BRATTLEBORO -- A long, strange and altogether amazing trip swings, momentarily, into Brattleboro this Saturday.
In an unlikely harmonic convergence, the Vermont Folklife Center and the Ladies of the Rainbow drag review join together at the Brattleboro VFW on Black Mountain Road for a fun and bawdy fundraiser that begins at 8 p.m. The doors open at 7 p.m.
Featuring Mama Mayhem, Candi Shtick, Kitty Rawhide and others, the performance, titled "Mistresses of Mayhem -- the Ladies of the Rainbow Return," benefits the Vermont Folklife Center, which has organized an exhibit of photographs and audio interview excerpts titled "Backstage at the Rainbow Cattle Co.," featuring photographs by Evie Lovett. The exhibit is in the midst of a three-year statewide tour of every county in Vermont, culminating at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in 2015.
To support the tour, the community-minded and ever-glam drag Ladies bring their unique blend of mellifluous lip-synching and raucous commentary to the VFW. This evening of adult comedy and entertainment (18-plus unless accompanied by an adult) represents the 10th anniversary of the Ladies’ first downtown Brattleboro appearance. For tickets, call 802-388-4964 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/596067.
The origins of this show, the exhibit and just about everything go back more than a decade, as photographer Evie Lovett trained her lens on her children.
"I became interested in the concept of dress-up as a way of transformation of persona," she explained.
Picking up that thread, photographer John Willis put her in touch with The Ladies of the Rainbow, who had been captivating area audiences since their first days performing at the Rainbow Cattle Co. in Dummerston in the late 1990s. Lovett was given unique access to the ladies backstage for what proved to be a unique and eye-opening artistic experience.
"Truthfully, I knew zero about drag. ... I had some pretty good teachers," said Lovett. "I ended up falling in love both visually and with how much fun it was back there."
From 2002-4, she photographed the Ladies at the Rainbow Cattle Club. The result was a collection of black-and-white photographs, "Backstage at the Rainbow Cattle Co.," which often captured the ladies in quiet, personal and introspective moments. That exhibit was shown in Brattleboro and has reached wider audiences, including the first-ever Gay Pride Week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Lovett tried to pitch the exhibit to art museums and college galleries but couldn’t generate much interest. She came to the realization that the real home for these photos was Vermont.
"This is our community. The performers are integral parts of our community. They work in our hospitals and in our nuclear power plant," Lovett said.
At some point, Lovett’s friend Leslie Turpin connected her with the Vermont Folklife Center. The "Backstage at the Rainbow Cattle Co." photos piqued the interest of people there.
"The thing that interested me about Evie’s project was her level of artistry as a photographer," said Greg Sharrow, co-director of Middlebury-based Vermont Folklife Center, who said the project also fit the mission of the center. "When we talk about the Folklife Center’s mission, the way we frame it is around helping people become visible to one another."
In 2011, the Vermont Folklife Center conducted interviews with some of the Ladies, complementing Lovett’s photographs with audio that is available at www.vermontfolklifecenter.org/vision-voice/rainbow and at the various stops at the exhibit’s statewide tour.
The exhibit has hit 11 Vermont counties and has sparked delight and thoughtful engagement from most who see it. It has also sparked some controversy. In Rutland, one resident objected to the exhibit’s location near a Boys and Girls Club. In Newport, the exhibit created a rift within the artist’s cooperative that was hosting it.
Genuinely pained by these moments of difficulty stories, Lovett is heartened by other things that have happened. The exhibit has created new partnerships and friendships throughout the state and has been the catalyst for some important conversations. The Vermont Law School created a month-long series on sex, gender expression and the First Amendment that culminated in a panel introduced by Gov. Peter Shumlin.
"I think the reason it’s been so extraordinary is that at each step the level of partnership has increased," said Lovett.
While her intent in taking the pictures was not political, Lovett does hope the exhibit opens people’s eyes both to the uniqueness of the Rainbow Ladies and to the things we might have in common.
"The most significant thing I took from them is a recognition of the acceptance of themselves and their ability to do what they damn well please," said Lovett. "Their acceptance of who they are has gone a long way toward me accepting who I am."
"Each of these folks knows who they are, and they feel completely comfortable with who they are," added Sharrow. "The freedom that they experienced, the freedom to create a new persona, this is rooted in a really strong sense of self. These guys know who they are."
The lead sponsor for Saturday’s event is the Brattleboro Retreat. Other event sponsors are Ruggles and Hunt, Twice Upon A Time, Brown Computer Solutions, Brown Dog Bistro, Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, Offerings Jewelry, Rocky Dale Gardens, Gay and Lesbian Fund of Vermont, Hotwheelz Cycle and Fitness Studio, and Fireworks Restaurant.
With the performance will be a cash bar, not-so-silent auction, and other fun-filled opportunities to support the work of the Vermont Folklife Center. Auction items include an on-stage serenade by Miss Candi Schtick, a private makeover by Candi and gift certificates and goodies from Beck’s Hair Salon, the Brattleboro Food Co-op, Mocha Joe’s Coffee Roasters and other area businesses. For more about the Vermont Folklife Center, visit www.vermontfolklifecenter.org.