Archive for the ‘Featured Artists’ Category
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.
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).
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!
There’s a good chance you’ve already experienced native Pittsburgher Dawn Weleski’s work in and around the city. Whether you’ve read her newspaper in the South Side, chatted with her over a tasty meal served out of an RV, or stumbled upon an opera while waiting for the bus to arrive, Dawn’s work forces you to rethink everyday experience. Her public works can be seen as social and political stress tests that cause witnesses to question their typical social behaviors, as they disrupt the familiarity and comfort of the everyday experience.
I asked Dawn to speak about her current projects, as well as a little about the experience she has had living here in the Pittsburgh area. To learn more about Dawn and her art, you can check out the Bus Stop Opera homepage. In the meantime, be on the lookout, because you just might be surprised to one day yourself a participant in her work.
OT Blog: You grew up just outside of Pittsburgh, I believe in Tarentum, before you became a student at Carnegie Mellon University, where you tried out several majors prior to landing in the School of Art. Since graduating this past December, you’ve decided to stay in the area, living in Regent Square. What is it about the city that keeps you here? What makes you a proud Pittsburgher?
Dawn Weleski: Yes, I’m from a town northeast of Tarentum called Natrona Heights. Tarentum was the first town in the mainland United States that struck oil, and Natrona was named from “Natrium,” the Latin word for salt. There is a huge salt mine near the mills that supplied the compound for the defense department’s creation of the first atomic bombs. The mills, mines, and industry in Natrona and Brackenridge employed all of my grandparents—and their parents—when they arrived from Poland. The women were employed in PPG (Pittsburgh Plate Glass) and ALCOA (Aluminum Company of America) factories. Even my dad paid his way through art school by working in night shifts in the mill after class. Living near this industry, hearing the stories of so many industry families, and being raised on the fruits of my ancestors’ labor with these materials makes me proud to be a Pittsburgher. It’s the positive, steady values of industry, though not the industry itself, that have sustained Pittsburgh and its people, especially in these tough economic times. Therefore, as a young professional, I can enjoy a low cost of living, burgeoning creative high and sub-cultures, decent employment opportunities, support for small for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises, and down-to-earth neighbors. Chicago, New York, and DC are only a drive away, as is some of the nation’s best hiking and camping.
OT: This past year you were awarded a grant to fund the Bus Stop Opera, an interdisciplinary, public performance work. You managed to successfully coordinate a group of mostly student actors, musicians, singers, and writers to perform songs from the point of view of everyday bus riders at stops across the city. Can you explain a little about the process leading up to these performances as well as the objectives behind the project?
DW: Bus Stop Opera places investigations of the everyday within the realm of the extraordinary and sublime. The operas agitate the routine private space within one’s public transportation ride through conversation and transform the everyday public space of bus stops around Pittsburgh through operatic performance of the same conversations. Basically, we have conversations with folks on buses and at bus stops, which are then, almost verbatim, transcribed into libretto. A composer then scores for the libretto, and, after a week of rehearsals, the songs are performed at Pittsburgh area bus stops with a full musical ensemble, including violin, cello, trombone, and bass. Once the 20 minute “operetta” is done, we hop on the next bus and re-perform the same songs at bus stops down the line, all throughout Pittsburgh. The operas accumulate mementos of the lives of Pittsburghers who utilize public transportation and frame the mundane as high art. The project is most successful when the public, engaged in conversation with our actors, are implicated as participants when the conversation begins to be sung. The public becomes part of the performance by meeting the gaze of the singers, and bus riders realize that they are on the “stage” and more readily relate and empathize with the narratives presented.
The project has several objectives: (1) to allow creative people from different disciplines to collaborate and, hopefully, create a richer product due to that collaboration; (2) to remind the public and art audiences alike that “Art” sometimes finds inspiration outside of one’s self, and, maybe, the product of that inspiration can be more relevant and successful if it’s placed back into the context from whence it came; (3) to question the notion of public and private, personal and general, at spaces, such as bus stops, that can be defined and are utilized as either. I’ve overheard so many cell phone conversations on the bus that maybe should have been kept private! Overall, we’ve performed along twenty different bus routes, written ten songs about ten distinct Pittsburghers, and engaged in hundreds of conversations with strangers. I’m most surprised when strangers, who normally wouldn’t speak to each other, bond over this odd experience happening within their space. We’ve had folks miss their buses to see the whole performance and nod or shout out in agreement upon hearing the song lyrics. Every part of the process is valuable, including the performance. When strangers become a part of a collective experience, the effect of the work is amplified.
OT: Recent works like the Bus Stop Opera and RV Eatin’ [link to RV Eatin’ in PG] (a collaboration with Laura Miller [link to Laura’s blog post] and Claire Hoch, in which the three of you served homegrown, home-cooked meals out of an RV at various events and locations in Pittsburgh in the hopes of generating good conversation) rely immensely on the element of public interaction. With both of these works, the public plays a large role in their completion, and because of it, there is a natural evolution that occurs. Can you speak about this angle of change and randomness within the work, as well what it’s like to cede so much control to the public?
