The first time I encountered Paul Cunningham was at a literary reading held at the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center in Midland, PA. I often have low expectations of literature and poetry readings—not because the readers lack quality, but rather, I’ve attended enough of them that sometimes it feels all too usual.
However, Paul was far from usual, something that became apparent the second he started reading. The piece, an evocation of hardboiled gangster tales, could have suffered archetypal cliché, but it didn’t. Instead, it was rife with originality, and damn it, I wanted to hear more.
I didn’t encounter Paul all that often after that, but I kept his name in the back of my mind. I admired his talent, and at the least, would look forward very much to sitting down one day to read one of his books.
As luck would have it, some time later, Paul and I came to be associates through this very publication, Open Thread. Brought on by the editors to bring our own unique flair to the blog and arts reviews (his far more classy than mine, to be sure), Paul and I started conversing periodically and I discovered that this was not just a good writer, but generally a pretty stand-up guy.
He also wasn’t one to sit still.
Writing up a veritable storm, Paul’s work had appeared in numerous online journals beyond OT, including H_NGM_N, decomP, haha clever dot com, WTF PWM, Read Some Words, DOGZPLOT, Pinstripe Fedora, and Writer’s Bloc. He also serves as an assistant managing editor to SLAB and is the author of This Boy, This Broom, a collection of nonfiction essays published by BatCat Press.
However, even this impressive list of contributions wasn’t enough for Paul. Seeking a need to get more art out there and allow artists like himself to be heard, Paul created an online literary journal of his own. Thus, Radioactive Moat was born. The first issue, featuring a slew of authors and artists from all walks of life was a success and met with praise. Author and contributor Gary Barwin even went so far as to refer to the first issue as “beautiful.”
Such praise was definitely not the minority either.
With Radioactive Moat’s first issue a success, a second issue was sure to follow. I managed to snag Paul away from his busy schedule of reading submissions for a few questions in the days before the second issue’s deadline to talk about this wonderful publication, its genesis, and what readers can expect from RM in the future.
OT Blog: What inspired you to start RM?
Paul: Inspiration for RM came from a lot of grief I accumulated, actually. I came across a relatively new online journal about a year ago and I couldn’t even begin to fathom why anyone would want to submit work for publication. The layout was disastrous and it was not all memorable; the font, the colors and even the masthead–all if it was incredibly bland. There are thousands of options for the modern writer seeking online publication–so many writers figure, eh, why bother starting a new online magazine–what’s the use? While I admit I have not created an online journal that is wholly unique, I do believe I have created an online journal that is inventive, yet navigable. One has to realize that reading literature online is very different from reading a print journal or chapbook. And the editors of many online publications are not always sensitive to such variation–whether clumsy HTML is to blame or, again, a clear lack of navigability. It was online journals like FOU that got me excited about the idea of creating a memorable online publication. If one thing is certain, the name (Radioactive Moat) has certainly been responsible for gaining the attention of some of the most interesting folks on the world wide web. As someone who grew up obsessing over beloved creatures like Swamp-Thing, The Toxic Avenger, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I guess I don’t find it odd that I’m managing a literary magazine called “Radioactive Moat.” I’ve always had a penchant for strange stuff–that apparently includes mysterious notions of radioactivity.
OT Blog: What kind of material do you look for to include, or rather, what kind of writing and art are you looking to represent?
Paul: RM is a place for experimental literature and I am most interested in work that introduces new aesthetic strategies, as well as literature that celebrates a surreal dichotomy of the quote, unquote “average human being” or rather, the existing complexities contained (and overlooked) by something or someone commonly dismissed as “simple” or “insignificant.” The submission guidelines state that Radioactive Moat seeks themes of reactivity, corrosivity, ignitability and toxicity. The four themes actually reference true aspects of radioactivity, but my intention is for writers to apply those aspects to their writing in a figurative sense. For instance, sex–let’s see how a writer can apply reactivity, corrosivity, ignitability or toxicity to sex. That doesn’t mean I want to read a poem called, My Toxic Sex Ignites You, Baby. Then again, looks can be deceiving…
OT Blog: How was the first issue received? Any reader response?
Paul: Conor Robin Madigan even sent me a rare image of marching Chinese cockroaches–I guess that was his way of saying he likes Radioactive Moat (ha ha). Issue One left readers with big expectations for Issue Two and I’m pretty confident those expectations will be satisfied. I’m also very excited about this issue’s digital cover artist, Jesse Draxler, a highly awesome mixed-media artist.
OT Blog: What would you like to see in the future of RM?
Paul: My hopes for the future of Radioactive Moat are glowing with optimism. Though, I think there’s always room for expansion. Interviews with various writers will be occurring on the site soon, and though I’ve considered how RM might function as a quarterly, I’m pretty content with it as a bi-annual publication.
With many thanks to Paul for taking the time to talk with us, I encourage all readers to take some time to visit the pages of Radioactive Moat. The first issue, still available for perusal on the site, truly is a phenomenal slice of reading and a nice break from the drudgery so often encountered in online publications. The next issue, due at the beginning of March, is something for the discerning fan of art and renegade literature to keep an eye out for.
A strong publication founded by an author and artist whose talent certainly just gets better with each new work, Paul Cunningham and Radioactive Moat are destined for great things among the pantheon of quality literature.
So not only do I give Radioactive Moat and its creator a strong recommendation—I’d like to think I’ve given it a glowing one. Because after all, when it comes to radioactive moats, is there any other kind?
Announcing the Morgantown Poets winter/spring reading series kickoff, featuring Matt Anserello, Isaac Pressnell and T. W. McNemar
About the authors: McNemar is a humor, short story and novel writer. His writing reflects the humanity, humor and conscience of everyday life, often in a strong Appalachian style. McNemar’s work has been featured in The Johns-Hopkins University ‘ScribblePress,’ the drama textbook, Young Women’s Monologues from Contemporary Plays, MountainEchoes, and Traditions, the literary journal of Fairmont State University. His novella, “Ragdoll Angel” (Booklocker, 2007), tells the story of a kidnapping in a small mountain village in 1952. McNemar is also the current president of West Virginia Writers, Inc.
