Rae Senarigh is your average non-binary cancer survivor inspiring self-compassion, activism and gender resilience via unapologetic portraiture of vibrant transgender/ non-binary power and I feel truly honored to have share some thoughts with us.
Q I saw you had started out as a scientific illustrator, did any of the things you learned doing that help you in your current projects?
I think my time as a scientific illustrator was incredibly informative for the work I do now. Because I am not a scientist and I worked with an international consortium of scientists with varying specialties, I had to learn how to illustrate things I had never seen before. It gave me the confidence to draw just about anything and be able to figure out lighting and shading and organic patterns of nature. I think it gave me those 10,000 hours that Malcom Gladwell talks about to become so proficient in something that you no longer have to THINK about it while doing it, but rather it can just flow from you. I always felt like I was “supposed” to be making some other kind of art when I was doing this work, but now I feel like it was really helpful in getting me to the place I am now with my art and giving me the confidence to take on representational work like portraiture.
Q How did the you are loved billboard campaign get started? Did you think it was going to show up in so many places?
When I made this artwork, I was thinking about all of the trans and LGBTQ+ kids who are watching politicians vilify our existence for political points and who are attempting to eradicate our community. I wanted to create a message that would give even one person hope. The rates of suicidality in LGBTQ+ youth were already high, but in the past several years as these political threats have grown exponentially, the risk of losing our youth to suicide has also risen drastically. I had reached out to my local organizations who are fighting for LGBTQ+ rights where I live and told them I wanted to use my art to help them fundraise. They had already purchased billboard space for Pride and together we tossed around different ideas but landed on “You Are Loved” because we felt that it was such a needed message. We also thought that allies of the community would resonate with this message and that it would have strong support.
Seeing the way people have responded to the You Are Loved campaign has been a truly wonderful and humbling experience. Thousands of people have put up yard signs in their yards and windows, bumper stickers on their cars and have funded literally hundreds of billboards across the United States. All of the billboards have been grassroots funded, which proves that people truly do want to see this message spread. People DO care about their community members and people want to let the LGBTQ+ community know that they are loved, despite the onslaught of hate that is proliferating.
Q You had battled cancer in 2015, once you had come through what effect did that have on your views and approach to life?
Surviving cancer was a very profound and pivotal experience for me, as I think facing death is for a lot of survivors. It allowed me the perspective to really take stock of my life and deeply investigate what was important to me and what wasn’t.
I made several commitments to myself were I to survive; one was to never again indulge in self-hatred. I remember distinctly this moment where I was looking ahead my treatment plan and I just thought to myself “how can I heal my body while sending it hate?” and I vowed to send only love to my body from that point on. My body is amazing. It got me through cancer and it’s the only body I have. I might as well send it appreciation instead of criticism. I still struggle somedays but now I know how to interrupt those thoughts and replace them with affirmation.
I also made a commitment to myself that I would create art that was just for me for at least ten minutes per day. And further, that whatever art I created would be based in a place of love. This has proven more difficult than I realized at times, because there is plenty to be upset about. It can be difficult not to lean into the reactive and angry emotions that come up when faced with the onslaught of bigotry and hatred that is out there. But this guiding principle is exactly what led me to the You Are Loved campaign and it informs all of the messaging that I create. It helps me steer my message to what I WANT to see in the world vs. just reacting to the things I see that are harmful. This focus also led me to begin creating portraits of my community, because I want to see accurate and celebratory representation of us, existing and thriving.
Q Has technology had any effect on how you approach your art?
I use traditional painting on canvas as well as digital illustration to create art. I think that the advances of technology have helped me spread these messages with more ease than if I had to create a physical painting each time I wanted to put out a new typographic message. I try to utilize the tools that will best help me achieve my desired outcome. Painted portraiture has a long history and it makes sense to me to create that work in a traditional way. But creating messages to put out social media requires a much faster approach. Creating digital illustrations allows me to reconfigure a piece of artwork to fit 100 different billboard sizes for instance.
Q How did the portraits of power get started? How do you approach their painting?
I wanted to see people like me and my community represented in museum galleries and I want young trans and nonbinary kids to see their futures. I love going to art museums and galleries and when I started this work, I couldn’t think of a time when I had just gone to a museum and seen a trans person in a painted portraiture gallery. I think we deserve to see accurate and celebratory representations of ourselves just as anyone else. I began by asking a friend if he would be my first subject and thankfully, my long-time friend Acton said yes. Then I began to reach out to people who were on Instagram and who were telling their story in some way. All of the folks I have painted have agreed to be a part of this portrait series and I use QR codes with the titles of the works to point viewers directly back to the portrait subject to learn more about them. I feel that these folks are the ones who get to tell their stories. My story telling is through my artwork and then I believe it is my job to get out of the way and let them tell their story their own way.
Q if people want more info about you or your projects where should they go?
Instagram and Facebook: @transpainter
Final four questions –we ask everybody
Q) When the zombies take over the world where will you be?
Sitting close to a fireplace drinking hot coco with my wife.
Q ) What is your favorite Fandom
I’m a giant fan of the kids and families bravely testifying in support of trans rights across the country.
Q) What piece of art, be it in the form of music, a book, a film or picture, do you think people must experience before they die?
Kehinde Wiley’s portraiture is breathtaking to see in person. Yes, it’s cool in an image online or in a book but it is entirely different to stand in front of his work.
Q) Give one fact that most people would not believe about you?
I had five weddings with my wife. (Yes, the same person)