At sixteen years old, Tennessee Loveless came out as a gay man in Marietta, Georgia, a whitewashed suburb of metro Atlanta. Shoved against the gray cement bricks that divided the boys restrooms from the relative safety of the hallways outside, classmates harassed Loveless, the first person to ever come out as gay at Alan C. Pope High School.
“Cobb County, even though it was so close to Atlanta, which was very gay-friendly, had its own bubble of bigotry,” Loveless said of his hometown. “If you were anything outside of what Cobb County and especially what Pope High School had decided you could be, you suffered,” one of Loveless’ classmates and friend of over 20 years, Melissa Daywalt, explained.
“I was so alone when I came out that I felt like I had made a mistake.”
At the time, Marietta, situated in central Cobb County, was not a safe environment for people like Loveless. In 1994, the Cobb County Commission passed the Anti-Gay Resolution, a piece of informal legislation that attempted to uphold the conservative area’s “family values” by de-funding arts programs that promoted gay lifestyles. What began as homophobic fears about a play put on by Marietta’s Theatre in the Square would later cost the county privileges of hosting volleyball games as part of the 1996 Olympics. In retaliation for the resolution, the Olympic committee decided to move the events to the University of Georgia in Athens.
Coincidentally, Loveless fled to Athens in 1994, hoping to be closer to his sister and escape the threats of his classmates, who used the Anti-Gay Resolution as an attempt to expel him from school. Where Loveless couldn’t find support from his hometown, including his own parents, he was given safety and acceptance from the Athens drag community.
Just by looking at Loveless, anyone could see an artist in him. Walking down Childs Street wearing a flat-billed hat, the word “FAG” in mirrored lettering catches the sun, drawing attention to his confidence and unapologetically queer style. Small, pink stars dot the skin just beside Loveless’ eyes, matching the mandala tattoos on each side of his face. A Catholic deity fills the skin from the top of his right shoulder to the crook of his elbow while the other arm features a full sleeve of designs.
But on the back of his neck lives one of his most personal tattoos, a script that simply reads, “Loveless.” Even without sight of his face, Tennessee is uniquely recognizable.
Loveless’ art not only resides on his skin, a complex collage of his experiences and perspectives, but also on life-size canvases in his home in Boystown, Chicago. Soon his pop-art paintings of Jesus Christ, Dolly Parton and hundreds of Mickey Mouse faces will line the artist’s studio at the Flat Iron Arts Building, as Loveless moves into his studio and gallery space this month.
A painter for nearly ten years, Loveless has primarily worked as a pop artist for Disney Fine Art after graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. Loveless uses intensive color theory to bring new life to the iconic image of Mickey Mouse, surmounting a lifelong challenge of colorblindness for his project “TENxTENxTEN.” The project includes over 100 ten-by-ten paintings of Mickey Mouse and took Tennessee four years to complete. The power of Loveless’ ability to embrace the complex facets of his identity makes his work deeply personal, whether commissioned for Disney or conceptualized for his own projects about queer identity.
This year, Loveless’ career has reached pinnacles of commercial success. His retrospective book will be published in 2017 by Disney Publishing, detailing the hundreds of intricate designs Loveless has completed for Disney Fine Arts. Loveless even designed swimwear for SpeedoUSA for this summer’s Olympic games in Brazil.
But for all his achievements working as a painter in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco and his current home in Chicago, Loveless recently felt the need to return to his roots, bringing him back to his former haven of Athens this past winter. “In the back of my head,” Loveless thought, “there was this feeling of guilt that I was not paying an homage as an artist to the people who really helped me.”
Ten years ago, the first painting Loveless ever completed was a portrait of a drag queen. Today, with his new project he calls “Geographies of Gender Performance,” Loveless has gone back to what he knows. In a project that he expects to take at least two more years to complete, Loveless conducts interviews with drag queens in the communities of Athens and Chicago, his divided east coast homes. After his conversations with the performers, in which he has focused on the power of race to shape and divide drag communities, Loveless paints six-foot-tall portraits of the queens and inscribes the hours of their individual conversations on the canvases.
With the project, Loveless explores themes of race, gender fluidity and identity in ways that only he can communicate––through his skills based in color theory and his unique ability to personalize the paintings through his hand-written pop art style.
Loveless does this all as a tribute to those who shaped his own queer identity back in the mid-1990s, when he performed in drag as an expression of his newly accepted queerness. As Loveless explained in a video interview in his former Athens studio, “queer to me is the objectification of what white people think gay people are — drag queens, leather people, people who are eccentric, people who don’t fit that white, cookie-cutter heteronormative person. If you are anybody who identifies as gay and revels in that, I think that’s where queerness comes from.”
“It really was the drag queens of Athens-Clarke County that helped me become who I am today.”
One of Loveless’ partners in the project, a drag queen named Semaj Onyx Coxring, has opened up as a result of his work, acknowledging the importance of her own story and the power of Loveless’ art to share her experiences as a black drag performer in the South. Semaj lives at an intersection of what Loveless hopes to explore in his work––geography’s influence on race and gay culture. He completes his work with a level of closeness and authenticity afforded to him from being a member of the queer community himself.
An interview with Semaj revealed Loveless’ level of care for the project even further. She explained that “I never thought that anybody would be interested in what I had to say” until Loveless approached her for the “Geographies of Gender” project. “Hopefully I can change a lot of people’s lives with my story.”
Loveless holds similar hopes, especially in his long-term vision of the “Geographies of Gender” series. Because of the gay and drag communities he found in the South, Loveless became equipped to accept his queer identity and now uses his talents to help others do the same.