GVSU students hold 'Art Is a Drag' exhibit in library space

By Ty Konell | 11/9/17 1:37am

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GVL / Courtesy - Rachel Britton

Since the popularization of the television show "RuPaul’s Drag Race," the culture surrounding drag queens and drag kings has come into mainstream light. From its beginnings as an LGBTQ subcultural community hidden from the eyes of society, drag has come a long way.

For Grand Valley State University students Rachel Britton and Kaylee Britton, drag has become not only a source of performance and entertainment but a source of artistic expression as well. Highlighting this, their exhibit "Art Is a Drag: The Library Is Open" is being held in the Mary Idema Pew Library’s Exhibition Space from Saturday, Nov. 4, to Wednesday, Nov. 29.

The name "The Library Is Open" is a double entendre as the phrase is popular in the drag community and also highlights the location of the exhibit.

“Reading is a type of subcultural communication wherein you reveal to someone that something they’re doing is displeasing to you through a punny or snarky comment,” said Jae Basiliere, professor of women, gender and sexuality studies and an expert on drag culture. “So, it’s a very underhanded and funny way of stating that displeasure very common among drag performers. When someone delivers a really good ‘zing,’ 'The Library Is Open' is a way to talk about that particularly good read.”

For Kaylee Britton, who uses they/them pronouns, drag culture has been an interest since their early teen years. They said from the time they were in middle school, they have had a dream of performing as a drag queen.

“I found drag in eighth grade, and I don’t remember how I initially came across it; I just remember in middle school I found it and I just latched right onto it,” said Kaylee Britton, a professional drag queen and founder of the exhibit. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m doing that one day. This is awesome.' So every Halloween I would get dressed in drag, not very good, but I’d get dressed up. 

"And then when I got here (to GVSU) and found out about the amateur drag show, I was like, ‘Yes. That is on my calendar. I’m doing that one day.’”

For drag performers, inspiration comes from pop culture, cult-favorite films and other media, and from seeing what other performers are doing.

“As we expand, I want to learn more about character building,” said Rachel Britton, photographer and one of the models in the exhibit. “When you see the pieces Kaylee has, all the different characters they have done, for me I want to build upon my character as well as expand upon other characters.” 

Moreover, Kaylee Britton said when they are doing drag, it is more than simply doing intricate makeup artistry. It’s creating an entirely different person.

“It’s a whole new person that we just happen to paint on ourselves,” Kaylee Britton said.

Historically, as drag started as an underground community of LGBTQ people, doing drag was not considered an art form, which is what "Art Is a Drag" is trying to change.

“I think Rachel and Kaylee’s work is so, so cool," Basiliere said. "Historically, drag has really existed in subcultural spaces. It’s something we see in dark bars at night, and so their project of bringing drag into the light and drawing attention to what drag performers do can be considered high art is really exciting and really innovative.”

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