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The Studio Door Celebrates The Art, Activism Of Drag

San Diego drag icon Paris with her dark "My Little Pony" creation Pegasus that she has worn at Comic-Con.
Matthew Bowler
San Diego drag icon Paris with her dark "My Little Pony" creation Pegasus that she has worn at Comic-Con.

Reception and fundraiser this Saturday

The Studio Door is celebrating its seventh anniversary in style with the exhibit San Diego Drag Icons. This Saturday there will be a reception, fundraiser and food drive at the gallery with artists and drag queens in attendance. It highlights the connection between drag and activism.

The Art, Activism Of San Diego Drag Icons
The Studio Door: San Diego Drag Icons
KPBS Arts Reporter Beth Accomando speaks with two of the drag icons showcased at The Studio Door's San Diego Drag Icons about the art and activism of drag.

Drag combines art and activism. First of all, you can’t pull off drag without an insane level of artistry and creativity.

"Drag, I've always said, is the mother invention," explained Tootie, one of the San Diego drag icons highlighted at The Studio Door this month. "We're always looking for different kind of mediums as well as materials to make things with. A lot of the times, the ideas that we have really don't [lend themselves] to buying from a regular store. You're not going to get that or you're going to buy it from a store and you're going to repurpose that. I once made a headpiece, a crown out of Hubcaps. So it's that kind of a thing for me. I like taking a step outside of the norm and doing refound things."

Tootie is one of the San Diego Drag Icons showcased at The Studio Door this month.
Matthew Bowler
Tootie is one of the San Diego Drag Icons showcased at The Studio Door this month.

Paris is another icon and her drag performances are famous for inspired costumes.

"When I started doing drag, I kind of realized I can get away with anything. So I have, like, my carousel dress that has the horses roaming around it and it lights up," Paris said sitting next to her dark "My Little Pony" creation Pegasus that she wears at Comic-Con and for Pride parades.

But doing drag, even in ridiculously cute outfits, is still at its core a provocative act because it’s pushing boundaries and challenging society’s norms. Maybe that’s why since the 1970s, drag queens have been involved in activism for LGBTQ rights, AIDS awareness, and gender equality.

"One of the proudest parts about being a drag queen is that we are those ones that when something goes down in the community, you want to be the kind of bright light part of it first off," Paris said. "But then you also want to be the part that is involved in helping and that's historically been that way. I mean, every time there's a benefit, anytime there's a fundraiser, it's always the Queens that show up first."

Tootie added, "The drag is just an added tool to get more attention. And I think that that's why the community looks to us when there is a cause or something, because we will bring people out. We're visually stimulating."

Indeed they are and The Studio Door exhibit proves it with not just spectacular costumes on display but also visual art from painters like Margaret Chiaro whose series of drag queen portraits in all colors of the rainbow line one wall at the gallery.

"It is not my personal narrative," explained painter Chiaro, "But one I greatly admire. So I have a series of seven drag queens painted in all the colors of the rainbow and each one that I chose was specifically because they sort of have the same values that I do. [They] use comedy, love, kindness to kind of spread beauty around the world. I love seeing people that are so comfortable in the spotlight and are obviously artists that can carry that all around the world where I hide behind my paintings."

Artist Margaret Chiaro in front of a few of her rainbow series of portraits of drag queens.
Matthew Bowler
Artist Margaret Chiaro in front of a few of her rainbow series of portraits of drag queens.

Patric Stillman, The Studio Door’s owner, sees activism and drag queens as going hand in hand, which is why Nicole the Great, another San Diego Drag Icon, worked with Stillman to create this Saturday’s event as more than just a reception for the exhibit.

"But the heart of that is to raise funds for two great food charities, the Emergency Food Voucher Program and Take What You Need Tuesdays. Nicole is a part of the Imperial Court de San Diego, which is drag queens who have activism helping communities out."

Tootie recalled protesting at a Hillcrest 76 Station years ago when the owner was mistreating a gay employee.

"So we shut it down for three days, Act Up and myself, and I paraded around that corner for three days non-stop with a beehive and a big 76 ball on the top of my beehive. So activism has always been a very big part of what I do," Tootie said.

And humor always helps.

"It breaks down barriers. I think the shine kind of catches them, and the color kind of catches them off guard. And then the humor breaks down all the barriers in between," Tootie added.

RELATED: Artists, Foodies And Musicians Mourn The Loss Of A San Diego Creative Great

Those barriers are coming down thanks to things like RuPaul’s "Drag Race" streaming into people’s homes for more than 10 years. But Paris says drag is still about challenging stereotypes even within the LGBTQ community. Paris likes to embrace both extremes of drag from flamboyant artifice to just dressing daily in stylish feminine outfits.

"I am Filipina. Raised fully Filipina, in the Filipino community, including the gay Filipino community," Paris said. "For the Filipino community, I am way too much drag because they want a lot more of the natural women and pretty. And then for the more American community, I'm way too feminine. Not so much like on the high drag. I am extremely flexible, so I don't know what any of you all are talking about. I can go either way. My aesthetic is again, fun."

But it’s fun fueled by an underlying sense of resistance to conforming to anyone’s norms and the creativity to create magic out of anything. And that’s what the Studio Door is celebrating.

The Studio Door reception and charity event is this Saturday but the exhibit runs through Aug. 28.

The Studio Door Celebrates The Art, Activism Of Drag
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.