Interview: Butches Can Paint Flowers (A Conversation with Painter Suzanne M. Shifflet)
By Dana May
One of Suzanne M. Shifflett’s paintings featured on her Instagram (smshifflett) centers a white rose, its petals shadowed in violets and blues opening to expose the golden stamen. The 5”x5” painting carries Shifflett’s signature commitment to detail and realism, with the post containing a string of hashtags, including #butchescanpaintflowers. Flowers may never have been Shifflett’s chosen subject had it not been for the pandemic, which prevented her from tattooing, her primary source of income.
“I discovered something that was very interesting,” she said from her home studio in Long Beach, “I always thought I needed tattooing so I could paint whatever I wanted, and since I couldn’t tattoo, I was painting things I knew I could sell. And I actually enjoyed painting them,” including the flowers.
“As I was painting them, just the feeling I had of painting them was like . . . I had a series of genitalia back in the 90’s . . . like I was doing the same thing, but with color.” This genitalia series falls more in line with the primary subjects of Shifflett’s artwork—elevated oil portraits of queer sexuality. Rendering her desires and identity has not led her down the typical path of the mainstream art world (“I never banked on galleries supporting me. I don’t pursue them and I don’t care if they pursue me”), but allowed her to bolster queer people and imagery otherwise erased from art and culture.
An Instagram post of a pencil sketch of a hairy chested biker drawn by her 13-year-old self contains layers of foreshadowing to the art she would produce years later. Shifflett compares her relationship to drawing and painting growing up to how young people relate to video games now. “It was my safe space” in a house where family members came and went with the tides of struggle and divorce. It was the women who stayed near home, while the men went out to have the adventure Shifflett saw in the home encyclopedias that she traced pictures of the masters’ paintings. She grew up in a small town in Maine, the kind where “everyone knows your every move” and gender roles were rigid. “It didn’t feel good as a kid to dress like a girl,” Shifflett reflects. While she had crushes on friends, she could not live an open life there.
Many queer youth feel the urge to leave their small towns of origin for a freer existence elsewhere. For Shifflett, she also had an example. “I had a closeted gay uncle, everyone knew he was gay, but he was still closeted. It was the worst thing ever. He ended up killing himself in his fifties,” when Shifflett was in her twenties. He never saw her art celebrating queer people. “I was the only person in the family who he talked to about his gayness.” While she was out and living in San Francisco, he would call her to confide about how awful it was in Maine, “but he was afraid to leave. He lived there all his life.” Growing up with him proved to be inspiration “to not be him.” During the interview, it occurred to Shifflett that her art is an extension of this motivation to avoid her uncle’s fate, to not be miserable and in the closet.
Shifflett’s pursuit of an artists’ life runs in tandem with seeking and finding queer love and community. She started off as a baby dyke in New York City, shifting from her small Maine town of 4,000 people to the “constant culture shock” of Manhattan. While she laughs at her time of being “so slutty” there, she eventually moved back to Maine to finish her undergraduate degree. It took years to shake off the sense of failure she felt by leaving New York. Shifflett wanted to go to graduate school immediately after finishing her BFA, but the prospect of tackling the reading portion of a MFA with her dyslexia seemed too daunting at the time. She instead found her way to San Francisco, where she made her living as a tattoo artist with a large gay clientele. She never stopped painting, merging her painting and tattoo studio into one, sharing space with other tattooists and artists, and running a gallery in the same space.
By the time she had her first official gallery show, at age 42, she established her voice as an artist, and the prospects that came with her art presenting in this new market led her to reconsider graduate school. Gentrification in San Francisco yielded its force onto her life, as well, with her landlord wanting to double the rent for her tattoo studio, which would mean tattooing or managing other tattoo artists a lot more, both of which would take time away from her painting practice. This, along with advances in assistive technology for dyslexia, led Shifflett to pursue her MFA, looking specifically for certified programs that taught in the atelier tradition.
