On the wild and remote west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, an elderly woman is getting a hot pink makeover, complete with all the faux flowers, colored beads and glitter she can handle. Her name is Gloria, and she is an 83-year-old churchwoman on her way to becoming a public sculpture and a “queer beacon” for the local community.
“I didn’t grow up in church, I grew up in a Jewish home, but mostly I grew up doing things, and in recent years I’ve gotten more and more excited about celebrating queer,” says poet and artist Sam Duckor. -Jones.
Gloria, built in 1939, was formerly St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Greymouth, a town of about 14,000, on the map more for its mining history than carnival.
When Duckor-Jones felt ready to move from his home to north Wellington two years ago but struggled to find an affordable home in the capital city, he searched the internet for “the cheapest house in New Zealand”. The church, which had not been used since 2000, appeared and Duckor-Jones quickly fell in love.
He immediately set about turning it into a “queer place of worship,” a sculpture (“not a renovation”) featuring 50 larger-than-life papier-mâché congregation members. He will live there until the sculpture is finished, which he anticipates will take five years.
What people choose to worship, or how the public wants to use the space, is entirely up to them, but creating a place for rural weirdness to thrive is what matters most. “I really want them to own Gloria and feel like it’s their space that they can come and hang out in or keep expanding after I move in.”
Gloria’s name was chosen as a hat tip to Christian hymns, disco, and a fantasy character that Duckor-Jones and her brother created as children. “I put the game at the top of everything that is important in the world.”
And it’s fun: a campy pink wonderland with tinsel curtains and a neon “Gloria” sign. “I have always loved pink. Also, I like to push a little pink in the world. It’s not subtle – it says, ‘look at me’. It has its whole history with queerness, pride, gay liberation and gender. It’s really powerful that people have strong feelings for pink, like they don’t for any other color.”
When Duckor-Jones speaks of Gloria, he does so with the same reverence he feels for an old man, or a person with a character of their own. “I’m a nice and warm person, but I’ve never been very good at being involved in the community. But Gloria just wouldn’t have a slash of that attitude. People come from everywhere and want to celebrate with me.”
Since embarking on the project, local residents have been showing up, offering tools, passing on local history, and embracing the bright queer beacon that emerges from their quiet street. “I wanted Gloria to belong to the community, because I thought at some point someone would do something stupid, like tag her or burn her, and I want the community to be outraged as well,” she laughs.
The recovery of traditional spaces and practices by queer communities has a long history, as does the collision of rural places and queerness in popular culture. Duckor-Jones’s project has already drawn parallels with English artist Derek Jarman’s Dungeness house, the gay activist group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the cult film Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
“I like to promote a kind of quiet fabulousness,” says Duckor-Jones. “I really like sitting by myself and knitting but wearing, you know, a pink silk dress with a bit of mascara, listening to Judy [Garland].”
“Gloria is kind of an embodiment of that: of being brilliant and ridiculous and over the top, in a small town in New Zealand, in a little quiet corner where it rains a lot. Take that, Sydney.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism