Art provides UNL student direction to pursue passions

Normally a 6-foot, gender ambiguous gal stands out in a crowd. But on Oct. 28, Michael Johnson traded in her many ear piercings and androgyny for extreme masculinity in the form of a fake beard and low riding jeans, and seemed to more easily blend in on campus as her drag king persona of Travis Tea.

Travis Tea takes a selfie for Snapchat before "Night of the Living Drag" to encourage friends to come to the show.

Travis Tea takes a selfie for Snapchat before “Night of the Living Drag” to encourage friends to come to the show.

As a third year performer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s “Night of the Living Drag,” Johnson is no stranger to the art of transformation.

However, it is not just her experience of changing character for performances that makes this fluidity of identity easy for Johnson. One could say that being malleable is in her nature.

It is only now during her senior year that Johnson has begun solidifying the space she really wants to exist in.

A Catholic upbringing in Des Moines, Iowa, and loving but controlling parents made it difficult for her to accept herself, Johnson said.

“I always wanted to be an artist,” she said. “I also always was told that was not something you should aspire to do unless you want to live in cardboard refrigerator box in an alley.”

During her sophomore year of college she found a loophole: double majoring. She would major in graphic design, the safe, employable way to do art, and advertising.

She was crafting a self she would like better, but still trying to meet the standards of friends and family.

For the gender-bending tomboy, a way back to what she really loved began from two outlets later that year: drag and cross-stitching.

The first outlet, drag, she discovered through her involvement with the LGBTQA+ Resource Center.

The drag community offered her a place of support and friendship. Despite it being her first year then, she helped Tanner Reckling, a friend she’d made in a graphic design class, begin his own foray into drag.

“Her work is always outside box,” Reckling said. “She always tries to push boundaries and do what makes her happy but also what will make others think.”

Watch Johnson’s transformation into drag king Travis Tea. [youtube][/youtube]

Her second outlet came from the stereotypically feminine hobby of cross-stitching.

During an internship at the quilt museum her sophomore year, Johnson learned to embroider and began stitching fabrics with song lyrics and images of herself and friends.

“I can look back on my college career and despite trying to fit myself in this box of graphic design, I’ve been consistently making pieces that are not just graphic design,” she said.

The difficulty of trying to balance parental expectations with her passions is what led her to the creation of the performance piece “Beneath the Skin.”

Courtesy Photo On the third night of "Beneath The Skin," Johnson stitched a portrait of her herself on her hand, along with a quote her father said after Johnson got her septum pierced.

On the final night of “Beneath the Skin,” Johnson stitched a portrait of her herself, along with a quote her father said after Johnson got her septum pierced. Courtesy photo

“It just kind of came to me that this would be a good way to express the pain and this need to be close,” she said. “And also this sort of domestic way of hurting people because you love them so much that you are blinded to what they really need at times.”

The performance took place at the Commons LNK over three First Friday events the summer before her senior year. During the event, she used old photos to inspire the images that she stitched on her hand.

The skin-stitched portraits featured:

  1. An old vacation picture of her father.
  2. A photo of her mother from Johnson’s first day of high school.
  3. A self-portrait featuring all of the things that make it hard for her parents to look at her: colored hair, gauges and a septum piercing.

Even though the performance hurt and her hand took two weeks to recover each time, Johnson said that was the point: to manifest her pain through art.

As for what’s next, Johnson said she’s taking the rest of her senior year and an extra semester after that to try to focus on the things she loves about creating.

“I’m just trying to really figure out what I want to work with, what I want to make and who I want to be as an artist right now. It’s stressful but we’re getting there.”



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