Shania LeClaire Riviere
Text JF. Pierets Photos Shania LeClaire Riviere
When you’re visiting Provincetown in the summer, you’re in for a creative treat. Every other Friday, performance artist Shania LeClaire Riviere dresses up and takes his work onto the streets to show his latest creation. Art on Shania is a walking art project that combines drag, fashion and visual art in the most stunning and creative Art Stroll. However, Shane/Shania has more than one artistic skill and persuades in numerous different forms of creativity. A conversation with our Et Alors? 16 cover model.
Let’s start with your Art on Shania project.
Each Friday during the summer, the galleries in Provincetown are presenting new work as part of what has become known as “The Friday Night Gallery Stroll”. I’m walking to some of the galleries and I document my look in front of somebody else’s work, accordingly adding more and different layers to my own creation.
Why the importance of taking your work onto the streets?
It was actually a bit of a necessity. The first couple of years I lived in Provincetown, there were many parties but they didn’t start until eleven or later. Because my day job begins so early, especially on weekends, it became more difficult to go out into the wee hours so I decided it was time to find another outlet. I wanted to find a place where I could go and where people could see all the detail I put into my creations. My first experiment occurred at a show in the art museum. I dressed up and a few older ladies asked me if I was part of the installation. Suddenly it just clicked; I would have a different exposure and appreciation to a completely different set of people; people who would never go to late night parties but who enjoyed art. Basically the audience is whoever is in town. You don’t ask them to be the audience; they are the audience.
You have a very recognizable look. How does one develop this sort of creativity?
When I started it was basically what I knew and understood drag to be: meaning that I shaved everything, got a tan and went to the gym…the works! I wasn’t familiar with any other form of drag until I visited a show called Trannyshack in San Francisco. It was like a door that opened when I saw that two out of three performers were bearded men. I started to think about how I could use my natural appearance and it seemed to trigger my creativity. During my research I discovered The Cockettes, the Club Kids, and evolved into my current look – like making your own recipe of macaroni and cheese.
You call it drag, yet what you are doing is way beyond female impersonating.
My husband and I came up with the term Drag Fusion; fusing different creative elements together. Certainly during Shakespeare’s time men were called upon to play female parts because women were not allowed to perform. Nowadays there are a lot of different expressions of drag, which have taken it to another level. Men like Mathu Andersen and Ryan Burke, now known for their “gender bent” creations. One of my other inspirations, Leigh Bowery, with his crazy costumes, make-up and performance art was certainly playing with elements of drag. He was labeled a drag/club kid/performer but he basically created art and went to clubs to dance. As far as I’m concerned, I try to take the things I’m inspired by in the fashion world – for example Iris Apfel – and mix them with female impersonator attires and art.
In this issue of Et Alors?, I’m also talking to David Weissman, producer and co-director of The Cockettes. What’s the main difference between The Cockettes and what you are doing, 50 years later?
The Cockettes were an amazing performance group – very much theatre based – who made a lot of political statements about free love and freedom of speech. As I probably mentioned a lot, they were, and continue to be, a primary inspiration. There is indeed a similarity in the way they dressed and the costumes I’m designing, but what I try to do is take these creative elements and bring them into the fine art world by combining a variety of influences and materials, many from our LGBTQ creative history. For several years I worked for a female illusion show and there is one line by one of the drag queens that stays with me: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” It’s funny in its context, but it certainly takes a lot of money and courage to take trash and make it into a living art piece.
I was wondering how much of The Cockettes creativity was related to, or possible because of, the drugs they were taking. Can you answer that question for me?
Of course I wasn’t directly involved with the Cockettes although I believe the documentary and other published reports by their own collective admit to using LSD. How that played into their creativity I’m not sure. My creative experience has been different. It was not until I got sober and moved to Provincetown that I was able to ground myself enough to be open to a new life as an artist. I’ve been clean for over 8 years now and when you are doing something creative, you have to reinvent yourself. A lot of times artists won’t start creating until they feel inspired, but what I’ve come to learn is that even if you just have an hour, you should go for it and try to be creative. Because just by doing so, things can come to you. So I think it’s entirely possible to be extremely inventive without any drugs. You just have to keep the process alive.
