David Hodge, aka Dusty ‘O’, is a famous face on the London LGBT+ scene. Following his first international exhibition in Barcelona last year and a major solo show in his hometown of Birmingham, the former drag artist tells us why he turned to art…

I have never made a conscious decision to do anything. I didn’t intend on doing drag for 30 years when I left Birmingham. I left because I had a broken heart and didn’t feel as though I fitted in.

I had always been aesthetically obsessed and looking good was probably my main priority. I loved the attention it garnered. I had not really had much up to that point as a four-eyed, ginger-haired queer.

When I applied my war paint, I became stronger: I had armour. People were no longer laughing at me, so it hurt less. London allowed me to explore my thresholds and when people started paying me to do it, I was encouraged and pushed myself to the edge of my male self.

'What?' by David Hodge AKA Dusty 'O'

I developed an alter ego and turned her into a pre-internet mini brand. She was my creation. My passion. She took me around the world and introduced me to the high life and lowlifes of club culture.

I played records, hosted clubs, mingled with pop stars, recorded records, did television. I starred in sold-out Christmas shows at Leicester Square Theatre for six years – playing up to 80 shows a season. I took drugs and drank the bar dry. Soon, they called me the ‘Queen of Soho’.

It happened. And then it ended.

Dusty 'O' by Marc Abe

Dusty 'O'. Photograph by Marc Abe.

The previous ten years of my existence had been focused on Madam Jojo’s, where I held my hugely successful club night ‘Trannyshack’. It had paid for a luxurious existence, in which I was treated like royalty, and all I had to do was spend all my income on beautiful clothes, wigs and shoes – and three hours painting my face before going out.

Then Madam Jojo’s closed. Overnight. The phone stopped ringing. I had been deposed.

Shortly after, the tax man slammed me with a bill so huge it emptied every account I had and maxed-out three credit cards. In the same week, my house was burgled and every camera, computer and piece of electrical equipment my husband and I owned was stolen. We had nothing.

So, I got a job in my friend’s hairdressers as a receptionist and, gradually, my rehabilitation into civilian life began.

David Hodge AKA Dusty 'O' by Marc Abe

David Hodge, AKA Dusty 'O'. Photograph by Marc Abe.

Who was I though? I had spent 25 years being someone I had created. People related to her, not me. I had forgotten who I was. Forgotten that I had things to say and do. But I realised that I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I was poor but unfettered - and the canvas was clean.

I began to paint my feelings. I found it a bit like writing a book, but I allowed colours and cartoon-like gargoyles do the talking. I had spent three decades painting my face and now I was painting my thoughts and emotions.

I knew little about “art” and I still don’t. All I know is that I enjoy doing what I do. That it’s necessary for me. That it’s real.

All those years in drag, with its extreme lifestyle, were my process years. Everything I do now is the result of those years. My research was so extensive and somehow it saturated me. Bit by bit, through painting and scribbling, I am confessing.

'Help me! I'm in distress' by David Hodge AKA Dusty 'O'

Painting is glorious and liberating. It’s also true and authentic to me. My reality has always been my own. I create it. I live it and believe it. My paintings are like vomit. They are my innermost thoughts splattered on to the canvas. I have no trained skills and the most I can do is to try to convey an experience through something almost childlike and naïve.

But don’t mistake that naivety for innocence. My pictures are anything but innocent. They are riddled with vice and lies and hideous people doing unspeakable things.

I am still battling with my disco demons. Still attempting to heal the wounds of hedonism. The scars are deep. But I paint away the pain. And I love life again. I am free.

David Hodge is fresh from solo exhibitions in Barcelona and Birmingham, with a major London show in the works. Find out more about David and his art by following him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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Celebrating 60 years of Paintings in Hospitals in 2019.

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