Four yellow-faced Judy Garland look-alikes have been wandering the streets of Saskatoon, wearing braided wigs, checkered blue-and-white aprons, and red Dorothy shoes from The Wizard of Oz.
It’s part of the Eat Your Art Out, Judy Garland festival, a five-day multidisciplinary queer arts fest that kicks off on Feb 8.
Activist Ryan Dielschneider and Saskatoon artist Humboldt Magnussen started the festival last year in response to a provincewide survey that found three quarters of queer respondents identified isolation as a major problem. One in six said they have “no one to talk to” for support.
“Isolation is still an enormous problem in Saskatchewan,” says Dielschneider, who works at the Avenue Community Centre. “We’re seeing society get better and change, but just seeing these numbers – that three quarters of people still feel isolated – it was such a shock.”
Dielschneider and Magnussen felt a sense of urgency. The two brainstormed ideas for how to raise queer visibility in Saskatoon and decided to conjure the ghost of gay icon Judy Garland.
Referred to as “the Elvis of homosexuals” by The Advocate, Garland has a large gay following. Young queers, fascinated by The Wizard of Oz, watched as Garland’s character, Dorothy, readily befriended quirky, socially outcast characters. When Dorothy sang “Over the Rainbow,” closeted gay people dreamed of a place where they would be accepted for who they are.
Organizers hope that place will be at the festival in Saskatoon.
“We’re all kind of becoming Judy Garland in a way,” says Dielschneider, who donned a Dorothy costume in the days leading up to the fest. “We’re playing around and being campy to expose that there are queer people in Saskatoon.”
Dielschneider says the festival will celebrate queer culture on the Prairies by bridging art and activism.
“The festival is an appropriate way to do something that’s simultaneously fun and gets at the issue of isolation,” he says. “Art has this way of pulling people together and being social commentary.”
The festival’s theme this year is queer love. More than 50 artists from a range of disciplines, including visual art, performance art, music and poetry, will explore ways of breaking isolation through love, belonging and community. Festival organizers will also produce a community-written zine of rants, essays, manifestos, confessions and images.
One Saskatoon artist, Ryan Bradshaw, will step into his boylesque character, Conrad Fusion, to perform a spoken-word striptease that he promises will be romantic.
“I’m glad they’ve added a queer festival of art,” says Bradshaw. “For me, as a performer, it’s great because it’s giving me the opportunity to perform with other performers in the queer community . . . and to see how different artists express themselves in the queer community.”
Bradshaw, who moved to the Prairies from Toronto, says queer invisibility is still an issue in Saskatoon.
“It’s amazing how many people I’ve met in Saskatchewan who are like, ‘Oh, I’ve never met a gay person before.’ Yes you have! It’s just that no one’s told you,” he says. “We have a long way to go.”
But, if all goes as planned, the Eat Your Art Out, Judy Garland festival will help shorten the distance between Saskatoon and “where troubles melt like lemon drops.”