Transylvania University assistant English professor Kremena Todorova had just been introduced to the world of drag.
She specializes in the literature of marginalized communities, and at the end of a class on "passing" — the act of fair-skinned people legally considered African-Americans passing themselves off as white — she showed the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. The film chronicles the drag ball culture of 1980s New York, primarily involving impoverished, gay African-American and Latino people. They were men trying to pass as women.
"There was no drag in Bulgaria when I was growing up," Todorova said, and there were none while she was a student at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.
Her Lexington students told her, "'There is a drag show here at this place called The Bar.' I happened upon Kurt on campus, and I said, 'Did you know there are drag queens in town?!'"
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Yes, he did.
Kurt Gohde, an associate professor of art, had been working with the Imperial Court of Kentucky, a charitable organization that raises money through drag events, on projects such as taking photographs for its annual calendar.
Gohde offered to take Todorova to a drag show.
"I thought it was amazing," she says. "In American literature in college, I had studied society and culture in the 1920s and '30s, so to me, the show seemed very much like a cabaret and New York vaudeville shows. It was just amazing and wonderful."
It launched what is, to date, a three-year project that now has its highest-profile event in a Lexington Art League exhibit, Passing: Fashioning Drag. The show features photos that Gohde and Todorova took, primarily at last summer's All-American Goddess Pageant at The Dame nightclub, and some costumes by Lexington-based designer Patryq Howell.
It all comes to life this weekend with a two-night performance at Buster's Billiards & Backroom, featuring drag queens from across the country wearing Howell's creations.
The project started when Gohde got in touch with the Kentucky Oral History Project through a class that he was helping to teach on community engagement through the arts. He and Todorova applied for and received two consecutive 11/2-year grants to document Central Kentucky's drag community.
During that time, they interviewed more than two dozen drag queens and kings and have taken photographs at more than 60 drag shows.
The photography has evolved over the three years. Gohde says that Todorova, who initially entered the project for her interviewing skills, was uncomfortable using a camera at first. But she soon got into it, and they now claim dual credit on all images.
"Most of the time we look at them and we can't remember who took what," Gohde says.
At first, the pair worked on glamour shots that performers were able to use on their MySpace pages and in other venues. Those photos proved to be a kind of currency, gaining the trust of drag queens and more access to their world.
"We wanted to give them the kind of images a star would want to see," Todorova said. "And now, we still take some of those pictures, but we're not so interested in them anymore, because we've taken those pretty pictures. Now, we tend to take pictures of details, pictures of the edges of the performance."
The images in Passing are divided into two galleries. One comprises primarily detail shots of costumes and makeup that are the core of the drag experience, and the other contains a series of images of transformation from man to woman. That is most illustrated in a photograph of India Ferrah after Ferrah has put on full facial makeup but is shirtless before putting on the costume.
"You see the woman's head on the man's body," Todorova says.
Costume designer Howell's involvement with the show and the Buster's event was somewhat accidental. Toward the end of the grant period, a drag queen whom Gohde and Todorova were to interview canceled. So they called Howell and asked if he would talk about his experiences as a costumer. During that talk, he said he wanted to be able to put on a show like a few that he had presented at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati when he was living there.
"They asked me where I wanted to be in five years, and I said, I don't know where I want to be in five minutes, but I know I want to do a big fashion show," Howell says, sitting in his shop. He is surrounded by several of the costumes that he is working up for the show, including a ruffled magenta dress and a cobra costume.
Howell is building 20 costumes for the event, which Todorova and Gohde anticipate will raise the profile of drag and, they hope, will humanize it.
Their next goals for the project are a coffee-table book created from the thousands of photos they have taken during the past three years, and a monologue performance based on the oral history interviews.
"Through the entire project, we want to make it clear that the performers are people and not just this two-minute existence on stage," Gohde says. "When we're photographing backstage and at home, and making outfits and painting, it's connected with the oral history interviews and the idea to make all the people we're working with individuals ... like everybody else. They don't only appear at nighttime, like vampires."