VERA + Celebrating 20 years of Verasphere at the San Francisco Pride Parade Sunday, June 25, 2017
The character Mrs. Vera was created by Michael Johnstone and David Faulk. As a group they are called Verasphere.
Photographs by Roger Arvid Anderson
Two Men and a Mrs. Vera Artists David Faulk and Michael Johnstone Invite Us to Escape into the Outrageous Universe of the Verasphere by Hank Trout
irst, there’s Mrs. Vera. Insanely colorful, impossibly imaginative, impeccably coifed and couture’d— even if her hat and clothes appear to be made from debris hot-glued onto the sixties’ most unforgivable fashions, they are impeccably put together nonetheless. She is tall, and ageless, befitting her status as a genderchallenged goddess or maybe a visiting dignitary from an unknown galaxy. She is not a stage persona; there is no “act,” no “schtick.” Labels like “drag” or “camp” merely limit her. She transcends labels. She just is—an unnatural force of nature. She commands your attention. And then there’s Michael, with the camera, sometimes, in years past, wearing “just something I’d throw on, like a miniskirt and a fake fur,” documenting Mrs. Vera’s excursions into public places, or into nature, “to lend a more incidental quality to the photo sessions.” One of their favorite locales is Golden Gate Park, where they have shot many photographs together. And mesmerized strangers. Once, a busload of Japanese businessmen unknowingly came upon Mrs. Vera and Michael in the Park’s Dahlia Garden. The entire busload of men lined up single-file to have a photograph taken with her, individually, perfectly queued and patient and quite thrilled to be having what they figured was just an everyday event in wacky San Francisco. Mrs. Vera is indeed a quintessentially San Francisco experience. For David Faulk (“Mrs. Vera”) and Michael Johnstone, it might well have been just another day in the Park. The pair began creating art together in 1994. David utilizes the painting skills he honed at Syracuse University to transform Mrs. Vera’s face with each appearance, each costume, approaching Mrs. Vera’s face as a painting, not a mimetic make-up job. And he has always loved having an
Audience. The way he pronounces the word “Audience” demands that it be capitalized. He gives his Audience a new painting/face every time Mrs. Vera ventures out. David creates all the costumes that Mrs. Vera wears. His favorite sources for the base materials are the thrift shops in San Francisco. He loves outrageously colored sixties-style clothes and over-the-top hats that he can redecorate in his rule-disregarding more-is-more throw the kitchen sink and lots of plastic at it aesthetic. David constantly accumulates things that might end up as part of a costume some time. Plastic eating utensils, pom-pom balls, plastic cups and straws, feather dusters, plastic gems, old game pieces, small toys all have gone into making up a Mrs. Vera original. David said he “let[s] the materials go where they want.” He often uses the simplest of components—hula hoops, for instance. Things that are collapsible are especially useful for storage purposes. Michael had no formal education in the arts, but has been making puppet shows since his early childhood in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he loved attending the yearly Edinburgh Festival and the Fringe Festival. Michael told me that he once received a ping-pong table for Christmas and, having no interest in ping-pong, turned the paddles into puppets. With his puppets and, years later, his love of photography and moving pictures, he honed his visual sense of storytelling early. There is always some backstory in the photos that only Mrs. Vera knows; she has clearly had a past, but she’s not telling. For both David and Michael when they started out, photographing Mrs. Vera in “Snapshots” provided necessary relief from the burdens of the epidemic. Both had been active members of creative, vibrant groups of artists, drag queens, club performers, theater people and other
groups whose members succumbed to the epidemic.
Pride have grown very popular, with fifty-plus Verasphere
Creating Mrs. Vera and shaping the experiences that
participants in this past June’s Pride, marching in the
Mrs. Vera could instigate created ways for David and
outrageous costumes and hats they had made in workshop.
Michael “not to dwell on all the loss” going on around
The pair really enjoy the workshops for the great diversity
them; for the Audience, it was an opportunity to
of people who attend and then march—young teen lesbians,
participate in a distracting, transformative experience.
couples or single mothers and their child, older folks, anyone
Even when David and Michael themselves experienced
with a creative streak and a taste for the absurd and surreal.
medical problems related to being HIV-positive,
Besides the photos, the costumes and the archives, it may
Mrs. Vera magically gave everyone permission to be
be that Mrs. Vera’s and Michael’s greatest contributions have
silly and outrageous, with Michael there to make the
been simply the exuberant joy they seem to foment wherever
photographs, to bear witness and make art of it.
