A little more than a week before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, a slate of people line the hallway outside a Los Angeles apartment, rented for the day on Airbnb. They’ve sacrificed their afternoon to donate blood that won’t go to victims of car accidents or natural disasters, but as paint for Illma Gore. A 24-year-old artist from Brisbane, Australia, Gore is best known for crafting a nude portrait of Trump complete with a penis as small as his ego is fragile.
“I’m sure Airbnb would be absolutely mortified that people are holding underground blood drives on their properties,” Gore says through giggles.
One by one the donors sit timidly on an upholstered couch while a tattooed, certified phlebotomist ties them off and searches for a friendly vein. Their blood travels through clear tubing and into a vial. After the sixty or so donors – Gore included – have each been tapped, the blood is transferred into IV bags and emptied into tiny compartments on Gore’s palette.
The final bloody product, unveiled the Sunday prior to Inauguration Day at the Samuel Freeman Gallery in L.A., is titled Rise Up Thy Young Blood. It is a ten-by-fifteen-foot reimagining of Henry Mosler’s 1911 painting, Birth of the Flag, which depicts Betsy Ross with three young female seamstresses at work on the first rendition of the stars and stripes. But Gore’s piece shows seven people of various ethnic backgrounds and social classes contributing to the making of a modern-day American flag. Gore says the artwork and the process behind crafting it represent “the solidarity of the people,” and the idea that everyone, no matter their race, gender or class, has a part in making the country what it is, “whether we agree with each other or not.”
Even though the overall-clad character in the middle of the painting wears a “Make America Great Again!” cap, Gore, who’s six feet tall with punk-rock hair and tattoos all over her body, including her face, insists Rise Up Thy Young Blood should not be perceived as anti-Trump art.
“Of course I don’t like Trump, he’s an idiot,” she says. “But [the piece] couldn’t just say ‘Fuck Trump!’ It’s … grotesque to be hateful. So I wanted to think of a way to send a message of inclusion.”
The same statement of connectivity has operated as a through line in Gore’s work since before she moved from Brisbane to Los Angeles two years ago. The artist, who identifies as gender-fluid and is in a committed relationship with a woman, doesn’t consider herself a proponent of gay rights or women’s rights, but human rights. And with Trump, in her mind, set on threatening our inalienable rights, Gore asserts she’s not going anywhere.
“It took a lot to get to this place,” she says.
* * *
Gore’s parents, Karin and Michael, were, respectively, a California artist and a wealthy Australian land developer best known for transforming a swamp in the state of Queensland into a ritzy golf resort.
“Now that I think about it,” Illma says laughing, “my father was like the nice, Australian version of Donald Trump.”
Like Trump, Michael’s developments attracted protest. The Australian press called him a “loud mouth,” and the $10.6 million loan he procured from the Queensland state treasury to develop the resort was shrouded in controversy. After reportedly going bankrupt in Australia, he and Karin – his third wife – relocated to San Francisco, and later settled in Vancouver. He died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve in 1994, reportedly leaving unpaid debts in his homeland, a devastated wife, and two-year-old twin girls: Ashley Illma and her sister Bryton.
“My mother never got over his death,” says Illma, who claims that Australian tabloids misrepresented her father and his financial status at the time of his death – though she readily confesses he was “a bit of a smart ass.”
Seeking free healthcare for herself and her daughters, Karin, who struggled with alcoholism – and, Illma suspects, bipolar disorder – moved the family back to Brisbane. Over the years, Karin’s behavior became increasingly erratic, but, in spite of the chaos at home, Illma says she and Bryton earned good grades in their Catholic school.
Illma admits, though, she frequently got into trouble. She argued with religion teachers about the existence of God and was once exiled to the dean’s office after making fun of her math teacher in front of the class – but only because, Illma says, her teacher scolded her for tutoring the student next to her. Soon, she eschewed her given first name, Ashley, and decided to go by Illma when classmates goofed on her middle name, telling them, “It’s short for Ill-Muthafucka.”
Lesley Smitheringale, who taught art to young Illma, had a more amenable relationship with her. In an email she called Illma “quite talented and a lovely, polite girl.”
As Illma’s mother continued to drink, Ilma says she intermittently threatened her daughters’ lives. By the time they were thirteen, Illma and Bryton moved out, couch surfing at friends’ homes and sleeping on beaches while attending school and working shifts at Baskin-Robbins. They rented a room from a coworker in an apartment that served as a crash pad for addicts and vagrants, most of whom were men. It was those men who gave Illma drugs for the first time, she says, and assaulted her on multiple occasions.
“They were not the healthiest of people, to say the least,” says Bryton, who spoke via Skype from Melbourne.
“As a teenager you don’t know any better,” Illma says. A child services representative met with the girls, and Illma sobs as she remembers the worker saying, “You’ll never have nice things if you keep making these choices in your life.” The child services representative then called Illma’s mother and said her daughters should be allowed home. Drunkenly, Illma’s mom told her that neither she nor Bryton were welcome, and that the locks had already been changed.
