Tim Sullivan
The Sex Workers
Art Show

Capital Theatre, Olympia, Sat Jan 13.

THE CONTROVERSIAL relationship between the art world and artists who do sex work has barely reached awkward post-adolescent groping. The faulty diet responsible for this stunted growth is the stale opinion that the profession is made up of stereotypes rather than individuals. Due to social branding, sex workers find it difficult to leave the office and easily restore their role as citizens, much less artists. To counteract destructive notions, sex workers are unifying to present their artistic creations outside the industry in order to reveal their personal and occupational pride. The hoped-for result is a mindset challenge to social mores. The annual Sex Workers Art Show held in Olympia provides an arena for artists who do sex work to explore the subject matter.

Artist Annie Oakley created the yearly show to soothe the frustration she experienced coordinating events for a radical activist community center. Oakley, as an out sex worker, wanted to bring the experiences of the industry, depicted in the art done by sex workers, into community-center events in order to spark outreach.

"There are a lot of stereotypes that describe all sex workers as stupid, drug- addicted, or abuse survivors," Oakley says, explaining the opposition met within a supposedly forward-thinking community. "The myth that we unwittingly exploit ourselves is popular among progressives, and it serves to isolate sex workers from the rest of the world." Four years after Oakley's first effort, the antiquated Capital Theatre in Oly's four-block boho center serves as gallery for the annual show.

The 2001 show, held January 13, was comprised of a nationwide collection of not only visual and performance artists, but film and print artists as well--evidence of a steady growth in interest. Determined to expand the opportunity for community-building, Oakley added a one-day conference stocked with panels orchestrated by many of the artists who triple as industry activists. The proceeds from both events were split between Books for Prisoners and Danzine, the latter being a nonprofit sex-worker support organization and magazine.

The upstairs mezzanine lobby housed the visual-art offerings, while the performance art content was unveiled in the theater below. Kristen Imani Kasai, a San Francisco-based artist, author, and mother, sublimely explored the issue of female body consciousness in her sculpture The Effect of Beauty on its Bearer. Wire mesh coaxed into a torso was flanked by an actual formal place setting, completed by a delicate chiffon napkin constrained firmly by beaded ring. The symmetrical plane of these items was offset by a delicate wash of purple acrylic, which built a mood of submission amid the harshness of the industrial wire used for fastening items to canvas. The obviously female torso had no escape from being a meal for the libido.

The performance cabaret showcased promising performance and spoken-word talent as well as a series of dark, emotional short films made by youth sex workers through a media education project. Veteran writer/performer Penny Arcade, sandwiched between younger standouts like Michelle Tea and Gina Gold, acted the respected matriarch. Arcade bowed shyly to the standing ovation offered by the packed theater, displaying a vulnerability not evident in her well-honed stage presence. Arcade treated the house to excerpts from her solo show, Bitch! Dyke! Fag-Hag! Whore!, which ran for a year in New York before touring internationally. Her depiction of the telephone receptionist for a New York brothel ran rampant with intelligent wit and biting social commentary. The brothel's phone girl had to revolve between roles as a counselor, a mother, and a guru to insecure clientele, painting a comical yet honest psycho- sociological portrait of industry patrons.

"Events like this start a discourse between the public and sex workers," explains Shane Luitjens, spoken-word artist and founder of Hook, a Boston-based nonprofit for men in the industry. "An education that we are conscious of our choices can be available in a public forum [through art]." Luitjens' hopefulness was obviously shared. The three-hour cabaret started uncomfortably late, creating the potential of audience burn-out, but the crowd thinned only slightly as the marathon of performance art, skits, and spoken-word pieces drew to a close near 2:00 a.m. Vacating showgoers had the opportunity to gobble up propaganda that encouraged outsiders, especially those concerned about labor rights and free expression, to take an active interest.