You refer to your drawings as still lifes. Do you construct each image from real objects—photographs, flowers, fruit—and then draw it?

JS: I love setting up still lifes because it creates the possibility for unpredictability, which is so different from the actual drawing process I use to complete the works. All of the still lifes are set up in real life, comprised of fabrics, found objects, printed screen grabs, sometimes bits of tape… and then photographed. I live with many of the objects and printed photos for a while in my studio before I know how they will be used—and that’s why I love still life, because the objects and images really do dictate how they want to be used and have some control over the narrative. I set up many more still lifes than I use and take hundreds of photographs—this photographic process works like a sketchbook. I edit through the photographs, print out the more successful images, and then live with them on my wall for a while before the long drawing process ahead. 

So the photographs are real as well? Did you take them?

JS: Yes, the photographs are printed screen grabs taken from a variety of sources, but most commonly from films that have been influential to me and that have some sort of queer resonance, as well as amateur or ’70s and ’80s studio pornography.

And what are the metallic leaves that appear in some of your pieces, such as Desire Despair Desire? Why did you opt to depict chintzy foil leaves instead of actual ones?

JS: I have been using a combination of fake and real flowers, fruit, and other plant material in my work for a while now. These items have a variety of purposes in my work. The florae can adorn or serve as a gift for a beloved icon, an improvised character, or sexual act. If this dedication seems hokey at times, it is intended to, as a reflection of my own process and motivations to preserve and reflect on these characters or moments. The false or real plants can also act as a sort of striptease device, an attempt to conceal and slowly reveal the identity of dancer/actor/character, the sexual act, or the coded content of the image. The artificial objects, the ones purchased at the dollar store, can become the most glamorous through the drawing process, because they usually take more time and have more visual surface interest and range or color than the ‘real’ plant materials. They aren’t necessarily silly or cheap to me. I like to reflect on their intended purpose, which is for decoration for celebration, an attempt to bring some sort of exoticism into everyday life, and then their lives end sadly in dust or disposal. Instead of “gaudy” I call them “fancy” or “sexy.” If a fresh tulip is a sweet or romantic gesture, a shiny plastic palm leaf can be a rhinestone-studded G-string. 

Your depiction of bodies is often distorted—ripped pages of a magazine, for example, or a photo viewed through a glass jar. Why do you take this approach?

JS: I was formerly a portrait painter working in oils, and I was constantly aware of the eerie reality that I was capturing, containing, and freezing people as objects—it was impossible to preserve the actual true identity of my sitters without building on my own narrative and creating new or mythical identities. When I started working in still life drawings, I decided to take the objectification and preservation ideas to a more literal place, by trapping figures under glass and using the photos or figures as object-actors within the new “stages” of the still-life spaces. 

You said in an interview once that you “queer” your still lifes “through incongruous juxtapositions of objects and identities, and by capturing, containing and making a commodity of portraits, nature, memory and behavior.” There’s a lot going on there—can you unpack it some?

JS: Yes… maybe I’m being intentionally vague? As a gay man, I’m very interested in the history of coding one’s identity as a way to seek out others who are also gay yet also maintain a level of safety in a less-than-accepting world. I’m playing with coded objects and imagery, camp icons, coded language in titles, obscure references—this ties back into the idea of strip tease that I’d mentioned before. I want to seduce the viewer and want them to get aroused by this motley collection of desired objects and personae but I’m afraid of revealing “it all” as a sort of means of self-preservation. I want these things to be desired by others, I want viewers to covet objects that may have been taboo, but I’m playing an odd game of wanting to preserve a kind of queer language while obscuring it enough where it can’t be fully interpreted by all viewers. I use realism and pretty colors to make the work appealing to a wider audience, which is kind of a trap. Some of the drawings stem from personal stories or anecdotes. Turning these codes, objects, and identities and stories into desirable, consumable art objects is both sexy and perverse to me. I’m trying to be careful and overt simultaneously. 

 
 

Why do you seek to make a commodity of your work? Do you seek to commoditize queer culture or homosexual experience? 

JS: I spoke to this a little before. I’m not out to sell queer culture or homosexual experience, but preservation of queer history, camp icons, coded language—all of this is important to me and I want the legacy to live on for future generations. Part of being queer, at least in my experience, is learning how to take the tacky and the leftover shit and turn it fabulous. To learn how to be quick-witted in the face of potential attackers. To take your own body, which has been cut apart and labeled aberrant and diseased, and to create a newly empowered body and identity. I fear becoming homogenized into the straight community when it requires changing one’s behavior or concealing or erasing history. How can I queer domesticity? These images ultimately reflect my experience, my desires, my interpretation of the code, so I am unable to speak for an entire community.  

