Cupid Ojala visited by Nick Naber

As with many of the artist I meet, I met Cupid through a mutual friend at a party. Cupid came right up to me and started talking. Typically, being the curmudgeon that I am this would be off putting, but Cupid has a sweet and genuine charm to him. We talked for about an hour at this party, later that night I took a look at his site. There was so much to mine there, from performance work, collaborations, and his line drawings. I asked him if he’d mind me coming to see him and talking about what he was up to.

How long have you been working on these drawings?  You’d been doing a lot of Performance work previously? 

I went to The Vermont Studio Center Artist Residency last May and I spent the past year processing what I did there. I’ve been working on and finishing up other projects. Then the election happened, and I no longer felt inspired to work on the performances.  I can't believe how affected I was by the election. I started doing these Queer drawings, and it's been a nice way to be political and in your face but also have these affirming images of the community that I want to see. They are fun and unpredictable things happen in them. 

I'm looking at the drawings and I see you and friends, which is great. Others have celebrities like Cher and Divine. Are you conscious of using yourself and your friends in the work when you sit down to draw them?

Yes, but most of them are different faces I’ve seen. Some are celebrates and some come from a drawing group at the museum (Leslie-Lohman Museum Of Gay and Lesbian Art) has. They have a male model every week and sometimes I'll take one of these drawings and work on them at home. I don't see any trans woman or trans men posing at these. I want to make this dialogue between trans bodies and different genders.

And then in that in-between forms in some of the drawings, and  I am inspired to use symbols of Queerness

From different decades Joan Crawford, Cher and Divine. Also, there are happens to be this man wearing a harness who looks like me with a flower in his ass. These two queer folks gender nonconforming are enjoying the first day of spring with a masculine flower vase.

CUNT 3.14.2017 Weird Sisters, 2017, pigma pen on paper, 9x12 inches

There's like a certain humor to most of them. Some are obviously erotic but I think for the most part there's like an inherent humor. Is that something that you're conscious of when you're putting them together or deciding where people are going to be placed on the page?

Humor is a great way to get people to look and to listen.  It's a sneaky way that I get people to see the people in these images. I want them to like or to find something endearing about them. It’s nice that people who don’t identify as queer can make associations with the people in my drawings. Many of them are of my friends horsing around. 

In this drawing I was inspired Vincent Tiley who collaborated with Chris Habana to do a performance at the Museum of Art and Design. Instead of humans I drew the figures as unicorns and changed their bodies a little bit. But for the most part this is what Vincent Tiley's sculpture with the jewelry looked like. Chris Habana’s jewelry is gorgeous and it's totally impractical.  His jewelry makes the wearer suffer It's suffering by choice it's a fetish. People may look at this and feel uncomfortable but by making it a unicorn it's kind of endearing. 

CUNT 6.20.2017 Unicorn Games, 2017, pigma pen on paper, 9 x 12 inches

Yeah it's a different thing, totally. You center everything on the page nothing is pushed off the edge or hidden, why do you make it all visible? 

No I like that they are illustration. I love Norman Rockwell's really cheesy family portraits of Americana, but I am also inspired by Edward Gorey’s unsettling family images. So cheesy and unsettling could turn into Queer Americana.

I went to see Jennifer Finney Boylan and Caitlyn Jenner speak at the 92nd Street Y. I live in New York so I can see shit like that. I enjoyed their conversation and the things Caitlyn said pleasantly surprised me.  It's so easy to attack someone who is coming from privilege, you know? But, transitioning sucks for everyone.  She maybe doesn’t look like she's suffering but she's suffering, that's for sure. In this way she's conscious of being a role model for other trans people.

Do you see these becoming some sort of like book?  

Yes, potentially...this series of work is interrelated. I like that they can also be broken down into smaller series. As the year goes on they are going to divide up into different categories with in the series. I definitely want to do a coloring book, coloring books are things that I’ve made in the past and I enjoy. Coloring books are accessible for a lot of people. I’ve also been thinking about doing a printmaking residency. I could see these evolve to the next level as etchings or silkscreens or something like that. 

They lend themselves to so many different project possibilities. Their current scale is personal but I’d love to see them super large and in your face. It would give it a different life. 

Looking at these now and seeing the unicorns here and Joan Crawford I’m thinking about video or animation. Possibly life size…like a stage set, inspired by Edward Gorey’s Dracula. He created an animation for mystery, when I was a kid I loved watching it.

That would be really cool. I don't know how to do that. That's something I definitely would need to ask around for help on.

Have you seen the movie “Fantastic Planet” It’s all animation and there's a lot of brain imagery and sexual imagery. 

So you're doing these and then you're also are you working on other series too?  Is this the primary series? 

