Artist Bryan Hoffman, a Michigan native, was recently awarded the Muskegon Museum of Art’s Best of Show Award at the 92nd Michigan Contemporary Art Exhibition for his painting “Kellie Looks Left.” The piece depicts a young trans woman named Kellie Durhal, who Hoffman met through his work with the Ruth Ellis Center.
Hoffman tells Pride Source the win was validating to his work as an HIV-positive artist who’s been painting for almost 30 years in New York and Michigan.
“I moved to New York when I was 19 and stayed there until I was 40,” he explains.”I was HIV positive and became full-blown AIDS in 1992.”
While in New York, he worked as director of advertising and public relations for fashion icon Bill Blass of Bill Blass Group, formerly known as Bill Blass Limited. There, he worked to pay the bills while also privately nurturing a desire to paint. And, in 1996, with a nudge from Blass, he decided to take his art seriously.
“[Bill] said, ‘Leave here’ because he knew I wanted to paint, and he gave me the kick,” Hoffman says. “And after that, I started painting, and I was involved in an organization called Visual AIDS and their archive project, which is focused on HIV-positive artists.”
The organization allowed him to show and develop his work, which led to public recognition from magazines like Art in America. He says that recognition inspired him to continue with his career for four more years in New York. In 2000, he finally moved back to Michigan.
“My first couple of years back was a big adjustment,” he says. “I moved [to Lexington], and there’s not really a gay community. That was tough, but then you kind of get into a groove.”
That groove included meeting his partner Mark LaChey, falling in love and — after “four or five” years in isolated Lexington — moving to Pleasant Ridge in Oakland County. Then, in 2006, he found the Ruth Ellis Center, which had just opened in Highland Park. After hearing about the organization’s mission to help LGBTQ+ youth, he says he knew he had to get involved in some way.
“I pestered them each week to see if they were looking for volunteers,” he says, chuckling. “They just got sick of me, and said, ‘Just come in.’ So, I was their one volunteer when they first started. And I just fell in love with everything about it”.
In time, Hoffman leveraged the volunteer opportunity to a leadership position as board secretary. Looking back, he views this time in his life as pivotal for both his personal life and his artistic growth.
“It’s hard to explain the impact that had on me personally,” he reflects. “It changed my work, my art and how I just approached life. The kids there changed my life. Along with people like Kofi [and others]. They nudged me into changing my art from being ironic to being [about] underrepresented people.”
Hoffman took that nudge and developed a new project titled the “LGBTQ Portrait.” The mission was to focus on LGBTQ+ youth, emphasis on the “T.” Working with mainly acrylic while intermittently using graphite, color pencil and gold leaf, he explored his subjects and their identities.
In his artist statement, Hoffman says he painted his subjects looking directly at the viewer and used circles “to provide a sense of order, chaos, or somewhere in between, depending on where the subject’s life [was] at that moment in time.” The technique, Hoffman hopes, forces the viewer to focus on the subject “without social cues.”
His work with Durhal exemplifies this style. Hoffman says he met Durhal in 2006 and asked to paint her in 2019.
“I painted Kellie when she was coming into her own,” he says, noting he chose to paint her looking left with dots settling onto the couch “because it showed the transition between going from a young person to a more responsible person.”
After winning the Best of Show award from the Muskegon Museum of Art for his painting of Durhal, he sent her a percentage of his winnings. He says she was “thrilled.”
“I am overwhelmed with joy to find Bryan’s portrait of me won Best in Show,” Durhal tells Pride Source. “I never would have thought something from a pivotal point in my life [would] be on the main stage…I am honored to continue positive visibility of transfolk.”