And Then He Was A She – Paintings of Holly Woodlawn by Sadie Lee

As I write this, a memorial service for Holly Woodlawn, the Warhol Superstar, is being streamed around the globe on howlround. On this side of the pond, an exhibition ‘And Then He Was A She’ is showing at the Ply Gallery, Hornsey Town Hall.

Holly’s life was full of extremes, and I first discovered her (like so many others) through the opening lines of Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. Born in Puerto Rico in 1946, her life was tough; living on the streets and turning tricks in order to make ends meet, dealing with drug and alcohol issues, and yet proving an inspiration and icon to many.

The first thing we see as we enter the gallery is a group shot of Warhol and his Factory entourage. On another wall are images of Holly from the 70s, and screening in the second room is ‘Broken Goddess’. This short silent film contains stunning fleeting images of Holly in Central Park, bathed in the early morning light. The film was originally intended to star Bette Midler and was directed by Dallas (the lighting man from Midler’s shows at the Continental Baths). These works give context to Lee’s life-sized portraits. There is a tenderness to the paintings, which unflinchingly capture the fragility of age with a defiant honesty. Woodlawn stares out from the canvases, exuding a confidence and strength which challenges our prejudices and assumptions.

A few days after the private view, I met up with artist Sadie Lee to talk about Superstars, co-incidences and cameras.

 The first thing I was curious about is how did this series of paintings come about? You both lived on different sides of the Atlantic. Did you already know Holly?

No, It all happened by chance. I had gone to a gig and bumped into Jane Czyzselska (the editor of Diva magazine) who at the time was working as a journalist. Over the decibels of the riot grrrrl band, she screamed at me that she was off to Amsterdam to interview Holly Woodlawn for the Guardian. Holly was living in Los Angeles but coming over for a showing of ‘Trash’, the Morrissey/Warhol film, and the thought struck us simultaneously that I should paint her! That’s where the germ of the idea first came from.

I managed to raise a little money to get the idea off the ground, and went to Amsterdam to meet her at the transgender film festival. When I found Holly, she was surrounded – not just her own entourage but also a film crew. Barry Shils, the director of Wigstock, was filming for a planned documentary about Woodlawn. She was in the middle of this huge throng of people and I couldn’t get close to her at all. I didn’t really have the confidence to march up to her and introduce myself. What a waste I thought, but thankfully that wasn’t the case. I had watched ‘Trash’ with Jonathan Kemp the week before and there was great chemistry between Joe Dallesandro and Holly. She was hilarious, and gave a really accomplished performance. It may be an apocryphal story but I heard that George Cukor actually campaigned to get Holly nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar. Since I’d seen the film so recently, when the screening started I retired to the bar, and who should be sitting there alone, but Holly. I’d really made an effort to dress up that evening (I was just about the only one who had), and I looked like a member of The Kinks. She greeted me with ‘who is this fabulous creature?’ so I told her I was the painter from England, and we ended up having a great evening…

So having met Holly, and hit it off so well, how did things progress?

 We took the opportunity to shoot some images that weekend, and those photographs became the basis for the first three paintings I completed of Holly. In the exhibition, they are the warmer toned triptych of paintings with Holly in a wonderful draped golden dress, flanked by the two much more masculine-looking images.

On returning home, I put together a proposal to complete a series of paintings and submitted it to the Arts Council. Rejected twice, it was finally third time lucky for the proposal, which by this time was being supported by the curator James Lawler, Salford Museum and Arts Gallery and Queer Up North. Interestingly, the paintings have been touring over the last 10 years, on and off, so I guess it was a good investment!

Finally with everything in place, what happened next? Years had passed since you first met her in Amsterdam. When you went out to Los Angeles, did you manage to pick up where you left off?

 In the States, she was much more famous than she was in the UK. She used to wonder ‘when are my 15 minutes of fame going to end?’ The irony is that for much of her life she struggled to make ends meet, veering from one extreme to another. She was really living on the breadline. In her Warhol Superstar days, she shared an apartment with Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, and limos would arrive at their tiny subsidised apartment to take her to red carpet event and film premieres, where she would fill her handbag with food. Her life was exquisite glamour, held together with safety pins. Holly was never a victim, though.

