TEE CORINNE: The Shy Superstar Of Lesbian Erotica

ee Corinne once described herself as the “one of the most obscure famous artists.” She was famous, both nationally and internationally, in the lesbian community and among others who recognized the creative strength of her life, art, and writing. But her work was little known or appreciated in traditional art circles, chiefly because her talents were frequently directed toward expressing the beauty and meaning she saw in both the physical and emotional character of lesbian relationships. During her lifetime, she never had a major show at a museum or gallery. Instead, her work was hung in small galleries, coffeehouses, and bookstores. Her writing was typically printed in limited-circulation chapbooks and journals published by an emerging feminist press. Major publishers declined to issue her work. Now, however, she has widespread recognition as an influential figure in the feminist art movement of the 1970s.

A gifted and versatile artist, Tee Corinne worked with photography, line drawing, paint, sculpture, ceramics and printing, and she also published erotic fiction and poetry and reviews. Born Linda Tee Cutchin, November 3, 1943, in St. Petersburg, Florida, Tee A. Corinne grew up in the South, living in Florida and North Carolina until moving to New Orleans as a young woman. She was educated at Newcomb College, Tulane University, St. Petersburg Junior College (A.A. 1964) and the University of South Florida (B.A. 1965); in 1968 she received an MFA from Pratt Institute, but although she was already exhibiting her work throughout the U.S., it wasn’t until the early 1970s that Corinne began to explore the feminist and sexual content for which she is best known. She had a turbulent childhood. Her mother and stepfather were alcoholics. At age three-and-a-half, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She spent three months recovering in a nursing home and nineteen months with her grandparents in Yankeetown, Florida, where she grew to love country living. She was not permitted to resume normal activity until age eight. Her mother, however, had a decisive influence on her growth, as Corinne recalls: “My earliest memories are of drawing and making things with my hands. My mother was an artist who taught me how to mix primary colors to get secondary ones, how to wrap and bend wires, tie knots, use one- and two-point perspective. Visual art is a language with which I respond to and reflect upon my life. I have seldom succeeded in keeping a diary, but I have almost always carried a drawing pad and, since my eighth year, I have also had a camera. Growing up, I took every art class that I could. Graduating, I won the high school Art Award and the National Journalism Award. I always thought that if I couldn’t succeed as an artist, I could always write. Now I do both.”

As a teenager, Corinne became aware that she was attracted to both men and women. At boarding school in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, she discovered that she thrived in an academically and artistically rigorous environment. At graduation, she won the school’s art award and a National Journalism award for work on the school newspaper. Early in 1965 in Florida, Corinne became involved with Robert Kamen, a folk musician from Queens. In December she moved to New York City with him and they married ten months later. Corinne worked as an editorial assistant for a trade magazine and attended graduate school at Pratt Institute where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1968. Interested in sexual imagery by “great masters” of art history since first seeing it in New Orleans, Corinne began around 1968 to locate books containing these images. Such books had previously been censored by the United States government. She experimented with sexual imagery in her own art, beginning with photographs of heterosexual couples kissing and moving on to drawings of her own genitals, a subject for which she could find no other models.

In 1969, having finished a year of postgraduate work in sculpture, Corinne and Kamen moved to Connecticut where he attended graduate school and she taught college art, made life-size figure sculptures, and became increasingly depressed. Corinne stopped making art when the couple moved to San Francisco in 1972 and separated in 1973. Work with acclaimed therapists Bob and Mary Goulding brought an end to the depression. “I quit making art and started looking hard at my life. We went to San Francisco and I found therapists: Bob Goulding, who understood when I said I was spending too much energy just trying to stay alive, and Mary Goulding who understood the artist in me.” Over the next year and a half, Corinne came out as a lesbian. She began making art again, this time boldly committed to using explicit sexual imagery. She always wanted her art to make a difference in the world around her and her public and private life have often been difficult to separate. Recognizing that her sexual art could not be exhibited in traditional art galleries, Corinne sought out alternative venues such as women’s coffeehouses, bookstores, and lesbian bars. Her images were frequently published in the emerging feminist press.

