Tom of Finland to be celebrated in SF
Art feeds and nurtures us. It prods us to think and feel. It reflects back our life experiences and the experiences of others. It does this for every segment of our culture, including leather and kink culture.
To celebrate the importance of erotic art, San Francisco Leathermen’s Discussion Group (LDG) is hosting a Tom of Finland Foundation Reception and Erotic Art Silent Auction on September 23, 2015 from 6:30pm to 9:30pm at the SF LGBT Community Center, 1800 Market Street.
The event will feature artwork courtesy of Tom of Finland Foundation with national artist contributions, including Stanley Stellar, as well as local artists. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Tom of Finland Foundation and LDG. Visit LDG’s site for more details.
Along with committee chair Graylin Thornton, co-chair Richard Bolingbroke, and a bevy of volunteers, at the heart of the event is Durk Dehner, president and cofounder of Tom of Finland Foundation.
Durk will deliver a presentation during the LDG event during which he will reflect on some very personal erotic iconology tied to San Francisco, including some of the artists who have passed on and are no longer with us. He’ll focus on visual art that has been created right here in San Francisco and relates to the city itself. It should be a fascinating evening.
I’ve known Durk for a long time, but I never had the privilege of interviewing him. During one of his recent San Francisco visits I was given that opportunity. We had a long conversation, and there’s no way I can cover all that we discussed here, but I’m honored to be able to give you a snippet of insight into a remarkable man, his friend Tom of Finland, and the work he and the Foundation are so clearly passionate about.
Durk explained that the Tom of Finland Foundation was founded to support and nurture art that the world has historically had a hard time accepting. Western culture has not typically been comfortable with sexual art, especially homoerotic art.
Tom of Finland (real name Touko Laaksonen), for whom the Foundation is named, created works that formed a unique set of visual images with deep, symbolic meaning within our kink and gay cultures. Tom’s art is specifically sex-positive, a true celebration of the fully sexual gay male. At the time that Tom started his career, there was no similar erotic art that was being put out into the homo culture that was proud, overtly sexual and so free in nature.
Durk has always loved Tom’s work ever since he first discovered it as a young man. In 1977, Durk met Tom after he had written him a fan letter in 1976. They remained extremely close friends until Tom’s death in 1991. They created the Foundation in 1984. From the start it was dedicated to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting homoerotic art. The Foundation eventually expanded to erotic works of many types.
The message that Durk delivers to audiences around the world, and that Tom’s work was founded upon, is freedom. It’s a theme that is pervasive throughout Tom’s work and has remained integral to Durk’s entire adult life as well.
He told me a great story about an important moment that helped form the beginnings of his own erotic explorations and the sexual freedom he claimed for himself and others. At 20 years of age, Durk was visiting San Francisco. He had come to San Francisco to find himself. He found his way to The Eagle and ended up standing next to a drag queen there who asked him what he was doing in town. When Durk mentioned his quest to find himself, the drag queen said, “You can be anything you want to be here.” Durk never forgot that message and he’s created and molded his life and work around being his most authentic self.
Traveling has been part of Durk’s personal explorations as he’s followed his sexuality, erotic partners and the leather culture he desired around the world. At one point in the late 1970s, that led to living in Chicago for a while, where Durk entered the very first International Mr. Leather contest. The American Uniform Association sponsored him for the 1979 contest and he ended up placing second (first runner up). Already a well-known leatherman, his profile rose even more as a result of that contest.
During his tenure at the Foundation, Durk has had countless men tell him how Tom’s work affected them in profound ways. Tom’s art literally helped these men to mold their characters and have self-confidence in their sexuality.
One thing Durk is vehement about is that erotic art, and specifically erotic art that empowers gay men whose sexuality has often been demonized, is vital to maintain a vibrant and functioning culture. The passion with which Durk believes this literally oozes from him when you speak to him.
One of the things that Durk kept hammering home during our interview is the importance of Tom’s work in helping to form both leather and gay male culture’s iconography and to visually influence sexual liberation.
Tom of Finland’s art was unabashedly sexual, often using exaggerated male body parts to accentuate the erotic nature of his work. Tom is an icon for artists, not just gay men. He and his work are inspirations for anyone who is looking for erotic liberation. Durk said that Tom did not sit around and ponder how his erotic art might influence others. He initially did it entirely from a point of self-satisfaction. They were his dirty little drawings. What he drew turned him on.
But at one point when Tom was in his 60s, during a lecture he delivered at the California Institute of the Arts, he told the audience that he had progressed to a phase of his life in which he recognized that it was always his intention to make a difference with his art, to see if he could change the way that gays thought about themselves and the way that the larger society looked upon gays.
This is the legacy for which Durk wants Tom and his work to be remembered. And that goes for all of the erotic artists of that era and today.
There is so much more I could mention about Durk, Tom, and the work Durk and the Foundation continue to this day. But I’m ending with the concept of community heroes. Durk mentioned that homosexuals have so few heroes. Durk considers Tom a hero.
As Durk said, “Here’s a man who actually devoted his whole entire career that spanned six decades, 60 years of works, that reflect his commitment. He was a rare man.”
If you like erotic art, I strongly recommend you attend the LDG event. Listen to Durk Dehner, one of our community’s most important art figures. See some really cool and important erotic art. And mix and mingle with fellow erotic adventurers who understand, as Durk always emphasizes, that our erotic art is an important part of our history and culture.
By Race Bannon