To mark Pride Month, we wanted to share the very special story of an artist who recently joined Artfinder, Alexandra Pignon. Alexandra is a transgender French-American artist, who is kindly sharing her transition journey and how it has impacted her art. We hope this interview will bring light to the many difficulties that transgender individuals may encounter during their transition journey and help anyone who may struggle with their own identity.
Q: Could you start by introducing yourself to our community?
My name is Alexandra Pignon. I am 54, French-born American (with Flemish blood) visual artist and musician. My identity and my personal aesthetic are slightly out of sync with the world around me. I express my ambiguous personality through mixed techniques, based on the exploration of two mediums, photography and painting. The overall approach of this investigation reflects my ambivalence.
I live and work in the deep countryside of lower-Normandy. My atelier (The Art Haus) is located on a beautiful Norman farm, an annex of a small middle-age castle, with parks, woods and prairies. I feel lucky and grateful to develop my artwork in such a peaceful and secluded property. The only recurrent visitor at the Art Haus is a lovely stray cat, a real wild cat passing by for good food only. I named him Thuglife.
In my spare time I like to take care of the garden and enjoy playing piano. I also listen to a lot of music every day, mostly jazz and baroque music.
Q: You recently joined Artfinder, what was your artistic journey prior to this?
Since 1979, art has always been around - first by composing electro music and sound design in the early 80s. Also, as my father's original trade was a house painter, painting was a playground and played a role in what I am doing today.
At 14 years old in 1982, I received my first SLR camera. Being a technical professional after land surveyor studies, I naturally liked cameras, darkroom development and historical dichromate processes. Since 1984, I have been using computers, which are omnipresent in design offices and surveyors' offices. It was at the heart of my work, from measuring instruments to 3D modelling. In parallel, and since then, I also use it to compose my music.
From 1998 to 2004, and in order to eventually change jobs, I went to art school, the Académie Malouine d’Arts Plastiques in Saint-Malo. I exhibited and sold my paintings and my pictures, and participated in solo and group shows in well-known venues in Saint-Malo.
Comfortable with computers, I was quickly seduced by the digital photography that appeared during my years at the academy. I then had the idea to re-use the digital images of my painting that were initially taken for its documentation, and to introduce them partially into my figurative photography. These works are based solely on the use of computer tools and techniques. They gave birth to my "Hybrids", a series in which the relevance of my painting disappears.
In 2008, I moved to Pacific Grove, California and joined the fine art photographers’ group of Cole Weston, ImageMakers of Monterey. I applied with success to the Pacific Grove Art Center annual show and was assigned the largest room to exhibit, but unfortunately had to cancel because I needed to find immediate income. I obtained a position in Hawaii in the land surveying department of an international civil engineering company.
Finally, after 20 years in civil engineering, I decided to end my land surveyor career to pursue my work as a full-time visual artist (mainly painting and photography).
For now, my time is entirely devoted to developing artwork on large formats with homemade Glycerophthalic lacquers. And music composition made since 1982 has recently, with sculpture, become part of my activities.
Recently this year, I obtained a grant from the French government (Ministry of Culture) to produce a mixed media project (painting and photography) based on my pinhole photography fund from my time in Hawaii.
Q: You have mentioned being transgender, when did you realise this was the path you wanted to take?
A long self-diagnosis in 2010 led me to commit to a gender transition.
At that time, I was in Honolulu and started to wear women’s clothing and nail polish. In 2012, I settled back in Brittany, France, and started to wear make-up as well. I was a queer, full-time cross-dresser, transvestite. But I felt that I had to learn more about transitioning because I was not satisfied with crossdressing only, mostly because it was too much work to get ready. And of course, despite all my efforts, passing as a woman was not convincing at all. But I had to pursue the definition of my true inner identity.
Then in 2013 I decided to find support in order to get hormones to help. It was such a great relief. The next five years were fully committed to my transition and the ultimate re-assignation surgery in 2016.
A very long, expensive and painful process which led me to, in 2014, destroy all my previous body of work.
In 2017, and with the transition finally completed, I moved to the countryside of Normandy.
Q: What were the highlights and challenges you experienced during your transition?
First of all, it is challenging. To pass, to come out, and to find treatment.
At the beginning, in order to get hormones, I thought I needed a psychiatric certificate (in France 2012, transgenders were still legally considered as mentally ill people…).
I met two doctors. Neither wanted to help me, which was a pretty painful experience. Besides the fact that they were not knowledgeable about trans identity, I understood that social security was the key to their reluctance. Because this institution considered itself the only expert able to take care of the trans identity. They created an “official” gender team, whose approval about treatment was mandatory, if you wanted to be financially covered. And at first, this so-called gender team asked for three years of psychiatric interviews prior to any hormones!
I did not want to deal with all of that because I had already done my diagnosis and was living full-time as transgender. So, the first challenge was to find the right endocrinologist, separate from the “official gender team”, willing to help me without a psychiatric certificate and unafraid of being banned by French Social Security, which was at that time (2013) still against professionals who were not in their “official” gender team program.
