Portrait of late drag star Tootsie wins 2019 Kennedy Prize

Melbourne-based artist Jaq Grantford has claimed this year’s Kennedy Prize for an affectionately unvarnished portrait of Victorian drag queen Tootsie, who passed away in 2018.

Grantford’s winning painting, an oil on canvas work entitled Tootsie, Just An Old Drag Queen, was awarded the Royal South Australian Society of Arts’ annual $25,000 portrait prize over the weekend in a compelling reflection on the competition’s 2019 theme of ‘Beauty’.

After being introduced by a mutual friend, Grantford found Tootsie to be a compelling and gracious subject who she returned to several times over the years. “I painted him a few times,” Grantford tells The Adelaide Review. “He was so down to earth, but larger than life – a colourful character.”

Tootsie, Just An Old Drag Queen by Jaq Grantford
Tootsie, Just An Old Drag Queen by Jaq Grantford

“My heart would break every time I’d hear about what he went through, just the injustice of it all,” Grantford says of Tootsie’s difficult early years. “But I was inspired by his positivity towards life, and I was very much drawn to him as a person. And so I painted him a few times, I kept coming back to him. But this one was the ‘real’ Tootsie. At that stage he was quite unwell, and it’s just him in his lounge room essentially.

Tootsie (given name Ken Atherton) spent two years in Pentridge prison as a young man in the 1950s, decades before decriminalisation finally arrived in Victoria in 1980. Years later, Tootsie found a new form of expression and acceptance in drag culture, performing for the first time at the age of 62 and becoming a treasured part of Melbourne’s queer community.

“My original idea was for him to frock up, but it just wasn’t what he was at that stage,” she says. Sitting in a dressing gown, surrounded by a sea of cigarette smoke wearing a “hint of drag” in the form of some subtle eye makeup as he gazes into the middle distance, Grantford’s painting captures Tootsie and Ken somewhere between their everyday self and the liberating drag persona embraced in those final decades.

 2013 documentary An Ordinary Man captures Atherton and Tootsie at 70

Although Atherton had previously been the subject of a short documentary film in 2013, Grantford was the first painter he had sat for. “He was so thrilled,” she recalls. “He was the consummate performer, he’d flip between Ken and Tootsie all the time when you were chatting with him.”

Grantford completed the painting on and off over a year. “It took forever,” she says. “I’d take a photo and think it was done, and then I’d have another look. I did his eyes, then went and visited him again and realised that no, actually, they’re more blue.”

Artist Jaq Crawford while working on a study of Tootsie (Photo: Lee-Anne Harrison)

Atherton was finally able to see the near-completed work shortly before his death in September 2018 at the age of 84, and while he had some feedback for Grantford (“Oh darling do I have that many wrinkles?” she recalls him exclaiming), he was evidently touched by the work. “Especially because of his background – I suppose that’s why I wanted to keep coming and painting him. He’d been imprisoned for being gay, being told everything about him was awful,” she says. “So anything that was validating him, I think, was so important.”

Tootsie, Just An Old Drag Queen and the other 50 finalists in this year’s Kennedy Art Prize will be on display at the Royal South Australian Society of the Arts at the State Library of South Australia until Sunday 15 September

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