Leather Archives & Museum


Form Object

Joseph W. Bean


The concept I work with and the technique I use to make my illustrations.

I never meant to be an erotic artist. I'm not sure I'm an erotic artist now ...more an illustrator and experimenter than an artist, really. Maybe what I am is a folk artist with a penchant for gay-male erotic subjects. Yes, that is a "label"I can live with. My only medium is cut paper. I draw like a 12 year old, but I have a definite skill as a papercutter, a skill I have been building on for more than 40 years.

When I was about 5 years old, I started cutting out stencils that my grandmother used to sift confectioners sugar onto the tops of cakes, creating a lacy, fancy finish with very little sugar. (We were poor enough that it was important to use little sugar .) The first stencils were probably no more interesting or artistic than you'd expect from a 5 year old country boy from Humansville, MO., in the Ozarks.

My grandmother gave me the kind of ooh-and-ahh reviews that grandmothers
specialize in.

That was all I needed. After that l joined the family in producing paper flowers for Decoration Day (which the world outside the Ozarks calls Memorial Day). Then, at Christmas, I made stars, snowflakes and outline angels to decorate the Christmas tree.

An idea occurred to me about this by the time that I was 7 or 8. The idea is still with me: How much detail do you have to supply in a papercutting to convey the "idea" of the thing you're trying to represent? Or, more accurately, how little detail can you get away with? If l caught a snowflake on the tip of my mitten, it was a much more complex object than the cut paper images I made for the tree. I began toying with this idea of supplying less information while still representing the snowflake well enough to get the ohs and ahs I enjoyed.

Twenty years later I was building a reputation as a folk artist in certain circles-enough that I eventually was invited to show in museums and galleries across the country and I served a residency at a California museum-still working with this one thought of how little information it took to get the essence of the object across. This led to some abstraction and some work that was rather overzealously described as postimpressionist, but mostly it led me to consider the human figure as the ultimate challenge within the range of problems established by my central question. Being myself, this naturally led to more and more sexual
imagery. And, for me, the essence of sexual images is in the imagination they inspire. So the less information concept became less information, more imagination. A standard by which I judge not only my own sexual images, but all erotic illustration and art.

Copyright 2008 Leather Archives & Museum

Strangely, there is a sense in which the censors and prudes play a positive role in sex art that consciously aims to inspire imagination rather than document sex with very explicit images. The pressure not to show penetration, for example, sets up a challenge. Can you make a picture of fucking in which no cock is seen sticking into any asshole, but from which most viewers come away having seen fucking? I think a lot of erotic illustrators and artists actually enjoy this kind of "limitation," if only because it gives them something to do that is other than what a photographer would naturally and easily achieve. In any case, by the mid-1980s, I was doing as much of the nonsexual art as I would ever do, and I was being exhibited as widely as ever in galleries and museums, but my attention was turning to images-even the ones not prefigured as sex art-that were too strong for the religious institutions and folk art galleries that had been so happy with my Ozark hill-folk work.

I still had no intention of doing explicitly sexual images, but then necessity intruded. I had begun working with Drummer magazine, although I was not yet officially on staff, and we needed an illustration or two to replace some art that had not come in. We needed it yesterday or before and it had to fill a specific number of column inches exactly. The story was about a hitchhiker, pretty standard porn fare. So, I got a friend to stick his thumb in the air and snapped a few pictures. I had him bend over a car, snapped a few more pictures. The next day I had two embarrassingly stiff illustrations for the story . They were not at all good, but they were solid black and white, so a simple stat would make them ready to paste up, and they were precisely scaled to the space we had to fill.

They were explicit illustrations in the sense that there was no understatement, no evidence of the less information idea. I hated the pictures, not just because they were stiff and ugly, but because they were not "my work." Nonetheless, those two pictures got my juices going. When they were on the boards, I realized that I could like doing sex art. I saw that I had abandoned my own principles there, but also understood that I could just as well have stood my ground and made illustrations that were "mine" and based on my thoughts about art-making.

I was hooked.

After examining dozens of images I had made in the previous years, I realized that the sexual content of my work had been growing for a long time. The SM references had been developing for years. I was, all unknown to me, al- ready doing SM sex art. Granted, the sex and SM were often embedded, even in "code," but they were there.

Once I decided to do SM art, I started working with photos, although my "fame" in the folk art area was largely based on the fact that I cut the paper with no visual references and often without sketching anything in advance. The idea was to take a photograph that gave all the information it could and to reduce the information level to the point that imagination was more engaged. I intentionally chose well known and instantly recognizable photographs so that no one could think that I was "stealing" anything from the photographers or that I was trying to "put one over on anyone." I even used the source of the photograph as the title. The experiment at hand needed photographs and other explicit media to work from, but I couldn't stand the idea that someone might think I hadn't adequately admitted the use of photos by others.

Soon, I was departing from the photographs enough that I could (and did) often use the same photo as a reference for many different cut-paper images. Then, over time, I started doing the sex art images freehand more often than not.

I felt a peculiar distaste for the freehand sex art, so I had to practice it a lot. I got in the habit of hauling my scissors and silhouette papers along to places like gay cafes and leather events. I'd sit out of the way and snip out hard-dick pictures, cocks spurting come, muscle hunks posing and, at Christmas, jolly elves with pointy hats and hard dicks. I'd give the little cutouts to anyone who was interested, and move on to the next scrap of black-fronted paper.  I didn't especially push the sex pictures I was doing. They interested me mainly as experiments. I sold a few. I gave many away. I put a few into auctions or other fundraising situations, and I kept making new pictures whenever time permitted.

The method is simple: Silhouette paper is white or near- white on one side and black, usually jbeane black on the other. So, if a sketch is to be made at all, it is done lightly and loosely on the white side of the paper. Then, using scissors customized for my hands (They were originally made for eye-surgery .), I cut out the picture. The sketch, if any, is usually left behind pretty quickly as the image takes over and pushes me to make it some other way. Then, once cut, the single piece of silhouette paper, with any number of holes cut into it making a picture of some sort, is glued down, black side up, on a piece of white or colored board.

You see, technically, this is not very far from the snowflakes I cut more than 40 years ago. Not far from the stars and angles and other things just about everyone cut out for the bulletin boards and Mother's Day cards they decorated in grammar school.

Leather Sex Shadows

Recently, for special reasons each time, I have sometimes added ink to the finished papercuttings. For example, the image on the facing page was created to illustrate a story by one of my idols, the artist Nigel Kent. The reversal of roles here was not lost on me. The artist wrote a story which I, better known as a writer and editor, was illustrating. So, rather than shoot for my usual goal of less information, I thought-sort of as a tribute to Nigel Kent and sort of as a joke only I would understand-I would add a little ink vaguely in the style of a Nigel Kent drawing. That is little dots and lines. I'm not by any means comparing myself to Nigel Kent as an artist or art technician or anything of the sort.

There's not much more to know about how I make my pictures. The only remaining fact, the thing that still shocks me, is that these images have taken on a very significant life of their own. I have been honored by The 15 Association for which I produced more than 50 pieces of art from 1993 to 1996 and have seen my images on posters and flyers and in newsletters all over the country .

I'm still blown away by the attention my work gets. I honestly don't understand it, but I have to admit that I enjoy it. I'm glad people like my pictures, happy to have them seen and published, and I hope you enjoy them too.

Introduction taken from Leathersex Shadows The Erotic Art of Joseph W. Bean. Published by Brush Creek Media.


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