Midway through a mural project for Portland Community College, Rae Senarighi realized his vision wasn’t going to work the way he thought it was. It was supposed to be a mural of transgender leaders, and Senarighi wanted to paint them in rainbow colors, but it wasn’t working on the wall.
So Senarighi switched to canvas and culled pictures — with permission — from transgender people he followed on Instagram.
“These are a rainbow people, and so I’ll paint them in rainbow colors,” Senarighi thought. “The artwork kind of flowed out of me when I made that decision.”
His inspiration, combined with the “almost complete lack” of transgender portraits, made the “Transcend” series of 12 portraits seem important, tapping into larger issues.
"There seems to be this kind of generic narrative in our culture," Senarighi said. "What I’ve found is ... there’s a million different ways to experience (being transgender) and live that."
Senarighi, who is transgender non-binary, is a Missoula native, graduating from Hellgate High School and taking some art classes at the University of Montana before earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Art Institute of Seattle.
That led Senarighi to commercial scientific artwork, doing illustrations for Cell, Nature and other science magazines.
After being diagnosed with cancer in 2015, Senarighi felt he should try his hand again at fine art, though he kept his day job.
“If I have a short amount of time, then I’ve got to just make the art I want to make,” Senarighi said. “Whatever I did in fine art I knew that it needed to be based in love.”
For the “Transcend” series, Senarighi purposefully focused most of the portraits on transgender people of color, who face the most pressure and violence in their daily lives for living as themselves.
Latino, black, Native American and multiracial transgender people are more than three times as likely as the general U.S. population to be living in poverty, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, and the unemployment rate is four times as high.
So, in his own way, Senarighi hopes the “Transcend” portraits will help garner respect for the transgender community, by focusing on their humanity and beauty first.
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Senarighi started with black-and-white photographs of his subjects, first placing them on a sky-blue background.
Many of Senarighi’s models are models or fashion designers, so their personal sense of style is important. He painted their clothes and hair in black-and-white while painting skin in bright, swirling rainbow hues that lets their humanity shine through over their style.
“Let them kind of be the star,” Senarighi said.
The title of each portrait is the person’s first name, along with their Instagram handle, so people can look into their lives if they’re interested.
“My goal is to just get it out there, both for the larger public to see this and have an entry point (for) transgender youth to see a place for themselves in the fine art world,” Senarighi said.
Senarighi feels a sense of urgency to use his platform to advance transgender issues — he’s booked the “Transcend” show in seven cities so far, from London to San Francisco, and hopes to visit as many shows as possible to talk about the art.
The Missoula show at the Frame of Mind gallery consists of one original painting — of a transgender Missoulian — and prints of the other 11 portraits.
The original piece is the only one done with acrylic on wood, the edges cut around the silhouette.
“It’s just so lifelike,” Frame of Mind owner Amy Doty said. “It kind of feels like he’s in the room with you.”
Doty knew Sinarighi from high school and reached out to show “Transcend” during the month of June, which is LGBTQ Awareness month. They'll have some prints for sale and Senarighi will be in Missoula later in June to talk about the portraits and answer questions.
“Respect comes from understanding,” Senarighi said. It’s a “weighty responsibility.”