I have footage from “Ranger Risky” that I’m trying to finish up and put together a video for “Kelly the Cub Scout.”  

[Looking at the paintings behind Cupid] Do you know about Ingo Swann? He’s this artist that government to paid to see through walls. He made art and wrote books about seeing aliens, psychic abilities and desire. He really had an otherness quality that was genuine. I have been trying to Astro-project before I go to sleep at night and now I feel inspired to make-work in outer space.  I'm dead serious; I'm going to figure this out.  I'm not sure about how to do this project. I have a good friend who is also interested in doing work about Space. Sci-fi is a kind of escape from my daily grind. 

[Viewing at Kelly the Cub Scout]

In this video I'm wearing my brother's Cub Scout shirt, which I and grew into. I had this elaborate fantasy around it. My brother hated the Cub Scouts. He was over it he never really did anything in the Scouts. I made up all these things in this performance like getting a Swiss Army knife. My brother got a knife when he was 10 years old, I didn't get a knife neither did my sisters. Then we all complain about it so much that we all got these crazy survival knives.

I shaved all my body hair off to transform into this character and I used that hair to make this fire starter. That's like an ongoing thing I want to redesign the packaging for it, it’s like a sculpture kind of performing performance piece. People can buy my body hair and start fires! It smells terrible. 

[Watching the video] This is my ideal bedroom, which was my little bedroom for months to the month at Vermont Studio Center. There is a poster of Prince and the Revolution, and Michael Jackson and E.T., and Smokey the Bear. 

I’m working on editing the “Ranger Risky” video has taken me a couple of years because I just haven't had time to finish it but now I feel inspired because Wonder Woman is back.  Wonder Woman plays a key role and when I'm dealing with the ranger for this video series. 

Is it a character that you think you're going to reprise?

It's a character that I have I'm going to edit all the shorts and put out. It’s finishing up a lot of things that have been hanging around because I haven't had a to of time to devote to editing. 

That takes a long time.

I thought about getting another iPhone to have two angles because using the iPhone has been so much easier to take photographs.  I have this doll called “Not Me,” and not me is a pillow person sewn to full size my size.  My size is kids size, right? 5’2” 100 lbs., the doll is a recreation of a doll my mother made. So, I’m like putting this little project in here and there too. How did this relate?

This was the reason why I bought the book it all sounds like a puzzle or something to do with a childhood but it's a really deeply personal thing to be wearing your brother's Cub Scout uniform and then also to be carrying around a doll that is exactly your size.

Exactly! Exactly!  I'm time traveling to my child to talk about these things I think are interesting or unique or queer. The doll doesn't have a gender. You put the doll in wherever clothes you want to and it’s whatever gender then. It’s made out of old bed sheets and I have these little photos on my Instagram which taken with my iPhone about with this doll does, because the doll does things that I "don’t do".  It's kind of like making fun of myself a little bit but tongue in cheek. There is one of the doll sitting on the toilet in my tiny bathroom. It says only “Not Me, only gets alone time in the bathroom." Something like that or, putting the doll in bed and gravity pulls the doll down in places so it looks more human than not. It's interesting that we played with this doll that was like a miniature person to play with, and then as a kid we would do little craft things. Yesterday I spent three hours making 40 origami pieces because number one I wanted to calm the fuck down because I’m on vacation and just do something that I could focus on without a computer. We used to do this when I was a kid and now it helps my creative process. I’ve been drawing little faces on them, thinking how expressive they could be. Anyway it was like time traveling back to my childhood for a few hours.  

Well, there is no specific destination with this. Sometimes it's just nice to make something and then like maybe later down the line leads to something or maybe it doesn’t.

Absolutely mundane, turn off my brain and just go with the flow.

I just did this presentation at VCU and I'm thinking about archetypes of masculinity and I've been doing it the whole time throughout my career and certainly until I prepared a presentation for VCU…in my undergrad I was making paintings of Elvis Presley. I kind of masculinity icon of sexuality controversy also male beauty…

Especially in those later years.

Oh yea. Gluttony.  It was interesting because I was an Elvis Presley fan and I grew up as an Elvis Presley fan. When I stopped painting portraits of Elvis, I started painting portraits of myself and I painted myself with no hair. I would remove my gender, I’d do pull-ups and pushes ups and photographed myself and make these black and white paintings. It was very hard to tell my gender in this process. At that time I didn't have the language of like trans or queer. Nobody talked to me about identity politics or identity… because I didn't know what I was doing and no one around me knew how to talk to me about it. They were just like, “fat over lean, here’s paint go do your thing.” 

Painting is also this older mode. Where if you make your work as a performance maybe it has more impact for the subject matter that you're talking about.  That may be my bias.

