Portrait of octogenarian drag queen wins Kennedy Prize

Jaq Grantford ken tootsie atherton kennedy prize
Image: Jaq Grantford Facebook

Victorian artist Jaq Grantford this week took out South Australia’s Kennedy Prize for her painting Tootsie, Just an Old Drag Queen. The portrait is of 84-year-old drag queen Ken ‘Tootsie’ Atherton. Tootsie died shortly after the completion of the portrait in September last year.

The artist told the ABC Tootsie had a tough life.

His twin brother died at the age of 16. Later, their mother, unable to cope with her grief, committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid.

Tootsie found her body just three weeks before his 18th birthday.

By the age of 20 Tootsie worked in an old people’s home.

However, that came to an end with his arrest for homosexual activity.

He served two year’s jail in Melbourne’s Pentridge prison for consenting adult sex acts.

kennedy prize ken tootsie atherton jaq grantford
Tootsie, Just an Old Drag Queen.
Image: Jaq Grantford

Ken Tootsie Atherton

Ken came out as Tootsie late in life.

In his 60s he began dressing in drag and performing shows in Melbourne’s pubs.

Billed as the oldest drag performer in the southern hemisphere, according to Jaq Grantford, “He could kick up his heels quite beautifully. He was an absolute diva.”

“I can’t begin to express how overjoyed I am,” the artist said.

“The Tootsie work has so much meaning for me. He was jailed for being gay and is now being celebrated for his beauty.”

Watch the interview with Tootsie – An Ordinary Man

The judges of the Kennedy Prize said the work amazed them.

“It addresses the theme of beauty by honestly depicting life as an outsider.

“Technically, the artist conveyed an intimacy through their attention to light and detail.

“For us, the work managed to capture time in a specific moment, whilst giving us an insight into the hard but beautiful life their subject had lived.”

Last year, Tootsie, Just an Old Drag Queen was a finalist in West Australia’s Black Swan Prize for portraiture.

The 50 Kennedy Prize finalists are on display at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts in Adelaide.

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