When I was in LA, I would arrive early in the morning, and Holly would greet me, alert and bright as a button. Taking a leaf out of Warhol’s book, I would record our conversations, whilst I took photos. I’d wrap these sessions up around lunch time. As the day progressed and she started to drink, she would become less communicative and more difficult to work with. I was still shooting on film at the time, so after leaving Holly I would take rolls to be developed in the afternoon, and collect them and assess the images in the evening.

Do you usually use photos as a reference for you paintings?

 I do. Holly couldn’t have stood or maintained a pose for that long, and people just don’t have time to sit for a painter anymore. It’s odd that there’s a snobbery connected with using photos, as if it is somehow inferior to painting from life. but that’s nonsense. If you looked at the finished paintings they bear little resemblance to the photos I took in Holly’s apartment, with a background full of clutter. The photos are a resource, and I can take little bits I like and use them in the final composition, like a magpie. Photography has been used as a tool by artists since its invention in the mid-19th century. Van Gogh’s portrait of his mother was painted using a photo, as she had already died but it doesn’t devalue the work.

Artists have always used technology to make their lives easier – Vermeer used a camera obscura… It’s human nature to go for the easy option.

Exactly, artists now ‘paint’ directly onto iPads!

What did Holly think of the completed series? Was she pleased with them?

We first premiered the paintings in Salford, then the show moved to the Drill Hall in London. Throughout the painting process, we’d kept in touch periodically, but I hadn’t shown her any of the work in progress. I wanted to be with Holly when she saw the completed paintings for the first time, so we could discuss my process and the decisions I’d made. I had put some images of the series on the internet but I didn’t tell her. Since she wasn’t interested in technology at all I thought I was safe, but about a week before she flew over for the Drill Hall show, she called me telling me she’d seen the paintings. Her friend, Jayne County, had found them and said ‘how could you let people see you like that?’ Holly, though, was extremely proud of the series, and completely embraced the work. In a question and answer session about the show, she said that ‘beauty can be bought in a jar, these paintings are the real me, as I am now. I have nothing to hide’. The audience were in floods of tears, and so was I, sitting beside her on stage! Her honesty made her a hugely inspirational figure for the transgender community.

Interestingly, of all the portraits, it was one of the most masculine poses that was her favourite.

Transgender issues have gained much more exposure over the past few years. Do you think Holly was instrumental to this growing awareness?

Holly was a pioneering character, she was part of the Stonewall riots in 1969. When I met her, she was fragile physically, but she was strong. In one of our conversations I recorded in LA, I asked her what being called an icon was like. She said “an icon is a thing – I’m a person honey, not a thing”. She was completely unapologetic about who she was. People dismissed her as a dizzy queen, but her dying wish was that the money she had (which had been raised to support her through her illness) be used to set up a fund to support transgender youth (You can read the full story here). There is still a lot of transphobia in the LGBT community.

How do you choose your subjects? What attracts you to the people you paint?

Andy Warhol had been accused of ‘collecting freaks’ but really what he did was give marginalised people a platform. I’ve always painted people I knew, or met socially. I’ve never been interested in who they sleep with or what’s between their legs. Characters and personality, that’s what interests me, how people portray themselves to the world. I’m sure I could have been much more ‘successful’ if I’d painted works to match people’s curtains but that’s not me. I think it is the sense of otherness or the outsider, not necessarily ‘queerness’, that is central in my work. Often my paintings are shown in municipal spaces, with a wide range of visitors. I hope my work may help combat prejudice and change people’s viewpoints.

‘And Then He Was A She – Paintings of Holly Woodlawn by Sadie Lee’ is at the Ply Gallery, Hornsey Town Hall, from the 10th -17th May, 10 – 5pm. You can see my full set of images from the private view here.

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