Thursday 23 April 2020

Interview with Joelle Circé Laramée

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Joelle Circé Laramée, a Canadian artist and feminist, painter, authoress of the biographical book titled “Breaking Free: 45 Years In The Wrong Body” (2020). Hello Joelle!
Joelle: Hello Monika, nice to be having this interview.
Monika: You are a woman of many talents. Could you say a few words about yourself?
Joelle: First I think you for thinking of me as I'm now just getting back to creating my art (paintings) and find this an excellent moment to speak out a little. I was born in a lower working-class home and neighborhood in Montreal, Canada, and have always known of my difference though not necessarily in terms like transsexual or queer which I came to understand later on in life. My whole world has been one of observing from the outside and I think this made me becoming a visual artist.
So, from early on I was pulled towards drawing and painting and pursued this with passion, and am still painting as I become a senior citizen. I studied fine art at a private art school in Montreal for a number of years in the early 1980s but it was only after surgery that I truly felt I could express myself as an artist and share what I wanted others to see and that revolved around the erotic and more specifically about queer women, vulvas and feminism.
Monika: Why specifically about queer women, vulvas, and feminism?
Joelle: Just after my surgeries I was a little apprehensive about the look of my vulva, that maybe it didn't correspond to what vulvas looked like and so I started a series on vulvas, at first I began promoting the idea that I was in search of vulva pics on MySpace (yes I'm a dinosaur) and to my absolute surprise, I got a flurry of images sent to me by women wanting to help, but more often than not the images just weren't good enough in terms of resolution and more importantly, not of my own making.

"Danaë"- oil on canvas by Joelle Circé Laramée.
Source: Circe's Art Gallery.

The next step was for me to reach out to friends in my area, I think I began by sending out a bulk email asking if anyone would pose for me though at the time I was certain this would not go far ... and again I was surprised as a good number of women friends stepped up to help.
At the same time, I was getting more involved in the Vagina Monologues after reading Eve Ensler's book by the same title and seeing the stage play. I began doing workshops and lectures at Montreal universities and tabling with information on trans issues during the McGill university's V Day week where I met and became friends with a number of young women involved in V-Day events.
It was from this point that I was able to draw and paint many a beautiful vulva, some for their esthetics and others for the message I wanted to express, ranging from female genital mutilation, to dress up fun and even a little of the erotic, I realized that I was heads over heels in love with vulvas and more importantly, with all women. Of course, this led me to other topics involving women, and again it was tied to my personal experiences, and thus came series like Queer women, erotic pieces, and feminist concepts.
Monika: During the 2008 Exhibit at the Centre Communautaire St-Alphonse-Rodriguez, Qc., your vagina series created a storm of controversy. Was the audience not ready for such art? 
Joelle: I think it was mainly the organizers who were not ready, an ex-catholic priest and an older lady who taught children to paint in watercolors. When they noticed my vulva pieces, they hurried over to me and with arms close to flailing, told me in no uncertain terms that I just had to take them down as children would be attending the exhibition and my art bordered on the obscene.
So what I did was to take them down, take sheets of paper and write CENSURED, and taped the sheets to the back of each vulva painting, and hung them back up facing the wall. Many people who came in stopped and asked me what was going on and after I explained, they would ask to view my art and not a single person, not even the children accompanied by their parents found my vulva paintings out of place or degenerate, in fact, I received quite a number of positive compliments.
I think the public is usually fine seeing art that represents bodies parts we all have, it's the organizers and authorities who are the problem.

"Peek-a-boo Circe"- oil on canvas
by Joelle Circé Laramée.
Source: Circe's Art Gallery.

