The Creators Behind Muse Series - Interview with James Kinser & Niki Grangruth

A few weeks ago, we posted on our Instagram a photo by Kinser and Grangruth from their Muse Series, Venus [after Botticelli]. The reception was fantastic, and we thought it was time to engage in conversation about gaze and gender.

The Male Gaze has long prevailed in Art History. Male artists were depicting their feminine counterparts. Art History needs to be rewritten, taking into account the perspectives of women, BIPOC, 2SLGBTQIA+ and broadening its vision. No longer showcasing only one voice, but a multiple. Little by little, rethink the Art History we want to read about!

Interview with James Kinser & Niki Grangruth, the Muse Series creators.

How did you start your collaboration? How did you come up with the idea of the series? 

N: In 2008, a mutual mentor/friend/colleague connected us because she thought I might be interested in shooting images of James’ then drag persona to create a calendar. While the shoots did not amount to much, we connected very quickly on mutual interests in art history, gender identity, and socially constructed beauty ideals. We began brainstorming about the body of work that would soon become Muse. We started simply by going through art history books and marking paintings that spoke to us. Soon after, we began the process of constructing the first images. We were amazed that the images we chose individually resonated with both of us on many levels. Not only did our artistic interests run parallel, we immediately felt an authentic and intuitive connection. 

J: From that initial connection and selection of images, we began to see the commonality of the central female figure within richly painted environments—ones that could be translated using fabric and props. From the outset and through to today, the project remains a 50/50 collaborative venture conceptually, throughout the design and construction of costumes and sets, and post-production.  

Muse is more than 10 years old now. You started working on that series in 2009. How has your view / eyes / understanding of the project/intent evolved since the early days? What was vital for you to showcase?  

J: It is worth noting that popular culture has made significant shifts in its perspective around gender expression in the last 10 years. For context, RuPaul’s Drag Race debuted the same year we produced our first works in the Muse series. Collective awareness of drag was much more confined to the traditional notions of a cabaret lip-sync performance with fabulous costumes. At that time, our work seemed relatively fringe. A bearded drag queen was still somewhat taboo or “other,” even within the gay community. Given those factors, we understood that the use of drag in a fine art context needed to be employed with reverence. We couldn’t let the drag element allow the work to be misconstrued as a spoof or a joke. Along with that, we recognized the imperative of art history as the framework for the work’s approachability. By reinterpreting works of art with which people have some awareness, that technique allowed us to give people a comfortable and familiar starting point. Though we have always understood the need for balance between campy and historic elements, over time, we have become much more adept at knowing where the tip of that balance might lie.  

N: While the work’s intent has remained relatively consistent on our end, it has changed due to context. Our objective has always been to contribute to the conversations around gender identity. As James mentioned, these conversations have evolved since we began the series. However, our work has always been about asking questions more than providing answers. We feel that this approach to image-making speaks to our curiosity, and we hope that this evokes curiosity in the viewer. While we hope that the work resonates with a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds, I find it most rewarding when the work speaks to an individual who may still hold conservative views about gender identity. We have had these individuals, on many occasions, express interest in the work. The photographs become an entry point for them to ask questions and consider their views on nonconforming gender. I feel that these occurrences have increased as society gains more awareness about nonconforming gender. 

Muse Series, Odalisque [after Ingres]

Which conversation(s) do you hope to further with this series?   

J: Throughout the Muse series production, we have felt perpetually attuned to the relevance of the work to the general public, and specifically, to the LGBTQ+ community. The multiple conceptual layers inherently present within each piece has allowed us to speak to several topics relevant to the community or audience consuming the work. Though, first and foremost, the idea that gender is a performative act is a central pillar of this work. We hope viewers are challenged to address preconceived notions of what is labelled masculine or feminine and to consider the story or meaning they create in response.  

N: A large part of the work is also about questioning beauty ideals and exploring art history’s cyclical nature. In short, we want viewers to see the beauty in representations of the male body and the expression of nonbinary gender. We feel that beauty holds a lot of value in many cultures, so we use that as a tool to engage our audience. We hope that through engagement with the work, viewers can begin questioning their standards of beauty. Similarly, we hope viewers see the cyclical nature of images and how pervasive images, iconography, and archetypes are in our collective psyche and how those images influence our perception of gender. 

J: Also, on a more practical level, we often discuss artistic process and construction. We find that people are interested in working together as collaborators and how the images are constructed both three-dimensionally and digitally.  

There is something full circle about reverting not only the gender of the portrait but the gender of the image taker. You inverted the roles; how do you think that this inversion influences the results?  

How do you choose which art history canon you want to actualize?   

N: Reworking the historical relationship between artist and Muse is such a large part of our work. Not only are we inverting who is artist and who is Muse, but in our work, Muse is also an artist. Due to the understanding of our roles in the work in the context of art history, we emphasize the importance of the gaze. In many of the paintings we reinterpret, the female figure is depicted as coy and demure, often with a soft gaze that does not engage with the viewer. In most of our images, we choose to manipulate the gaze and pose James in a way that directly engages the viewer and creates a more active presence in the image. Additionally, as a female photographer, I feel that I am acutely aware of the gaze’s power.  

