Drew Riley is an award winning artist based in Austin, TX who uses portraiture and storytelling to explore the complexities of gender. Her series, Gender Portraits, documents trans, intersex, and gender nonconforming people through vibrant acrylic paintings paired with written accounts of the subjects’ experiences.
Riley received classical art training from the Gemini School of Visual Arts where she graduated with distinction in 2008. Over the following five years, she honed her skills as a professional concept artist and illustrator. Riley left the commercial art world to work on her own fine art in late 2013, frustrated by hiding the fact that she is transgender in order to secure and hold professional jobs. At the beginning of 2014, she announced the Gender Portraits project which is now a nonprofit sponsored project of the Austin Creative Alliance.
As Executive Director of Gender Portraits, Riley creates affirming trans and intersex community events, makes validating artwork about gender diverse people, and speaks regularly on gender issues. The project has received accolades from critics and has been showcased in publications like the Austin Review, the Advocate, The Texas Observer, STEAM Magazine, and more. In 2017, Riley was awarded “Best Artivist” (artist-activist) by the Austin Chronicle, and received the Houston Transgender Unity Committee’s “Media Arts and Entertainment Award.” In 2016, Riley created the Gender Unbound Art Fest, and annual event which showcases trans and intersex creators from multiple disciplines. Sept 29 – 30, 2018 will mark the third annual Gender Unbound Art Fest.
Riley’s goal in all of her work is to create in the world what she wished existed when she was growing up.
My series, Gender Portraits, explores the complexity of gender by documenting the experiences and struggles of sex and gender minorities. My goal is to introduce the viewer, in an intimate and relatable way, to real people whose existence challenges narrow, binary concepts of gender identity, gender expression, and sexed bodies. This work is designed to spark conversation and stoke empathy in the viewer.
To achieve these goals, I paint acrylic portraits of transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming people. My style is realistic so that viewers feel like they are witnessing real individuals, but is still very expressive–primarily the vibrant colors I use–in an effort to portray the subjects’ personalities. I will often mix brush work with the use of palette knives to add expressive movement or texture to key areas of the piece. The paintings are paired with written stories that are displayed alongside the portraits so that viewers can learn about the subjects’ lived experiences. The stories are crafted from lengthy interviews with the subjects and reviewed by each subject for accuracy before being finalized.
In some paintings, a single quote from the subject is painted into the back of the piece along with the subject’s name and gender identity. These pieces are smaller and painted almost entirely with palette knife with brushes only being used for text and finishing details. The texture and layers of color created by pallet knives makes the pieces satisfying to view closely, as is common when people are reading the quotes on the background of the work. These pieces are always hung close together to be viewed as concise snapshots in rapid succession. Viewing a large grid of them creates a mosaic-like feeling to illustrate the variety of the subjects.
This work is inspired by my own experiences as a transgender woman in a world that doesn’t truly acknowledge or understand what being transgender means. My work has been emboldened by the constant attacks on transgender people from physical assailants to legislators and beyond. While I hope that my work educates the general public on how diverse and complex gender is, my intention is also to validate individuals who don’t feel like they fit in with society’s gender rules. Representation becomes vital to those who are marginalized to the point of isolation, as I was for most of my life.