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Jamie Diaz, Life Is Wonderful Being Queer, 2014, watercolor on paper, 20 × 15".

Jamie Diaz, Life Is Wonderful Being Queer, 2014, watercolor on paper, 20 × 15".

Jamie Diaz

Dignity is perhaps the most appreciable and astonishing quality emanating from Jamie Diaz’s artwork. This is no small feat, given that the artist—a trans woman—has been confined to a men’s penitentiary in Gatesville, Texas, for the past twenty-seven years. Diaz’s exhibition of watercolors, comics, and assorted ephemera at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, heartrendingly titled “Even Flowers Bleed,” was her first, ever.

The Mexican American artist was born in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1958 but grew up in Houston. Diaz’s habit of frequenting the rougher parts of the city’s downtown area during the 1960s and ’70s likely sparked a number of awakenings in her—intellectual, sexual, artistic. She was raised in a fairly traditional family setting, yet her mother recognized early on that her child was queer and accepted her nonetheless.

In 1995, the artist was given a life sentence for drug possession and robbery—she had stolen to feed her chemical addictions. To be clear, she never physically harmed anyone with her actions. Texas’s draconian laws regarding controlled substances—not to mention the state’s ongoing hideous stance on queer and racial issues—undoubtedly contributed to the needless severity of her punishment. (It also should come as no surprise that the artist’s deadname continues to appear on all of her prison records.) There is, however, a glimmer of hope: In 2025, she will be eligible for parole.

Diaz is mostly self-taught but cites a range of aesthetic influences: from ’60s underground comix and Dutch painting (Rembrandt, van Gogh, Vermeer), to the phantasmagoria of Hans Bellmer, the fiction of William S. Burroughs, and the art of tattoo maestros Ed Hardy and Cliff Raven. Her mother was also an inspiration: In an interview from the show’s catalogue conducted by her friend and advocate Gabriel Joffe (who cocurated the show with Daniel Cooney), she talks about the pictures of toreadors and barnyard fowl Mrs. Diaz created by adhering beads, stones, and pieces of glass onto velvet. Nevertheless, what the artist produces is entirely her own, an autobiographical and soul-preserving output that is tender, funny, kinky, and undeniably sincere.

In one way or another, artists are always making something out of nothing, yet few do it with as much panache and urgency as Diaz. Her materials—children’s watercolor sets, cheap inks and paper—are sourced from the prison’s commissary and hobby rooms. Diaz removes the plastic bristles from the brushes included with the painting kits and replaces them with her own hair (or that of her incarcerated sisters) to craft instruments that, I imagine, are rather like her: sensitive, purposeful, and precise. Despite these limitations, Diaz creates worlds of vibrant color and joy where she is goddess, vixen, healer, and comedienne. Take Devalicious, 2019, a watercolor in which the artist portrays herself as the queen of hell, a glamorous demon with a pert ass and pointy tail who wields a phallic pitchfork, while the phrase TRANS AND BEAUTIFUL shimmers in cursive beneath her. In Life Is Wonderful Being Queer, 2014, we see a muscular androgynous figure sporting a New Wave coif while dancing with closed eyes inside a pink and baby-blue mist. A trio of sharp white fangs sprout from the amorphous ground beneath them, but no matter—this beatific creature refuses to be disturbed from their sweet reverie. Yet perhaps the most extraordinary works on view were also the most ordinary: drawings for a fourteen-page color comic from 2020 in which Diaz imagines a future for herself living in San Francisco, making art from her home studio as she reminisces about her past and gets all dolled up for a party. It’s a moving vision of a tomorrow that she rightfully and emphatically deserves.