Open Thread is pleased to announce its six nominees for the 2009 Pushcart Prize.
From the Open Thread Regional Review, Vol. 1 (April 2009):
“Legacy,” by Alayna Frankenberry
“Oh Bless Thy Fine-Feathered Healer,” by Sophie Klahr
“This Is an Advertisement I Would Like to Produce,” by Tom Laskow
and “Because I Asked for Marvels Poached in Ice,” by S.E. Smith
From the 2009 Open Thread Tri-State Chapbooks (July 2009):
“Choose Your Baby,” from the chapbook Cloud Shaped Room by Matt Anserello
and “22. Down,” from the chapbook Life as a Crossword Puzzle by Noah Falck
Huge thanks go out to all our contributors, who trust us with their extraordinary work in every publication.
When I first met local artist and Bay Area native, Lindsay Merrill, I distinctly remember that she was attempting to upholster herself into an ottoman. She was having some difficultly working out the kinks in the piece, mainly how long she would be able to breathe while trapped inside an ottoman. Since then, she’s gone on to make some equally great work, engaging with both the Pittsburgh community and during her travels abroad. Currently, she’s working as an ESL teacher through Goodwill Industries and Literacy Americorps, while keeping up on a series of paintings she hopes to show off soon. We recently talked a bit about her work and her experiences as an artist living and working in Pittsburgh. Here’s what she had to say:
OT: You came to Pittsburgh to study Fine Art at Carnegie Mellon University in 2005. Since graduating in May of this year, you’ve decided to stay and work in the area. What makes this area good for a young, creative person? What sort of opportunities does a city like Pittsburgh present that other, larger cities cannot? What can you and others in your position bring to the city?
LM: Pittsburgh is really great because its smaller size creates a much more accessible, grassroots art scene for young people. Since the market here isn’t flooded with the enormous number of galleries and big names, like New York City for example, it makes Pittsburgh a great place to begin establishing yourself as an artist. There are tons of local, nonprofit organizations that are genuinely interested and really proactive about incorporating the work of younger artists in their projects. Also, another aspect of the city that I really like is that the art scene isn’t far removed from the artists themselves; the galleries are run by people who are sincerely concerned about shaping Pittsburgh’s culture through art, not by highbrow art folk looking to make a lot of cash. On top of all that, you can live in this city really cheaply. I’m from the San Francisco bay area, which is getting pricier every year. It’s really refreshing that the cost of living could be so reasonable in this area.
OT: There is a recurring theme of hand-made replication in your work. You’ve recreated a passport for your roommate from New Zealand, painstakingly drawing each page. There is another work where you carved out wooden replicas of graffiti tags seen around Valencia, Spain. What is it about this kind of replication that you find so interesting and gratifying to make? Given the ease of digital replication and transference of an image or information, what makes the presence of the hand so important?
LM: I’ve always loved to draw and have had a very realistic, representational style. The question of relevance, within the landscape of conceptual art, of traditional drawing and representation has come to be a driving force within my work. I ask myself how the classical modes of representation in sculpture and drawing are relevant to an abstract and conceptual art world? For me, the answer has largely been that of replication and translation of an object or image into a new material. The relationship of the object with the material can create a new and strange dialogue, or it can raise new questions.
Additionally, I feel that the choice to draw or craft by hand, instead of digitally printing or fabricating an object, is important in terms of the objectives of a specific piece. For example, my passport needed to be hand drawn, because it conveys something completely different than if I had created it digitally. The handcrafted appearance of the work shows the utter futility of the act itself. That is to say, even though I had poured all this time and energy into precisely recreating this government document, the passport in and of its purpose - to keep my roommate in the States - is basically hopeless. For this piece, I felt the presence of the hand was very necessary, because the imperfections of the writing and images reveal the sincerity of the act, the obsessive hours poured into the pages, and, in a strange way, the sadness of the object itself.
OT: Going along with this idea of a replica, your recent piece, entitled Comfortable Living, uses what appear to be pieces of furniture, as well as upholstering techniques, to build a tank. It’s a work that strikes me as being very politically charged, combining opposing and quintessential symbols of domesticity and femininity with that of violence, war, and masculinity. Do you think of yourself as a political artist? What do you believe an artist’s role is in a political dialogue and what is his/her responsibility?
LM: I generally don’t think of myself as a very political artist, but I suppose my work has been gravitating towards that realm for a while. I have tried to stay away from politics in my art for a long time, because I feel making a political statement without coming off as being too “preachy” is a difficult balance. Therefore, I think the main role of the political artist - and of all artists in general - is not to make statements, but rather to ask questions. It isn’t my intention to push my own personal political views; I just want to make an object that re-contextualizes something familiar and makes people rethink what it is they are looking at.
OT: In all of your work you display a very strong sense of craft. It would appear you do a bit of research, along with a bit of practice, to be able to handle the different media you work in. Particularly with the previously mentioned tank piece, you are engaging with crafts, such as upholstery and furniture making, which have rich histories and traditions. Where do you feel your work fits in with this tradition? How does the craft inform the work?
LM: I’ve been fascinated with soft sculpture for a couple of years now, mainly because practices like sewing, embroidering and upholstering are so strongly tied to a domestic, feminine tradition. There are so many connotations and implications inherent in soft materials and in their construction; I’m really just fascinated with all the possibilities that exist to contradict or confuse our most common conceptions of objects and the meanings that they hold. Many of the artists that have influenced my work have delved into those kinds of possibilities in soft sculpture, such as Claus Oldenburg, Robyn Love, Yinka Shonibare, and Dave Cole. So if anything, I think that my work doesn’t fall so much into the age-old history of domestic craft as it does into that newer soft sculpture territory, where artists are appropriating those techniques.
