Master Pieces

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by Steve Desroches

Shånn Treadwell is leaning over a work in progress on the sill of the window of his new eponymous gallery.  It’s one of his latest drag queen handmade collages, this one being of Willam, the beautiful contestant with scorching sass from season four of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Created out of a stack of photo prints nearby, each image is temporarily held together with a smidge of blue painter’s tape, resembling stitches and Treadwell as Dr. Frankenstein bringing to life a new monster, the internal persona RuPaul himself calls his drag character. Each queen, in a way, is the same, not in the horror film sense, but rather in creating a character that devours the person behind the queen. Just as with each application of an eyelash or shellac of glitter brings out the queen, when Treadwell meticulously pieces the collage together slowly a portrait begins to emerge capturing the essence of the current stars of the art form. The artist reimages the art of another with his own voice but capturing that of the subject in the process.

Much like an artist on the beach painting a canvas on an easel or a sculptor creating a site-specific installation Treadwell can occasionally be seen snapping the head-to-toe shots needed for his collage work. While talented and prolific in a variety of forms of photography it’s these collage portraits that perhaps have him on the Provincetown art map and beyond the most for their precision and imagination. With an intense brow and arms flexed he maneuvers his lens clicking rapidly yet methodically imaging in his mind’s eye via his camera what he needs to create the portrait he wants. He nabs his subjects after a show or at a nightclub in town, or at times in New York or Palm Springs. This gives an immediacy and rawness as they aren’t planned and preened studio shoots. While the end result is a larger vision of the queen, each piece is made up of individual works, as he does not take for granted that each element put into creating the look was intentional. Getting someone to sit for a painting or a drawing is one thing, but for the 600 some odd shots he needs for each portrait is another. And drag queens aren’t known for standing still for very long, especially since it’s often the first time Treadwell may be meeting his subject. But he communicates professionalism and at this point, his work is getting better known, so increasingly his reputation precedes him.

“It used to take me about 20 minutes to shoot them,” says Treadwell. “I now have it down to about two to three minutes, so that helps a lot. I’m often shooting them in dressing rooms, bathrooms, backstage, so it’s important I pay attention to the lighting to avoid shadows. I’ve learned to really pay attention when photographing eyes. That can be the most challenging.”

A native of Ware, Massachusetts, Treadwell first studied photography in high school, which included a field trip to Provincetown in 2002, and then continued his education at Greenfield Community College, which has an esteemed arts program. Shortly after, while living in Northampton, Massachusetts, he began creating his drag-queen collages in 2007, first photographing Joslyn Fox, a Worcester-based drag performer who would go on to compete on season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race, followed by a portrait of Boston queen Jujubee, also a future alumna of the show. Since then, he’s created about 300, almost all of drag queens with a few exceptions, including Fiona Apple, who called Treadwell after he tossed a note on stage at a concert requesting time to photograph her. Bob the Drag Queen, Elle Emenope, Sasha Velour, Miss Richfield 1981, Tammie Brown, Bianca Del Rio, Jinkx Monsoon, the list of Treadwell’s collage portraits is a who’s who of drag. It’s a bit of sweet revenge, too.

“When I started, drag queens weren’t as popular as they are now,” says Treadwell. “People would ignore them or ask me why I was photographing them. RuPaul’s Drag Race changed that.”

Treadwell moved to Provincetown in 2014, and opening the Treadwell Gallery is the realization of a long held dream. In addition to his own photography, Treadwell also shows the photographic work of Emil Cohen and Sam Waxman as well as 11 other artists that work in a variety of mediums. Changing the work each Friday the Treadwell Gallery maintains a crispness, featuring art not often seen in Provincetown and providing another gallery showing photography, always a welcome addition to the town’s creative offerings.

Treadwell revisits his collage of Willam before heading over to a portrait on the wall of Nina Flowers, a legendary queen from Puerto Rico. He notes that he’ll often exaggerate the size of the hands and eyes, which give the pieces a desired proportion as well as being over the top. The collages are not only shown at his own gallery in Provincetown, but at others in New York and Palm Springs. And as the works sell it initially surprised him who bought them in every locale, as it wasn’t always fans of drag or any specific queen.

“Sometimes the person buying it didn’t even know who the portrait was of,” says Treadwell. “They weren’t buying it because it was a reality TV star or their favorite drag queen. They didn’t necessarily want to even know who it was. They just loved the portrait itself.”

The Treadwell Gallery is located at 170 Commercial St., Provincetown. For more information call 413.231.3618 or visit shanntreadwell.com.