By Michael Westman

Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen, 1920–1991) lived and worked in a house in a quiet Los Angeles neighborhood for the last ten years of his life. This amazing house is now devoted to the preservation of Tom’s homoerotic art, his life and his legacy. Moving from room to room, the images of TOM House and works by the man that lived and worked here, is the feature a stunning new coffee table book TOM House: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles, by Michael Reynolds, photographed by Martyn Thompson and published by Rizzoli. GED sat down with Marc Ransdell-Bellenger, our cover model and a Curator of the Tom of Finland Foundation and collection, to speak about the book, an upcoming movie, and the life of a Leatherman.

72-_MG_2289-2-Editbw-2 - CopyGED: Marc, can you give us some background of your Mr. Long Beach Leather title and how that has changed or influenced your participation in the leather community as a whole?

Marc Ransdell-Bellenger:  Well Michael, I can say my participation in the leather community has had an influence on me as a hole. (Sorry about that, I could not resist.) But seriously, when I moved to Long Beach from Fort Lauderdale because my partner was diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer, we came back here for him to be near his family of choice. He was vanilla so my leathers were “in the closet” during our relationship, somewhat now hard to believe because I am leathered almost 24/7. After he passed, I lost my marbles, so to speak… I also lost my home and job, spending a few months in a homeless shelter. When I was able to get somewhat back on my feet I bought a motorcycle and met the men of Oedipus and the Satyrs motorcycle clubs; they helped bring me back to sanity and back into the leather community. Prior to winning the title I was honestly rather shy and withdrawn and grappling with chronic depression, stuck in a dead end job praying I would just fucking die in my sleep. God has a  sense of humor and a dark one – don’t believe me, look at Donald Trump and recall when Dan Quayle was the scary republican – I was diagnosed with leukemia. My roommates at the time were the producers of Mr. Long Beach Leather, and they asked me to enter a couple of days before the contest. I decided, what the hell did I have to lose, and if I won it would be a chance for me to give back to a community I had taken so much from to survive. After winning, I decided to live my title year as if it was going to be my last year on earth, and there was a real chance it would be. My life changed immediately. I could no longer be shy and hide in the background. Within hours of the contest I had received hundreds of friend requests on Facebook. I was suddenly being put in front of the “leaders” of our leather community and I realized I had a platform to promote issues of homelessness and those of us living with depression. I kept the cancer hidden, I wasn’t even ready to admit that one to myself yet. I attended almost every leather event I could, locally or across the country. It is safe to say that for a while I was one of the most visible leather men out there, I think I was honestly in danger of going to the opening of an envelope. Ha.

Another issue I was personally fighting with was the fact that I was HIV negative. I was tired of living in fear of the disease for 30 years and had decided to become a bug chaser and just get it over with and become positive. One day I had a conversation with Garry Bowie, head of the Long Beach AIDS foundation, and he told me about this drug called Truvada (PrEP), which had recently come out of trials and was proving to be nearly 100% effective in preventing the transmission of the disease. I said ‘why isn’t any one talking about this? We should be screaming it from the rooftops.’ Fortunately, my title brother in Los Angeles Eric Paul Leue was able to pick up the ball and run with it. We traveled the country talking to anyone who would listen. Eventually I found my way to the doors of the Tom of Finland Foundation – it was a perfect fit – I was able to combine my love of art and leather. The Foundation agreed to be one of my IML sponsors, and at that time I had no idea I would end up working and living there.

On Christmas Day 2013, I met an incredible man and fell in love with him like I had no other. I wasn’t looking for it, certainly not during the last year of my life. I was in chemotherapy and the effects were starting to show. I dropped to 117 pounds.  I was just telling everyone it was the stress of a title and I would be fine once it was over. How do you say ‘I love you but I have cancer and might be dead within a few months’ to someone you’ve only been seeing for a short time? In any event, the chemo worked, I was in remission and came clean. He would not talk to me. What should have been the happiest time of my life was one of the darkest. I was in love and going to live, but I was crushed. All of this happened about a week before IML. When I got to Chicago, I was not mentally present, and was in tears most of the time wishing I had handled things differently. I did not do well.