You are very versatile and people do tend to label in order to understand both the artist and his work.
I don’t see that as a problem. Take Karl Lagerfeld for example; he’s a fashion designer but he also does art pieces with Marina Abramovic, he takes photographs and makes films. I don’t think a lot of people would consider Shania as art and even less compare it to a fine art painting, but people make a lot of things that a lot of people don’t consider art at all. There are even people who don’t consider photography art.
How important is appreciation?
It’s important to the level that it reinforces my work. I’m sure it’s very discouraging if no one understands what you are trying to say. With Art on Shania I get both positive and negative responses. Some people don’t get it and some do not think it’s drag. Some are intimidated by it, but as soon as they understand I’m not an aggressor they get interested: “The piece is talking back!” I get everything on the scale but if one person likes it, it’s worth it. As an artist, I think that whenever you get the slightest positive feedback, you want to keep going.
‘My first experiment occurred at a show in an art museum. I dressed up and a few older ladies asked me if I was part of the installation. Suddenly it just clicked.’
You are creating a lot of different things. Are they stand-alone art forms or is everything linked?
Certain aspects of my artwork are all linked. My first show in Provincetown was called There’s no Shane, only Shania and I had painted self-portraits of photographs I had taken of my old drag looks. Later on I got more involved in photography which led me to taking my camera everywhere with me, which resulted in several documented series. All my work is connected but is not all about drag. Yet for the majority I’m the main subject of my art.
You just released a photo book called Out The Window.
The series is linked to the start of my career in Provincetown in April 2009 when I got a job as a live-in housekeeper at a Bed & Breakfast. House boys, they called us. I had a tiny little room with one small window but with the most amazing view over the entire bay. It became my home for four and a half years and I pretty much created everything I made in that particular room. And I produced a lot! Actually I made so many things it was like living in a closet, with all the make up, costumes, hot glue guns, etc., cramped into that little chamber. When I got married and was about to move out, I started photographing the window every day until it represented the seasons. I needed to document my connection to that view and that window where I spent numerous hours looking, wondering where I was going and what I was going to do. It was almost like a spiritual connection.
How important is Provincetown itself when it comes to your artistic endeavors?
This is probably the community in which I feel most comfortable. There are a huge number of galleries and over time a lot of famous artists came here to work. The community supports all different kinds of art, artists and LGBTQ creativity so I feel safe. I would never feel safe leaving a party in NY and walking home, dressed in the provocative costumes I’m making. When it comes to art I’m sure I could do this anywhere. I just think that, regarding my comfort level, the two work perfectly together. I may feel more endangered somewhere else.
What would you say to someone who’s inspired by your work and dreams of being such a flamboyant artist as yourself?
I probably would say: “Just start somewhere”. Start drawing, painting watercolors, dressing up, because until you start the process of creating, you won’t be able to find your voice. And keep going! In the end you will find the creative elements that feel comfortable and the ones that don’t. That’s when you start to develop a voice.
Did you find that ultimate voice?
I have an esthetic so I think I do. But then again I hope it doesn’t always stay the same because I like change and I want to evolve. I know for sure that it has a signature and that people can look at one of my creations and know, “That’s Shania!”
Is that your goal? That people are recognizing your style?
I think so. I don’t plan on having any kids but I would like to leave a stamp on the planet. Everybody wants to be remembered somehow and I don’t know many 44 year olds dressing in drag fusion. I’m also hoping to inspire people. Not only to be creative with drag, but also to be able to do it whenever they want to, because it doesn’t have to be limited to a specific event. Being able to do that is a statement; it’s allowing your creativity to come out, to express yourself and to grant yourself some freedom. Just go! It’s not that big of a deal, and it certainly doesn’t impact the world in a negative way.
To order Out The Window: www.blurb.com/outthewindow
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