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In a phone conversation from Southern Oregon, Tee Corinne told me, "I’m one of the most obscure famous artists." People know Tee in any number of ways: for her drawings, as a writer, poet, designer, teacher, sex educator, or historian. Yet her place in history will undoubtedly be reserved in the category of photography. While the explicit lesbian nature of her photographs has resulted in censorship outside the lesbian community, the work itself filled and continues to fill a huge void in a community desperate for images of itself. Tee Corinne and her work beg the question: what is art for? She clearly doesn’t serve an elite art aesthetic. For that, she has paid a price.

Corinne received her MFA from Pratt Institute in 1968, and began teaching college art courses. After experiencing a crisis around the value of art, she took a short hiatus as an artist, and waited for clarity before continuing to make art. She and her husband moved to San Francisco in 1972, and separated soon thereafter. Corinne worked in the sex education field where she began making drawings of women’s genitals which she self-published as the Cunt Coloring Book in 1975. (It is still in print.) She also began photographing lesbian lovemaking and declared herself a lesbian.

Recently the Traditional Values Coalition circulated a package of what they consider "pornography" to members of the U.S. Senate. They gathered the material, including The Cunt Coloring Book and the book Nothing But the Girl -- which features Corinne's photographs -- from The Gay and Lesbian Center of the San Francisco Public Library. It was a further effort to discredit the ambassadorial nomination of James Hormel, for whom the center is named.

Barbara Kyne: What is your reaction to the circulation of your material to the Senate?

Tee Corinne: I hope the Senators find it educational. I was distressed that Andrea Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition called it "filth" and wondered if Ms. Sheldon thinks she doesn't have genitals or thinks that her own are "truly disgusting."

BK: How did you find the courage to make such explicit art at a time when it was certainly daring and probably illegal?

TC: Yes, laws against importing books about erotic art went down then. I overcame my fears and derived courage partly from being in the right place -- San Francisco. Working on the San Francisco Sex Information Switchboard, I learned it was okay to talk about sex; I learned a new appreciation for sexual information. I was also looking at a lot of erotic art by old masters like Rembrandt, and Michelangelo. In Michelangelo’s "Leda and the Swan," the swan makes love to Leda; I look at that and look at my own work -- I see all the same curves.

As a younger sexually active person, I didn’t have access to that kind of information or imagery. I had no words for what was going on sexually for me. But I knew it was really important and sacred in my life.

BK: You talk about sexuality as being a vehicle in the spiritual quest. Can you say more about that?

TC: "My spirituality is tied up with nature. That’s probably why I live in Southern Oregon. Sunrises, sunsets, the shape of veins in leaves -- certain kinds of beauty and grace always made me believe in god when I encountered them. That’s one piece. The other is that sensuality at its best is transformative. If I had a sense of being in touch with god, it would be at the point of orgasm. It’s that kind of ecstatic, epiphanous response."

 

BK: Why did photography become the medium?

TC: Because it wasn’t really an art! It wasn’t part of the fine art training and seeking that I had accepted in terms of my education.

BK: I’ve heard you talk "artspeak" with the best of them. Yet I sense you have an anti-intellectual stance toward art.

TC: I wanted to do something where content and politics could be satisfied. Fine art has problems with accessibility. I was a southerner active in the civil rights movement in the south. Printmaking was one way I could integrate art with politics. Photography is another.



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