OT: What do your plans for the near future now that you’ve graduated? What can OT Blog readers expect to see from you soon?
LM: Well, as much as I have enjoyed my time living in Pittsburgh, my next priority is to travel abroad for a bit, preferably in Central and South America. I studied abroad in Spain about a year ago and ever since then I’ve been dying to live in other Spanish speaking countries. At the heart of it, I really just want to get out of my comfort zone, have some of adventures, meet different people, and better learn the language. I think this is probably the best time in my life for it. In terms of my art, I would try to work with any community I live in with some sort of image making process. It’d be great to get back into a steady practice of painting and drawing again. I’ve felt sort of estranged from it in the past couple years, because I didn’t know how to ask the right questions through an image. But I think now I might be ready to try again and tackle it. You know, now that I have the rest of my life to try and figure it out.
Each year artists are encouraged to submit applications to Sprout Public Art in hopes of being selected to share their artistic vision by completing a mural in a local community. Eligible artists must reside in the Western Pennsylvania region which includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Bedford, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Mercer, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The guidelines of the Sprout Public Art project state, “Artists that are chosen as final muralists by the communities are paid competitive artist fees determined by the size of the mural. All supplies, materials and design and artist fees are provided by Sprout Public Art and murals are provided at no financial cost to participating communities.”
“The first comment out of everyone’s mouth is usually, I’m so happy we’re finally going to cover up this run-down wall with something pretty!” Taylor Shields, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s Fine Arts program, was one of the artists selected to participate in this year’s Sprout Public Art project. She speaks for “Dormont: 100 Years Young,” a spiritually enticing mural which spans across the wall of the Antique Exchange at 2938 West Liberty Avenue. “Dormont is interesting because it’s a historic neighborhood with a lot of pride but it is also experiencing a kind of renewal . . . as the city expands; Dormont is changing and featuring different age groups, business types, community interests, etc. I wanted to stress the history while also keeping the focus on the future—so Dormont is viewed as 100 years young instead of 100 years old.”
Dormont is one of eight neighborhoods Sprout Public Art has selected for “visual landscape enhancement,” a.k.a. building-size murals which not only showcase qualities of the targeted neighborhood, but hope also to inspire passersby. Since 2003, Sprout has been awarding grants to communities in an attempt to strengthen the bond between the communal spirit and the flourishing public artist—something which has resulted in the astonishing development of over 45 enriching works of public art. In an attempt to bridge the disconnect between community members and urban landscapes within Pittsburgh, Sprout has funded artists like Shields who, when asked to express her own experience, replies, “The community has been great! Everyone is so excited about the mural and has given interesting input. When I’m painting, many people stop to ask questions or voice their support. It really makes a difference to know that the community is so invested in this project, and it makes the value of Sprout’s organization extremely clear.”
Jeffrey Schrekengost, a graphic designer who has lived in Pittsburgh since 1987, enjoyed both the experience and challenge in developing a hand-painted mural in the small business district of Morningside.
“It was a really rewarding experience. Most of the time when doing artwork and music, I deal with the same groups of people—they know what to expect from me and I know what most people want when they request a piece of art for a project. The subject matter of my work is usually strange since I’ve been obsessed with horror and sci-fi movies since I was a kid. Working with this community was quite a different experience for me. Doing a large public art piece, I knew it wouldn’t/couldn’t be too strange. It was great to work with them—creating an image that all of us would enjoy.”
The title of Schrekengost’s mural is “Good Morning” and can be found on the corner of Greenwodd and Chislett street on the wall of a small, locally owned convenience store. The mural features large soaring birds (one blue and one red) above a small sun-layered hilly village. According to Schrekengost, his original mural-design involved three large garden gnomes riding zoo animals. “Three large garden gnomes riding zoo animals are a hard match for any community, but they were still very interested in having me paint something.”
Garden gnomes aside, many residents of Morningside have since welcomed Schrekengost’s mural with much praise. “A compliment can go a long way and I hope the mural I’ve left behind compliments the town. After spending so much time there, Morningside is my new favorite Pittsburgh neighborhood!”
On Sept 16, numerous citizens of Greenfield, Pa gathered at the wall of the PNC bank on Murray Avenue to partake in the festivities surrounding the dedication of the neighborhood’s second Sprout Fund Mural. Western Pennsylvanian artist, Ian F. Thomas, was the man behind the 40 x 90 ft. mural which turned out to be a considerably vibrant community spectacle. Food and music-friendly events were organized by local volunteers from Connect Greenfield. Pittsburgh’s City Council President, Doug Shields, was just one of many guest speakers who crashed the party.
“Whether you’re new here or a life-long resident, we provide opportunities to get involved in your community.” Volunteers of Connect Greenfield effectively demonstrated their mission statement by providing performances by local musician, John Young, as well as a performance from “funk” rock band, Argyll’s Revenge. Sprout’s Public Art Program manager, Curt Gettman, also made an appearance at the unveiling of Thomas’ mural. Since joining the Sprout staff in May of 2007, Gettman has also co-founded the Pittsburgh-based Unicorn Mountain collective, which is a literary venue best known for its national distribution of anthologies featuring work from musicians, comic illustrators, painters, writers and screen print artists.
Thomas’ mural received heavy praise from Greenfield residents—some members of the community even stopped by to lend a hand during what was referred to as, “Community Painting Day.” Thomas is also known for his sculptures, paintings and ceramic works which often explore the stylized innocence of childhood imagination.
One thing is certain—it seems imagination is one element this year’s muralists have put to good use.
The open reading period for Volume Two of the Open Thread Regional Review closes on Sunday, November 1st at midnight! We’re considering unsolicited poems, stories, essays, paintings, drawings, prints, photos, video stills, documentation of 3-D work, comics, and mixed media and genres!
Who’s eligible? Any native or current resident of Open Thread’s target region: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Eligible writers and artists must also be in the early stages of a career in their respective field.
