Tammy and Ronan are a tour de force of dedicated art making and artistic exploration. Tammy, who is Ronan’s mother, is an accomplished painter from Alberta. Her visceral figurative paintings have been shown throughout Canada. She is known for her use of allegorical tales, which display an honest chronology of her private world. The raw detail of her paintings allow for layers of emotional transparencies to flourish. Her introspective paintings feel like familiar fairy tales, until one realizes they are actually watching a new story unfold.
Ronan is a young transgender kid who is interested in fashion, performance art, singing, writing, and an amalgamation of almost every art form out there. Together, their enthusiasm for the arts is inspiring. I sat down with Tammy and Ronan for a special double interview about painting and the performing arts. Ronan also bravely shared her experiences with bullying, giving us all an example to live by.
Jenna: When did your painting practice become serious?
Tammy Salzl: During my undergraduate degree in painting, I became disillusioned. It was a school heavily situated in modernism. Being a figurative painter was difficult. I became pregnant with Ronan during my last year, so my life became focused on motherhood for a long time. I began to think of myself as an artist and a painter once I completed a portrait of Ronan. In the painting, Ronan holds the back end of a phone and she’s in a pair of high heels. She is flawless and smiling. However, I have put her in the backdrop of what I believe was a metaphor for a conservative mentality. It was immediately apparent to me that Ronan was different. We were going to face challenges because of where we were. I then had a show at Latitude 53 Contemporary Visual Culture; I completed a few residencies, and began to build more confidence.
Jenna: Ronan, your website features posted Barbie dolls dressed in various outfits. Ranging from the charming Barbie out to dinner with a transformer to disfigured piles of parts. What can you tell me about this project?
Ronan: I make most of the clothes for the dolls. I use pieces of furniture fabric and other found materials. I use pins, strings, elastics, and shoelaces to hold the outfits together. Two years ago I started posing and photographing them. It’s about the fashion. My next step in this project is to learn how to sew and make clothing. I also consider the outfits I wear as part of my interest in fashion. I get stopped on the street a lot. People want to know whether or not I am a boy or a girl. I don’t see things that way. I just try to be fabulous.
Jenna: Tammy, in your paintings, I see a focus on gender, children, and a caretaker role in the female forms.
Tammy: My work is self-referential. It began with me having my life turned upside down after having children. I watched how gender identity develops in its beautiful variations. However, I have also seen the world hate this beauty. These issues tend to come out in my painting subjects. I reference a lot of biblical mythology, not irreverently. There is a painting called The Sacrifice, in this Ronan is going up a mountain with a person who can be interpreted as her father. Her father is holding a gilded axe and is shoeless. This insinuates that he left in the middle of the night to do this act. Ronan looks back at the viewer in her glittered shoes. She is saying to the viewer, “where are we going?” Her Dorothy shoes look as if she could knock them three times and be home. So as you see, I mash a lot of fables, mythology, personal histories, and culture in my work. They are a documentation of motherhood fears and self-consuming thoughts.
Jenna: How has moving to Montreal changed your paintings?
Tammy: The work has veered out of the domestic and allegorical. It is less didactic and more mythological. However, my anxieties regarding gender, family, and our relationship with nature is still a focus. The way we engage with our environment is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The painting I am working on now is about nurturing the monster in you. We all have that inside of ourselves. When I get into tough times I realize I need to mother myself. Sometimes this means accepting yourself for who you are. Whether or not that little part of yourself is a monster or not, you have to live with it before you change it. In this case there is also an intermixing of fairy tales such as beauty and the beast, and an engagement with religious tales.
Jenna: Ronan, you are the star of an anti-bullying video. What made you want to participate in the video?
Ronan: They came to my school and you could audition, and I actually auditioned as the bully to get the part. How ironic! I wanted to show everyone that it’s not wrong to be gay. It’s something that shouldn’t matter, and we should be accepting of each other.
Jenna: Have you ever been bullied? If so, what do you do about it?
Ronan: I am always bullied. It started the moment I started school. Bullying needs to be stopped. People should be accepted for who they are, whatever that is to them. I don’t think it should exist in the first place. What I do about it depends heavily on the situation. Lately, people have been harassing me about my gender identity. Sometimes I say I’m a girl, sometimes I say I’m a boy. A lot of the clothing I design is not gender specific, but has a feminine flare…like me! My mother being an artist inspires me to continue with my art and to be who I am.
Jenna: What advice would you give to kids being bullied?
Ronan: Talk to somebody, get advice from a few people that you know and trust. And if you can, confront the bully yourself. Take this issue to a teacher, principal, your parents, anyone. Most of all, keep being yourself and fabulous. That is what I’ve done and will always do.
Jenna: Both of your artist interests include the idea of a hero. What is a hero to you?
Tammy: I would say Ronan. My friend came up to me and said, “My god, Ronan is more confident then you are.” Ronan public speaks, doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her dress or speech. She doesn’t allow any amount of bullying change how she presents herself. It’s not easy, but Ronan is always filled with confidence and ideas. She’s an amazing performer who has an eye for photography and staging. I see this transforming into a full art process.
Ronan: My mom is very supportive. Also there are other kids at school who dress and act like me. They support me and are very accepting. I’m also very into glitter, glamour, and sparkly fashion. Lady Gaga, RuPaul, Madonna, and Yves Saint Laurent also inspire me to become a performer and fashion designer. My mom’s art also inspires me because she isn’t afraid to talk about real issues. She pokes fun at religion, addresses the environment, and talks about queer issues.