Marion Ette performing late in the evening. Lucy Gellman Photos.
The burlesque performer braved a blizzard to make it to New Haven. DJ Hot Toddie checked twice to see if he was on Santa’s nice list. Artists traded plants and empanadas for earrings. And when the audio cut out, musicians went a cappella to save the day.
A spirit of collaboration defined “Freak Show,” an art exhibition, vendor fair and multimedia performance at Bregamos Community Theater Saturday night. Organized by West Haveners Anika Stewart of Love Anikaa and Elizabeth LaCroix Taylor of LaCroix Artistry, the event brought in hundreds of attendees over several hours. By the time it ended in the wee hours of Sunday morning, dozens were still standing, cheering artists on.
“I think it was just encouraging everyone to come as they are,” Taylor said of the title as she gestured to her art, a number of erotic paintings that she works on when she isn’t doing large-scale mural and public art commissions. “We’re making sure everyone is respectful and open.”
Top: Elizabeth LaCroix Taylor of LaCroix Artistry. Bottom: Nicholas Imbriglio of Passionately Pasta. Lucy Gellman Photos.
As she and Stewart planned the event earlier this year, it became an expanded version of “The Wandering,” a similar night of art and performance that the two curated at the end of 2021. By Saturday afternoon, over a dozen vendors spread out across the theater, mingling as they set up handmade prints and jewelry, lush foliage, vintage clothing and sweet and savory treats. At a small bar in the back, jewel-toned carafes of sangria appeared, wedges of fruit bobbing happily in the liquid.
Close to the building’s heavy front door, leather artist Suyane Oliveira stood behind a table lined with harnesses, slappers, cuffs and belts. The women’s program officer at the New Haven Pride Center, Oliveira said she started leather art two or three years ago, when the pandemic took away her ability to be in community with other queer people. Unable to gather in the same way, “I started to learn for myself,” she said.
The more she worked, the more she realized that existing leather goods were often targeted toward gay men, rather than gay women and nonbinary folks. Her work, and the hands lovingly crafting it, seek to bust through that stereotype. She added that she was excited to be vending at Saturday’s event, which marked a first for her. It’s part of her working to find community in New Haven, which she has gradually begun to do, she said.
“Everyone is super talented and I’m meeting people I’ve never met before,” she said.
Top: Artist Suyane Oliveira, who runs No Doubt Leather. Bottom: Alex Novak Foster of Pearl Studio. Lucy Gellman Photos.
Beside her, attendees bounced between the work of artists Alex Novak Foster and Laura Rocco, the creative forces behind Pearl Studio and Laura Rocco Art. At Foster’s booth, colorful rows of earrings looked out into the low-lit theater, brightening the space with paper, faux leather and hand-rendered designs. Portraits peeked out behind her, neon as a blue light dipped over them. An education manager at Arts For Learning Connecticut, Foster started making the earrings in 2020, after the pandemic meant that she was spending much more time at home.
As the project grew—and the pandemic continued into what will soon be its third year—Foster kept making the earrings, donating 15 percent of the proceeds to The Bail Project. Saturday, she said she was glad to be back in Bregamos a year after The Wandering, and to see that the event had expanded. As she spoke, she gestured over to a nearby food table, where options from Madeleine’s Empanaderia, Passionately Pasta, Caribe Soul and Kassy Sweets beckoned.
Beside her, Rocco also praised the event for bringing artists together—and encouraging attendees to support their local creatives. Born and raised in West Haven, she focuses her work primarily on the cosmos, nature, and mental health, she said. While “art’s been a part of my life forever,” she began to deepen her craft as a visual artist seven years ago, after watching an artist work on murals during a festival in Michigan.
Top: Artist Laura Rocco. Bottom: Your Queer Plant Shop, which brought a tent of plants to sell. Lucy Gellman Photos.
As an artist, she said, she’s used to having multiple side hustles to make her creative career possible: she’s worked in restaurants, landscaping, and horse care among other jobs. After selling her work at The Wandering last year, it felt good to be back. At the table in front of her, attractions danced across paper and canvas, paint crackling in blues and greens. An angel filled the center of a print, its wings full as they spread out to either end of the frame.