Here’s how to submit: go to www.openthread.org, register as an Open Thread member (free!), and then upload your work at www.openthread.org/submit! Be sure to read carefully: preference is given to work that meets our submission guidelines.
The Open Thread Regional Review is an essential collection of the region’s best emerging art and literature. Volume Two is scheduled for release in early 2010 and is supported in part by a Seed Award from The Sprout Fund. Volume One is available for purchase at www.openthread.org/publications.
John Musser, a.k.a. Veronica Bleaus, is a sassy, classy queen who you can find busting his sequined butt all over Pittsburgh. A native of Crafton, PA and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he volunteers for both the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force and the Gay & Lesbian Community Center, in addition to performing and hosting at various events and benefits across town, including a few for Open Thread. Recently, he’s been working with collaborator and previous featured artist, Dani Lamorte, on a mission to bring the wonders for drag to the streets in a series of Drive-by Drag performances. Check out their site frequently to find out where they will be performing next, as well as Veronica’s MySpace profile to see a bevy of photos from her previous escapades. I caught up with John/Veronica recently, and I came with a few questions about living in Pittsburgh and his thoughts on drag. Here’s what he had to say:
OT: Your drag career started in 2004 when you came to the University of Pittsburgh to pursue your interests in psychology and English literature. What got you into drag? Are there any moments from your childhood that you look back on now and recognize as a build-up to your debut as Veronica Bleaus?
JM: More than anything else in my childhood, I suppose I would have to blame the birth of Veronica Bleaus on my enrollment into the University of Pittsburgh. Within a month of starting my freshman year, I was already hitting the coming-out process full swing. Several of my new friends were immersing me into aspects of gay culture, with which I was otherwise unfamiliar. The first seedlings of Veronica were planted when my friend Jess had decided to slather some makeup onto me on a Tuesday night. I decided that I should go in drag for Halloween and constructed a monstrosity of an outfit for myself, while relying on the kindness of women to paint their attempt at drag on my face. Even my name was bestowed upon me by others (in two parts and on two separate occasions). Veronica was not wholly a being of my own creation. I owe large portions of Veronica’s identity to the people who helped sculpt her; in some sense, Veronica has never really lost that feeling of mutability that helps her to adapt to so many different aesthetic representations. Subsequently, doing drag for yet another Halloween showed me that I made an attractive woman, and it at least gave me another reason to pursue this peculiarly wonderful hobby. Oddly enough, my childhood seems to have no moments that I can look back and say, “Veronica was here!” Even just months prior to my attending Pitt, I had thought that drag queens must be strange people, and I didn’t quite understand their place in the gay community. My mind was strewn with the mechanics of how drag queens would have sex; it wasn’t until I had actually seen my first drag show the summer before my Freshman year that drag suddenly made sense. It was nothing more than pure performance, illusion, fantasy, and fun. I was in awe.
OT: How has your conception of drag changed since you started performing? Are there any common misconceptions that you have noticed that you would like to dispel?
JM: I think, to a certain extent, that when a young queen begins to perform, she thinks that she must ‘pass’ as a woman. I was no exception. I initially evaluated the success of my looks based on how womanly I appeared. Thankfully, those days are over. The drive of young queens to look like real, slutty women, doing Top 40 numbers and performances, shows nothing about the real intricacies involved behind a well-crafted drag persona and production. I’m not saying that drag queens shouldn’t look feminine, or shouldn’t draw from a feminine aesthetic, but I’m rather suggesting that drag is more than just impersonation (while that is/can be a part of it). Drag is also camp, glamour, excess, inversion, wit, and frequently pain. The drag that is only as deep as illusion is about as shallow as a puddle. With that being said, drag does not have to impersonate; drag can create. Drag has and can create new aesthetics and new cultural amalgamations drawn from several aspects of both high art and pop culture. The Gender-F*ck look (i.e. queens who don’t shave, don’t wear wigs/tits/etc.), for example, has gone beyond traditional questions raised by drag, “what does it mean to be a woman?” and created several new ones, “what does it mean to be a drag queen/be in drag?” Also, consider the ways in which drag queens, almost effortlessly, cut and paste sounds from classic movies and songs to create a new, camp interpretation of a concept. I guess to summarize, drag is not just about looking like a woman.
OT: Veronica Bleaus’s style and attitude is one that borrows equally from classic Hollywood glamour and contemporary pop culture, while referencing a rich history of drag performance. Where would you place yourself within drag history? Are there any particular performers, cultural figures, or style icons that you continually find yourself attracted to?
JM: What an astute description of Veronica! Consider me flattered. Within the grand scheme of drag culture/history, I’m insecure enough to say that I’m a chip off the old block, but insightful enough to understand that what I do isn’t exactly the same as the rest of the queen crowd. While I do borrow from the classic drag repertoire, like the standards of Liza and Judy, I have an equally special place in my heart for more modern drag fixtures like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Kylie Minogue. I think there’s a part of Veronica that wants to be noticed by a greater audience than the audience that more traditional bar queens shoot for. If drag history had a page about me, I would like it to say that I helped to bring drag out of the bar and into the streets (hide your children!). I have a love of so many icons that have influenced my drag; these figures might not be the most famous or popular, but have somehow left marks on the way Veronica thinks and acts. Audrey Hepburn comes to mind, for her aversion to trends, opting instead for classic, classy, unequivocal glamour. Judy Garland for her humor and the way she never quite seemed afraid to laugh at herself amidst all of her insecurities; she is still a legend. And Kylie Minogue, it seems, is the perfect blend between high fashion glamour and a camp aesthetic that hasn’t been matched in recent years.
OT: During your time at Pitt, you often studied the history of drag, tracing it back through the socio-economic underpinnings of voguing (dance) in the late 80s, Susan Sontag’s essay on camp in the 60s, all the way back to the writings of Oscar Wilde. How does this knowledge, if at all, effect how you approach a performance? Is there anything you hope to accomplish through this combination of drag performance and critical study?