One thing which tends to happen with leather title holders is they are so burnt out by the end of their title year they disappear and you never see them again. You have to have a thick skin to do this. To paraphrase a friend, it is like walking into a meat grinder and hoping you come out the other side relatively intact. I think I have done that, and I am still here and not going into hiding any time soon. I have been clean and sober for 25 years. My newest project is a twelve-step recovery meeting geared towards the Leather community, “Hitting Bottoms”, which meets every Friday night from 8 to 9 pm at the AT Center in Los Angeles.

72-Tom_of_Finland_03_15_Day_02_0197 _2A - CopyGED: Tell us about becoming a Curator for Tom of Finland Foundation and the collection. That must be a daunting task.

MRB: Sometimes it seems like it. I describe the place as a train which doesn’t stop. But most of the time it’s more like – holy shit, how did this become my life? How lucky am I to live and work here. I recall the very first time I saw one of Tom’s drawings in my early teens living in small town Kentucky and suddenly I knew I wasn’t the only one. That original hangs in the room next to mine. I live a life some Leather men in some square, landlocked state would kill to experience for ten minutes. I don’t have sexual fantasies, I have sexual realities. The Leather gods I jacked off to on the Internet 20 years ago, as well as several former International Mr. Leathers, are among my friends and leather family. OK, back on topic… I am only a small cog in a machine where we are all dedicated to the Foundation and its mission. Durk Dehner, President and Co-founder, has devoted his life to it and literally given up his home to the Foundation. Sharp, the Vice President and Curator, seems to work from 10am to 3am pretty much seven days a week. We also have a large volunteer corps, without which we could never get things done.

GED: With living and working at TOM House, how do you separate work from play?

MRB: Play generally involves leather, some type of lube, a sling and a boy on a leash. Then again, so does work, especially if we are testing the “toy” line, TOM’s Pleasure Tools! The serious answer is, most of the time I don’t – my home, work and social life are intertwined. Not only am I a Curator, but I am also in charge of community development. So when I am out at a leather bar, or an event, or a museum or gallery opening, I am always shaking hands, passing out business cards, and looking at ways to promote the Foundation’s mission: protecting, promoting and preserving the erotic arts. I try to take at least one day a week off and take my car out for a spin in Malibu Canyon or Angeles Crest Highway. Sometimes I joke about putting my leathers in the closet and taking a vacation to Texas or Kentucky and going to an Olive Garden to see how straight people live.

72-Tom_of_Finland_03_15_Day_02_0456_2 - CopyGED: How did the idea of TOM House: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles come about and how long did it take to come to fruition?

MRB: The Foundation started in 1984 with the original concept to focus on Tom’s work. Gay artists started dying from a strange disease and their works were being destroyed or thrown away – large parts of our culture were being lost. Tom and Durk decided their legacies needed to be preserved. As a result, we are the world’s largest homoerotic archive…next to the Vatican. Oh, you meant the book. Well, 18 years ago Michael Reynolds was approached by Out magazine to do an article on Tom of Finland. He showed up at TOM House unannounced. Durk gave him a tour, along with a tour of some of the seedier sites of Los Angeles. He was fascinated, to say the least, and even became an avid collector of Tom’s work. The experience always stuck with him. In 1996, he was a part of the team, which founded Wallpaper* magazine. His time at the House still in his head, he wanted to do something bigger. Two years ago he brought Jack Pierson in to photograph the house and Richard Meyer to write an essay (one of the best known Queer historians in the world) which became a cover and 14 page spread In Wallpaper*. Michael still wasn’t satisfied, he wanted something even bigger (size queen.) He went to Rizzoli and they jumped on the chance and gave him free reign, something they almost never do. He and his team descended on the House for three weeks – Martyn Thompson photographed everything from the front gates to the bottom levels of the garden, from the basement dungeon to Tom’s room in the attic, even my closet. Mayer Rus, the west coast editor for Architectural Digest wrote the essay. Not bad by anyone’s standards, however in a conversation I had with Michael this morning, he still isn’t satisfied – who knows, we may see even bigger in the future?

