Blind Contour Homage “We Can’t All Be Perfect” Erica Rutherford
Born in Scotland as Eric Rutherford, Erica Rutherford led a life of adventure, spanning several continents, careers, and artistic pursuits. For instance, Rutherford trained as a naval cadet before attending London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1939, then studying art at the Slade School of Fine Art. In South Africa, Rutherford produced the 1949 musical film Jim Comes to Jo’Burg, insisting on creating content by and for black South Africans, and politically motivated to make a “documentary about the life of the African in regions hardly touched by the white man.” Rutherford also worked as a farmer, actor, artist, and writer. Marrying for the fourth time in 1959, Rutherford and wife Gail moved to Spain, where Rutherford painted and exhibited widely throughout Europe. They had a daughter in 1966 and, in 1972, moved to Prince Edward Island, which became the family’s permanent home.
Yet, through all these extraordinary undertakings, Rutherford never felt comfortable with the male body of her birth and, as a result, her first fifty years were dominated by feelings of identity dissociation, loneliness, and depression. In her autobiography, Nine Lives: The Autobiography of Erica Rutherford (1993), Rutherford recalls a lifelong struggle with what she describes as “gender dysphoria.” In the mid-1970s, she made the decision to transition to a female body. Rutherford documented the transition in both art and narrative. Jay Prosser describes Rutherford’s painted self-portraits, which she based on photographs of herself dressed as a woman:
[Her] portraits begin by envisioning the woman Rutherford wishes to become and are gradually transformed as she transitions into a record of that becoming. In one photograph… a painted self-portrait is situated behind the photographic Rutherford. In the painting, the seated figure is feminized through body contour, posture, and clothing, but the face is featureless—a blank space as undetailed by the feminine as the still-masculine face of the photographic Rutherford seated before it. Yet the photographic Rutherford repeats the conventionally feminine pose of the pictorial Rutherford (knees jammed, legs tightly crossed, hands clasped), so that the painted self-portrait appears as a model for the transsexual body to follow.
The decision to transition brought an end to Rutherford’s marriage with Gail, but Gail eventually returned to live with Rutherford as a “lifelong partner” and friend. Rutherford was surprised by the support she received in PEI and abroad and, in addition to the “relief” of getting “away from the evidence of masculinity,” she felt more settled within herself after surgery. As Erica Rutherford, she became a critical member of PEI’s art scene. In the 1980s, she began writing and illustrating several children’s books. In the 1990s, she started the Printmakers Council of PEI. In 1999, she was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Artists. For her art and for her role as a “transgender pioneer,” Rutherford remains a highly celebrated Canadian artist.
1923 – Edinburgh, Scotland
2008 – Charlottetown, PEI
“Artist Recounts Life before Sex Change.” Kitchener-Waterloo Record, 1 November 1993, D2.
“Erica Rutherford Fonds.” Archives PEI. http://www.archives.pe.ca/atom/index.php/erica-rutherford-fonds-2
“First Hand: Arts, Craft, and Culture Created by PEI Women of the 20th Century.” The PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women and the PEI Interministerial Secretariat. http://www.gov.pe.ca/photos/original/firsthand2017.pdf
Maingard, Jacqueline. “‘Lost Classics’ in Context.” Africa’s Lost Classics: New Histories of African Cinema, eds. Lizelle Bisschoff and David Murphy, Legenda, 2014. pp. 35 – 49.
Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. Columbia UP, 1998.