JM: Ah yes, some of my most pleasing and successful academic work was my investigation of drag that began with Oscar Wilde, who in turn planted several seeds of influence that ultimately bloomed and coalesced into a more modern understanding and image of how we view and discuss drag. However pleasing this work may have been, I don’t honestly believe that it helped to improve my drag. How I approach a performance? Maybe only slightly, in that I might consider the dimensions of what I’m performing i.e. not only performing gender, but perhaps class and other representations, too. There is always an essential disconnect between the worlds of tangible research/writing and the ethereal world of performance. My academic work improved through practice. The same applies to my drag; the more comfortable I become within my character and the better I know and develop Veronica, the better my performances become. Though this disconnect exists, I see my role as a drag performer as a unique opportunity to glean insight into an otherwise academically neglected cultural phenomenon.
OT: You and your partner in drag, Daniel Stuchel a.k.a. Dani Lamorte, recently began doing Drive-by Drag performances, where you show up to various public locations in the Pittsburgh area, do a number, and then leave without a trace. What was the impetus behind this type of performance? What kind of reception from the public do you hope to get/have gotten?
JM: Drive-by-Drag was born out of a kind of frustration with the bar scene in Pittsburgh, specifically the gay bar scene, and how a drag performer has to go about to be noticed. With that in mind, I had been going through a particularly long dry spell in bookings, and had suggested to Dani(el) that we should begin doing numbers anywhere we felt like it as a way to break free of the bar scene and create a performance space that was new and challenging. Not only that, but when the walls of a gay bar are removed, the presence of the audience becomes that much more alluring in its uncertainty. Dani and I have realized that far contrary to the general expectation that drag would be treated in a hostile manner if leaked out into the daylight amongst the more heterosexual crowd, that regular people are oftentimes thrilled and surprised by drag when they encounter it. Aside from the occasional schizophrenic old man yelling at us to be men, it seems that Drive-by-Drag brightens people’s days and raises consciousness. Lofty goals, eh?
OT What can OT readers expect from you or your alter ego in the near future?
JM: As far as John knows, he’ll be in Pittsburgh for at least one more year working and preparing for graduate school. During that time, Veronica will most certainly still be around, causing chaos and joy wherever she sees fit. If she feels up for it, she might try to re-enter the bar scene and enter a few pageants, but I daresay Veronica now has some different aspirations. Her booking calendar is almost entirely wide open. Keep this in mind if anyone wants to see Veronica at his/her neighborhood book sale, grand opening, bar mitzvah, donkey show, or Open Thread event (hint hint).
In Waynesburg, Pennsylvania (a little south of that other burgh) exists one of the indie film community’s best kept secrets in the form of Happy Cloud Pictures, a production company that has set out to prove that just because film is low budget does not mean it has to also be low quality. Founded and maintained by the dynamically creative husband-wife duo of Mike Watt and Amy Lynn Best and their mutual friend Bill Homan, Happy Cloud Pictures has produced a handful of movies that have screened across the tri-state area. Since they were picked up for national distribution both at festivals and on DVD, they have developed a small but growing fan base, and considering the quality of work they do, quite justly.
While the majority of the work thus far the Happy Cloud team has produced falls under the horror genre, the ingenuity and creative process that goes into each of their films often prevents them from being lumped with the usual “splat” style scary movie. This owes much to the writing of Mike Watt, who splits most of the creative duties with Amy Lynn Best. Watt’s the writer, she’s the actress—but they both produce and direct, and have shown proficiency for both. Certainly, there is no lack of skill on each movie set. But I digress; we were discussing Watt’s writing, and really, this is truly the foundation of the merits each film Happy Cloud Pictures has produced. The scripts are often acerbic, biting, and extremely clever, tackling the tropes of the genre and turning them on their heads. This is writing by someone who knows that horror has become too usual, and understands that, sometimes, the tongue-in-cheek is all we have left to provide a good scare. Watt often does exactly that: scare us while we are chuckling.
It’s no small wonder that Watt is skilled with words. In addition to his film career, he has served as the editor and driving force of the nationally published film magazine Sirens of Cinema and has written two books of his own, the first being the novelization of Happy Cloud’s first movie, The Resurrection Game, and the other being his recent collection of short stories, Phobophobia. Both highlight his ability to craft a story in the most traditional sense—and both are available for purchase at http://www.happycloudpictures.com.
The aforementioned zombie survival piece, The Resurrection Game, was written and directed by Watt and starred Best. Combining elements of sci-fi, horror, and black comedy, Resurrection set the pace for the films to come, each building upon the last’s unconventional approach to horror genre staples, now Watt’s calling card. What followed were forays into such horror topics as werewolves (2002’s short Weregrrl), vampires (2007’s A Feast of Flesh), and even a slasher movie satire (2003’s Severe Injuries, which also marked Amy Lynn Best’s directorial debut, and remains one of this writer’s personal favorites of the Happy Cloud back catalog). Each film carries its own unique stamp and merits its own viewing.
Given enough time, I would be inclined to go film by film and provide commentary for you, dear reader and Happy Cloud novice, but in the essence of brevity, I’d like to take the last few bits of my Open Thread space to highlight Happy Cloud’s most recent filmic endeavor, Splatter Movie: The Director’s Cut.
I have no qualms admitting I watched Splatter Movie three times. Once when it was being screened at the Cinema Wasteland Horror & Exploitation movie weekend in Cleveland, and twice when I had the screener in hand for this very article. It’s a compulsive little watch, and what it lacks in big Hollywood budget, it certainly makes up for in sheer creative willpower. Splatter Movie: The Director’s Cut can be described as one of the few meta-filmic films on the market.
What’s that mean, exactly?