The audiences who have gravitated to Shifflett’s work reach beyond the lesbian community she documents primarily. Despite the pencil etchings of leather daddies of her girlhood, Shifflett did not know who Tom of Finland was until her late twenties when she lived in San Francisco. A friend bought her one of the first publications of his collected work, and she came across an early biography of him “that read like porn.” By the time she moved to start graduate school in Laguna College of Art and Design 2016, she experienced another round of culture shock in conservative Orange County and realized she needed “to find my people.” She went to a drawing room at the Tom of Finland foundation and “instantly was at home.” They invited her to participate in their arts festival, where she exhibited her work next to a friendly older gentleman who turned out to be the author of the Tom of Finland biography she had read years before, F. Valentine Hooven. Shifflett went on to party at Tom of Finland biopic premier, teach classes and have a solo show at the foundation, and be published in several of their anthologies.
“Tom didn’t draw to sell, he did those pictures because he loved it,” Shifflett states about her affinity for him, “everyone is always smiling.” The viewer feels a similar gravitation towards joy in her work. In one such ode to Tom of Finland, exhibited at a foundation group show called “Tom House” in MOMA Detroit, Shifflett references Remembrant’s Nightwatch with a crowded fetish scene. The painting also gave her an academic excuse to go to Folsom Street Fair and reconnect with the leather community she missed there. At the center right of the painting stands a femme woman in a military nurse uniform. Shifflett modeled her after a woman tending to the medical tent at a gay pride she went to while visiting some friends over summer break in Sweden.
“There was a woman there in a vintage Swedish nurse’s uniform. I instantly got a crush on her. This was every fetish imaginable, the styling of the outfit, and it was a uniform, this woman, done up like a pin-up. So I asked if I could take her picture, and she posed for me. So I ended up taking that picture and putting her in Folsom because I thought ‘she’s going to be my future wife,’ she was visual candy for me.” Alas, despite her request to her friends to keep an eye out for this woman in their relatively small community and direct her to the painting, Shifflett has yet to connect this particular muse to that painting.
The subjects of Shifflett’s work express either desire for the feminine or affinity with the masculine, with the role of the muse echoing throughout her work. One such painting, Untitled, came from a MFA assignment in the tradition of artists painting themselves with your models. Her school was quite conservative and would hire models. Not one to compromise her artistic inspiration, Shifflett pulled her instructor aside and, as she relates it, said, “hey, 99% of the time when I am painting my model, it’s because it is someone I’m sleeping with. I mostly paint the people I sleep with and I want to paint about that with because that is going on and that is my right and I want to paint what is true to me.” She was able to bypass using one of the school’s models. Looking back on her use of femme models, Shifflett muses, “I have been thinking ‘am I sleeping with these women so I get to paint them, or am I painting them because I get to sleep with them?’ I have had relationships where the whole romance of the relationship is just artist/muse, almost like role playing. But for me the role playing is real, I don’t know if it is for them.”
Shifflett paints women in relationship to herself, while the men of her work reflect her own identification with masculinity. She laughs recalling the feeling of PTSD she felt as her hair grew longer than it had been in decades during the beginning of the quarantine, stirring an identity crisis in her until she was able to get it cut again. She doesn’t own women’s clothing. This sensibility draws her to paint male figures with an eye towards self-identification, like in Eric, where she captures both his strength and vulnerability in the male nude figure.
While queer representation has been central to Shifflett’s art, painting butch women, like in The Card Sharps, is a relatively new development for her. “A lot of butches are misogynist. I can’t have that, so I don’t have many butch friends.” Beyond Shifflett’s exacting self-portraits, she creates many still lives of clothing associated with butch identity, most recently exemplified in the worn leather jackets immaculate in their detail. When asked if butch identity is changing from when she was younger, Shifflett notes that it “is becoming more important to let people self-identify. I think it’s awesome! It is requiring us to be more respectful of the labels we put on people. We don’t want to do that for other people.”
Shifflett creates with the goal for larger public to recognize the beauty of queer life. In a culture that rarely portrays queer people, especially butch women, as desirable, Shifflett’s creates it. Shifflett explains, “one of the really important reasons I paint what I paint is for people who aren’t trained in art consumption to recognize that it is great art.” She wants people to first say, “oh, that’s painted really well!” only to lean in and ask, “oh, what’s going on here?” Painting queer people well is an act of commanding respect, to demand people care about the humanity of her subjects, because “someone took the time to reflect us.” “The queer community deserves great artists,” Shifflett said towards the end of the interview. “Every time I paint, I want it to be a great painting, including the flowers.”