Long Durk Road By KEN KNOX
Tom of Finland Foundation cofounder Durk Dehner reflects on his dream job and the vast influence that Tom of Finland has had on gay culture.
Durk Dehner was a latecomer to the Tom of Finland phenomenon. Raised in Canada, the cofounder of Tom of Finland Foundation didn’t even begin to live life as a gay man until he wound up in New York City, where he discovered Tom’s artistry posted on a bulletin board at the Spike bar on the lower west side of Manhattan. “In a flash it was in my pocket for me to stare at and covet,” he recalls. “I didn’t get to see Tom gracing the covers of any muscle mags in Canada, [but his art inspired me] to become this image of a beautiful sexy leather man who wore queer right on his lapel.”
Dehner’s story is not the only one of its kind. Indeed, many gay men first experienced their attraction to uber-macho men through the drawings and scribbling of Tom of Finland, whose racy illustrations depicted an array of blue-collar men, wartime sailors and leather daddies engaging in sweaty, aggressive sex. “Tom’s role was that of a liberator,” Dehner remarks. “He redefined what it was to be homosexual. He created visual archetypes of masculine homosexuals indulging freely in sex together that these men could identify with for themselves. He set the proud love of man-on-man in full motion.”
Given his intense reaction to Tom’s work, it comes as no surprise that Dehner would come to be so involved with the man who had inspired him. Born and raised in and around Calgary, Dehner grew up idolizing the “rockers and Hell’s Angels” he saw on television. “Bored with school and teenage stuff,” he was doing transcendal meditation by 15 and hitchhiking across the continent at 16. Though he got one girl pregnant (his son lives in Europe), Dehner knew he was gay. By the time he reached New York after a stay in Montreal, Dehner was ready to “commence my gay education and development session of my life.” He modeled for photographers like Ken Haak and Bruce Weber, and appeared on the covers of many magazines. After discovering Tom’s work, his friend, Etienne, gave Dehner Tom’s address, and the two men began a romantic and creative relationship that would last until Tom’s passing from emphysema. Dehner was initially hired on as Tom’s public relations liaison in an attempt to bring Tom out of the underground and into mainstream consciousness. During their time together, the two men created the Tom of Finland Foundation, which celebrates 25 years this month.
Founded in 1984, the Foundation has served as not just an archive of Tom’s work, but also as a refuge for all forms of erotic art from other artists, many of whom were inspired by Tom’s iconic drawings and illustrations. As the public relations director, Dehner was responsible for creating a publishing company designed to push the work of Tom and many others into the mainstream, as well as facilitating many art fairs and exhibitions. Most recently, Dehner helped to get Tom’s work included as part of a permanent collection in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as in the Nordic Pavilions exhibit in the prestigious Venice Biennial.
Yet, while the Foundation is celebrating 25 years, it is also facing some tough challenges. “The older generations of collectors and supporters are now arriving in the elderly era of their lives and [no longer feel the need to] feed their carnal desires through the purchasing of erotic art,” Dehner says. “They didn’t necessarily bring the younger generations to the table before they left, and the result is that our membership base and donation base has dried up.”
Dehner has made it his mission to keep the Foundation going, and urges members of the gay community to get involved. “The Foundation has a tough time of it as it’s very difficult to get large-scale funding for us because of the nature of the arts organization that we are,” he explains. “Sexual expression is still not an easy sell to boards that donate to cultural organizations, so the solution has to come from within the community that the Foundation serves. If we don’t get it together and care for our own cultural treasures, who else do you think will?
“There is so much in who we are that, if we don’t nurture it, it will become rare and our young ones who are just coming of age will be hurt as a result,” he adds. “They may never realize what it is to be uninhibited.”