, and I had done portraits of some of these people in the past, though not as a series. Then one day, I was telling yet another friend about this potential project I wanted to start, and decided that it was time to stop talking and start doing.

Q:  I love that you not only illustrate the people you feature, but you also do a great job summarizing their careers. Was is the most mind-blowing discovery you made while researching one of your subjects?
Michele: I still can't get over the fact that Josephine Baker had a pet cheetah.

Leslie Gore
Q: I had no idea Leslie Gore was gay until I read about it on your site. Were you aware of the sexuality of everyone you have featured ahead of time or have you had to look folks up?
Michele: Most of these people came from a ready-made mental list that I'm always adding to. And then a musically-inclined friend clued me in on Wendy Carlos, Cole Porter, and Leonard Bernstein, who were all fun discoveries.

Q:  You do a really great job interacting with your readers and publishing some of their questions. What is the strangest request someone has made thus far?
Michele: Most of the requests I've gotten have been pretty great, actually. I've learned a lot from them. I guess the one I found most amusing was the suggestion to draw Ellen Page—a cool person, certainly, but not quite "historical."

Q: You seem to have illustrated a roughly equal amount of extroverted, flamboyant celebrities vs. celebrities who played it safe and kept quiet about their homosexuality. Which are more interesting, the introverts or the rabble rousers?
Michele: That's an interesting way to divide them. I would say the flamboyant characters interest me a little more, because it was an incredible feat in the 20th century to have a thriving career and be so aggressively out. I'm fascinated by how they managed it. But I'm also amazed by those who knew their private lives could cause scandal, yet didn't let that curtail their ambitions. And more than anything I think it's important to see the full range of people's experiences.

Q:  Have you heard from any of the celebrities still alive regarding your wonderful illustration of them?
Michele: Every time I post an illustration of someone living, I panic just a little about what their reaction might be. But so far I haven't heard from any of them.

Q: While creeping around your website, I came across a series of retro-future background images you made for Funny or Die's digital magazine. Just out of curiosity, why is there a barrel full of severed limbs in a bucket in the doctor's office?
Michele: Ah, yes, I did post those images completely without context. The article is about a possible future in which everything regresses to old technology, and doctors go back to solving problems more "holistically" with amputations. It was a fun assignment.

Q: What illustrators/artists are you currently following?
Michele: Ugh, I hate naming five people and knowing I've forgotten 50. Paul Blow, Jack Hughes, Kali Ciesemier, James Boast, Angie Wang, Mitch Blunt, Melinda Beck, Meg Hunt, and Andrew Lyons are just a tiny fraction of the contemporary illustrators I greatly admire.

Q: I totally adore your piece Changes:Timeline of David Bowies. What is your favorite Bowie era?
Michele: How could I possibly choose?! I'll have to pick one that's not even in my illustration, like maybe the David-Bowie-doing-a-Christmas-duet-with-Bing-Crosby era. Incidentally, "Which Bowie am I thinking of?" makes for a great car game.

Q:  Michele, I hate to question your But I'm A Cheerleader really your favorite lesbian themed movie?
Michele: Um, yes, of course it is. I bet you can't name a single one that's better.


ROCK HUDSON 1925–1985


ANDY WARHOL 1928-1987



DIVINE 1945–1988

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