Well, I’ll explain as best I can—though I feel it’s one of those movies that is best experienced personally, in the 90 minutes the audience is given. Splatter Movie takes place on the set of a movie, wherein a documentary crew is filming a “making of” documentary about a slasher flick being directed by a character played by Amy Lynn Best. Meanwhile, we as the audience know that there is an actual slasher stalking the film’s set and killing members of the cast and crew, thus ensuring actual scares and menace to those of us viewing at home. It seems very straightforward, but this is actually where it gets tricky. As the film wears on, we are viewing the film through the oscillating camera of the documentary, the film within a film’s cameras, and the audience’s eye (for lack of a better term.)
It becomes a delicate affair. How do we know when we are seeing the documentary? How do we know when we are seeing the truth? How do we know if the kill we just witnessed was in the movie that is being made or the movie we are watching? It seems like it would be confusing (and it can be), but Splatter Movie is never frustrating, and that is key to its success. I loved this movie because it was a challenge. It took on the notion of how reliant we as the audience can be on the idea of what a movie is supposed to be, and how we expect the camera to feed us what we expect to know. To me, Splatter Movie was exciting because it was fresh and original, and I don’t really get that all too often at the multiplex these days.
Of course, fans of traditional genre horror will like it too (At least I think so.) as it has just enough scares to keep you on your toes—not to mention appearances by some genre favorites, such as Debbie Rochon (a B-movie queen, and notable for her performances in several Troma movies) and Tom Sullivan (famed art director of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, and one of the most pleasing performers in the film).
Essentially, I highly recommend this film, but even more so I recommend keeping your eyes on Happy Cloud Pictures, as their back catalog is fun, and if this most recent outing is any indication, they just keep getting better. In fact, their next feature, The Demon Divas of Damnation Lanes (a horror comedy set in a bowling lane wherein strikes are not the only shenanigans), is due out later this year and allegedly they are already working on their first non-horror film to follow that, pretty much indicating that when all is said and done, this Happy Cloud also has something of a silver lining.
Daniel Stuchel, a.k.a. Dani Lamorte, is a self-described radical, highly questionable queer, living off of gin and shoulder pads in the great city of Pittsburgh. This native of Vandergrift, PA frequently turns trash into haute couture, fashioning a busted chandelier into a glittering helmet or breathing new life into a sadly abandoned, gold lamé tracksuit. You can catch Dani, along with drag partner and upcoming Featured Artist Veronica Bleaus, terrorizing the town in a series of impromptu performances affectionately named Drive-by Drag. Be sure to check out their website frequently to find out where they will be showing off their fancy selves next. For past performances, her MySpace profile has enough pictures to keep you satiated until you can see Miss Lamorte in the sequined flesh. I had Daniel/Dani answer a few questions about drag and growing up in Western Pennsylvania, and here was what this hot mess had to say:
OT Blog: Your drag career started in 2004 when you came to the University of Pittsburgh to pursue your interests in languages, particularly French. What got you into drag? Are there any moments from your childhood that you look back on now and recognize as a build-up to your debut as Dani Lamorte?
Daniel Stuchel: As a child, playing dress-up was always my favorite game. I would wear a towel on my head and pretend it was long hair. My terrycloth locks were accessorized with a curtain dress, a pair of my mother’s heels, and the old-lady jewelry I acquired at yard sales. At the age of four, my mother said to me, “If you want to be a girl, I can take you to the doctor and he can do an operation to make you a girl.” She wasn’t serious, and I’ve always been happy being a boy, but I think it was apparent at an early age that I would never color inside the gender lines.
My drag career seems to be an outgrowth of my personality. I spend a great deal of time in my imagination, daydreaming away the hours. Fashion, make-up, dance, music, and performance are all passions of mine. It’s hard to say what got me into drag, but I think I’ve recognized it as a way to keep playing dress-up throughout adulthood, while giving an outlet to my creativity.
OT: How has your conception of drag changed since you started performing? Are there any common misconceptions that you have noticed that you would like to dispel?
DS: Drag is an increasingly blurry concept for me. Back at my debut, I firmly believed that drag had something to do with femininity, with looking like a woman. It was distinct and separate from the rest of my waking life and had unyielding rules and boundaries. The problem with thinking that way is that drag is a revolutionary art. By simply dressing up in drag, you are violating social norms and upsetting the organization of the world around you. When I realized this, the rules began to fall away. Nowadays, I find it nearly impossible to define drag and frequently question whether the performances I give count as drag.
Drag is the perfect mannequin. It has a few humanoid features and a completely naked body. I dress my drag-self up in the things that scare me, worry me, hurt me, or even just the desires I cannot express in my day-to-day life. Then I gaze at what I’ve made and do my best to understand. Once I understand, I use the power of that knowledge to search deeper and find the next thing that goes bump in the night. To me, drag is about making my daydreams become real and exploring the unknown.
OT: Dani Lamorte’s drag style, and even your own everyday style, is androgynous with flair for the dramatic. Unlike what many are familiar with in terms of drag, you’ve developed a look that highlights both extremes of femininity and masculinity. What inspires your fashion and performance style? What do you personally find you are able to accomplish with androgyny that you could not following traditional gender norms?
DS: Clothing is one of my absolute favorite things. Getting dressed in the morning is like making a collage, taking pieces that jive with my mood and arranging them until I reach that moment where everything feels perfect.
My fashion and performance styles are both heavily influenced by my inner world, the bizarre daydreams and thoughts that strike me at random. As you can imagine, what inspires me changes on a regular basis. Right now, I’m terribly fascinated by the idea of thresholds (i.e. how much “girl clothing” do I need to wear for my gender to be called into question?) and intersections. Intersections have been a primary fixation of mine for a few weeks now - the idea of two objects headed on completely different courses meeting for a moment in time, thus coloring each others’ perception of the remaining journey. Of course, if you’d like a more standard answer, I would have to say that I’m influenced by my favorites in the fashion world - Christian Lacroix, Yves St. Laurent, and Albert Kriemler. All three play with overemphasized gender and androgyny.
