'Beautiful amazing mindful troublemakers': How James Fowler is bringing 1000 queer artists together
His 10X10 Photography Project celebrates the true complexity of work being made by queer Canadian creators
"Queer art is about more than glitter and sequins," declares James Fowler with the upbeat enthusiasm you'd normally associate with someone who loves glitter and sequins. "Although they do help." Back In 2011, the Toronto-based painter, curator and visual artist wanted to find a way to celebrate the true complexity of work being created by queer Canadian artists. He came up with an idea for an exhibit: have 10 queer photographers take portraits of 10 queer people in the arts.
Why the number 10? "It's the power of exponentials," James explains. "If you have 10 people taking 10 portraits — that's a minimum of 110 people invited to your art opening. You cannot fail!" It's the logic of someone whose passion for art-making is as strong as his talent for building community — a killer combination that gives James the "superconnector" status he speaks to in his Queer (Self) Portrait.
As predicted, the exhibit — which first took place at the White House Project in Kensington Market, Toronto — was a huge success with a jam-packed opening. Artists and photographers urged James to repeat the event the following year — and the 10X10 Photography Project was born. Now in its seventh year, the project has grown into one of the biggest shows at the Gladstone Hotel where it is held annually throughout the summer months. I had the privilege of participating in this year's 10X10 Photography Project which was the impetus for this CBC Queer (Self) Portrait series.
When I think about what 'queer' means to me, queer is a way of disrupting the norm. When we decide to change a direction, we queer something. I wouldn't say that my work is queer in its subject matter, but maybe in its approach.- James Fowler, artist
In discussing Queer (Self) Portraits and the 10X10 Photography Project, I asked James why he thought it was important to celebrate LGBTQ people in the arts. He replied: "Celebrating queer people in the arts helps us celebrate our heritage as a community. It's a lot like an ethnic heritage with its own history and heroes but this one is a learned cultural heritage."
Part of this queer heritage for James is the shared experience of going against society's expectations and forging your own path. "When you realize you aren't what you're 'supposed' to be, it's a very scarring experience," he says. "But then you have this opportunity to disrupt — to throw all the pieces in the air and design the life you want."
And so it goes for queer art — which, to James, is equally about disrupting expectations. He intentionally does not make stereotypically "gay" art, meaning art that is either homoerotic, campy or overtly addressing a social justice issue. Instead he "queers" the classical landscape format, creating colourful large-scale aerial-view landscape paintings of queer communities in cities around the world. (These beautiful pieces can be viewed here.)
By 2021, when 10X10 reaches its tenth and final year, James will have curated over 1000 portraits of Canadian LGBTQ people in the arts — and, for many of us, secured his title as "hero" in our cultural heritage. With an art project this extensive and well-recognized, it's easy to forget that the entire project is organized and run exclusively by one person. Some years, the exhibit receives funding — but for the most part James funds both the exhibit and its accompanying book from the proceeds from his art sales or through a community fundraiser. It's a ton of work, but you won't hear him complain. "I love celebrating these artists because they trouble the waters," he says. "They're beautiful amazing mindful troublemakers."
Be sure to catch the 10X10 Photography exhibit at the Gladstone Hotel to August 18th. Or you can purchase the 10X10 book at the Gladstone.
Queer (Self) Portraits was born out of director Gabrielle Zilkha's participation in this year's 10X10 Photography Project. 10X10 is an annual art exhibit and book curated by James Fowler and produced each year to mark Pride Month. Each year, ten queer and trans photographers are selected to take portraits of ten queer and trans people whom they wish to celebrate for their contributions to the arts. Watch the full series here!