Night has fallen at Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse when Silky Shoemaker and Ray Matthews take the stage. It's a Camp Camp revival, one night only, and the founders of Austin's upstart queer multimedia variety show have chosen drama for the evening's theme. The stage is a slightly bent and strangely pretty collection of theatre clichés: sparkly satin tragedy and comedy masks, wall hooks piled with costumes, homemade backdrops of the "let's put on a show" variety.
The duo has chosen to be British for this interlude. As is their tradition, Matthews takes the high-femme road, inhabiting a sort of dizzied, aristocratic party hostess. Shoemaker, wearing a boy's sailor top and crazy blobs of stage makeup, launches into the loud, pealing pitch of an overplayed, prepubescent Cockney street urchin (think Oliver!). To the assembly of mostly art-damaged queers, gays, weirdos, and straight hangers-on, the scene plays as kids-drama-camp nightmare for big, knowing laughs.
In that moment, the slight, androgynous Shoemaker is both the spunky girl who grew up doing musical theatre in Amish country and a wicked-sly, multilayered performance artist, sending up cornball theatricality – performing camp, if you will – with a kind of manic weirdness that is one part homage and two parts subversion.
In the past few years, Shoemaker has been suffusing Austin with that powerful elixir of entertainment, activism, and historical recovery. Along with her noisy cohort of self-defined queers, the artist, performer, and activist has, in the brief time since she moved to Austin, co-produced Camp Camp, South by Southwest Festival-capping day party GaybiGayGay, and game night Trivia Travesty; she has appeared in PJ Raval's Three Dollar Cinema shorts and at the IDKE drag convention; created stage sets, costumes, art pieces, videos, musical pieces, and performances; and taken it all on the road with Matthews – presenting pieces in Mexico City and Copenhagen – and Fingers, which brought its queer performance revue to multiple U.S. cities in a school bus that usually worked.
She is, in other words, "a juggernaut of energy and creativity," as performer and frequent collaborator Paul Soileau puts it – one who throws down with and goes out on a limb for her beloved queer community on a regular basis. Shoemaker is that ultrarare mix of inspired artist and generous, committed activist: "She's very aware of protecting and educating and enhancing her community," says Soileau. It's a predilection that's nowhere better demonstrated than in her current work – collaborating with Soileau and others on alternative Pride celebration QueerBomb – and in what she's planning next: a gay wax museum.
If all that sounds a little too golden, it's important to remember that she is also, as Soileau puts it, "a total lunatic."
On- and offstage, Shoemaker strikes an odd figure. Her cropped hair, pale skin, unadorned features, and small, strong body provide few clues to her gender. Her deceptively simple sartorial choices deepen the confusion; she constructs outfits out of the kinds of elements that are ill-served by ironic fancy and lack of context – thick glasses, knee breeches, pantsuits, puffy white nightgowns – but are transformed once she draws them into her world. "Silky has this exoticism that I find to be very attractive, but also mysterious and sometimes dangerous," Soileau attests.
"I used to dress like a Colonial man," says Shoemaker. "I would wear things like breeches and white socks and ruffles around my neck every day. I like a gender mix-up with this dandyism aesthetic that's not really feminine, but it's pretty flamboyant. Growing up in Central Pennsylvania totally affected my aesthetic. The Amish aesthetic, it's severe but also pastoral – homemade and very simple, but also very stern. I love that."
That visual synthesis is a defining element of Shoemaker's art, be it stage sets and performance costumes, papier-mâché and cloth sculptures, or elaborate cut-paper backdrops. A recent set for Trivia Travesty, a game-show night she puts on with Soileau, for instance, featured crochet, quilts, and doilies, lit by string lights and the faded-glam patina of the Victory Grill. The patina is important, too: She likes things a little off, a little messy.
"I get into creating a self-contained aesthetic, where things fit together in their own weird logic," she says. "I like things that are both kind of dirty and reused but also sort of flamboyant in their own way. I like using silks and satins, but I also like using worn-out T-shirts and found materials. I like things that are rough and filthy looking. I like the contrast, and I like dirty things because I think they have character. There's something about them that seems more alive and accessible. I also like reusing things."
