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Oh Virginia!

Virginia West yells out to an ensemble of 20 dancers as they work through a dance sequence to “Who Loves You?” from Jersey Boys. A couple of Red Bulls sit on a table nearby, intended as fuel for the long rehearsal ahead for West’s latest drag creation, “Oh, What A Night,” a tribute to golden [...]
Laura Dachenbach

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Virginia West yells out to an ensemble of 20 dancers as they work through a dance sequence to “Who Loves You?” from Jersey Boys. A couple of Red Bulls sit on a table nearby, intended as fuel for the long rehearsal ahead for West’s latest drag creation, “Oh, What A Night,” a tribute to golden oldies and the sounds of Motown.

West pulls a few trademark Four Seasons moves into the up-tempo sequence: lots of shoulder work, bouncing, and grapevine steps that quickly have everyone sweating, even in the air conditioning of the Axis Nightclub stage.

“See … it’s like Jane Fonda,” she explains to the group.

“Who?” asks a young dancer. West can only shake her head. It’s one of those moments where a person, particularly one who’s been in the business for two decades, feels a bit dated.

“I originally said growing up doing drag, ‘I will never be a 40-year-old drag queen.’ That was my quote,” said West. “And now, I’m a 40-year-old drag queen.”

But the upshot to being dated is being legendary. And talking with a Columbus drag legend is everything I hoped it would be—the energy of an ultra-large stage persona combined with a sweet and genuine modesty. When I tell her I’ve heard her called the Godmother of the Columbus drag scene, West nearly blushes with pleasure.

And like any godmother, West is still making the magic happen. She’s doing her best stage work, bringing new performers into the scene, and continually giving back to the community.

“I think people might think … I’ve done this for so long that I wouldn’t want anybody else to come in and do this as well,” said West. “I’m completely the opposite. I love to meet new people. I love to talk to people, and I love to get new entertainers on stage.”

That’s kind of how it happened for West two decades ago when she started her drag career at Union Cafe’s (then called Union Station) Turnabout Show, an employee drag night. Despite feeling ridiculous, she stuck with it.

“I kind of fell in love with it. It was a way for me to get on stage,” said West, who’s a conservatory-trained musical theater major. “All my life I was in the theater, and it just kind of transcended into drag.” West next teamed up with Mary Ann Brandt, who mentored West in drag performance in her Axis Nightclub show and remains one of West’s inspirations.

“[Brandt] did these really funny comedy shows with just a little bit of choreography, but mainly just really funny things,” West reminisced. “And from there when I was offered my own show about a year after that, I thought, ‘You know what, I could have backup dancers and I could do these really big-scale productions.’”

Thus began West’s venture into drag theater—fully rehearsed, conceptual productions found in only a few parts of the country. Her cast has grown from ten to 30, and boasts a diverse range of performers: straight female dancers, lesbians, drag kings and queens, femme queens, and trans male and female drag characters, boosting both the production values and the audiences.

The expansion of drag entertainment in Columbus testifies to its popularity in the Capital city, but West credits “drag daughter” Nina West with putting Columbus drag on the national map.

“Once Nina won [National Entertainer of the Year in 2008], she was really our first entertainer that became a national pageant winner,” West explained. “From her it kind of branched out that our [drag] family became recognized.”

West also dismisses any assumed rivalry between  and her “drag daughter” and confesses the competition is a good thing.

“Before [Nina], I didn’t have to push myself as hard,” said West. “She pushes me to be a better entertainer. We have this really great onstage presence together, and then offstage she’s actually my best friend.”

It’s an example of the generous spirit that extends through West’s drag franchise. Over her 20 years of performing, she’s raised over $2 million for individuals in need and for charities such as BRAVO Ohio, Planned Parenthood, Equitas Health, the ACLU, Meals on Wheels, and even Pets Without Parents. West also admits her shows have taken a decidedly more political turn over her career as she champions for social justice.

