- BEYOND BATWING: The Thea Foundation displays "The Thrill of It All" through the month on February.
A young man looks into the mirror. His brows are heavy with makeup, his eyeliner swept back — beyond cat eye, beyond bat wing. His eyelids flutter down, revealing dappled glitter. He's shirtless with a baseball cap sitting backward on his head. On his neck is a cascade of jewels.
It's a stolen moment in the chaos of a nightclub green room captured on canvas by artist Michael Shaeffer. The painting, part of an exhibition titled "The Thrill of it All," is on display as the latest installment in the Thea Foundation's The Art Department series.
Shaeffer, 37, is a New York-to-Little Rock transplant twice over. He first came to Arkansas at age 13, when his family moved to Hot Springs from Long Island. The second was in 2008, when he returned to Hot Springs. He eventually moved to Little Rock. Shaeffer credits his time in New York for giving him his first taste of the arts. Shaeffer mentions an aunt, "who, at the time, was a CBGB punk who introduced me to things like The Clash, [Elvis] Costello and [David] Bowie along with the New York art scene of the '80s. My mother and I would take the train into the city and just spend a day walking around or visiting museums. 1980s New York was truly a phenomenal time to grow up."
For some, a move as drastic as from New York to Arkansas might seem to stymie a budding interest in art, but for Shaeffer it was the opposite. In Hot Springs, he soon found himself immersed in the local punk rock scene and the revitalization of the city's downtown corridor with art galleries. "The beauty of this scene was you were free to do what you wanted," Shaeffer said. "Being in Arkansas gave me some sort of freedom to explore ideas and try things ... some good, some not so good. Hot Springs was my laboratory, and even after I moved back to New York, I would still test things in Arkansas."
Shaeffer found himself back in New York after high school. Looking for nightlife in which he felt comfortable, he began exploring gay bars. Before he found them, "I never found where I fit. Everywhere was too cool, or they just weren't the people I wanted to be around. But there [in gay bars] you could feel free to be and do what you wanted."
After moving to Little Rock, Shaeffer found himself drawn to the late-night scene of downtown Little Rock's Club Sway. Sway is known for its performance-art-focused drag shows and Warholian-themed parties, and Shaeffer became enamored with the performances given by the club's resident drag queens. After the June 2016 hate crime that left 49 people dead at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Shaeffer directed his attention to the beauty and strength he found in the performers. "Walking into Sway was like finding the art scene I had been looking for in Little Rock," Shaeffer said.
While he enjoyed their performances, he was most drawn to the aspects of the performance that the audience didn't see: the transformational moments when each of the performers was dressing, crossing the line from simple Arkansas man to larger-than-life diva. "In that moment, they're neither character, in a sense." Shaeffer said. The queens' interaction was intimate, like they were family, helping one another to dress and prepare. "After I was able to actually go up and visit the green room, that's when I really found the passion and drive for this series. I just thought it was a shame that [these performers] are right here in our community and no one knows."
Shaeffer spent several weekends in the green room photographing the queens throughout the night. "Eventually," he said, "we had a kind of dance. They knew what I was doing and I knew what they were doing." On a single night, he took over 300 photos. From the photos, he made simple line drawings of his favorites, tinkering with them until he narrowed them down to approximately 30 pieces. Most of the finished paintings are more than 3 feet wide and tall. "For me, bigger is always better and these were the biggest canvases I could get in my car," Shaeffer said. He had originally painted several of the portraits on small canvases, hoping to create a more intimate portrayal, but later decided to switch to the larger format. "These aren't subtle people or subtle artists, so why represent them in this very subtle way?"
The paintings combine bright colors and dark lines to give the subjects an appearance that is both washed-out and drenched in color. Shaeffer often puts up to 14 layers of diluted paint on the canvas to make it appear wet to the touch.
While he was shooting in the green room, Shaeffer wrote down things he heard — phrases, inside jokes and encouragement between the queens. Though he had originally planned to use them as titles for the portraits, he decided instead to make them paintings in their own right. Paintings like "Killer Queen," "Fresh Start" and "Warriors" are presented in vivid color on stark white backgrounds.
Though a political statement was never his goal, Shaeffer acknowledges the way the change in political climate has affected the way people view the paintings. "I just want people to acknowledge the beauty in this community that they may not realize is there," he says. "I'm just trying to showcase my family, people that I've grown close to and that I love. You know, if these were paintings of straight women in our community, no one would think I'm taking a stance or being political. That's very interesting to me."
"The Thrill of It All" opens at Thea Foundation, 401 Main St., North Little Rock, with a reception at 6:30 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $10. There will be heavy hors d'oeuvres, an open beer and wine bar, and the chance to win an original work by Shaeffer. The exhibition will be on display through February. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. For more information, visit theasartdepartment.com, call 379-9512 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.