J: This manipulation of the gaze that Niki mentions is so foundational to the images’ success. It is also where my background in performance art comes into play. There’s a performative element to embodying the female figures’ shapes in the paintings from which our work is inspired. In the moments we most feel we have captured our desired image, there is often an energetic exchange between Niki and me—an intuitive tingle, of sorts. The photograph captures a moment of embodiment, an invitation to be seen. In a sense, this practice equalizes the power of the gaze held by the viewer and the subject within the images. 

Muse Series, Mrs George Swinton [after Sargent]

James, you mentioned on your blog that Muse had been censored in the past. How has this influence what has come next? Still, it seems that you turn something unpleasant, to say the least, into a positive activator. You state that after a “raft of feelings, thoughts, and emotions,” it deepens your commitment. Can you tell us your rationale as this is a situation you handle very well, despite how difficult it was, and others can learn from your approach?   

J: At the risk of being too flippant, therapy does wonders! To be clear, this situation wasn’t so bad that I needed therapy. But, having been raised in a Fundamental Christian family in the Midwest, over the years, I’ve had my share of things to work through. One of the critical practices I have taken from those years of therapy is listening to all of my internal parts. Initially, some parts felt hurt and excluded for an unfair reason in this censorship case. Then, some angry, riotous parts with pitchforks ready to storm the castle showed up, and quite honestly, hung out for a while. Eventually, the peacemaker parts showed up and started asking, “ok, but what next?” Because I had years of practice holding space for all of these internal parts to be heard (often simultaneously), I was able to move toward a slightly higher perspective. Niki and I both knew that it wouldn’t serve us as artists or the project to stay in an angry place. We also knew there was nothing we could do to change the outcome. However, we felt a duty to use our voice. Considering the circumstances, we wrote a letter to the people responsible for removing our work from the exhibition, and articulated our values as artists, the underlying intention behind the work we make, and requested they employ greater transparency in their future calls for proposals. We felt an even more significant commitment to our work through the formulation of that letter, something we likely couldn’t have done had we stayed fixed in anger. It was a learning moment for us, and we hope it productively reshaped thinking for the other party involved. So, long story short: Sometimes precious learning opportunities suck, but taking a beat and responding from a more holistic perspective can allow us to sidestep, reacting in anger and adding to the baggage we may already carry.

Here’s the full story  

Muse Series, The Dream [after Rousseau]

How long does it take you to create one piece of the series? Any that have been particularly challenging?   

J: Most pieces take six months to two years to complete, depending upon their complexity and our work schedules. A lot of that time is dedicated to designing and constructing costumes, building sets, taking the photograph, and post-production editing. That entire process is entirely collaborative, with both of us sharing input at each stage. In the eleven years, we’ve been working on the project, we’ve only had two or three projects that didn’t work. We tried reinterpreting the Mona Lisa three different times, each of which was almost laughably unsuccessful. It is such an iconic and enigmatic image, and after so many failed attempts to capture its essence, we decided to let it go. Another attempt involved a Picasso, but the painting’s abstract nature didn’t quite lend itself to our process. Every project brings its learning and discovery. We gained a much clearer picture of what works and what doesn’t for the series from those challenges.  

N: One of the unique, but in our case challenging, things about photography is that we have to work with the real. In painting, an artist can depict anything they imagine. For example, in Rousseau’s “The Dream,” one of our most recent reinterpretations, there is a nude woman in a lush jungle surrounded by exotic plants and animals. Since we live in Chicago, we do not have access to this type of location. Therefore we had to find a way to recreate the scene. For the image, we photographed James separately in the studio. We then shot the pictures for the background at an indoor conservatory in addition to hundreds of shots of plants taken in the studio—this required hours and hours of detailed compositing work. We encountered similar challenges when creating “The Annunciation (after Botticelli),” as we could not find a location that looked similar to the original painting.  

Muse Series, The Annunciation [after Botticelli]

Your website is full of little anecdotes and fun moments | memories about shooting Muse. What is your favourite one?   

J: September 20, 2009, is “Venusversary Day,” the day we shot the “Birth of Venus, After Botticelli.” The entire experience was so full of delightful surprises that could not have been better planned. That we both get a glimmer in our eyes, and a grin spreads into a smile when we think of that day, it is squarely our favourite shoot. Though, to be honest, there is scarcely a shoot that hasn’t required a pause for composure due to a hearty giggle fit.  

Here’s the full story 

What is next for the Muse Project?  

J: We are currently working on two additional pieces for the series. My studio is in both a costume and set-building stage at the moment. These are usually the times that Niki and I are texting images back and forth to each other for feedback. Considering the pandemic, we have had to make more concerted efforts to work remotely but still keep the collaborative element central to our approach. 

We also feel like the work isn’t really complete until there is a conversational exchange about the topics the work addresses. To that end, we have one solo exhibition of the photos and costumes lined up for 2021. We are exploring other exhibition opportunities where we can share the work and dialogue with others. 

In 2020, self-education on key topics is essential, is there one book that has informed your vision on identity, gaze, sexuality, and the body?  