DW: I’m interested in creating artwork that lends agency to its audience. When I implicate my audience as a participant in the creation of the work, I’m lending them agency on the most basic level. Firstly, the can choose to participate. Secondly, based on initial boundaries that I create, my audience lends life to the format I present to them, whether through a community newspaper (”Regular”), family meals, or conversations on public transportation. Thirdly, because the audience becomes part creator/owner of the work, the art tends to have greater longevity, scope, and relevance to a greater whole. In some instances, the art can live beyond the artist. I find work that exists within the context which inspires it, exists for the most appropriate time and audience, whether for a split second or generations. I don’t create all of my work under this auspice, as different messages and subjects require different methods and media. However, even ancient media, such as fresco and egg tempera, were created to convey messages to their audience that would educate and prescribe meaning. Historically, religious icons and altar pieces, as well as public murals depicting social controversy and historical events, qualified objects and images as conduits of dramaturgical and ritualistic metanoia. My work reasserts the necessity for the public to devise its own social penance and cultural transformations.
OT: What can OT Blog readers expect to see from you in the future?
DW: Starting May 8, Claire Hoch and I will have a piece in the Mattress Factory “Gestures” show. We’re building a 12 foot silo that will sit outside of the annex space that acts as a vending machine for capsulated native seeds and discusses the communal agricultural history of the area. The silo, accessible during non-gallery hours, encourages the public to reclaim the “Commons” of the North Side by planting in sidewalk areas zoned by the city for trees. Additionally, the public that enters the gallery space will have a chance to drop the capsules into the silo via a long pipe. The public will fill, and the public will vend. Later that month, Bus Stop Opera is traveling to New York City to perform as part of HomeBase [link: www.homebaseproject.com], a residency and exhibition exploring the notion of home. Hopefully, New York City’s bus riders are just as engaging as Pittsburgh’s. We’re excited to see what will come of the performances in a different city and are considering touring to cities around America.
I’ve known Emilia Edwards for a while now, having spent long hours in the studio alongside her during our time at Carnegie Mellon University as art students. I’ve watched her work develop exponentially over the years and I’m always excited to see what she has been up to. She will so often have something new and nasty to show, whether it be the baby octopi she is using to print with or the latest issue of a muscle magazine she’s chopping up into a collage.
In addition to being a great artist, she’s also a fan of America’s Next Top Model, which only makes her more appealing (at least to me). I asked her a few questions about her work and how Pittsburgh has been treating her.
Here’s what she had to say:
OT Blog: You came to Pittsburgh in the summer of 2004 to begin an undergraduate degree in Fine Art at Carnegie Mellon University. Since graduating in May of last year, you decided to stick around. What about the city made you want to stay? What makes is an ideal place for young artists?
Emilia Edwards: I just like it here. It’s a nice place to live. There’s always something going on, and everybody is welcome everywhere.
I moved to Pittsburgh when I was 18 from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I knew next to nothing about the city, or even the state of Pennsylvania. I hated Pittsburgh when I first moved here. I was used to sunny weather and a grid. Pittsburgh was, at first, dreary and confusing but after living here for a while I began to learn more about the city and discover its charms.
Pittsburgh is an interesting place to be a young artist because there are opportunities available to everyone here that would be hard to come by in a larger city. After living here for five years I have far more experience showing my work than I would if I lived in a place where exhibition space is more exclusive. Also, it is entirely possible to make something creative happen from scratch here.
OT: Your work often deals with the grotesque, be it depictions of rotting meat, bulging bodybuilders, ugly babies, or serpentine cryptids. Where do you think the inspiration for much of this imagery comes from?
EE: I’ve always been fascinated by twisted and shocking images. My interest in horror movies and comic books began at a young age and continues to influence my art. Sea creatures are a recurring theme in my work. I like drawing ocean life because the result is usually part dinosaur, part alien, and part monster. Many of the images in my work are sourced from the pictures in medical journals, bodybuilding magazines, food magazines, Discovery Health shows about plastic surgery, the meat section in supermarkets, aquariums, and my own photography. I collage together ideas from photos and diagrams. I’m usually striving for a kind of ugly elegance in my work.
OT: Has anything in Pittsburgh particularly piqued your interest in the putrid and gross?
EE: I actually think Pittsburgh has contributed a certain beauty to my work that I wouldn’t find elsewhere. I have used drawings of Pittsburgh and several other industrial cities (Detroit, Bilbao and Frankfurt to name a few) as backdrops for my comics. The dramatic cityscape is an ideal setting for a fantastical narrative to take place.
OT: You were recently chosen by the arts organization Creative Time for their web project Creative Time Comics, where artists are invited to create a one-page web comic meant to address the issues facing our world. How did you get involved with them and what can we expect to see?