Cinematic performance plays an important role in your work. Can you tell us a bit more about how film inspires you when creating your work? What kinds of films, and what aspects of cinema?

JS: One of my all-time favorite films is Showgirls, which is kind of like a sexy wacky reboot of the obviously brilliant All About Eve. I love films with strong female leads (who doesn’t?). Printing and literally “copying” these personalities is a sign of respect. Finding really delicious bits of high camp in film, music videos, etc. sustains me and gives me life. I love those moments that make me reach to pause, rewatch, scream, laugh and cry—moments where so much truth is packed with absurdity that are devastatingly beautiful and life-affirming. These are also moments where, especially when as an adolescent, I didn’t feel so alone because I knew that I was included in on the joke because it was also my language and these were my people. John Inman as Mr. Humphries in the sitcom Are You Being Served? was one of these icons for me as a child. His true identity was barely concealed. I knew we were the same, and his poise and sense of humor made me feel like I wasn’t such a horrible creature. 

  A lot of the images that I pull from porn reflect the aesthetic of the kinds of films on VHS that were passed around amongst friends during adolescence—they have a specifically late ’70s, early ’80s vibe (whose generation’s obvert sexuality later becomes tragically halted and scrutinized later on). I also look for moments of beauty in amateur porn and feel that by drawing moments of these sexual acts I’m paying tribute to the anonymous performers through my own sort of performance, which does extend the sexual act. By taking these performers out of their original roles and using them in my own constructed still-life scenes I get to create a new narrative. I do feel like a director, even when the objects and personae tend to dictate their own roles through the setting up of still lifes.

Pieces like Pillow Biter and Gym Bunny present a juxtaposition of objects that spell out literal depictions of gay identities. How do you feel about these sorts of names—both insults that have typically been used against the gay community, and also terms like “twink” or “bear” that are used innocuously by members of the gay community, but in some ways risk reducing gay desire to stereotype? How do you imagine your drawings build up or deconstruct such concepts, if at all?

JS: I think by using terms like “queer” one can turn a former insult into an empowered identity. I once cowered and cried at being called “pink faggot” in grade school and now laugh and lovingly refer to myself sometimes as Pink Faggot. I’m more than a label, but I don’t hide from them. Labels are good for categorizing, and categorizing can really irk some people, but I don’t let it bother me anymore. 

  I’m a collector in my drawings. I collect and I sort and then I meditate on the newly-organized images and their future role as modified discourse and as remnants of erotic activity. I think about the choice of their display as identity performance. The items I choose to draw are getting me closer to understanding my own secrets and are hopefully helping to unite myself with others who share similar histories or desires. If I’m putting an object or a person in a drawing, it’s a way of showing sincere respect and love; I don’t want to waste my time with anything else. I say they’re beautiful, but they lack a specific kind of definition because my intent is often more “Hey—I think this is really, really interesting. Isn’t this interesting? What do you think about this?” than “Hey! I’m making a point here! I’m putting this in your face! Eat this!”

Your talent for drawing certain materials—iridescent foil, or the fabric of a pillow, such as in the Pillow Biter piece—is phenomenal. Do you feel that colored pencils are particularly well suited for such illustration?

JS: Thank you! I strive for realism within the limits of my own sanity. Colored pencils allow for a good amount of detail and offer a huge color selection. I use a kind of colored pencil that has a waxy finish, and I enjoy working the surface until I can polish it to a mirror-like sheen. It helps me know that I’m done.

What brought you to colored pencils? It is a somewhat uncommon medium.

JS: I had been working in oils but was growing tired of paying rent at my romantic loft artist studio in downtown Minneapolis with the old-timey wooden elevator that everyone seems to equate with “real professional artist.” I wanted to work at home with my cats and enjoy my gardens and not drive and find parking, plus I don’t smell like turpentine anymore. I just started experimenting with the pencils and had forgotten how much I’d loved to draw. Working with the pencils is similar to painting in that I can blend color on the paper using multiple colors. I liked how unconventional the media seemed—it’s one of those materials that people think of as crafty. I do miss the immediacy of paint but don’t miss cleaning brushes.