N: It may be reasonably obvious, but I often find myself revisiting ideas in Gender Trouble by Judith Butler. Her theories on the performativity of gender are deeply embedded in our work.  

J: From a gender perspective, Changing Ones by Will Roscoe, which articulates the presence of third and fourth gender identities in Native North American communities, really transformed my notion of what gender could be beyond the prominent binary approach in contemporary culture. But on a more personal level, Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness was exceptional in reframing my perception of self, body, and identity. 

James, you have both a .com and a .ART why is this important to you?   

J: When I initially set up my website, I wanted a .com URL with my full name. Unfortunately, it was already taken. When the .ART became available, I was able to achieve that initial goal of using my full name in the URL. But I also gained the benefit of a domain that clearly expresses an identity before having visited the site. 

Visit his website to see all the behind the scene and learn more about Jame’s practice.

What do you hope to see in 2021 in the art world?  

J: At this moment in time, I have to borrow words from the wonderful and inspiring Fred Rogers of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. “I think that the need to create has to do with a gap,” he said. “A gap between what is and what might be. Or what you’d like to be. I think that the need to create is the need to bridge that gap. And I do believe it’s a universal need.” As artists, we have the ability to be visionaries, to bring more light and awareness into the world. I hope that we all better utilize our uniquely creative voices to bridge those personal, social, and/or spiritual gaps in 2021 and beyond. 

What piece of advice would you want to give to the other artists?  

J: I feel an internal sense of caution when faced with providing unsolicited advice. Perhaps the best offering is to share what I tell myself. “Show up. Whatever that looks like, just show up.” (Another hat tip to Brene Brown.) At times, that looks like spending the entire day engrossed in a project’s details with flow and ease. Other times, it seems like sketching out rough ideas, cleaning up, or, as is sometimes the case, just sitting in my studio with a complete lack of inspiration. There’s something to be said about stillness, especially in our tendency toward immediate gratification in contemporary culture. I find that, especially in those uninspired moments or times of blockage, the best thing I can do is say, “Be kind to yourself. Remember that expansions and contractions are a natural part of the creative process.” 

N: I think it is so important to allow yourself to fail and not to let the potential of failure prevent you from doing work. As an educator, I tell my students that the most profound learning comes from making mistakes, problem-solving and reflecting on how you overcame challenges. I try to take my own advice regarding failure and allow myself room to make mistakes. As James previously mentioned, we’ve had a few pieces that have not worked as we envisioned, and we also have had works that we’ve completely redone. We’ve learned so much from these “failures,” and it has pushed our work to another level over the years.  

THE BLITZ  by James

The most significant influence in your life  

There are too many people and experiences to weigh against one another. So, I’ll say it is whatever that internal part is that has always prodded me on to more expansive things–moving from Kansas to Chicago, going to graduate school, daring to forge a path that feels most authentic to me. 

An object you can’t live without  

I try not to be too object focused, but there’s a painting I made in 1995 when I was studying abroad in the South of France. It encapsulates my intoxicating love affair with that place and is something I treasure waking up to every morning. 

What’s your idea of happiness?   

The luxury of time. A good artist friend of mine and I talk about how money or a larger/nicer space are great things, but the abundance of time to do what you must in the allotment it requires, is one of the most luxurious possessions. 

Your favorite art moment?   

Six years after producing our reinterpretation based upon the painting, I was standing in front of Eduard Manet’s “Olympia” at the Musee d’Orsay. For several minutes, waves of tingles radiated throughout my entire body. It was pure, rapturous joy!  


Who are they?

NIKI GRANGRUTH (she | her)

Niki Grangruth is a photo-based artist working in Chicago, IL. Her imagery explores issues of performative gender identity, beauty ideals and reinterpretation of art history. Her work is influenced by pervasive archetypes found in cultural texts, art history, mythologies and folklore.

Her work has been exhibited nationally at museums and galleries such as the Center for Fine Art Photography, the Indianapolis Art Center, the Kinsey Institute Gallery and the Zhou B. Art Center. Grangruth received her B.A. in Studio Art and English from Saint Olaf College in Northfield, MN and her M.F.A. in Photography from Columbia College Chicago.

JAMES KINSER (he | him | they | them)
James Kinser is a Chicago-based multimedia artist. Combining performance and costume design, his work currently explores idiosyncratic expressions of identity that challenge the traditional male/female construct of gender. Previously, his work has addressed the relationship between the body, spirituality, and sexuality–all topics which continue to be incorporated into his work.

James earned an MA (2005) in Interdisciplinary Art at Columbia College Chicago and a BA (1997) in Art Education and Fine Art from Bethany College in Lindsborg, KS.

Make sure to look into their Instagram @JamesKinser & @Niki.Grangruth.Art to see the addition to Muse they will make in 2021!

evlyne Laurin
evlyne Laurin
is a self-titled Creative Chaos Manager; people collaborate with her to investigate and analyze their overload piles of compelling ideas and concepts that she rationalized and polished until there is a final product with substance and style. She is also a seasoned art administrator & writer who loves colour-coding things and has a pigeon phobia. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Instagram.