GED: There are several never-before seen preparatory drawings in TOM House: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles. How important are these to Tom’s legacy? Do they put a new light on Tom’s work?

MRB: While we have published and exhibited preparatory and preliminary drawings before, this is the first book which focuses on them. They were not produced for “public consumption” – Tom looked at them as tools in his process. I’m starting to enjoy them more than the finished works. The Pleasure of Play, the largest exhibition ever mounted of Tom’s work, filled both Artists Space facilities in New York, and is now  opening on Tom’s birthday (May 8th) in Helsinki, Finland this year. Tom’s reference pages, which are absolutely amazing, were chosen for exhibition. These are images he cut-and-pasted on to pieces of paper, some of them he even has gone back and drawn on so you get to see his true wit and humor.

72-Tom_of_Finland_Shot_04_0031_2AGED: With the first biopic on Tom of Finland’s influential life and career in the works, its seems Tom of Finland is gaining some much deserved accolades. Do you think the times have changed to allow more mainstream viewing of Tom’s art?

MRB: The Helsinki-filmi biopic will be the first feature-length portrait of Tom of Finland’s influential life and career, and everyone involved has committed to crafting it the way that would make Tom proud. I never met Tom, but I think “much deserved accolades” is a statement which would have made him very uncomfortable. He was not one to seek the spotlight. He was not happy when Bob Mizer gave him the name “Tom of Finland.” Tom felt it put pressure on him to represent the entire country. He was simply a man drawing his sexual fantasies; he most likely would have never shown them to any one if it had not been for the urging of his friends and his partner of 28 years. His work happened to resonate with gay men, letting them know they were not alone in their fantasies. He changed gay culture.

Tom’s work is in the permanent collections of MoMA, , MOCA and LACMA, just to name a few. When I was in art school in 1989, my art history professor did a week-long course on him. There was a Tom of Finland clothing line from 1995-2002. Finlayson, one of Finland’s oldest textile companies, at ToFF’s suggestion, retooled itself with Tom the center of a new product line. The Foundation submitted the application and Finland produced a stamp, the most popular stamp ever sold by them. We have “TOM the Musical” set to go into production. Shy of doing a reality TV show, which I have been approached about, I would say it’s hard to be more mainstream than he already is. “Mainstream” to TOM’s Foundation means that everyone has the opportunity to say thank-you to this great liberator. “Mainstream” means we all have a hero. “Mainstream” means TOM is permanently embedded in culture. Hey, it’s our job.

 

The Tom of Finland Foundation has been instrumental in placing artwork in facilities around the world, from Touko’s hometown of Kaarina, Finland to Turku and Helsinki, Finland; to London’s Institute of Contemporary Art; New York’s Museum of Modern Art; and now Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. They have participated in the publication of numerous titles on Tom of Finland by both small presses and international publishing houses Taschen,  Bruno Gmuender and now Rizzoli. The Foundation is a nonprofit organization, supported by donations from the public, various fundraising events and dues from its loyal membership. The men and women who support their efforts and goals, dedicate themselves both financially and as volunteers enabling TOM’s organization to present an impressive number of activities on a limited budget. 

72-TOMHOUSE_COVER_MECH_110215B copyFor more information on the Tom of Finland Foundation, events, membership and merchandise, visit http://tomoffinlandfoundation.org. To purchase TOM House: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles, by Michael Reynolds, visit Amazon at http://tinyurl.com/gur3ftd.

 

(All photos are © Martyn Thompson from the book TOM House: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles, by Michael Reynolds. Published by Rizzoli.)

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