Meet James Cowper - perhaps better known as drag artist Gavina - who’s emerged during and since the coronavirus lockdown as one of the leading lights on Birmingham’s gay scene.
James was the mastermind who came up trumps with the idea of the Digital Birmingham Pride event - which broadcast across the original Pride dates in May 2020 and was watched and enjoyed by so many people.
More recently he’s been proactive in quite literally painting the town rainbow!
James was commissioned by the Southside District BID to paint a rainbow crossing on Hurst Street... But then, before you knew it, he’d also created a rainbow path leading from the Arcadian centre to the gay village...
As if that wasn’t enough, he then went a step further with some rainbow canopies on Kent Street - above Devil’s Kitchen - and at the Arcadian...
And in the last week, James has also built a covered ‘Lady Shack’ stage structure for the garden of popular Birmingham LGBT venue The Fox!
Is there no end to the talent of this much-loved butch queen?!
We spoke exclusively to the 32-year-old Birmingham-based drag favourite, who performs regularly at Missing Bar in the city’s gay village and at Bar DIVA in Dudley...
So how did the idea come about for Digital Birmingham Pride, James?
Well, like a lot of good ideas, I was sat on the loo! And I thought that it was important for Birmingham Pride to have some visibility across its usual May Bank Holiday weekend. Prides are very much a protest for me, and I thought that with the use of digital media, Birmingham’s LGBTQ community would have a fantastic opportunity to hit home hard on why we still need Pride.
I put the idea to David Nash, one of the organisers of Birmingham Pride, and he said he would come back to me the next day with an answer. And that’s how it all came about.
Was it difficult bringing Digital Pride together?
It was a mammoth task but a challenge that we all rose to. I very much wanted that community aspect, the real meaning of Pride, and to convey a sense of why Pride events still need to happen. In truth, I wasn’t sure if David Nash and Dan Brown from Birmingham Pride would totally get where I was coming from with it.
With such a long broadcast, ensuring the programme of contributions from various people and groups was well balanced throughout was quite challenging and time consuming, but I think the collective team did a great job, and I’m very proud of the result. It met all my expectations and more.
How did the idea of the rainbow crossing happen?
Well, originally I’d been talking to the Arcadian about painting a rainbow pathway, and then Southside BID manager Julia Robinson approached me about doing some rainbow artwork installations in time for Birmingham Pride. I immediately agreed and went out to buy the various paints required, which then sat on my dining table for what seemed like an eternity.
Because Birmingham City Council were going to be drilling on the road where my artwork was going to be installed, Julia called me and said, let’s go away and paint a rainbow crossing for the moment instead. I was happy to oblige, and both Matthew Stephens (Blanche) and myself set about doing it. At least it would get the paint off my dining table!
Immediately after that, we carried on to do the rainbow walk, which had already been planned, leading from the Arcadian to the gay village. And now, of course, we’ve done a rainbow canopy, too.
Have you been surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction it’s received?
It’s been absolutely overwhelming and all so positive. It feels like the entire LGBT community is pulling together in the right direction, which is what it’s all about.
During lockdown, the online Camp Cooks streaming, with you and Blanche, proved extremely popular. Who came up with the idea?
That was very much Blanche’s project - I can’t claim any credit for that, other than being the technical geek that I am. My knowledge of setting up multiple cameras and microphones came in very useful in being able to polish the presentation.
Blanche lives with me and my partner, Chris, and those two are always mucking around in the kitchen. That’s why Blanche thought Camp Cooks could be a great idea. The run has now ended, but I’m pretty sure you’ll see it make a return at some point. It was great fun to do.
And you helped other drag artists along the way, didn’t you?
Yes. As I said, I’m a bit of a geek, so I’ve been able to help a number of drag queens raise the production quality of their online shows. I’ve been pleased to help out.
With so many people suffering from mental-health issues during the coronavirus pandemic, how have you been coping generally?
Well, this was going to be the year where I thought all the hard work was really going to pay off. I’d got so many different projects on the go - especially through my company, Genius Creations - and then along came lockdown. It was shattering for me - a complete blow - just like it has been for so many people.
And like so many others, it’s been something of a rollercoaster ride over the last few months, although now I see things far more positively than perhaps I did.
It’s been fantastic that the LGBTQ community in Birmingham, to a great extent, are working together more than they ever have before, particularly during August.
What plans and aspirations do you have for the future?
I intend to do a lot more through my companies, Twisted Attractions and Genius Creations. Over the last couple of years, I’ve worked with Southside BID in creating some really interesting attractions. I did a Santa’s Grotto last year in a converted caravan situated in Southside, and I can honestly say it was the most rewarding visitor experience I’ve ever created.
The grotto was based on the 1984 film, Santa Claus The Movie, and it was no ordinary bog-standard creation. We had interactive storytelling with an elf - played by Kyle Simms, who also wrote the story - but more than that, it was such a personal and individual experience, particularly for our autistic visitors and those with disabilities.
I remember a disabled visitor in his early 20s who still very much believed in Father Christmas. It absolutely made his Christmas - most other grottos won’t accept adults in to enjoy the experience. Then there was a 24-year-old with autism who’d never met Santa, and to see the joy in her eyes was such a rewarding experience for all of us.
I think over 800 visitors came through the doors. I hope to do it again this year, but obviously a socially distanced version!
So if you’re looking for some creative solutions to a project of yours, we can strongly recommend that you get in touch with the one and only James Cowper!
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