NORTH BENNINGTON -- It’s 2002 and Evie Lovett is backstage at the show. She’s surrounded by the ladies of the Rainbow Cattle Company, a Dummerston gay bar that has since closed down. The ladies, Mama, Kitty, Candi, Sophia, and Mercedes, make up the cast of the bar’s monthly drag show.
The ladies tease and pluck and fiddle in preparation for their performance, and Lovett talks with them all the while behind her camera, snapping away. Over the year and a half she spends with them, they grow close and become much more than just the subjects of her photography.
"The Drag Queens of Dummerston, Vermont," is a mixed media exhibit (audio interviews and photography) on display now at the Vermont Arts Exchange in North Bennington, through the end of the month, with support from the Vermont Folklife Center. Gallery-goers walk among the photographs and call a special number to listen to interviews with the ladies. The show is the work of Putney-based photographer Evie Lovett, who once a month for a year and a half starting in 2002, visited the Rainbow Cattle Co. to document the lives and performances of the drag queens that performed there.
She describes meeting the ladies as an intense experience.
"They are just slinging the zingers, and I thought, ‘oh my god, they are going to eat me alive,’" she said. But after spending time with the "gaggle of girls," she fit right in. "It was just really fun. God, it was so much fun."
Inspired by dress-up
"It came out of photographs of my own children and their friends dressing up Š I had been fascinated by them just being kids Š there was this sort of flexibility that was really interesting to me Š gender flexibility," she said.
Lovett described watching her son mix and match traditional male and female clothing.
"I found it magical and mesmerizing," she said. "(The outfits were) somewhat influenced by society Š but also influenced by what was inside them."
Lovett, herself, has always had an ambivalent relationship with getting dressed up. She said she found it difficult to straddle, "that line between dressing up because it’s beautiful and creativeŠand the perception (of society.)"
A friend suggested that she contact the Rainbow Cattle Co. and see if she could photograph the shows. They offered her the chance to go backstage and do her photography there, which really appealed to her.
"That got to the core of what I was really interested in, this sort of blurring of gender Š inside as well as outside," she said.
Starting in 2010, with the help of the Vermont Folklife Center and a grant from the Samara Fund, which funds lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transsexual, and queer, LGBTQ, endeavors as part of the Vermont Community Foundation, Lovett spent eight months recording interviews with the ladies. The interviews are broken up into 19 segments, each one titled with the interviewee’s name and a brief description of the subject matter. Such as "CANDI -- I was going to buy an evening gown," and "SOPHIA -- It’s not about being female."
Lovett said that adding the interviews added new layers of depth to the show, and changed it from her perspective to a greater perspective.
"I think it’s important for people to see this show because it is my hope that anytime you hear about somebody else’s life Š you start to see people as people instead of something that is unfamiliar or just alien, she said. "The stories are really poignant and really personal Š being able to really do something that is fun and person. Allows them to let their hair down Š If I look at my own journey, I hope viewers’ journeys will be similar to my own. I hope people will see themselves in the drag queens and ask themselves, ‘what is my drag?’"
On the road
North Bennington is the fourth stop on the tour for the show; it opened at the VAE alongside a cabaret performance by Gypsy Lane. The idea of pairing the show’s opening with a performance is a staple of this tour, which started with its premiere in Brattleboro.
The ladies were invited to do a version of their show on Main Street in Brattleboro in the middle of a February blizzard. It was the first time the group had performed outside of the gay bar scene.
"(But) People realized, ‘hey this really is about fun and performance.’ And lightened up," Lovett said. Following that the group gained more of a mainstream following and people of all walks of life began attending the performances.
Other performances will likely accompany openings of the show in the future until the final exhibition in 2015.
"The 5-inch heels will be clickity-clacking on the dirt roads of Vermont," Lovett said.
Part of the motivation behind Lovett’s show was to demystify what drag is.
"It’s fun to explore another part of you, Give a straight man a chance to dress and drag and most men will jump at the chance."
Most of her shows look to introduce her audience to worlds with which they may not be familiar.
"I like the idea of art as a tool to promote conversation or a tool for engagement. That is sort of my view of what my art is." she said, "I’m always interested in mixing it up."
One of her previous exhibits focused on Rwanda and was accompanied by a panel discussing the future of the African nation.
Lovett’s work has primarily been done using black and white film for aesthetic reasons.
"Black and white is my love Š I intuitively feel that black and white conveys a depth of emotions and pulls you in in a way that a color image doesn’t," she said.
Her next show, a study of both figurative and literal masks, will venture into the realm of digital for the first time.
Contact Andrew Roiter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Banner_Arts