“It feels amazing,” she said. “I feel like I get to experience myself to a degree that I wouldn’t get in my everyday life.”
Across the room, her work seemed to vibe with the paintings and illustrations of J.K. Streater, a Bridgeport-based artist whose work is heavily influenced by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, Frank Miller and the comic books he loved growing up. Raised in Connecticut, Streater’s first influences came early, when he was a kid riding the train back and forth through Connecticut and New York City.
When he saw large-scale graffiti, “I always wondered how they got on those bridges,” he said. As he got older, he studied their work, learning through experience as he branched out into the art form. Saturday, he came with a table stocked with illustrations, their fine blue lines visible from halfway across the room.
Top: Artists Morgan Bayona and AJ Colella, who are partners in life and work. Bottom: Elizabeth LaCroix Taylor's work, which she described as "for me." While she made the transition to full-time work as an artist a few years ago, most of her professional work is large-scale murals and public art projects. Her more intimate and erotic pieces are more personal to her.
Through a curtain of dangly, silver-tinted moons and stars, artists Morgan Bayona and AJ Colella stood at a table of digital and hand-rendered prints, a riot of color exploding across the table. WASTE MY TIME, read one in the corner, inviting viewers to come closer and explore the shape and hue of the work. Life Is Disappointing, read another, with smiley-faced balloons that made it impossible to feel entirely disappointed.
As partners in both life and work, the two started making artwork together after meeting two years ago, and realizing that their styles complemented each other. Bayona is trained as an artist; Colella studied geology in school, but makes art and performs music under the moniker Void Ripper. They work well together, Colella said; Bayona pushes them to deepen their craft. In turn, they do a kind of fine line work in their pieces that Bayona admires, and has prompted collaborations.
Earlier this year, they met Stewart at PRIDE New Haven, when their table was close to a booth for Your Queer Plant Shop (Stewart co-owns the business with her partner, Georgina Gross). They were both glad to come to Freak Show, placed next to Stewart’s work for a second time this year.
“This is building community,” Bayona said as an attendee studied a print in black, white and red ink. “I love the idea of just pulling artists together.”
Top: Anika Stewart. Bottom: J.K. Streater.
Along a black wall beside them, Stewart showed off new work. At one end, a cluster of eyes sprang open against a red background, nearly vibrating in orange and yellow haloes. Further down, a number of small canvases fit into her ongoing Idol series, with images of cracked, fractured, and headless busts inspired by Greco-Roman sculpture.
This winter, she said, she feels like she’s holding the fullness of 2022 alongside a heaviness and exhaustion that the year has also brought with it. In August of this year, her car was stolen in the midst of pop-up season, meaning that all of her artwork was inside. In the months since, “I worked through it” because there was really no other choice, she said.
At the same time, Your Queer Plant Shop has had its best year yet. She and Gross have joined households, meaning that they have more growing space.
“It’s kind of about survivors and surviving,” she said of her work. “Recently I’ve been working through stuff and realized that the disruption of patterns, being able to make mistakes, is okay. Sometimes I would get stuck and not move forward because I was afraid to look stupid.”
Top: Solmarie Santiago. Bottom: Cali Cali and Owen Michael.
As 10 p.m. drew near, artists cleared the floor by the stage, setting up rows of chairs that seemed to appear within seconds. Stepping up to the mic, Stewart brought the room to a hush with a poem—Isn’t it interesting? The sexual tension between the sun and the moon in the same sky?—then started it from the top when a few latecomers came trickling in.
“You’re late! I’ll start over!,” she said as the door opened with a gust of cold air. The audience laughed in at least a dozen jingling, mellifluous tones, so that it sounded like music. “Hi everyone. I’ll wait. Take your time.”
She took a deep breath and started again.
Isn’t it interesting how you trim a tree and its trunk is exposed
So you finally get to study every wrinkle and vein?
What if I told you that the sun actually wants to be started at?
And the moon wants to be left alone?
And that the stars are as shy as you let them be/But they will never be outshone?
