Arts & Entertainment
9 min

Pride in Art grows up

Vancouver's queer arts festival offers a different way to celebrate Pride

FULL-FLEDGED QUEER ARTS FESTIVAL. What started 10 years ago as a relatively quiet visual art exhibit has grown into a full-fledged arts festival celebrating queer culture and expression for Pride. Credit: Shaira Holman photo

For many, the word View-Master invokes memories of colourful, frolicking Disney characters and childhood moments spent with the classic 3D-image viewer.

So when local queer photographer Rosamond Norbury said her latest art installation, to be shown at this year’s Pride in Art Festival, would feature one of these beloved trinkets of youth, I was excited.

Little did I know that in Norbury’s View-Master world everything is black and white, the dancing is go-go and the frolicking is done with a plastic sheep in a Davie St porn shop.

Norbury is one of 28 visual artists exhibiting works at this year’s 10th annual Pride in Art Festival, which will be held at the Roundhouse Community Centre Jul 28-Aug 14.

What started 10 years ago as a relatively quiet visual art exhibit has grown into a full-fledged arts festival celebrating queer culture and expression that now runs for two weeks alongside the rest of Vancouver’s Pride celebrations.

Last year it attracted close to 5,000 people, organizers say.

Pride in Art officially evolved into a full-blown arts festival in 2006 when its board of directors decided to take it in a new direction and add performance art to the bill. However, due to the 2007 city strike that temporarily shut down the Roundhouse and left the festival homeless, the first official juried exhibition and festival only took place last year.

This year’s festival includes 18 days of colourful, controversial and moving visual works, punctuated by poetry, storytelling and live music performances. It also features co-productions with the Vancouver Pride Society, Out on Screen and Screaming Weenie Productions.

“Art helps to define us,” says Pride in Art president Jeff Gibson. “In any community, art exists. It has to exist.”

The gay community is no exception, he says. Pride in Art is important because it has the power to create dialogue about identity and expression in the queer community and beyond. “We not only bring the outside community in to look at us,” Gibson explains, “but we also educate our own community as well.

“It’s cultural. It’s different. It’s something that’s really unique for everybody.”

If art defines us, then Vancouver’s local queer artists are making some very loud statements about themselves and community.

Norbury’s raunchy, saucy and unapologetic stills make Mother Goose look like Mother Theresa.

In keeping with this year’s Pride in Art theme of Faerie Tales: Telling Our Stories (which asked artists to explore myths and legends that have shaped us as a community), Norbury’s installation consists of a 3D stereoscope and a series of six different nursery rhymes printed on sheets of photography paper. The sequential black and white images coincide with the popular children’s verses.

I meet the artist on a Thursday afternoon at a coffee shop on Commercial Dr. It doesn’t take long before she whips out her stereoscope and begins explaining why she feels art is important.

“It is what we have on our walls. It makes us aware of things,” she tells me. “[Art is] like a magnifying glass on certain things that nobody is really aware of until you’re standing in front of it.” 

She’s right. The allegorical play on children’s nursery rhymes seems harmless enough at first glance but upon closer examination it is safe to say her work is no conventional nursery rhyme or bedtime story. This is no typical tall tale or fable or myth. These 3D snapshots are freeze-frames of drag queen life and we as viewers are voyeurs of the good, the bad, the ugly and the campy.

“I thought why don’t I do something that would really upset someone,” the artist says of past 3D works involving pierced cocks and nipples. “They won’t really want to look at it but they will have to look at it.”

Norbury shows me a piece in the stereoscopic series titled “Ring around the Rosey.” Originally written in the context of the bubonic plague, Norbury honours the original text while pairing it with new images to draw attention to our contemporary AIDS epidemic.

Another piece entitled “Bah Bah Blacksheep” showcases Norbury’s particular brand of humour. Under the words “One for the Master” there is a photo of a leather daddy; “One for the Dame” a drag queen; and under the words “One for the little girl who lived down the lane” there is a scene of a young girl climbing out of a dumpster in the Downtown Eastside.

