Mills College Art Museum, where the exhibition I co-organized with Elissa Auther, West of Center, opened to great countercultural, gender-bending, DIY fanfare. And thinking about the spectacle of opening-night performances, I was reminded of the extraordinary nature of one of the event’s key organizers Fayette Hauser.
I met Fayette in person for the first time about five years ago at an outdoor café in an old Hollywood neighborhood. Before then, I had only seen her in photographs from when she was forty years younger. But she was immediately recognizable with the same round cheeks and thick hair that looked like she had just been outside on a breezy day. I was sitting at the café with Elissa (she is not just a co-curator but also my spouse) and together we watched her making her way down the sidewalk with great concentration.
“That must be Fayette,” Elissa said. And we called out to her, arms flailing. Suddenly the expression eased on Fayette’s face and she beamed hello.
We talked a little about her recent hip problems and the convenience of our hotel to the café. Then she began to tell us about the one thing in her life that may have come close to greatness. Holding a large stack of 8x10 photographs featuring her and her free-spirited gang of oddball characters, she talked about her involvement with the group called the Cockettes.
Founded in San Francisco in the late 1960s by George Edgerly Harris III, aka Hibiscus, the Cockettes was a kind of theater-troupe that performed both on and off the stage: at the Palace Theater, on the streets of the city, and in their communal homes. Producing outlandish Broadway-like musical shows on stage, most of the time they practiced “life theater,” appearing in persona even when they were not on stage and blanketing their home with props and effects. With no income to speak of, they scavenged the city for clothing and materials to make outrageous outfits that were feathered, sequined, sparkled, painted, fruited, at times, even architectural. The Cockettes, and their spin-off group, the Angels of Light, were not strictly speaking drag queens since men in beards wore dresses and feathered headpieces and biological women like Fayette were mixed in with the bunch. Rather, they eschewed definitions and partook in a kind of chaotic gender identification. And even in their time, they were legendary, with a reputation that extended far beyond the Bay Area hippies, who adored them, to the east coast avant-garde. Their influence extended from glam rock to haute couture.
The performances that Fayette helped organize at Mills College had many elements of madness that I imagine were crucial to the original Cockettes. There were handmade costumes that often failed and props that included large paper swans and red hearts with the word “vagina” written on them in glittery letters. There were arguments, long gaps between acts, and one act was even introduced twice, the second introducer correcting the mistakes of the first. It was the type of show that would probably have been much better to watch on LSD. But there was something awesome about a bunch of old folks being just as ridiculous as they were when they were young.
Fayette wasn’t a celebrity member of the Cockettes but that’s largely why I am so enthralled by her. There wasn’t much fame in general to be had from being involved with the Cockettes but Fayette was there – fully there. She immersed herself in something rare and special – and crazy.
Working on an exhibition about the countercultural movement in the 1960s and 70s, Elissa and I have been able to meet several people like Fayette over the past few years. To varying degrees, most of them have been recognized by others before we came along but none of them have made it into the art history textbooks. Many of them did not consider themselves artists or label what they did as art. But they all participated in breaking the mold of how things were done before them.
Offering a lesson on life, Fayette and her cohort don’t make a case for art but rather for living artistically. They advocate for something that lies at the core of art: the will to escape the natural human tendency to do things the way they have always been done.
The Artistics is a series of profiles on people at the forefront of changing what it means to be an artist.
Photo: Fayette Hauser (lower left) with guests at the Mills College Art Museum opening of West of Center. Photo by Adam Lerner.