On the wild and isolated west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, an old lady is getting a hot pink makeover, with all the faux flowers, colorful beads and sequins she can take. It’s called Gloria, and it’s an 83-year-old church, set to become a public sculpture and a “queer beacon” for the local community.
“I didn’t grow up in the church, I grew up in a Jewish home, but mostly I grew up doing things, and in recent years I’ve become more and more excited about queer celebration” , says poet and artist Sam Duckor. -Jones.
Gloria, built in 1939, was once St Peter’s Anglican Church in Greymouth, a town of around 14,000, more on the map for its mining history than Mardi Gras.
When Duckor-Jones felt ready to leave his home north of Wellington two years ago but struggled to find an affordable home in the capital, he searched the internet for “the cheapest house in New -Zealand”. The church, unused since 2000, appeared and Duckor-Jones quickly fell in love.
He immediately set about converting it into a “strange place of worship,” a sculpture (“not a renovation”) with 50 larger-than-life papier-mâché congregation members. He will live there until the sculpture is completed, which he says will take five years.
What people choose to worship, or how the public wishes to use the space, is entirely up to them, but creating a place for rural homosexuality to thrive is a priority. “I really want them to feel like they own Gloria and feel like it’s their space that they can come hang out or keep adding to after I’m gone.”
Gloria’s name was chosen as a hat for Christian hymns, disco, and an imaginary character that Duckor-Jones and his brother created when they were children. “I put the game at the very top of everything that’s important in the world.”
And it’s playful – a campy pink wonderland with tinsel curtains and a neon “Gloria” sign. “I’ve always really liked pink. Also, I like to push a little pink on the world. It’s not subtle – it says, ‘look at me’. He has his whole history with homosexuality, pride, gay liberation and gender. It’s really powerful that people have strong feelings about pink, like they have no other color.
When Duckor-Jones speaks of Gloria, he does so with the same respect for an elder or someone with a character of their own. “I’m a kind and warm person, but I’ve never been very good at participating in the community. But Gloria just wouldn’t have a bar of that attitude. People come from afar and want to celebrate it with me.
Since embarking on the project, local residents have passed by, offering tools, relaying local history and embracing the bright queer beacon emerging on their quiet street. “I wanted Gloria to belong in 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,” says- he laughs.
The reclamation 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’ project has already drawn parallels with English artist Derek Jarman’s Dungeness House, gay activist group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and cult drag film Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
“I like to promote a kind of quiet fabulousness,” says Duckor-Jones. “I really like sitting by myself crocheting but wearing, you know, a pink silk dress with mascara, listening to Judy [Garland].”
“Gloria is kind of a representation of that – of being sparkly and ridiculous and over the top, in a small town in New Zealand, in a quiet little corner where it rains a lot. Take that, Sydney.