Those in search of polish or overt professionalism might not find what they're looking for in Shoemaker's oeuvre, but her work provokes the deep thrill of recognition, delight, and a resonance of ideas and emotion in those who happily go along for the ride. "A lot of my stuff isn't finished-looking, because I like the process to be apparent in the final product," says Shoemaker. "Performance, when it's not aiming for perfect illusion, allows for gender stuff, for this really interesting way of thinking about how it's constructed. In general, when you're performing you pull off these constructs of different kinds of identity, and then when that illusion is kind of off the mark in these ways, you get to realize what the illusion is."
Soileau says when he first met Shoemaker, "I could not for the life of me figure out what gender she was." He was hardly the only one.
"People often don't know what gender I am," affirms Shoemaker. "I am often read as male and often read as ... just confusing, I think, by people who are seeing me for the first time.
"In high school, I was a dyke's dyke: boots and a shaved head and Ani DiFranco," she says. She had been home-schooled for "two formative years," she says, and missing "key social development" years made re-entry difficult. "Once I realized I was queer, I felt like I had found this place that was like home and people I can relate to. I feel like I owe a lot to the queer community. It was important to me, growing up as a small-town queer."
In college, she met people who challenged traditional ideas of gayness and the gender binary, developing instead a more complicated notion of "queerness": "I think of queer as being about nonheterosexuality," she explains. "I think sexuality is really important – claiming sexual perversity and excitement and desire. I want there to be sexuality involved in homosexuality. It's also about being feminist and having an understanding of expanded gender categories. I think of it as challenging a capitalist model of society and community.
"My feelings about gender pronouns are complicated," she says. "I choose to go by 'she,' because I strongly identify with women's communities and feminist/lesbian culture and struggles. I find it empowering to choose 'woman.'"
In a later e-mail, though, the Cockney imp can't resist a bit of a twist: "With regard to terminology, no specific term is strictly my identity, although I am trying to reclaim 'bulldagger' and also feel cozy with 'dirty cocksucker.'"
Shoemaker comes by her quirkiness naturally; her bio reads a little like something out of Grey Gardens. "I come from an eccentric line of people on both sides," she says. Her father was a painter and her mother an actor from an old-money Pennsylvania family that was well-established in the town where she grew up. "They were not particularly ambitious rich people, kind of letting things slide," she says, and her mother's theatre career meant an abundant gay presence in her household. Her former babysitter recently told Shoemaker her family "is gay royalty, your grandma and your mom. They were the queens of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania."
When she decided she wanted to act, too, her mother was "really encouraging," she says. "I just started auditioning for stuff. I would do different projects of my own. I would make one-person shows where I would sing something like 40 musical show tunes really fast a cappella, and between every one I would run offstage and change costumes. I would call around to nursing homes and book myself. At the time I thought they loved me, but I don't really know. I don't think they could leave. I would also form these groups of people and adapt plays from books I liked, and then we would go to schools and birthday parties and stuff."
Being brought up by show folk did have its disruptive side. "I was in a traveling production of Annie, and my parents were still married, but my mom was falling in love with Daddy Warbucks." Her parents divorced, and her mother and Daddy Warbucks are still together.
"My family was always supportive of me being whatever I wanted to be," she says. "I don't think it was a functional family, but it was one that was totally accepting of idiosyncrasies and kind of crazy. It was a small town, and we were a known family in town, so there was a lot of freedom."
One thing Shoemaker thought she wanted to do was go to art school. She spent a year at the Chicago Art Institute, "hated it," and dropped out, she says. "I just sort of stopped being able to paint." She hung around for a while, singing in the Chicago Boys Choir (which, as fate would have it, sent her back into the nursing homes briefly), then made her way to Austin.
"When I came here, I had been wanting to perform," she says. "I was living with Ray [Matthews], and she was interested in performance stuff. There wasn't a venue to do individual performance art other than open mic, so we decided that we would try to start something.
"We thought of it as a campy, queer variety show that encouraged experimental work and exploration of lots of different kinds of media," she says. Soon, they were producing the shows monthly. Each installment had a loose theme – infinity, France, puberty, ass – and they created sets, costumes, and improv interludes around them.
