The Hippo


Jan 21, 2020








Catherine Graffam in her Manchester art studio. Kelly Sennott photo.

See “Trans Pose”

Where: McGowan Fine Art, 10 Hills Ave., Concord
When: On view March 22 through April 22; reception Friday, March 25, from 5 to 7 p.m.
Contact: 225-2515,,

Second looks
Trans artist combats the male gaze

By Kelly Sennott

 Go ahead and take another look at Catherine Graffam’s portraits of trans women — it’s what she wants.

“In art, there’s this way women are painted and photographed. It’s very complicit, and it’s very passive, and it’s usually really easily digestible,” said Graffam, a trans woman and recent graduate of the New Hampshire Institute of Art. “It’s kind of set up to uphold the standards of beauty women have to reach to be deemed beautiful and acceptable. … Because I’m trans, it’s hard to meet those standards — people don’t usually react to it well or write you off as ugly, or they don’t quite enjoy it the same way they would with an easier image.”
Her goal in her upcoming show at McGowan Fine Art, “Trans Pose,” on view March 22 through April 22, is to combat the male gaze in art and cause people to reflect on how they define women and femininity.
Hot sellers
Graffam has spent months slaving away in her Manchester mill building studio, which is located behind a winding maze of stairways and hallways. She shares the space with three other NHIA alumni trying to make names for themselves in this new post-grad life, and during an early March visit, the long, high-ceilinged room was almost empty, save for her collection of trans women’s portraits hanging next to the studio’s only window. She still had two more to complete before showtime.
Most artists McGowan Director Sarah Chaffee represents have years of experience. But Chaffee saw something special in Graffam’s work at the New Hampshire Institute of Art’s spring BFA showcase. Graffam’s senior thesis focused on imagery depicting her transition as a male to female transgender person, and Chaffee was struck by Graffam’s conservative style countered with topical LGBT issues. Throughout the evening, Chaffee constantly circled the work — looking at it, then moving away, then coming back — until finally, a friend who was with her said, “Go ahead and buy it!”
At the time, Graffam hadn’t known Chaffee was a local gallery director, nor that she hardly ever buys or shows work by artists so young. But when Chaffee followed up a couple months later, asking Graffam to come sign her painting, she saw the opportunity; she drove to Concord, paintings stashed in her car, and Chaffee took a handful. The first sold within hours.
“I never do that,” Chaffee said. “I took four to five paintings and a handful of prints. And within a couple weeks, I had sold a few more paintings and a print. … Whenever I sold work … she would bring more work, and I’d sell it, and then she’d bring me more work. I was like, wow, I think we’ve got something here.”
They were also mostly self-portraits, which are sometimes tricky sells, and a lot of the buyers were older clientele. One man had purchased his online from Indonesia.
“I think in general, when a portrait or self portrait speaks to a buyer enough, they purchase it because there’s some kind of emotional content they connect with,” Chaffee said. “And I think her most successful pieces are heavy with emotional content. Sometimes people just want to look at a pretty picture and don’t want to be challenged. Her work really straddles that line, of being a beautiful painting and a lot to think about. … It’s a sly and subtle way of getting people to take a second look.”
The paintings
Chaffee and Graffam began discussing a solo exhibition in August. Graffam proposed “Trans Pose.”
“I was a bit concerned she was going to be like, ‘This is New Hampshire, kiddo, you need to turn it down,’” Graffam said. “I didn’t know if she really wanted to go on the record to have this sort of stance by proxy of me showing this art there.”
Chaffee did, and Graffam has been at work ever since. The women in the paintings are people Graffam met online, and they sent her photos for her to reference. They come from all over the country and are of all different professions — writers, poets, video game designers, comic artists — and ethnicities. 
“The thing with trans women online is we essentially all kind of know each other. I can look up any trans woman in her 20s on Facebook and I’ll probably have at least a few common friends with her. It’s a tight-knit network of people. There’s not that many of us, and we kind of like to stick together,” Graffam said. “I definitely wanted to show diversity in who we are and what we look like and our experiences and how we define ourselves. An important part was for them to have agency over the photos. … So often in the media, we’re ridiculed or just not written or talked about in an acceptable way.”
Trans issues
Graffam came out gradually in 2014, before the issue heated up with Caitlyn Jenner.
“It did raise some awareness, for better or worse, but we also saw the highest murder rate ever of trans women in 2015, and I do not think that’s a coincidence at all. With all this coverage, sure, maybe there may be some progression, but there’s also a huge pushback,” Graffam said. “And now we’re kind of facing a legal pushback. All the bathroom bills, health care stuff. It’s a total mess.”
She said it’s hard for trans women to find and keep jobs because of this pushback — in fact, she quit her pizza delivery job due to harassment — which is why a percentage of painting sales go to the models featured.
“There’s a lot of mental health issues in the trans community, and high rates of suicide, and it’s hard to stay afloat and thrive as a trans woman,” Graffam said. “I wanted to use my situation, which is pretty well off, and use it to give back to my community in a monetary way.”
Graffam, who didn’t begin painting seriously until age 18, hopes this show will be the start of an edgier art scene here. She’s not sure whether she’ll keep working with this series but will likely continue creating emotionally charged work.
“I want to send a message of beauty and strength,” she said. “I don’t think I’m saving the world or anything, but I hope it impacts some people.” 

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