“I have a voice because I have a platform with drag,” says West. “So I’m able to use that voice to help different communities that aren’t necessarily being fought for … whether it’s the trans community or the community of people of color. They need people to stand with them.”
And they need people to dance with them, too. A West family show is home for the LGBTIQ community, but guests are always welcome. If you’re new, West might even buy your first drink.

“The Youngstown State football team, years ago— one of my buddy’s brothers was on the team—would bring the team in to see my shows. So it was always these really hyper-masculine guys for some reason being able to let loose. They didn’t care that they were in a gay bar or that there were drag queens on stage. They just wanted to come and have fun,” said West. “And I think that’s what’s really happened in these shows. People come and they just let loose. And I think that’s what’s made it so big. There’s no judgment.”

Is she ready to stop and go out on top? West doesn’t think so. Despite suffering a major knee injury requiring surgery and rehab last year, West is still ready to go for another 10 years.

“I don’t foresee me slowing down a lot,” said West. “It’s just so much fun.”

Virginia West presents

“Oh, What a Night!”

Axis Nightclub,

8.11-12, 8.18-20, 8.25-26

superdragqueen.com

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Arts & Culture

How Bazaar: Popup arts fest shines a light on local creatives

Mike Thomas

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While cultivating a newfound sense of personal fulfillment might be as simple as picking up a paint brush or instrument, earning a living through your art is a more complicated prospect. As longtime friends, collaborators, and Columbus art-scene hustlers Dustin Bennett and Zak Biggard will tell you, making it as an artist sometimes comes down to who you know.

Having met years ago as coworkers at a local printmaking shop, Bennett and Biggard have gone on to individual success with their own creative design firms. For Bennett, part of this work entails curating the art displayed at Clintonville’s Global Gallery, a cafe and art space that is committed to promoting fair trade handcrafted products from around the world.

When an exhibition Bennett was planning for the space fell through, he reached out to Biggard to fill the vacancy with his work. The resulting show was a hit, with Biggard selling several pieces in one of Global Gallery’s most successful exhibitions to date.

Biggard and Bennett outside of Global Gallery (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

His reputation with the venue established, Biggard approached Amy Palmer, Global Gallery’s manager, with an idea for a large-scale show. She gave him the thumbs up, and Biggard again partnered with Bennett to help bring his vision to light. The result is a show spanning three weekends in the month of August that the duo have dubbed Bazaar Ritual.

“The idea was a bazaar, this sort of Middle-Eastern marketplace where you walk in and it’s just a feast for the senses,” says Biggard. “All of these different sights, sounds, smells—everything packed together.”

As mutually beneficial as their collaborations had been, the Bennett and Biggard hope to open the doors of opportunity wide to other artists. Through this new exhibition/festival, the two aim to shed a light on creators who may not know how to navigate the sometimes complicated process of getting work into a conventional art show.

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“Most of these people have never been involved in the gallery scene or never been able to show their work off,” Biggard explains. “They are just so excited to be a part of something, and the stuff I’ve been seeing from people, I just can’t wait to have everything together in one place.”

When the exhibitors do come together for the popup-style event on August 3rd, 17th, and 31st, they will bring with them works across a diverse range of media.

“We’ve got people who make jewelry, clothing, glass blowers, painters and performance artists,” says Biggard. “It’s really the diversity of the work that’s the theme.”

As diverse as the work on display in the show will be, the exhibitors themselves hail from various disparate walks of life—everyone from nurses to dog walkers, printmakers to salespeople, as Bennett explains. In addition to the work shown during the recurring weekend events, each artist in Bazaar Ritual will have the opportunity to display one piece in Global Gallery throughout the month of August. Artists will keep 100% of the proceeds sold throughout the month and during the weekend events.

Along with providing a platform, the Bennett and Biggard hope that Bazaar Ritual will serve as a networking hub where creatives can meet and form collaborations of their own. Response from artists interested in taking part has already been building organically, with those involved telling their friends, those friends bringing more friends, and so on.

In addition to the prospect of hanging out with artists and perusing the exhibitions, the organizers of Bazaar Ritual have a number of surprises in store for attendees. Food trucks will be on hand, as well as live local music on Global Gallery’s spacious patio.