Simply put, androgyny permits me to do whatever I please. Androgyny, by definition, is found in the murky waters of gender - you’re never sure what it contains or what it should look like. I like rampant possibilities and unlimited exploration. Gender norms are for people who aren’t curious.
OT: As an aside, you used to go by Lilith LaMorte when you first started out but now go by Dani Lamorte. What made you switch?
DS: Originally, I performed under the pseudonym Lilith LaMorte. This worked perfectly as I considered my drag persona to be separate from who I am on a day-to-day basis. With time, the blurring of some lines, and a lot of personal growth, the construct known as Lilith became obsolete and limiting. During many performances, I felt as though it was Daniel on stage and not some separate entity. For me, dressing up, slathering on paint (drag speak for make-up), and throwing myself on stage doesn’t require a separate persona or even a division between my day-to-day life and my stage-self.
So, I kicked Lilith to the curb and adopted Dani - a shortened, androgynous version of my birth name. Lamorte has nice ring to it, so I kept it. Dani Lamorte is me – typing this response on my lunch break at work, doing the dishes when I get home, talking to my mom on the phone, and jogging down Walnut Street in a lamé track suit while the song “Two of Hearts” blasts out of a boombox and Veronica dances next to me. It’s all the same person, all the same adventure.
OT: Continuing with the issue of androgyny, I find that your drag is similar is many ways to the costuming and dress of the club kids of the late 80s and early 90s, of performance artists like Leigh Bowery who emphasize ridiculousness in gender, and, going even further into history and tradition, of side-show freaks like the Bearded Lady. There has always been a simultaneous fascination and repulsion towards these figures, these “freaks” within our society. What is your definition of freak and what does it mean to be one? What kind of response can one achieve from beneath this seemingly derogatory label?
DS: I’m flattered to be compared to Leigh Bowery! He was an absolute genius. I’ve always loved Leigh’s use of the disgusting, the unattractive and abhorrent. He saw them as interpretations of beauty. He was certainly a freak as I define the word. Freaks, to me, are people who defy culture at-large simply by being themselves, attracting a mixture of disdain and praise. Praise comes from a place of appreciation and identification, while disdain comes from fear and shock.
Freak is only derogatory if you want to be a follower, a wallflower, someone who blends into the scenery. To me, though, being a freak is incredibly powerful as it demands the attention of the people around me and puts me in the position to educate, explain, break down barriers, create, and share. I’ve always liked tarot cards and, in particular, The Magician card; it represents an individual who harnesses the power of the world around him and can evoke change. I would like to think that freaks, drag queens or no, are the magicians of this world.
OT: You and your partner in drag, John Musser a.k.a. Veronica Bleaus, recently began doing Drive-by Drag performances where you show up to various public locations in the Pittsburgh area, do a number, and then leave without a trace. What was the impetus behind this type of performance? What kind of reception from the public do you hope to get/have gotten?
DS: Drive by Drag was, in a way, a fantastic intersection! John and I are very different people, but we have moments when a singular idea resonates perfectly with both of us. We had toyed with the idea of giving performances in supermarkets, parks, and other random locations, but it never quite happened. When John approached me with the idea for Drive by Drag, as a series of performances throughout the city, I could hardly say no! I love the spontaneity and randomness of it all. Unlike most shows, we can’t control many of the elements of our stage; it presents new creative challenges and hurdles. I’m eating it up.
To date, the public has been curious, friendly, and completely stunned. More than anything, I think John and I both want to bring a little bit of unexpected art and excitement to the world around us. I feel we’ve been successful thus far.
OT: What can OT Blog readers expect from you or your alter ego in the near future?
DS: Oh, gosh! Well of course, you should expect more Drive by Drag. You never know where we’ll show up! I’ll also be performing at Veruca La’Pirhana’s birthday party at the Blue Moon in July. I would definitely encourage the readers to show up; I have something quite special planned.
Classical voice and music were my life for most of my childhood and teenage years, and I’m dying to re-explore them. I’ve taken up some musical endeavors, both solo and collaborative. In particular, I find atonal and experimental music enticing.
Life presents ceaseless opportunities to be creative, and I’m always interested in working with other artists and creative types. Got an idea? Give me a call!
I have no problem admitting that when it comes to Messy Magazine , I am certainly biased on their behalf. That said, this bias honestly has nothing to do with the fact they published an article of mine in their Cleveland Film Guide, or that I went to college with one of their founders—although, it doesn’t hurt. Truth is, I totally dig Messy Magazine because, above all else, it is such a damn cool idea.
In essence, the Cleveland-based online magazine is doing for the Northeast Ohio art community what we here at Open Thread are doing for artists in the Pittsburgh and tri-state area: spreading the word.
Since its first issue in November 2008, Messy Magazine has challenged budding and established writers to craft articles on each issue’s predetermined theme, while at the same time finding fresh and unique ways to highlight all sorts of artsy goings-on in the Cleveland area. This devotion to giving exposure to artistic events led to the magazine becoming involved in this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival, for which they produced the aforementioned Cleveland Film Guide to help promote the event, and participated even more directly by sponsoring one of the films screened.
Messy Magazine is headed for big things, and since their mission grooves so well with ours here at OT, it makes sense for us to pay it forward and get the word out about this wonderful publication. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Vanessa Aron, business planner and founding member of Messy Magazine, about the publication’s history, their involvement with the film festival, and what’s in the future for all things Messy.
OT Blog: How did Messy Magazine get its start?
Vanessa Aron: Messy Magazine is a project that has been in planning for quite sometime. It really started with Lauren Kirk and Michael Stidham, who both attended Cleveland State University. They had several writing classes together and really became focused on creating something that would benefit the art community in Cleveland. They were really looking for an outlet for their creative expression. Lauren is a writer, and Michael is an amazing visual artist who also writes amazingly well. I am jealous of their skills!