Corinne’s courage in insisting that the frank and erotic representation of lesbian sex empowers women gained her the respect of different “schools” of lesbian thought, even those that usually regard one another with hostility. Thus, her work may be found in Pat Califia’s Sapphistry (1988) but also in Lesbian Culture (1993), to whose editors, Julia Penelope and Susan Wolfe, Califia is the lesbian antichrist. Corinne is sometimes accused of romanticizing lesbian sex. Close analysis, however, tells a different story. The sex scenes that now saturate lesbian culture, complete with leather, toys, and lipstick, are highly staged, use models (albeit often friends of the photographer), and aim to shock as much as titillate. Corinne’s work is very different. Showing real sex between real-life lovers, she is “interested in loving, beautiful, sexy images. . . I also want the images to be a turn on, create an adrenaline high, a rush of desire so intense that the act of looking is sexual.” Stripped of the distancing effect of routine pornographic signifiers, Corinne’s work becomes more challenging and takes more risks. In Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts, James M. Saslow writes, “Tee Corinne broke ground for lesbian photography as both historical document and erotic fantasy: her celebrations of women’s passion in non-male terms layer frank sexual acts with elaborate symbolism. (She has made a) conscious effort to expand the narrow canon of traditional female beauty.” Writing in Uncommon Heroes, Paula Neves notes that Tee Corinne’s “graphic depictions of women of all shapes, sizes, beauties and physical abilities have departed from both fashionable standards of sexual correctness and from the Playboy Mentality.”

In San Francisco, Corinne began to work in sex education, ultimately joining the training staff of San Francisco Sex Education Switchboard. In 1975, she photographed women kissing, hugging, and making love. Many of these images were used as the basis for Victoria Hammond’s illustrations in Loving Women, one of the first lesbian “sex manuals.”
Out of her work in sex education, she became aware of the need for accessible images of female genitalia. In November of 1975, she self published The Cunt Coloring Book, a collection of line drawings of vulvas that is still in print. In her foreword, Corinne explains: “In 1973 I set out to do drawings of women’s genitals for use in sex education groups. I wanted the drawings to be lovely and informative, to give pleasure and affirmation. I organized the drawings into a coloring book because a major way we learn to understand the world, as children, is by coloring. As adults many of us still need to learn about our external sexual anatomy. Coloring is a way for the child in each of us to revision and reclaim this portion of our bodies from which we have been estranged.”

In that same year, Corinne entered her first long term relationship with a woman, photographer Honey Lee Cottrell, with whom she often collaborated on imagery and shows. They remained together until 1977. After the well-known photographer Ruth Bernhard counseled her to photograph famous people, or “You will have a basement full of (photographs of) your friends,” Corinne began a series of portraits of lesbian writers and artists. “In 1975 I was in my early thirties, newly divorced and seriously involved with women for the second time in my life. I embraced the word lesbian as used in the popular song “Any Woman Can Be A Lesbian (Lavender Jane Loves Women)” and set out to define for myself what lesbian art imagery might be. I made photographic portraits of known lesbian authors who used lesbianism in the text of their writing. In the San Francisco Bay Area at that time, poets Willyce Kim, Pat Parker, and Judy Grahn were reading to packed houses. I photographed them and others, like Valerie Taylor whose paperback originals had lit the 1950s and 1960s, Anita Cornwell who was one of the few Black writers published in the pioneering lesbian magazine called The Ladder, very literate Canadian Jane Rule, and Jeannette Foster whose Sex Variant Women In Literature forty years worth of research. also explored sensual and sexual imagery, both because I was interested in sexuality and because lesbians are so often identified by the who and what of our sexuality. I decided to create images which brought all of the fine art training at my command into focusing on the hidden and forbidden activities of lesbian sex. Additionally, I decided to broaden the types of women who were included in sexual imagery, including fat women, disabled women, women of color, and older women.” In the era before political correctness, this diversity was genuinely revolutionary. In 1976 Corinne and Cottrell met Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove, publishers and editors of WomanSpirit magazine. That summer they visited the Mountaingroves at Golden, a gay owned, communal, rural land in Southern Oregon. On this trip, Corinne realized it was possible to live close to the land without sacrificing contact with a vibrant artistic community. In one of her manuscripts, she notes: “Slowly, in Oregon, I reconnected with the deep levels of creativity that run in me and began producing work which pleased me.”