“I’m interested in how Vancouver is changing and how they are tearing down old places and putting up crap,” she says.

While Norbury’s art commands the occasional serious response, some of her pieces entice with simple humour and in-your-face sexuality. In “Little Bo Peep” the narrative begins with images of a drag diva cruising Davie St. Through the sequence of stills we soon learn that Bo Peep has a penchant for peep shows — as do her sheep.

Norbury is a photographer whose primary inspiration comes from the world around her and the queer culture in which she has been immersed for decades. “I just love the way drag queens take [pop culture] and just fly with it,” she smiles, explaining why her muses tend to wear heels.

The first thing I notice about Kathy Atkins is the rainbow scarf tied biker-style around her head. The second is her stature.

At no more than five-feet-two and 100 pounds, Atkins looks more childlike than her 50 years might convey. But a close look at her art reveals an introspection that can only come from a barrage of life experiences and some heavy-duty soul searching.

In her large, bright studio space near the Main St viaduct, Atkins and I sit among smeared paint, canvases, dioramas, sketches, photos and nearly completed works. She talks about her work quietly and honestly, and I can’t help but think of both the power and vulnerability that an artist must feel when they offer strangers such an intimate glimpse into their soul.

“My work is generally about identity,” she begins. “I’ve done a lot of stuff that stems from notions that either are cultural or thematically feminist or queer theory notions of identity. Usually it’s about how I discover I’m enacting that or how I’ve internalized that.”

Atkins, who sat on the Pride in Art board until this year, will be mounting two very different takes on this year’s Faerie Tales theme.

The first titled “Queen Boadicea” is an acrylic composition depicting an imagined representation of a Celtic heroine circa 60ce. The work is an homage to Atkins’ Celtic heritage and a strong statement of feminism, as the image is a reference to historical documents describing a warrior queen who led the ancient British army in a battle against the Romans.

While Atkins’ first work takes the festival theme quite literally, her other submitted piece is more personal, the strength more subtle.

Atkins’ self-portrait captures the artist as muse, naked and staring blankly at herself in the bathroom mirror while removing a nipple ring. She looks vulnerable, uneasy and quite un-heroine like in this work.

“It was around nipple rings that never really healed properly because I don’t wear a brassiere and then going for a mammogram and having to take the rings out and this thing that I’ve had them for so long and they’ve become a part of me [and] here I am at this threshold of having to let go of them and seeing how attached I am.

“I’ve invested who I think I am in these super-ficial decorations attached to my body and when I look deeper it’s like, ‘Okay, so I’m insecure about my breasts and I think that if I have nipple rings then they’re going to be better.’ I just made this whole thing around these two little rings. I just had to laugh at myself and think, ‘This is crazy.’”

Self-acceptance and identity come up in many of the works to be shown at this year’s Pride in Art festival and Dana Ayotte’s art is no exception. “I Always Knew You Were a Lesbian” is a large oil painting that speaks to social stigma and contradiction through the juxtaposition of words and image. “I think it’s funny. It’s so pink,” says the artist from her East Vancouver studio.

Slathered in bubblegum pink, the primary images are of a ballerina who is being shadowed by the bold “I Always Knew You Were a Lesbian” text in the foreground. “The ballerina, to me, is just the ultimate symbol of femininity and that training and being a lady. And the word lesbian, to me, is a very heavy word in some ways,” says Ayotte. “People read a lot into it or they have an idea of what a lesbian might be. So that contrast of saying the word lesbian and then the cute little ballerina, to me, it’s funny.”

For gay surrealist painter Sakino, art and especially Pride in Art has helped to bridge culture gaps.

“It has given me a sense of community in Canada,” he explains.

Sakino, who is on the Pride in Art board, moved to Vancouver three years ago from his native Mexico and says art gave him freedom to express himself and his identity.

“It was very difficult to grow up in the [Mexican] culture,” he says. “Being gay was equal to being sick and needing a psychiatrist. One day I just said I will have to fight the culture.”

Sakino’s work explores the natural and subconscious world through fantastic imagery. His piece “Memory Corner” will be exhibited during the festival. The oil and collage work is unique as portions of it were transplanted from an earlier damaged painting.