Lauren and I both interned for the Cleveland Free Times, but during separate summers. We had a mutual acquaintance, and my involvement with the magazine came about simply through run-ins and conversations with her about our current professional states and about how changes could be made in the arts community of Cleveland. There is so much going on here; there are art galleries left and right and a ton of people creating a lot of interesting stuff. It’s a bit uncollected, though, and unless you’re knee-deep into the arts community, it’s easy to miss a lot of the goings-on in the city.
Professionally, both Lauren and I were in interesting situation. I had been laid off and I was looking for something I could focus on and would give me a sense of self-worth. Losing my job was strange because I am someone who really needs to have a packed schedule to get things done, and suddenly I had all this free time, and I was unsure how to fill my days.
The serious planning stages started in February after Lauren and I went out for drinks one evening. I arrived home that night, and I couldn’t sleep because the wheels in my head started turning after this lengthy conversation about Cleveland and art that night. So instead of sleeping, I created a business plan that really became the foundation of the magazine. I emailed it to Lauren the following morning and said, “This is what we’re doing,” and it’s been going ever since. We planned through spring and summer 2008, fine tuning this and that, creating a draft of the design of the magazine, etc.
I brought Genna Petrolla (MM’s marketer) on board with the magazine last July/August. Genna and I both worked at the company I was laid off from, and I knew she’d be perfect for our mission. She is amazingly talented, and our work strengths balance each other very well.
So our first issue came out in November 2008. And people started to take notice and we’ve been going ever since. We just distributed our fourth issue over Memorial Day weekend!
OT: Messy Magazine had some serious involvement in the Cleveland Film Festival this year, putting out not only the Film Guide, but you sponsored one of the films that was screened there. How did this partnership come about?
VA: The film festival was a f*cking blast, and it was so great being a part of all the excitement. This was the biggest year ever for the Cleveland International Film Festival. They broke attendance records on each day of the festival.
We were contacted by the Cleveland Film Society, the folks who put on the CIFF, sometime in late December, early January after they had checked out the first issue of our magazine. They thought we had a great positive outlook on the city and the arts community in Cleveland. From what I hear, there was a buzz around our magazine after our first issue, which was very cool.
We were excited when they contacted us. It was a huge deal for us only after putting out one issue. Our second issue came out the second week of January, a few days after our initial meeting with the CFS people. We decided to further our involvement with the CIFF by creating our own film guide. We shadowed the CFS crew, interviewed them, hung out in their office for a day, it was a lot of fun and they’re a great, tight group of people. Genna told me when I walked into their office I’d never want to leave, and she was so right.
The film guide was primarily, but not completely, devoted to the CIFF. We incorporated articles about the film community in and around Cleveland. The film community is HUGE here, but it’s not super known. We have the Cleveland Film Society, the Cleveland Film Commission, Cinematheque at Case Western Reserve University, the Cedar Lee Cult Film Series, Cinema Wasteland, the film school at Cleveland State University…it’s huge!
We were also fortunate to sponsor a film at the CIFF, An Alternative to Slitting Your Wrists. This was probably the perfect film for us to sponsor, as the documentary, as well as our magazine, were creations out of crises. Even more, our sponsored film was created by Cleveland natives, something we were very excited about. The film had several sold-out showings, which was great.
OT: Each of your issues seemingly has a theme, dictating the feel of that particular issue’s writings and direction. What are some of the prior themes you’ve had, what are some you hope to have in the future, and how do you and the MM team come up with what you want the focus of each issue to be?
VA: When we created the magazine, we were looking for something that would encompass an entire issue so we wouldn’t be a magazine filled with just random work. As the overseer of the artistic direction, I wanted more of a coffee table book than magazine style look. That’s why we don’t directly promote who is in the issue on the front cover.
I’m a visual person, and I love photos and the use of visual work. I try to incorporate just as many images and photos as written work into each issue. A lot of the photos are my own as well, so I feel like I am also expanding my creative horizons, because I’m always out and about snapping images of random things to incorporate into each issue and the design.
I think overall the theme is our way of holding creative control over the entire operation. We also believe the use of a theme can fuel more creativity and more great work.
The downfall with using a theme is that if it makes no sense, or if people don’t understand it, they either won’t submit something, or they just submit whatever. We will and do accept work from anyone, anywhere, theme-related or not, but we do try to push the use of the theme. We are learning and becoming more aware of how simplistic or complex a theme can be, and really it’s an issue by issue thing.
Our first theme was Mad at Monday. It was a fun first theme to start out with because everyone has something to say about Mondays and the beginning of the work week—or if you don’t have a job, what Mondays mean when you are out of work. We had some pretty humorous submissions, so it was a lot of fun to put together.
Our latest issue, Emerge and See, was to the Messy Magazine group the most important and I suppose the most emotionally invested theme yet. There is a lot going on worldwide, regionally through the rustbelt, and specifically in Cleveland. We are trying to change attitudes that cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit are not dead; they just need to look around and realize what potential they have and change their attitudes. I think we are off to a great start. We see big things coming our way!
OT: On that same token, what would you like to see in the future for MM?
VA: This is the perfect time for that question. We are sort of in what I would call a resetting phase. We are currently in the process of collectively reviewing what the magazine is and what we want it to become. We are on the brink of some really cool changes, which will be for the better. We are in the process of becoming a quarterly magazine. We want to focus our energies toward each theme and issue much more than we can at this point. We really want to fuel the creative world around us and really show everyone that there are amazing full-time, part-time, and seasonal artists in this world that are not showing at the MoMA, the MOCA, or wherever. These people have real jobs and also have a creative side, so we want to better ourselves to better show off what we see. Stay tuned! Summer ‘09 is going to be Messy Magazine’s own Emerge and See.
Many thanks to Messy Magazine and Vanessa for helping us out, and for getting the word out about nearby artists—a cause we can certainly support!
Check out their current issue, as well as back issues, at http://www.messymagazine.org/
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