Today, the whole property is now called “Tom House,” and it contains not only Laaksonen’s archive, but also his collection of erotic art (a game of “count the phalluses” would be difficult there). The space also hosts the Tom of Finland Foundation’s activities and employees (Sharp and Bellenger both live there, as do a rotating cast of artists-in-residence). It’s become a haven for the gay community, and gay artists in particular—and they are all welcome to visit. “People always remark on the feeling with which they leave this house,” said Sharp. “Upon crossing the threshold, they’re always impressed with the energy here.”
Sharp and Bellenger both aim to import that feeling in the MOCAD exhibition. “We’re going to crate up some of that energy and send it to Detroit,” Sharp said.
They hope the sense of community that Laaksonen’s drawings have inspired will also come through in work by other artists in the show. Los Angeles-based artist Jess Scott, whose painting is included in “Tom House,” remembers seeing his work for the first time in a lesbian-run bookstore in her small, liberal hometown of Santa Cruz, California. “I think it is probably a testament to the relatively broad adoration for Tom that he was hanging in a lesbian bookstore,” she told Artsy.
“If you’re a gay artist making anything remotely sexy, Tom is always loitering in the background. You aren’t taking pen to paper and thinking, ‘be as Tom,’” she continued. “You always feel lucky he even happened at all.”
Other artists included in the show agree. “Tom’s work influenced not only the way I look at gay culture, but also how I interpret it,” said performance and multimedia artist Jordan Michael Green, who is currently an artist-in-residence at the Foundation. “Seeing so many different forms of gay masculine expression has expanded my view of our community for the better.”
“Tom lived his life as an out-and-loud artist and gay man and that is inspirational,” said London-based artist
, another resident. “I always wanted my work to be joyful and fun, a little bit cheeky, and most definitely celebratory, and Tom had the same intentions.”
When Laaksonen spoke to CalArts students in 1988, one of them asked if he was “trying to influence gay culture” with his work. The artist’s answer was typically modest. “I didn’t want to, but I’m afraid I might have,” he smiled.
A few beats later, however, he admitted that he’d been lying to himself: “I did want to influence other people, I wanted to change their opinion,” he confessed.
“I wanted to tell [people] that they had a right to enjoy their life, in their way. That was my purpose…to teach [people] to change their habits, to accept themselves, to accept others, and to be accepted.”