Jamie Diaz, a Mexican American transgender woman, has been incarcerated at a men’s prison in Texas for the last 27 years.
Throughout that time, she’s been creating watercolor paintings that celebrate queer and trans people. Nearly a decade of her work, dating back to 2013, debuts Thursday at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York.
The exhibit, “Even Flowers Bleed,” is Diaz’s first solo art show, and it’s named for a series of still-life paintings of flowers in vases. On the flowers’ thorns, there are drops of blood.
“Everything bleeds, everything feels pain,” Diaz, 64, said in a statement about the series. “We’re not the only ones...even flowers can hurt. That’s just part of nature.”
In addition to the still lifes, the exhibit includes portraits of Diaz and of Gabriel Joffe, her friend and co-curator of the exhibit. Most of the paintings feature queer themes or symbols.
Diaz was born in the Chicago suburb of Waukegan, Illinois, though she grew up in Houston, according to her website. She has been creating art since she was a child, and as a young adult she worked in a Texas tattoo shop.
In 1996, she was sentenced to life in prison for aggravated robbery, and she is eligible for parole in 2025, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The exhibit will be a pivotal moment for Diaz, according to Joffe, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. They said they started writing letters to Diaz in 2013 while volunteering for Black and Pink, a group that advocates for prison abolition.
Joffe said they hope the show will help demonstrate that Diaz has a support network and that she would continue to contribute to the community if granted parole in 2025. In addition to being Diaz’s first solo show, “Even Flowers Bleed” also marks the first time her queer art will be shown to the public. It’s another step in her greater goal to create the largest queer art collection in the world, Joffe said.
“It feels like an important moment for her work and for her process of hopeful re-entry,” they said. “A story like Jamie’s could very easily be told through a lens of trauma, but there’s so much joy here, and there’s so much joy in her work.”
Many of Diaz’s paintings feature queer people or queer themes and motifs. In one, titled “May Our Queer Spirits Forever Soar,” a faceless figure stands with its arms outstretched on a three-dimensional pink triangle — a symbol that was used by Nazis to identify people who were imprisoned because they were suspected of being gay and that has since been reclaimed as a symbol of queer pride. A white dove flies above the figure in the painting, leaving a rainbow trail behind it — a motif that Diaz said represents the queer spirit.
“Queer spirit means love, beauty, and joy, to be proud and happy that we’re queer people,” Diaz told Joffe earlier this year in an interview shared on her website. “It’s like a symbol of happiness and acceptance. I’m trying to make a powerful statement that the queer spirit has just as much recognition or honor as the human spirit.”
In the interview, Diaz shared that she begins her creative process in prison with a cup of coffee each morning. She said she often paints with watercolors on illustration boards and watercolor paper even though she prefers oil on canvas, and she uses her hand as a palette. She gets her materials from the unit craft shop and the commissary.
“I sometimes ask for a lock of someone’s hair (often from other trans girls on the unit) and use thread to make my own paintbrushes,” she told Joffe.
Daniel Cooney, the owner of the gallery where Diaz’s work will be displayed until Oct. 29, said what struck him about Diaz and her work is the “sense of pride that she has about who she is.”
The prison system is “made to dehumanize you, and she’s very centered in who she is,” Cooney said. “She also has pride, and she’s able to express it, and that’s really profound.”
In a statement about the exhibit, Diaz said she believes it is important to “shed as much light as possible on inequality as well as show the integrity, courage, beauty, and love of LGBTQ people.”
“We are not all good or all bad, we are just human with our own struggles, hopes, dreams, and desires,” she continued. “And it is for you most of all, beautiful queer people, that I create and dedicate my art. I hope that my art will honor you and bring you joy.”
Joffe said Diaz’s work is especially important because transgender people are more likely to experience incarceration.
More than 1 in 5 transgender women (21%) reported that they spent time in prison or jail — a rate four times greater than that of all U.S. adults, at 5% — according to a 2016 report by the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank, and the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Joffe said there is a direct connection between trans people’s disproportionate incarceration and the hundreds of bills filed by Republican state representatives over the last two years that seek to restrict trans people’s rights.
“If trans people can’t get jobs or aren’t paid as much, they’re pushed into a criminalized economy,” Joffe said. “So there’s a direct trans-to-prison pipeline.”
But Joffe said it would do Diaz a disservice if her art and her story were only about trauma or statistics, because “she is the embodiment of trans and queer joy and resistance.”
“There’s a legacy of that in our movements — even if stuff is bad, people are dancing in the streets, and I see her as a direct embodiment of that,” Joffe said.