they go—LGBT events such as street fairs, parades, festivals,
The two have grown, together as partners and as
etc., sometimes supporting groups like the San Francisco
artists. Verasphere is a multi-platform, multi-faceted
SPCA, the San Francisco Public Library Bookmobile or the
archive for the pair’s photographic work. Michael
LGBT Center. “It is almost an ambassadorial role at times,”
archives the pair’s work, including the Mrs. Vera’s
Michael has written, “to remind people of the eccentric
Daybook Series of photographs examining everyday
aspects of queer life, both now and in another time. We
life, alienation, magic and survival—with a spirit of fun
have rewoven the torn fabric of community and created a
participation and lots of color; photos from their many
tribe, encouraging people from all walks of life to join in
appearances at the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade
and celebrate simply being.”
and a June 2013 exhibit of costumes and photographs
Michael and Mrs. Vera consider themselves to be direct
at the Mills College Art Museum; “Lost/Found,” a short
descendants of the outrageous 1970s theatrical troupe the
film they made for the Frameline Film Festival 2012;
Cockettes, “turning up impromptu in many places, both
and a very successful exhibit at the Oakland Museum
appropriate and inappropriate . . . without the acid!”
of Art in 2013; and other events.
In so many ways—with their archives and exhibits; with
In June 2012, David and Michael curated, produced,
their impromptu “Daybook” shoots; with their design-your-
and with others walked the catwalk in a fashion show of
own workshops and event appearances; with their online
David’s creations for Mrs. Vera at the Beautiful Rebels
presence—these two men and Mrs. Vera are still out there,
Fashion Show, in conjunction with the Jean-Paul
giving people permission to be silly and outrageous, still
Gaultier Exhibition at the M.H. DeYoung Museum.
encouraging us not to dwell on loss and gloom, inviting
The Verasphere website includes a video of the catwalk
us to participate in larger-than-life silliness. Mrs. Vera’s
show. More current photos and other content can be
found on the Verasphere Facebook group page. Also,
might be the perfect antidote to the stormy future we face
one of the more ambitious members of the Verasphere
group created a Flickr page with over 3,000 images of Mrs. Vera and other members of Verasphere. Recognizing the uniqueness of David’s and Michael’s work, the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center at the San Francisco Public Library maintains the Verasphere Costume Archive. Some of those costumes were included in the Library’s exhibit, “Celebrating
You can further your exploration of Verasphere at www.Verasphere.com, move on their Facebook group at www.facebook.com/Verasphere, and immerse yourself in images of Mrs. Vera and her disciples at www.flickr.com/ groups/Verasphere.
the Past/Creating the Future” which ran from April 16 to August 7, 2016. The archive is housed on the third
Hank Trout is an Editor-at-Large for A&U: America’s
floor of the SFPL Main Library.
AIDS Magazine. His writing, and the best HIV/AIDS-
Expanding Mrs. Vera’s reach into the universe, David and Michael hold workshops for hat- and
related writing, can be found at www.AUMag.org. Free subscriptions are available.
costume-making at the San Francisco LGBT Center and in Oakland. (Workshops for Pride 2017 will be announced on their website.) The workshops before
Reprinted with permission of the author from A&U: America’s AIDS Magazine, March 2017
CAST of CHARACTERS
David Faulk AKA Mrs. Vera
Timmy Ryan AKA Lady Redbush
Peter Edmond ToscaniÂ
Hae Yuon Kim
Daniel Robert Scrimshire
Sean Lord AKA Chauncey McClorrÂ
Daniel Dagucon AKABonz Atomic
VERA + Published by ROGER ARVID ANDERSON www.RogerArvidBooks.com www.RogerArvidAnderson.com Roger Arvid Anderson 1048 Union Street #1 San Francisco, CA 94133 (c) 2017 Roger Arvid Anderson All Rights Reserved No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of Roger Arvid Anderson, except brief portions in the context of reviews. Editor: Roger Arvid Anderson Book Designer: Andreas Jones Copyright acknowledgments: Photographs of Verasphere by Roger Arvid Anderson Two Men & a Mrs. Vera, article by Hank Trout, editor-at-large for A&U magazine Costumes and characters courtesy of Verasphere Library of Congress Cataloging-In-Publication Data Anderson, Roger Arvid, 1946Vera + / Roger Arvid Anderson ISBN
Verasphere at the 2017 San Francisco Pride Parade Photographs by Roger Arvid Anderson
Celebrating 20 years of Verasphere at the San Francisco Pride Parade, Sunday, June 25, 2017. The character Mrs. Vera was created by Michael...