For my first appointment I had to go to Paris to find one of those too-rare endocrinologists. But still, I had to have at least a psychologist’s certificate. I was lucky enough to get one by a clinical psychologist, transgender himself. He knew perfectly the problems that we were facing in France. He also had a list of practitioners able to help transgenders, out of the official gender team. It was a great starting point.
Another challenge was daily life. At first my family was not very welcoming of my decision, but later I understood that they had to make a sort of transition as well. It took time. Today only a few members of my family accept me.
When it’s come to a point that everything is wrong regarding your gender, there is a lot to do, to fix, to change. Facing a general laxism and passivity regarding my requests, I began a sort of fight with all the private and public institutions where no compromises were allowed.
The whole of society appeared suddenly awkward to me and I discovered that I did not fit into it, and that I would have to do everything by myself, as nobody in my small town knew what I was talking about. Everywhere, I had to explain to justify my request: whether it was the bank, the social security number and all public institutions, the family doctor, the attorney, the court, the laboratory (frequent lab test at the beginning), monitoring the hormones, planning the hair removal with the right practitioner and with the right techniques and instruments (a huge and expensive part of a transition for MtF).
Up times are rare during transition, but I do have good memories of the amazing medical people that I did manage to find after a lot of searching. They were welcoming and wanted to help because they 'got' what being trans was all about.
Q: Did you experience any prejudice for being transgender? How did you deal with it?
Yes, unfortunately I did suffer a few incidents of prejudice. Luckily, nothing physical.
At the beginning, as I said with the psychiatrists, but later on, the real main problem we were facing in France was the social security number.
In France, the first digit is the gender of the person - 1 is for men and 2 is for women, so in many situations where the SSN is asked, people know your gender assigned at birth.
The digit '8' is for foreign women (7 for foreign men). As I am also French, I forced French Social Security to change my former French SS number from '1' to '8' prior to the mandatory change to '2' by the court of my legal name and gender. I was the only French person to have this specific number - normally it is attributed to foreigners only.
Maybe things are easier now.
Q: Has your experience with gender identity impacted the art you make? If so, in which ways?
Yes, it did, in a subtle way, not clearly evident at the first glance. I took the transition as an opportunity to think about my true aspirations. The long self-diagnosis led me to review my personal development as a priority and, more broadly, to reflect on the world around me.
Back in Saint-Malo, I explored new ideas and made a wide diagnosis of my intimate life. My initial convictions were only reinforced during this period of analysis. It would then nourish my outlook on life and serve to redefine my artistic goals.
In many ways I agree with how George Baselitz defines his art. I think I had to go through a full transition to understand and to define mine. My artwork is a personal diary. I collide with the official art, the categorical refusal of any compromise.
Anti-conformist, stubborn and self-critic, I will never be mainstream. My art has to contain something that no one has already tried yet; something that was never seen before.
Now I better understand why I began to solicit photography differently, its artistic capacity to translate what I felt, and the dynamic by which it was transformed. Going against the tide is my attitude by nature.
Here, it allows me to oppose the increasingly perfect images of photography devoid of inherent figurative elements, of reading markers, and to provoke the future of the legitimate status of artistic photography.
While keeping this technical language, I try to understand and translate the essence of an ordinary situation but also to remove any obvious rational meaning from my digital images.
The goal is to offer simple, freely readable imagery, and to leave room for more subjective interpretation. My Free_Lens Project series in 2010 is the consequence of this.
However, this attempt to provide an answer to the questions of landscape representation changed my way of thinking about my photography and changed my interests in what I wanted to show.
My artwork is influenced by geometry, industrial architecture and maritime atmosphere. Music inspires my imaginary landscapes; my pictorial work expresses my trans identity through their passages and figurative obstacles that I describe in my artist statement.
My digital work Free_Lens Project and Hybrids explore ambivalence as well.
Today, I work on large canvasses and formats to exhibit in venues that make my work lose its presence, becoming almost invisible like trans people who blend into the environment. However, by encouraging a closer visual contact, it reveals many elements that define the encounter. That's the point of my work.
Q: Do you have any LGBTQ artists that inspire you?
I think that many trans artists do not mention they are trans. Maybe for personal reasons, for their career. But in my opinion, to be discreet about our background is not the best way to serve the global audience.
As a musician myself, the first trans person I think of is Wendy Carlos, an early famous transgender. She did a complete reworking of Bach on Moog. To me it is the way we have to go. She did not talk about her trans identity, she did not market it, but instead it was what she did as a trans. A transposition.
Q: Where are you now in terms of gender identity?
Today I am very happy. I define myself more like being bi-gender. I like this definition.
Living in the countryside I had to admit and to welcome back the gifts I had as a man before. I cannot dim or ignore my male past. After all, I still have a prostate and my male genetic will remain XY forever. It is helpful in many ways to have been a man, and nature tells me to be grateful and not to forget where I come from. My background is helpful in many aspects of daily life.
I still have to deal with the two sides of my body and personality. It is like a constant experience.
Q: Finally, do you have any words of advice for anyone who may go through the same experience as you have?
The first words coming to my mind are: Don’t block yourself. Allow yourself. Stop waiting for happiness. Stop blaming others. Stop making comparisons. Stop aiming for perfection. A long time ago I made a big poster with those sentences, it was on my wall for years. Like a subliminal message… it is all about the pursuit of happiness.