Over the following three years, three schools expelled Illma and she began to abuse drugs and alcohol. While working full time and trying to finish high school via independent studies – which she did a year later – she took methamphetamines to stay awake. When she’d go out partying at clubs, she says people could “put anything in [her] mouth” and she’d swallow it.
“Perhaps I just wasn’t strong enough in this aspect as a kid,” Illma says, “but I just wanted acceptance. It’s a truth about me and I’m not proud of it.”
Illma eventually moved into an abandoned condo with other squatters. One day, on a whim, Illma decided to paint a mural on a wall in her apartment, and she soon had a second addiction.
Though she’d always been artistic, painting provided an escape from the terrors of life, and she began making art as often as she could. She got in with the skater and street-art crowd, putting up murals around Brisbane and honing her portraiture skills as well.
After an arrest for drug possession at seventeen, she was forced into a rehabilitation center and stayed clean for a year. But then her mother Karin, at 46 years old, died of liver cirrhosis and alcohol-induced hepatitis. “It wasn’t a surprise,” Illma, who began drinking and using meth again shortly thereafter, says. “I was just kind of waiting for the call.”
* * *
Late one night in her apartment, surrounded by people she barely knew and friends she barely liked, twenty-year-old Illma Gore hit rock bottom. She and her friends were counting their money, figuring out when and how they could get high the next day, and someone suggested Illma sell her TV to buy drugs for the group. At that moment, Gore asked herself: “What the fuck am I doing?”
Gore committed to painting during every spare moment she had, convinced that making a living as an artist would be her path to happiness. She also went back to school, earning a degree in interactive digital media. That was also the last day she ever consumed drugs or alcohol. Reflecting on that period she says, “I like to sit in the corner of the room with a book or my computer and be left alone. That wasn’t me.
“As an adult, you don’t need unconditional love from anyone but yourself,” she continues. “I realized I had to give that to myself, and it was quite freeing.”
A year later, in 2013, on a beautiful August day, Gore bicycled topless through the streets of Brisbane. On her back she’d written, “My Shirt Didn’t Match My Human Rights.” It was her first performance art piece, and it came in response to a statement made by Australian Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott, who days before had responded to a question about legalizing gay marriage by saying: “I’m not someone who wants to see radical change based on the fashion of the moment.”
“She was driven,” says Lincoln Savage, a friend and fellow artist who filmed the piece. “All of her work had depth and substance. She was always looking to challenge herself.”
Gore tried her hand at performance art because she thought such a stunt would be a decisive way to have her voice heard during a time when many members of the Australian electorate felt they’d been silenced.
Two years later, she was living in Los Angeles, and soon felt a similar need to comment on American politics. Her first attempt was the portrait that would make her famous, a grotesque image of a Presidential candidate whom she refused to take seriously, because he was such a “racist bigot.”
Although the element of the painting that captured the public interest was the shrunken penis that Gore imagined for the candidate, her intention was not to mock Trump’s body. Instead, she meant for the painting to “show the prejudices we have towards masculinity.” The body was based on that of a close friend, “this totally masculine, macho guy … who just happens to have a small penis.” She added Trump’s head because she thought it was funny.
“I think gender is really a state of mind,” says Gore. “If we were born into a world where we weren’t taught, ‘Well, you have male genitals so that makes you a man and masculine’ … maybe we’d all be more comfortable in our bodies.”
After Gore posted the picture on social media, it went viral, and the original print was soon valued at $1.5 million. Most saw the piece as a political protest, including the Trump camp, which Gore says called her on two occasions with a promise to sue her. A few months later, she says a man riding in a vehicle with a group of friends jumped out, walked up to her as she approached her neighborhood art supply store, punched her in the face, and laughingly yelled, “Trump 2016!” Gore isn’t certain if the men in the car recognized her as the creator of the Trump portrait, though she says she did hear one of them say something to the effect of “look at that feminist bitch.”
Gore promised her Instagram followers she would not to be deterred by the assault, and, true to her word, in late June she erected a white picket fence at the Mexican border in Arizona, with a for-sale sign advertising “The American Dream.” Then came her Instagrammed image of a giant vagina knocking Trump out in a boxing ring, posted after the release of the recording in which Trump claims that women will welcome men of a certain stature to “grab them by the pussy.”
And then, she started painting with blood.
On the first day that Rise Up Thy Young Blood was on display in the Los Angeles gallery, the donors came to see what their blood had made. Based on when the donations had been procured, Gore was able to estimate where their blood ended up in the piece. Some were honored to know their blood likely ended up as part of the American flag. She also jokingly told one donor, pointing, “I put you in that guy’s ass.”
“It felt like it was their painting and I was watching them look at their own work,” Gore says.
As the Trump era trudges on, Gore has dug in, delivering timely, politically conscious fine art. But even if Trump had lost in November and perhaps retreated to his palatial, gold- and marble-finished apartment in in Manhattan, Illma Gore would still be doing what she loves, with or without the attention she’s received in her young career.
“Political art, especially, is temporary,” she says. “It’s not going to stand for much forever. I just want to keep making art that I think is good.”