It is sort of “recycled,” Sakino explains.

The image suggests a man as a tree with a pair of suspended kidneys attached to roots in the foreground. Sakino, who says the incorporation of human organs in his art has always represented the inner psyche of humankind, says his work is fundamentally about growth and independence.

It is about “the solitude of being a man.

I have a partner but I still think it’s important to remain an individual,” he explains. “I’m in a place where I’m growing and I have opportunity and there is nothing destructive.”

In addition to the visual art exhibition, this year’s Pride in Art festival will also feature a number of live performances, including an extra-special reunion of the Taste This collective, which now goes by the name Swell.

The storytelling troupe will perform its new show As the Story Goes. The threesome features musician Lyndell Montgomery, poet and writer Anna Camilleri, and storyteller, writer and Xtra West columnist Ivan E Coyote.

Reuniting after 10 years of solo projects, the queer trio says it will entertain through the journals of experience gathered from their lives thus far. “We’ve grown tons as artists individually,” says Camilleri. “It’s not as if the stories are all done and there is no place for these stories anymore,” she adds. “They’re really important. They are the stories of our lives.”

In the mid-1990s the group toured throughout Canada and the western United States bringing their unapologetic tales of queer and lesbian life, identity and experience to everything from urban cities to small rural towns.

During that time the trio also co-wrote Boys Like Her: Transfictions, a book about gender bending, stereotypes and being queer.

Swell says its work is indeed political, satirical and socially driven but its primary goal is to simply to entertain.

“We’re not speaking to some political agenda,” says Camilleri. “We’re artists, we’re coming together and we’re crafting a work with the goal of entertaining folks along the way. The conversations that we explore are part of the conversations that are happening in our broader communities.”

Through interdisciplinary works of music, poetry, comedy and tragedy, Swell’s multimedia storytelling honours queer identity while cutting it open and turning it inside out for all to see.

Yet while the topics can be serious, Swell’s members assert that humour is the intrinsic thread woven throughout their shows.

“Humour is a barometer to see if the show is working,” Camilleri says. “Humour along with some dirty and some poignancy and some sweetness and some sexy,” she adds. “We’re not afraid of sadness either,” Montgomery interjects.

Asked why Pride in Art is an important addition to the other Pride festivities scheduled to take place in the city, the group says the festival is another way to celebrate community.

“I think Pride is about celebrating ourselves,” says Montgomery. “We’re just doing it in a highly crafted and professional multimedia kind of way.”

“The parade is one way to see ourselves. It’s flashy. It’s one way to represent ourselves,” says Coyote. “But a lot of people feel it’s not their version of how they’re gay or how they’re queer.

“We don’t have glitter balls, though,” Camilleri notes.

“But we have our own glitter balls,” Coyote quips. 

Since Pride in Art became a festival a few years ago, visual artists have submitted their works to a small jury of peers who then decide what is shown at the exhibition.

“One of the reasons that we wanted to have a jury was for the artists,” says Pride in Art festival director Shaira Holman. “It’s really good for them, for their careers. We are all about building artists,” she adds.

“I think it’s easier for artists to get their stuff together if there is structure,” agrees local gay arts patron George Stephenson.

With a juried show “you can be much more certain that you are going to see something with value to it,” he adds.

Stephenson, a longtime supporter of Pride in Art, says the festival is an intrinsic part of queer identity.

“I think it’s hugely important,” he says. “The gay community is so significant to art and art is so significant to the gay community. How could you have a Pride celebration without art being a part of it?”

“I want people to have fun. I want them to be excited. I want them to be awed by what’s going on,” says Gibson, asked what he hopes viewers take away from this year’s festival.

“Maybe [exhibition viewers] will look at the world a little differently and have a little more respect for drag queens,” suggests Norbury.

“[Drag queens] are not just ditzes running down the street in high heels,” she explains. “Also, I want [viewers] to take away a little tickle of youth like the old View-Master,” she adds. “Like you’re looking at something for the first time. Like you’re hit with faerie dust.”