In 1977, with publication on the front cover of Sinister Wisdom magazine, Corinne’s lesbian sexual graphics reached an international lesbian audience. The erotically-charged image, enlarged into a poster, was a bestseller in women’s bookstores into the early 1980s. Around 1977, Corinne began formally researching the history of lesbian imagery in the fine arts. Of the need for lesbian scholarship, Corinne says, “The lack of a publicly accessible history is a devastating form of oppression. Lesbians face it constantly.” Her sexual imagery was published in the ground-breaking collections I Am My Lover(1978) and A Woman’s Touch(1979). The latter included a solarized image of a nude woman in a wheelchair kissing her able-bodied lover and a fat couple embracing.

During the later 1970s and early 1980s, Corinne gave presentations about lesbian sexual imagery in art and about her own art, traveling with a slide show around the U.S., to Canada, and to Mexico. In 1979, she became lovers with Caroline Overman, one of the editors of WomanSpirit magazine, a relationship which continued, with breaks, until 1984. Corinne spent a year and a half in Brooklyn (1979-1981) where she participated in art shows in Manhattan. In the summer of 1981, she relocated to Southern Oregon. 1979 and 1981, Corinne co-facilitated Feminist Photography Ovulars, low-tech workshops held at Rootworks, Southern Oregon women land. With Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove, Caroline Overman, and others, she co-founded The Blatant Image: A Magazine of Feminist Photography (1981 to 1983). In 1980, Corinne was one of ten openly lesbian artists to be honored in The Great American Lesbian Art Show (GALAS) at the Women’s Building in Los Angeles.  Two years later (1982), Yantras of Womanlove, her book of stylized lovemaking images came out. It was the first book of lesbian erotic photographs ever published, and Corinne was at the forefront of the fight against censorship. Printers often refused to handle her work, and community art galleries sometimes declined to show it. Partly to protect the privacy of her models and partly to express the beauty and complexity of lesbian sex, Corinne’s photographs often use solarization and repeat/reverse printing to produce kaleidoscopic images. At first glance these images are merely pretty, but closer study reveals astonishingly explicit sexual activity. Their complexity and attractiveness take these blatant images of lesbian sex into places that staged S&M photographs cannot reach. In 1985 Yantras was seized by New Zealand customs, but released by the Indecent Publications Tribunal on the grounds that the abstractness of the photographs meant that even young children could glance at the book and not be corrupted! This “open hidden-ness” is also a rich metaphor for lesbian sexuality itself – invisible unless you know what to look for, and then, suddenly, it has been there all along.

Between 1984 and 1988, her companion was author Lee Lynch. Encouraged by Lynch, Corinne completed a collection of erotic stories, Dreams of the Woman Who Loved Sex, in 1987; its first print run sold out in six weeks. In 1984, Corinne began to make art out of her experiences growing up in an alcoholic family. Exhibited as “Family,” the mixed media paintings received regional acclaim. In 1989 Corinne began a relationship with author and rural activist Beverly A. Brown, founding editor of Maize magazine, a relationship which would continue for the next sixteen years. In 1990 Corinne won a Lambda Literary Award as editor of the erotic anthology, Intricate Passions. This was followed by three other anthologies and two books of her own short stories, Courting Pleasure (1994) and Lovers (1989). She was instrumental in founding the Gay and Lesbian Caucus, an affiliated society of the College Art Association, a caucus for which she also served as co-chair. Her novel, The Sparkling Lavender Dust of Lust was published in 1991, the same year she was chosen by Lambda Book Report as one of the “50 most influential lesbians and gay men of the decade.” Since 1991, Corinne has continued to make art, publish essays, book reviews, and encyclopedia entries, and write and edit books of short stories and poetry. 

Her 2002 book, Intimacies, Photos by Tee A. Corinne, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. She won the Women’s Caucus for Art President’s Award 1997 and the Abdill-Ellis Lambda Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia, calls Tee A. Corinne “one of the most visible and accessible lesbian artists in the world.” In 2006, the online exhibition Scars, Stoma, Ostomy Bag, Portacath: Picturing Cancer In Our Lives takes as its subject her dying lover’s body during the last year of the lover’s life. Once again, Corinne turns her artist’s eye on a subject often missing in traditional art arenas.

Corinne died on the 27th August 2006 in Southern Oregon after a struggle with liver cancer. She was 62 years old. She was preceded in death by her longtime partner, Beverly Brown. Her manuscript collection was donated to the University of Oregon Libraries, and is now housed in the library’s Special Collections unit. The collection includes correspondence, literary manuscripts, artwork, photographs, artifacts, and other documents that reflect Corinne’s life and work.