Though Bennett and Bigard are working diligently to bring this fledgling event to fruition, the two seem calm in the lead up to the show. Their artist-first approach lends a communal feel to the event, with creatives joining forces to put on an organized yet laid-back experience that shirks the corporate mold of some traditional gallery settings.

“We’re trying to do what art is meant to do and bring people together,” says Bennett. “We’re trying to bring together as many friends and strangers as we can—motleys and misfits alike.”

Global Gallery is located at 3535 N High St, in Clintonville. You can visit Bazaar Ritual there from 1:00 PM to 8:00 PM on the 3rd, the 17th, and the 31st of August. For more information, check out @bazaarritual on Instagram.

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Arts & Culture

Arts Fest Preview: Kate Morgan, 2D mixed media artist

614now

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Kate Morgan began developing her ghostly, layered two-dimensional portraits after going back to school at the Columbus College of Art & Design in 2005. She already had some background in visual arts through her work in fashion and commercial photography, so the transition to drawing and painting was organic.

Morgan’s textured collages are inspired by folklore, mythology and a variety of artistic periods — especially Byzantine art. The 2011 Columbus Arts Festival Emerging Artist alum and 2019 exhibiting artist welcomes a wide array of complex themes into her pieces — including symbolic, cultural, historical and spiritual themes — while utilizing layers of vintage paper and original drawings to create visual depth and a sense of mystery.

Her pieces are purposely vague, leaning toward more minimalistic ideas to allow for wider interpretation by audiences. Largely her art depicts the female form, with as many layers and stories to tell as that of every human being. This is done with an eclectic assortment of materials — including sheet music, German Biblical pages, newspaper and maps — to add detail in both a topical and textural sense.

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And yet, Morgan still continues to look for a challenge. From venturing away from her familiar blue hues to exploring different mediums like ceramics, her work knows no creative limits.

Morgan has exhibited at the Columbus Arts Festival nearly every year since 2011. She has gone on to win two jurors’ choice awards in the 2D category at the Columbus Arts Festival, as well as sell and have work juried at other major festivals across the country. In Columbus, her work can be seen as part of the Columbus Makes Art and Donatos Pizza collaborative mural “Every Piece Is Important” at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

Morgan has a BFA from CCAD and currently works out of her Franklinton studio in Columbus. Experience this stunning work first hand when you visit her at booth M572 on the Main Street Bridge during the Columbus Arts Festival from June 7-9 at the downtown riverfront.

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Arts & Culture

Be Square: Changes coming to arts community at 400 W Rich

Mike Thomas

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If you haven’t visited the thriving arts community at 400 West Rich street in awhile, you might be surprised to see how much things have changed. Now, the minds behind the city’s hub for the arts are changing things up to better reflect the area’s evolution.

400 Square is the new collective moniker for the array of concepts that currently occupy the buildings on the 400 block of Rich street in Franklinton. The rebrand seeks to unify the community of artistic innovators who call the area developed by Urban Smart Growth their creative home.

Promo art for 400 Square by Anthony Damico

Spaces encompassed in the rebrand include Strongwater, The Vanderelli Room, and Chromedge Studios, and of course, the studios at 400 W. Rich. While the name may be changing, the group remains committed to providing and sustaining a thriving hub for creatives through education, resources, and entertainment opportunities in the area.

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With the launch of 400 Square, Urban Smart Growth Director of Operations Seth Stout has led his team to develop new offerings for each of the growing spaces. Food and Beverage Director Lauren Conrath and Events Director Molly Blundred have taken the lead with changes to the Strongwater brand, while Community Director Stephanie McGlone and Art Director AJ Vanderelli are facilitating programming for all ages and abilities on the artist side.

Through all of the changes on the way, the staff at 400 Square are committed to bringing the public the same high quality of workshops, events, exhibitions, and more that have always been part of their unique creative community.

Stay tuned for more info—the new 400 Square officially rolls out during the weekend of Columbus Arts Fest 2019, June 7-9.

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