Her voice flowed through the theater, tying the cosmos to the very people seated in front of her, some cradling their drinks as ice melted and drips fell into their laps. Before she left the stage, she reminded attendees that “Consent is sexy/And the bar is not far.”
Different looks from the queen Lexxi Pro throughout the night.
It kicked off a night of performance in which artists, some faced with unexpected technical difficulties, held each other up as Saturday turned over into Sunday. As Taylor and Solmarie Santiago stepped out for the first number of the night, the crowd cheered them on, a chorus of cheers and cries of “yesss!” drifting toward the stage even after the music cut out.
Introduced as “New Haven’s sexiest drag queen,” Lexxi Pro kept the crowd cheering as she came out in a school uniform circa “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” a starched blouse tucked into a plaid pleated skirt. Making her way to the stage, she dipped, strutted, and rocked her hips in time with Sam Smith’s and Kim Petras’ “Unholy” as it boomed over the speakers.
As she looked out over the audience, the music switched, and a track from Clitoris! The Musical filled the space. Laughter, waves of which rose from the audience, became part of the routine. When she returned later in the evening with mixes from The Wizard of Oz and Lady Gaga, attendees welcomed her back with fistfuls of dollar bills, some flung toward the stage folded as paper airplanes.
Two of Marion Ette's looks throughout the evening.
Other artists embraced a sense of experiment that came as the evening crept toward, and then past, midnight. Dressed as a sort of mustachioed, glamorous plague doctor, the “Bargain Barbie of Burlesque” Marion Ette thrilled as she took the stage, using every inch of her costume to push on the humor of burlesque. That humor was still there several acts later, when she returned with the news that she had landed on Santa’s naughty list, and the audience was likely to blame.
“It’s about punching up and breaking the rules,” she said in an interview before that performance. “Self expression, inspiration, showing other people that anyone can do burlesque, anyone can be creative,”
This year feels different, she added. After years with a burlesque troupe in her home of Rapid City, Ette went solo last month. To get to Saturday’s event from her home in Rapid City, South Dakota, she braved a blizzard and four flight cancellations for a 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning arrival. Less than 24 hours later, she was dancing through it, delighting in the slow, smoldering tease of her performance. Nowhere was it clearer than her final number, as Resident Evil’s Lady Dimitrescu.
But well before it, that sense of energy and verve permeated every performance. As she embraced a pole at the center of the stage to Chris Brown’s “Under The Influence,” the dancer Iridescence reminded attendees of the sheer athleticism and grace involved in her craft, sometimes written off as overly raunchy or popular entertainment. To the song, the dance became a slow, sizzling aerial ballet, some attendees holding their breath as others cheered.
When their music didn’t work, artists Owen Michael and Cali Cali (a.k.a. Bianca and Chaplin) improvised an a cappella version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” that became a piano number, beatboxing set, and accompaniment for other artists before the night was over. A member of the House of Artistic Unity on Winchester Avenue, Cali said that last year’s performance had inspired her to try burlesque herself, in a routine that she debuted onstage Sunday night. She later folded in Amy Winehouse, in a tribute to Foster's painting of the late pop icon.
Top: The crowd stayed in the performance, cheering artists on even through technical difficulties. Bottom: Elijah Free.
And as he serenaded the audience, Elijah Free swayed at the mic, loosening his grip as he sang. In the background, a hum of chatter became a second backing track. Every so often, an approving “woo!” or “yes it is!” bubbled up from the front rows, and his eyes would drift over the audience, a smile somewhere in the pupils.
“Art is so important in this world,” Stewart said after he left the stage. “It’s culture. It lets people make money."
In an interview before her routine, Ette had agreed, stressing the value of giving artists the space to perform freely. One year after she performed at The Wandering, she had returned not just as a performer, but as a sort of hype woman who could cheer her fellow artists on. She was especially happy for Cali, she said, who she’s taken under her wing.
“I really like it here [Bregamos],” she said. “The vibe of all the different creative people getting together and having this together. It’s nice to see such a supportive community of artists feeding off of each other."