I think it's attention span. You know like sitting down and taking time to focus on something is hard for people to do because we have so many things flashing in front of us. Noticing everyone on their phones on the train they're not participating because there's this dialogue with your eyes you have the people you look at them on the train.  If there's someone crazy doing something you shoot a look at someone and you smile like you're like, “OK I'm not the only one.” It’s this silent kind of communication. That's something I think in the queer community constantly finding places to see each other. Whether you see yourself in a museum, whether you see yourself in a drawing series or you connect with… someone contacted me and said, “I really like how you draw these figures.  I really like the hair on these figures I really like the line quality. I like that they're in this pseudo sexual but mostly playful kinds of kinds of poses.”  The sex is there sex is always there it's going to be there but it's more about intimacy it's about community. 

You're creating something that’s deeply personal but I also feel like you've done a good job of making it not so personal that others can't enter into it.  It has a more universal feeling to it than, “Oh this is me doing all of these things.”   When you're playing a character there's a humor to it that allows everybody else to be in on it, and it doesn’t need to have a page of text for a viewer to understand it

Exactly. Exactly. It's right in front of you.

The most universal for me looking at your website was the “Cupid” series.  It seems super personal to have these people coming to you for these love prescriptions.  It’s also pretty evident that it’s a wide range of people who came not just those who are queer identified.  Can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like?

Yeah, that was a good series because I learned in that series to let people come to you instead of trying to people to try to sell something to people or entice people because I would hold a sign and I realized that maybe more of like oh, “ I have this, come here come here, come here.”  People were like, “We’re in New York. Why would we want to come to you, why should we come over there, what’s this about?”  When I sat down and waited for people and they were too curious to find out what I was doing. “You're just going to sit here and talk to us?”  I said, “ yeah” In 10 to 15 minutes you're (the person sitting with Cupid)  going to give me some kind of insight that you don't even realize that I am telling to you and I'm going to I'm going to figure out what that is and get back to you. People just dump, they’re so excited to talk about themselves, their feelings and was going on.  When I was a barber I’d ask them open questions and they just would tell me everything. When you say you’ll take time to listen you're going to somehow transform their information is something they can use. It doesn't cost anything. People are really excited about it. That was a unique kind of thing.

It's cool that you're saying that people were so open about it.  That's an experience you have in New York, most people seem really closed but once you have a conversation with somebody… for the most part people are open to that connection to talk to somebody.

Yeah, I can't help myself I have to break the rules I have to talk to someone on the train. If I like their outfit I tell them, if I smell their food and it smells good and I hate them I'm going to say, “Hey, I hate you your food smells really good. Where do you get it?” That was a really good performance to interact with a wide variety of people. It was training because it was work. I was like a real psychologist I was like, “oh, shit should I get certified and start charging?” 

You could.

But all this life experience listening to people like, I was a barber for seven years and I would talk to people about their lives for seven years so I had…all these different kinds of people straight, gay, families, non-families, drunks, and tow truck drivers with one eyebrow. 

Everybody needs a haircut.

Or, it plays some kind of role in your life at some point. They want to haircut and you just let people talk, some people don't want to talk. They're like, “I talk all day I hate fucking talking.” That would be me when I would go home, I don't want to talk about work. I spent all day talking about work when I come home I to think about art I want to think about something fun something new for me. Looking into the Sci-Fi thing or like mythology or looking at archetypes of identity is something that I've been also doing with these because I see archetypes and queer identities starting to pop out of these [referring to the drawings].

When do you typically make your work?

In the morning before going to work is when I get my best work done and for the “C U Next Tuesday” drawings I'll start drawing at the beginning of the day and finish it when I come home and that's like the thing I'm looking forward to when I'm coming home from work because I know that I have to do this drawing. Having these kind of deadlines…like the  “Love Prescription,” thing every month on the 14th day of the month I would go find a spot to do this and I would tell people 24 hours beforehand.  When you ask permission people ask too many questions and when you just show up and do it people say, “Oh that was cool, I'm going to tag you on my Instagram and repost this.”  For the people who participated it was it was much more than that.

For these specific drawings Tuesday is a full day, start the day with a drawing and end the day with a drawing and I work in between. Then the rest of the time I'm doing research in the morning or working through these files to figure out what I want to do and I was looking at archetypes and reading a bunch of science fiction kinds of things. I just picked up “Otherwise: Imagining queer feminist art histories-imagining a New Queer Reader,” that my friend Kris Grey just he helped write an article about trans identity a over year ago. Between reading Otherwise and Edward Gordy's Books and editing Ranger Risky I have my summer cut out for me. 

For additional information about Cupid please visit his website, Tumblr, or Instagram