It can be hard to remember that there was a time, not so long ago, when depictions of gay men were exceedingly rare. Tom of Finland was a Finnish artist who was well known for his underground erotic drawings of men, which he made from the 1940s until his death in 1991. The drawings — which were illicit for most of his lifetime, as being gay was illegal in Finland until 1971 — also inspired the aesthetic foundation for modern popular gay culture, depicting men in roles that were forbidden at the time in various ways, whether it was serving in the military or having an open relationship.
"His mission was to spread joy and spread that sense of freedom of expression," said Durk Dehner, one of the cofounders of the Tom of Finland Foundation.
Tom's drawings were not merely products of his imagination; part of their appeal lay in their intimate expressions, which were drawn from reference photos that Tom took of hundreds of men over the years.
Dehner, along with his partner S.R. Sharp, spoke with BuzzFeed News, about Tom's long legacy and the current exhibition of his photographs and reference material that is on view at Fotografiska in New York.
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How did pictures play a role in Tom's process?
S.R. Sharp: Tom would find a model, take a photo and then he would actually have to develop the film because he couldn't take it to an outside lab, especially back in Finland. He would make a print of it in his own darkroom and then cut the print out and glue it into his reference binders.
He had to go through such a process for his fans, because in the early days, in 1950s, people heard about him and wrote to him saying, “I love to buy some of your prints, but how do I know what they're like?” So he made these 4x6 little catalog pages, maybe 20 photo images on them, that he could send back to the fan, who would send him a letter requesting which ones they liked, plus some foreign currency.
Then Tom would have to make the prints, and they had to be within that 4x6 size, because they couldn't be bigger than an airplane envelope. It was an enormously tedious process, but it was always in his mindset to try to get his work out there.
Durk Dehner: He said that his favorite part was that if you knew a model, it really made the difference for him. He was able to capture their spirit in a way and be able to embed that into the drawing.
He really felt that gays deserve to be happy and to love whoever they wanted to love. And for straights to be able to give them the room and the ability to do that without any shame or guilt.
Can you talk a little bit about how the reception to Tom has shifted? It sounds like he was never lacking in popularity, but he was certainly much more underground than he is now.
Sharp: It's like becoming aware of a whole new dimension in an artist. You get to see more vulnerability. I always thought that his artwork could really be evaluated on so many different levels. You can see in this exhibition these reference pages, which include personal photography that he did himself and then collage of other models that he took out of magazines, and they're pieces of art into themselves, those reference pages.
If we look back at say his for work McCann Erickson, he was drawing the perfect Finnish family — and he created a world that was the perfect homosexual world. There's no shame. It was outdoors during the daylight. It was just a joyous expression of sexuality. And that's the entire world that he created and that we started emulating it and dressing like it. He was like the grandfather, you really mean that of like, for lack of a better term, like the aesthetics of the gay community itself, not just of erotic art.
He very clearly stated that he was not an activist, but what he really did was very activist-oriented or subversive in the way that he took masculinity [and] gave it to homosexuals. Prior to that, there was only one type allowed by the society, which was that the interpretation of the homosexual as an [effeminate] queen. He wanted to have choice in the matter. Tom gave us permission to be anything. He was drawing us as sailors and soldiers, but we really couldn't be open in the military. And he was drawing all these things that were denied to us.
Dehner: A lot of artists now and prior to now have looked up to him for his unabashed openness in his work. His mission was to spread joy and spread that sense of freedom of expression.
You talk about how he knew a lot of his models — was it sort of like an insider club where you were trying to be seen in his work, or was it more closeted, where people were trying to maybe not be recognizable in case it fell into the wrong hands?
Sharp: We did a show here in Los Angeles at Western Project and a guy came up to me with a little Ziploc bag, and he said, This is a picture that Bob Mizer took of me in 1955. I worked for the LA School District. If anyone had seen this, I would have been fired. It was very underground because it had to be underground. We only survived by navigating secret spaces and having friends whisper and give us phone numbers.
Can you talk a little bit about the Tom of Finland Foundation and how that's working now to like promote his legacy?
Sharp: We've always worked with other artists through emerging erotic artists contests, through art fairs that we've done in New York and Los Angeles, and we have drawing workshops here on a monthly basis. We're all about other artists. That has been our mission almost since the very, very beginning of the foundation in 1984. We have a Pride month fundraiser that is running through June 11 — an auction. There are artists that have donated works to help us raise money for the Foundation.