In honor of Pride, we’re chatting with a queer member of our teaching community each week this June.
These conversations are a way to honor the artists and their art. After all, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.” And yet, these conversations also revealed a new thread: again and again, we heard that being part of a community has been a crucial step to creative self-expression.
And so, in the spirit of both individualism and community, of celebrating empathy and expression, we’re excited to share these conversations — and curated resources for the queer creative community — with you.
It’s this guiding principle that puts form to his witty and intimate brand of art-making: from illustrations, books, and household goods to “very personal” collaborations with clients like Facebook and Urban Outfitters, Adam’s work is instantly recognizable. “My work has always been really idea-driven, because I’m not the most talented painter, or illustrator, or filmmaker, but I use what I have to do what I can,” he says. “I am opening up my lived experience, my identity, my emotions (good and bad) and just trying my best to connect with others.”
What’s clear is that Adam’s story does connect with others: his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, his Instagram community has grown to 300K+ and counting, and nearly 6,000 students have taken his popular Skillshare class on discovering your creative truth. Part of the resonance may be that Adam, in revealing his own vulnerability, helps people understand their identity and their “why.”
In our conversation, Adam shares how identity, creativity, and community are interwoven and his approach to Pride this year.
Why is knowing ourselves so important to the creative process, and vice versa?
I think a big part of THE PROCESS is figuring out who you are. You don’t always know at the start, but as you work through, you might get to a place of understanding. You’ll essentially spend your entire life working out who you are, and it will change, but it’s hard to make anything meaningful if you’re unwilling to consider and question your identity.
Making art of any kind is a big part of how we dissect the elements that make us who we are and figure out what they mean. The creative process might help us sort through some elements and see how they come together, not just in the end product of your creative labor, but also in a new understanding of yourself.
If this is sounding a little too existential or like a teabag mantra (welcome to my life) you might think about it in terms of finding your “creative voice” which is, I think, tied up in the same questions, with the added layer of tangible aesthetic choices like line quality or color palette. Anyone can learn how to make something that looks nice, and nice things have value. We all like to look at a nice thing and it can make us feel good. But what do you actually have to say?
You’ve said before that “when you’re a queer person, all your art is queer art,” because you “make art based on who you are.” Do you think about making art for the queer community? Or do you simply make art for you?
Yes! I think there’s a trap where we see creatives from marginalized identities and expect them to make work about their identity in an extremely linear way. We often expect “queer art” to be one particular thing, and anyone of that identity to be making variations on this graspable idea we already understand. The reality is obviously so much broader, just like no two people of the same identity will actually be the same either.
Click on the video above for an exclusive interview of Adam J. Kurtz by acclaimed design advocate and artist Debbie Millman.
As a queer person, I believe that the lens of my experience is the only lens I can really see my world through. Whether or not a work is specifically addressing queer ideas or themes, it’s still coming from the same source. The same is true for my other identities — my work is inextricable from the lens of my whiteness, my cisgender identity, etc — and so no matter how inclusive I might want to be, there are certain things that I can’t claim a right to express and people I can’t in good conscience try to speak for.
Some of what I make is truly me just getting something out of my brain. Other times I am making work specifically as a tool for others. An item meant to be gifted, a card for someone else to send, a journal for someone else to complete. In these cases, I am thinking about the possibilities for what it might mean, the value it might take on from personal context, all of that.
“It’s all about finding your people in a world that doesn’t always affirm or reflect who you know you are. ”
When was the first time you experienced queer art that represented or spoke to you?
I can’t think of the very first time, to be honest, but I think we can all relate to seeing something out there and just feeling so seen, or heard, or validated, or connected to something bigger.
A good example for me is the work of Cary Leibowitz, which is so specifically campy and queer and Jewish and clever and rooted in a shared cultural heritage, and I just love it and it makes me feel like: OK, the context is different and the tone is not the same, but there’s some overlap that makes me feel like I am allowed to continue to make and exist too.
With lockdown, we are losing the physical connection and celebration of Pride month — what does that loss mean? How are you finding your community during this time?
It’s sad to miss out on the big party side of Pride month, and I know that depending on where you live, it’s a major event to look forward to. I know people travel to different Pride celebrations across the world and really live it up!
For me in NYC, there’s really no shortage of parties or queer nightlife, so I am grateful for fun parties and experiences I had before this all began. Last year, NYC hosted “World Pride” and it was the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. I also designed Mailchimp’s Atlanta Pride display, and marched around the city with their team. Plus, I spoke at the Human Rights Campaign’s Pride conference. For me, this was … a lot of pride… I am feeling very full of pride.
One thing that seems maybe silly but has been really enjoyable — parties over video chat! Some of my favorite queer parties, like BUBBLE_T and Papi Juice, have been hosting digital events and it’s so great hearing fun music and seeing friends’ faces.
What part does community play in queerness?
To me, community feels essential to queerness. It’s all about finding your people in a world that doesn’t always affirm or reflect who you know you are. It’s about seeking role models that represent potential future versions of yourself. What does it mean to grow up and start a family? What does it mean to (re)build bridges between where you’re from and where you’re going? What would it look like if you could follow your career path while also living your truth? Meeting, seeing, talking to people, this is all so essential to working out who you are, queer or straight.
There’s also the freedom that comes from being in a space where you don’t need to second guess yourself. The relative safety of being in a space that fully embraces and celebrates your own identity so you can dance and flirt and drink without fear for your personal safety. This might be a gay bar, but it might also be the concert for a specific musician, or the book launch for your favorite LGBTQ author, or the menswear section of the Soho TOPSHOP store (RIP).
Queer spaces are important. It’s definitely hard to not have these physical places right now, but the really beautiful thing is that they can be anywhere. They can be online. They can be hidden in plain sight. LGBTQ people have always existed and will continue to exist.
In collaboration with our featured artists, we’ve curated a list of online resources and content for the queer creative community. Explore their recommendations here.
To learn with Adam, join his Skillshare Original Personal Brand Manifesto: Who Do You Think You Are?