Monika: Which of your paintings do you like most?
Joelle: How I feel about my art is uneven at best but I am particularly happy with pieces such as "Smashing Images" which speak to how we as women must break down the concept of only certain body types are acceptable.
Monika: How do you find models for your paintings? Is it a physical look? All your painting models look so beautiful ...
Joelle: Thank you, and good question, and it's a hit and miss process, usually I will ask other queer women friends to pose for me while I do a photoshoot and then work from the images but I have also accepted working from photos provided by women and that I found perfect for what I was working towards.
Physical look is secondary for me, I tend to search out models who can bring something of themselves, something unique to them, size, color, etc, are not at the top of my criteria. Some of my models are friends, people I know and love, and they become full participants in my creations.
Monika: Many famous painters were inspired by the beauty of a female body. Do you have any favorite masters or painting techniques?
Joelle: As an artist, I have absorbed so many different influences and even had a period in which I reproduced paintings by old masters as well as Impressionist painters like Degas and Monet, but for me Artemesia Gentileschi, Camille Claudel, and other female artists like Georgia O'Keefe.
The techniques I use are from old school painters, mostly basic drawing and oil painting stuff. I do enjoy doing a whole underpainting and then proceeding with glazes but not always, I now often do more of a direct paint application.
Monika: Your biographical book was published just a couple of months ago. Why did you decide to write the autobiography?
Joelle: Well, it had been close to five years that I had stopped painting thinking I had nothing more to say (I was soooo wrong) and my need for artistic expression brought me to take singing lessons, and finally I just knew I had to write my memoirs, which was something I have been wanting to do for some years now. I wanted to share my life with others who might be going through something similar, and thinking that it might be too much because I have been at the lowest point on a few occasions and I suppose I got lucky because I gave myself a chance at life, I don't wish to be moralistic, I only think it's possible to survive and find a place in the world.
So, with the help of a collaborator, I got to work on my memoirs, it wasn't easy because of certain things I had to revisit in my mind but ahead I went and got through it and I do hope that what I put down can be of help or support to others. By writing my memoirs, I actually came to realize that I miss painting very much and so I reassembled my studio and am about to embark on my journey as a paintress because I still do have much to share.

Available on Amazon.

Monika: What does it mean to be a feminist these days? What does feminism espouse? 
Joelle: For me, feminism is all about inclusion, about intersectionality, I am a fan of a great big melting pot of feminism that leaves no one behind and which strives for a better world of equity and full rights for all. My feminism places women of trans origin among their sisters, not caught up in castes, identities, and clicks.
I know that feminism like many movements and ideologies isn't perfect but that's not the point of it, it's about improving the lives of women and everyone, it's about growing through mistakes and moving through the colored layers of our own personal world views to a more expanded and inclusive one.
Monika: Did the transition change your artistic perception or expression of the world?
Joelle: Oh yes, from painting landscapes and portraits to pay rent to a wholly focused gaze on women (all women-identified people). My painting style remains close to what it has always been but the subject matter did a 360º, I was no longer tied down, I was liberated and no longer feared being outed.
My art has and continues to be how I am able to cope, survive and even flourish as a woman of trans origin. I also got married in 2009 to my Butch identified love though we've been together for close to twenty years now and I think we may have been, if not the first then one of the very first queer women couples to get married in which one is a woman of trans origin. I think that all this brought my life back into focus, gave me the freedom to better express my newfound womanhood and celebrate it and all my sisters, trans and cis alike. 
By the way, I am still on the lookout for good-quality images of trans sisters, not necessarily of the erotic sort (though that's fine as well) as I would very much love to celebrate them more.
Monika: Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Joelle: The main thing is to not give up because you never know how or when things will get better, for it began by being true to myself and finally coming out and living my truth openly, it was scary and people can be awful at times but I was happier no matter what I encountered because I was being me.
I also find that surrounding myself with like-minded people helped a lot and that walking away from negative situations and people is healthy. Do not be overly concerned with hormone levels or cup sizes, we are all different so enjoy what changes come and I always found that concentrating on living my life in real-time was the best thing I ever did.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Joelle: I really didn't know of any women of trans origin until I realized that this is who I was and so my very first role models are people like V. who once headed a trans support group in Montreal, then I did start looking and found many trans women who were creatives and artists and this gave me so much joy and hope. I'm constantly discovering trans women who inspire me, the latest is singer-songwriter Namoli Brennet.

"Bound in Ecstacy" (private collection) -
oil on canvas by Joelle Circé Laramée.
Source: Circe's Art Gallery.

Another individual who I admire is this kick-ass young woman who started transitioning around the same time as I, Pascale even opted to move to another Canadian province to get her surgery and remained there and created a life for herself, it takes courage and true strength of the mind and heart and she has that to overflow.


All the photos: courtesy of Joelle Circé Laramée.
© 2020 - Monika Kowalska

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