When he was aged just 20, Ken Atherton was jailed for two years just for being gay.
- Jaq Grantford’s portrait is titled Tootsie, Just an Old Drag Queen
- It has taken out the $25,000 Kennedy Prize for 2019
- Ken “Tootsie” Atherton died aged 84 after Grantford finished the painting last year
It was not until more than 40 years later that he was able to fully embrace who he was, dressing in drag and performing around the Melbourne circuit as “Tootsie”.
He went on to become one of the most well-known and oldest drag queens in Australia.
Now, a portrait of the drag icon has taken out the 2019 Kennedy Prize.
The national visual art competition attracts some of Australia’s finest visual artists, with the winner receiving $25,000.
This year, the competition recognised Victorian portrait artist Jaq Grantford, for her piece entitled Tootsie, Just an Old Drag Queen.
Grantford said she had been drawn to Tootsie many times throughout her career, because of his incredible story, which “deserved to be told”.
Ken “Tootsie” Atherton found out the portrait of him was a finalist in the Black Swan Prize before he died aged 84.
(Supplied: Jaq Grantford)
She said he had lived a life of incredible hardship but was able to embrace who he was later in life.
“When Tootsie was 16 his twin brother died, his mother was unable to handle it and she committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid,” she said.
“Tootsie found her three weeks before his 18th birthday … so, he was coming from a place of hardship to start.”
Tootsie was ‘reviled in his youth’
Grantford said when Tootsie was 20, he was working at a home for the elderly and there was a newspaper article at the time about a group of people arrested for homosexual activity.
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“In the newspaper article they were described as being depraved individuals and we read it now with shock and horror,” she said.
She said he was imprisoned for a couple of years at Pentridge [prison] in Melbourne, but despite challenges was able to be accepted later in life.
“Later on in his life, in his 60s, he started dressing in drag and performing around the pub circuit in Melbourne and became quite well known in that scene,” she said.
“[He was] known as the oldest drag queen in the southern hemisphere and he could kick up his heels quite beautifully. He was an absolute diva.
“I just thought his story was really important because it shows change, it shows how we’ve come along and we’re accepting now of people.
“Tootsie was reviled in his youth for being who he was, and now he’s being celebrated for being beautiful.”
Grantford has previously been recognised internationally by the Portrait Society of America.
Tootsie, Just an Old Drag Queen — painted using oil on canvas — was also a finalist in the WA-based Black Swan Prize for Portraiture.
‘Celebrating how far we’ve come’
Grantford said Tootsie died, aged 84, a couple of weeks after she finished the painting last year but felt “fabulous” knowing his life was being celebrated.
And, she said, “It’s about celebrating the fact that his friends, who are still around now and did experience similar things in their life, are also beautiful.”
The 50 finalists will now be displayed at the Kennedy Prize Exhibition in the Royal South Australian Society of the Arts at the State Library until September 15.