Voyages: Chapter 4 Sneak Peek with Featured Artist Devon Vaow
Voyages: Chapter 4 featured artist Devon Vaow hopes his art inspires guests to find beauty in adaptation and connect with the Baltimore queer community.
For Devon Vaow, the National Aquarium has always been a place of calmness and ease that provided "a break from the real world." It was a place to visit and enjoy, and now that relationship has evolved into something bigger.
Drag artist Devon Vaow (also known as Evon Dior Michelle) is the featured artist for the National Aquarium's Voyages: Chapter 4 event on November 16. When approached to embark on this chapter of Voyages, Devon knew he wanted to focus on adaptation.
"Every organism on the planet has to adapt," Devon said. "Everyone can relate to it in some way. When bringing this project about drag to such a large forefront, it's important to find something that everyone can relate to."
Devon will use drag techniques to illustrate different adaptations and to highlight the skill, craft and beauty of drag.
As part of his research, Devon toured the exhibits at the National Aquarium, such as the Surviving Through Adaptation exhibit. This exhibit highlights different ways that animals have changed their behaviors, appearances and more to adapt. Devon felt especially inspired by the symbiotic relationships between animals like the banded coral shrimp and the goldentail moray. Their relationship in particular reminded him of an aspect of the queer community.
"Those are two animals—you wouldn't think would have a relationship based on how they look," he said. "But once you learn more about them, you see that they do have a working relationship. I think this can be paralleled to the queer community in general. There are so many people who you might not see as part of the queer community but who actually are."
Throughout this process, Devon wanted to keep himself at the forefront of his work—not his drag persona, Evon Michelle.
"It's not Evon Michelle doing this project; it's Devon Vaow," he explained. "Behind the glitz and glitter of drag are human beings who need to be okay to present this creation. I want to inspire other queer people to say, 'Even though I'm this person onstage, it's the person offstage putting in the work.' It's a little piece of empowerment for queer artists and queer people to feel like they have a voice themselves."
As the featured artist for Voyages, Devon had the opportunity to meet with both Aquarium experts and external experts to dive deeper into adaptation and environmentalism. Three external experts—Wyn Wiley, Dr. Lauren Esposito and Dr. Shane Campbell-Staton—provided unique perspectives that guided Devon's understanding of adaptation and the modern scientific world.
Fellow drag performer Wyn Wiley (professionally known as Pattie Gonia) is an environmentalist and community organizer dedicated to creating safe spaces for queer people in nature. They are passionate about educating people about queerness in nature and encouraging a more inclusive approach to climate activism. They also argue that the current view of science is limiting and excludes people from conversations. During their discussions, both Wyn and Devon likened the perseverance of queer communities to adaptation, which can be seen throughout Devon's work.
Dr. Lauren Esposito provides community for queer scientists globally with her visibility campaign, 500 Queer Scientists. Dr. Esposito is an arachnologist at the California Academy of Scientists who researches the evolution and ecology of scorpions, one of the oldest terrestrial arthropods on Earth. She studies the adaptability of scorpions to unpack their evolutionary responses to the world they first inhabited 400 million years ago to the world we live in today. Scorpions' adaptability and occasional symbiotic relationships related to Devon's art, as did her work with 500 Queer Scientists.
Dr. Shane Campbell-Staton, a professor and evolutionary biologist, studies evolution in the Anthropocene—the current geological age where human activity is the dominant factor affecting climate and the environment. His work with the Campbell-Staton Group at Princeton University focuses on studying animals to learn about humans' lasting effects on our world. Devon found inspiration in the connections between animal adaptation and human existence, such as when communities—especially the LGTBQIA+ community—are forced to evolve when faced with outside pressure.
"There is so much queerness in nature that isn't talked about in the science world," Devon explained. "I think challenging the mindset could change the thesis about how we think animals adapt or perceive situations. Before having these conversations with the experts, I wouldn't have known that there were people in influential spaces asking these questions today."
Feeling invigorated by his research, Devon dove into creating his vision for Voyages. At the core of his art for this event is the concept of "cerebral drag."
"Cerebral drag is not only performative art just to express ourselves," Devon explained. "We want to cause a reaction or thought process following what you’re seeing. Cerebral drag is drag that leaves you asking questions after the performance."
To make his project come to life, Devon enlisted four local drag queens: Stealya-Manz Blue, Sapphire Starr Dupree, Virya Shavasana and Tiara Missou-Sidora. When asked why he picked these particular performers, Devon said, "It's how they adapt in and out of drag. They bring warmth that will help introduce people to drag and create a safe space. And they can all read the room, which is such an adaptation—it encapsulates drag."
Using drag as a medium, the performers will appear throughout the galleries during the event and transform themselves in front of guests to showcase three different forms of adaptation: physical, behavioral and physiological. Each performer will utilize various tools, like padding, makeup and dance, to showcase adaptation in nature.
The event will also have projections, music, lights and interactive elements to enhance this immersive experience. The event will continue with an after-party featuring a traditional drag show with Evon Dior Michelle as the emcee and a special appearance by the featured content expert, Pattie Gonia. Through song choices, garments and conversation between the queens, the after-party will further explore the beauty of adaptation.
After months of research and planning, Devon looks forward to seeing others experience his creation. He wants guests to feel inspired by adaptation and recognize adaptation's role in their own lives. He also hopes his art will encourage guests to become more involved in Baltimore's queer community and culture because there is so much to explore and support.
"So much of the project is focusing on different queerness—whether it's drag, whether it's queerness in nature, whether it's queerness in the people who are at the forefront of this project," Devon explained. "I want people coming to this event be very intentional about buying their tickets and understand that, at least for now, this event has evolved and is involved with queerness."
Above all, Devon wants his art to facilitate an understanding of drag performers' effort and dedication to their work. He hopes the performances resonate with guests and show them that adaptation is beautiful.
"Most people come to a drag show, and we come out on stage already done," Devon explained. "So, to kind of deconstruct that and show that step-by-step process will hopefully create more of an appreciation for drag and allow people to leave feeling more comfortable with themselves. Changing and adapting can be a scary thing, but it can also be a great thing."