S.R. Sharp is vice president and curator of the Tom of Finland Foundation, a nonprofit based in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. The Foundation was instrumental in the development of the feature film Tom of Finland, the Finnish-language biopic of the controversial, openly gay erotic artist, now concluding its U.S. run. The film is Finland’s entry into the 2018 Academy Awards for best foreign film.
I spoke with Sharp by phone recently and got some great tidbits of Tom of Finland history.
So I’ve interviewed both Dome Karukoski [the director] and Pekka Strang [who plays Tom of Finland]. You met with both of them as the film was being developed.
S.R. Sharp: We’d obviously reviewed casting, right? Pictures, bios, stuff like that, had discussions with the production company about who was being cast. But it wasn’t until I met [Pekka] here at Tom House that I looked at his hands. I was so smitten…he’s such a darling. I just said, “Wow you got the hands of a piano player!” Which is perfect…[the real] Tom being a piano player. [The film has the character playing piano]
So you met Touko Laaksonen (Tom of Finland’s real name) before he passed?
No. And call him Tom because all of his friends did. Even his Finnish friends called him ___ [sounds like Dom]. He kind of kept Touko for family and colleagues. But certainly in his world of freedom and certainly here at Tom House…everybody called him Tom.
I really related to the character of Doug in the film.
You know, he’s standing right next to me.
The real Doug?
Are you serious?
Oh my God I think that is just cool.
He’s kinda like my boyfriend, too, and he founded the foundation with Tom back in 1984.
I loved how Doug’s character was portrayed, how Tom’s art was so influential for him. It’s really valid because lots of gays had that same experience, of seeing those powerful erotic drawings and saying, “I want to be like those men.”
Durk Dehner…is the real Doug. He founded the Tom of Finland company and the nonprofit Tom of Finland Foundation with Tom.
Durk actually saw Tom’s artwork in a third generation bar rag called Spike…just seeing this bad replica of his artwork, he said it spoke to him. Durk’s life work was working with Tom. And after Tom passed it is continuing his legacy here at the Foundation. We really get to unite the humanity with the artist, which is important in this film as well. Our missions are very much aligned.
How do you feel about Tom of Finland now that it’s done?
We went with a Finnish production company for obvious reasons. During [a] Q&A [at Outfest] I figured out the importance of this movie.
The country of Finland put out a postage stamp with a male butt right in your face…commemorative postage stamps for Tom of Finland in Finland. The first homoerotic stamp in the world. [Rural Finns asked] who is this guy? And why is he on our country’s stamp?
This movie answers that question. You have a great artist that came from your country. You had a great man that came from your country. You had a great brother, a great sibling, a great boss, a great employer. You had all these things in your country and that’s why he’s on your national stamp.
I think that’s exactly what this film is. It can tell people who don’t know who Tom of Finland is, why he is so important.
Would you say that the genesis of the film started in the Foundation? Did you find the production company and Dome…or did it happen a different way?
Tom humbly admitted before he died that he had a global recognition in the queer community. But he didn’t have very much recognition in Finland.
So we sort have taken that to heart. We’d been doing Finnish exhibitions. We’ve been dealing with Finnish companies. We just came back from a Finland 100 Years celebration in Stockholm. So we have been very engaged in Finland. Because of our presence, we certainly made people very much more aware of Tom of Finland…but the film company did approach us.
Was Tom of Finland a Nazi sympathizer?
He was by no means a Nazi sympathizer. He hated all of that. It’s hard to be a big, bad Fascist when you have a 10-inch penis up your anus.
Most of the work that he did, that was even in that area, were commissions for other people. His response was, “I’m not political. I’m not political at all.” But he said, “Their uniforms are kinda sexy.” That pretty much sums up where he was.
Now that the film has been released, how would you say your organization’s work influenced the film?
I think having Dome and Pekka here in Tom House [was] in itself inspiring. [For them] to be in the real place where he lived and worked and slept is an inspiration unto itself.
When we, everyone’s familiar with his images, the art director and Dome, were here and we pulled out work from the safe…it’s not framed, it’s not placed, it’s not under glass…it’s the actual paper…and you actually see this drawing…they were able to experience not only the aura of the artist but they were able to experience how incredibly exquisite these pieces of work are.
Is there anything about the movie you wish you could change?
I wish it was more of a dick flick than a chick flick.