EE: I became involved with Creative Time through a former visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon. Christopher Sperandio was asked to contribute a page to the project and thought my work would fit well with the web format and content. From there CT contacted me and asked if I would contribute a page about something relating to “here and now”.
My page goes up June 1st at http://creativetime.org/comics. I am currently drawing a segment of a narrative about a deformed frog that lives in black water. It’s about the environment but the tone is not moral-driven. It’s a story about a toxic place and its inhabitants.
OT: What else can we look forward to from Emilia Edwards?
EE: I’m moving to Providence in July to start a graduate degree at Rhode Island School of Design. Until then I have a few projects lined up. I currently have a drawing on view in A Beckoning Country: Art and Objects of the Champlain Valley at the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum. The piece is a preparatory drawing for Champy, a wall painting featuring Lake Champlain’s resident monster. My contribution to the Creative Time Comics project will go up in June. I am also working on some new ideas for giant wall art.
Jessica Gardocki, originally from Hillsdale, NJ, is a freshmen art major at Carnegie Mellon University. Although she is young, Jessica already has come up with some pretty novel ideas and inspiring creations. I foresee Jessica moving forward successfully in the Pittsburgh art world and beyond. Find out more about Jessica by visiting her website: http://www.jessicagardocki.com/
Jessica Gardocki: I love to paint. For me, it is the ultimate zen experience, but I would never want to limit myself to one medium. I use whatever will work best for the piece and subject matter. Ha ha ha, as it turns out, most of my work is done in oil paint.
OT Blog: What interests me most about your work are the interesting social projects that you involve yourself in. Could you tell me about a few of them?
Jessica Gardocki: The Sex Addict project: This was mostly inspired by that children’s story where a Panda, unhappy with his identity, wears new animal skins to experience the jungle in a new light. I spent 2 weeks studying the thoughts and habits of an obsessive compulsive sexual addict. Then I forced myself to think these thoughts until they came naturally, and well, thoughts and actions are sometimes the same thing, uh. Next Step! I found an “in” with a local Sexaholics Anonymous group and after a long interview was allowed to attend a meeting, many meetings, and entered the mind of a sexaholic. I definitely had a biased assumption of, but they are all people, and they all work in the local Pittsburgh area–just with an interesting obsession. To display my emotional journey I photographed my performance piece into a little black book, parallel to the little white book we all receive at our first meeting.
After studying Freud and Kant’s view on the subconscious mind– I proposed a theory: all nightmares are reflective of past traumatic events that otherwise and our conscious could not deal with. So I placed clip boards all over Pittsburgh asking to hear nightmares, stories, symbols, anything! The reactions were interesting, and mostly proved my theory correctly. I made a head board out of a painting (done while blind folded to reflect the subconscious mind) and placed abstract representations of the dreams into an interactive pull out pillow.
OT Blog: I know that you also work with human and animal rights projects too?
Jessica Gardocki: Most of my work deals with civil rights and environmental sustainability, I spent most of my life demonstrating in NYC with Amnesty International, and it’s inevitable that my personal life will be in my artwork. I want my art to really make a difference, even if it’s just a smile or a burst of motivation, it will have served its purpose.
OT Blog: Who has most inspired you in your work so far?
Jessica Gardocki: Most of my work is inspired by Barbara Yeterian, a fellow artist, as well as my mentor and companion. She herself has done a series on the Armenian Genocide and taught me almost everything I know about art. She’s wonderful.
OT Blog: Who are some artists that have inspired you?
Jessica Gardocki: Barbara Yeterian, Oscar Kokoschka, Lucian Freud, and Frida
OT Blog: What do you think about the Pittsburgh art scene so far?
Jessica Gardocki: I’m still fresh to the Pittsburgh art scene, but so far, I really appreciate the many experiences and art galleries in the area. There is always a lecture to attend, or new exhibit displayed in the Carnegie!
OT Blog: What drew you to the CMU Art department?
Jessica Gardocki: When I was 17, I spoke to a CMU school of Art alumna, and she informed me that at CMU the main goal is to develop your own style, and you have the liberty and guidance to do so. She was right. The professors are great and I enjoy every single one of my classes, CMU has really allowed me to broaden my idea of what art can be–and how to make my art.
OT Blog: What are you currently working on now?
Jessica Gardocki: I’m studying the human figure and mostly creating oil paintings and drawings.
Hello, OT Blog readers! As you may have noticed, the "Artist of the Week" feature is going on a brief hiatus for the holidays, as we here at Open Thread gear up for Poetsburgh this Friday and a very special online launch this New Year’s Day! In the meantime, stay tuned to the blog for other features, including updates on Open Thread’s many up-and-coming happenings, including the return of Variety, Variety, Variety!
All the best this holiday season,
The Staff of Open Thread
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