For Soileau, as for many performers, Camp Camp was "always a setting for exploration, for testing things," and his creations Rebecca Havemeyer and Christeene both debuted there. Camp Camp also brought in out-of-town performers – among them Dynasty Handbag, Pilou Miller, Bitch, and, most recently, Annie Danger – providing cross-pollination with the national performance scene as well as revving up connections within it. The two have moved on to other things, save the stray one-off, but Camp Camp remains a touchstone for performers old and new.
No one thinks they're going to find GaybiGayGay. The yearly queer minifest, hosted by Shoemaker and Hazey Fairless in Fairless' backyard on the last Sunday of SXSW, is a beautiful and truly chaotic thing. They don't publish the address or announce the lineup in advance, and you can count on the schedule running several hours late. For some, it's the best party of the year.
"I think GaybiGayGay sort of came out of Camp Camp," says Shoemaker. "Adrienne Anemone from the Tuna Helpers called me and said, 'You should do something for South by Southwest, because there's all these gay bands in town.'
"The first year, Adrienne knew people that she told us about, and we contacted people we were friends with," she says. "The second year, we did more outreach. Now people know us pretty much. We don't really seek out people anymore."
That's largely true, except for one person: "Every year we try to invite Ani DiFranco, because that would come full circle in my lesbian life if Ani DiFranco came to my party," says Shoemaker.
Completing circles of influence, honoring the past, and rehabilitating collective memory are all vital enterprises for Shoemaker. Her latest idea in that vein is to create a gay "wax museum": "a group show where different artists each have a booth to do a life-size representation of a moment in queer history," she says.
Putting the past before the public is something Shoemaker has done in much of her artwork. "I'm a nostalgic person, and sometimes I think nostalgia is a really gay, kind of campy emotion – you look back on the past and you want to like, dress it up and put lace and costumes on it and parade it around and feel really emotional and dramatic about it," she explains. "Also, I think being a child around a lot of gay men in the Eighties and Nineties, I was aware of a loss of a lot of gay people from AIDS. I think that's always been something that I feel like I need to honor.
"I think that's why Pride is so important to me – it stems directly out of the Stonewall riots and this really amazing radical queer history. I am possessive of that, and I want it to be honored."
"Keep your eyes open!! Official QueerBomb information is being released as we speak! Share it with everyone you know!!"
– QueerBomb Facebook page
Is it a testament to enforced gay hegemony that QueerBomb operates like an underground Communist cell during World War II?
Maybe. One would think there was plenty of room at Pride celebrations for all kinds of freewheeling tomfoolery, but, as we know, money changes everything.
"Parades are supposed to be fun and creative," says Shoemaker, "not a string of billboards driving down the road. Why would you want to go out to that? It's rude. It's really rude. Because people are making money off of it."
Shoemaker and her compatriots envision Pride as an inclusive event that celebrates community and creativity. "One of the last Camp Camp themes we did was 'L Pile, Shit Style,' which was a lampoon of the L Style G Style magazine and more broadly a scathing rendition of mainstream gay capitalism," she says. "Ray and I were lesbian wives and business partners in khakis. That one kind of epitomized our politics around queerness."
Shoemaker resists fiercely what she calls "the mainstreaming of queer culture – opportunistically using radical, creative things that queer people and queer communities have to sell a gay identity that is all about making money and not really giving back to the communities that it's drawing off of."
Soileau underscores Shoemaker's commitment: "She does things in a way that includes everyone, which is always no money involved. She's very big about making it accessible to everyone and making it green – her mind is set on really taking care of what's around her, and she sticks by that."
To Shoemaker, commodifying queerness is a betrayal. "Queers have a really proud, radical, and courageous history of people that put their lives on the line," she says. "They weren't trying to assimilate into the mainstream. They were fighting for their ability to exist in the world.
"It drives me crazy to think that people are trying to make it into a parade that is palatable to straight, square people. There's an active intention to suppress our history of trans people and queer people and politically active radical people and sexual, dirty, flaming people – all things that I want to remember actively, especially during Pride. If there's one time of year when we can all claim a tradition, I want to be able to claim it, too."
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