Looking Back: Remembering Craig Coleman—Artist, Drag Queen, and Friend

Attending Edwin Markham Junior High (now Willow Glen Middle School) and Willow Glen High School from 1971 through 1977, I was fortunate to know and become friends with quite a number of very talented people. Most were artists and musicians, with a couple becoming renown in the world of skateboarding.  One of these friends was a fellow named Craig Coleman.  I met Craig's brother Chris in 1971, and finally met Craig about five years later. The first time I saw Craig, he was standing shirtless in the dining room experimenting with a violin. He had long hair pulled back into a thick pony tail, and smiled rather apologetically as he squeaked out some horrible sounds. From that introduction, we became good friends. During that period, a number of us artistic-minded fellows hooked up for friendship, encouragement, and creative exploration. Others in this loose-knit group were Robert Weide, Paul Simon, Bill Rolland, Alan Zonder, and of course Craig.

One of the things that Craig and I enjoyed doing, was cruising around town hitting antique shops.  Once we found some turn-of-the-century cabinet card photographs and brought them home to "doctor up" with acrylic paint. Several of them turned out pretty well, with the best being one of Craig's. He had a large sepia-tone of a group of butchers at a convention, all standing there in perfect white aprons.....well, by the time Craig got done, they were proudly posing in blood-splattered glory. It came out so well, we were rolling on the floor laughing.

One summer we decided to go camping in the redwoods with a girl that Craig knew from high school.  We took the bus down to Salinas and from there we hitch-hiked to Big Sur.  One of our rides was with a very friendly gal with a VW bug, so we all jammed in there with our backpacks somehow.  In Big Sur, we decided to camp out in a wooded area just above a river, not far from some camp grounds.  We stayed for a couple of days, then headed back, singing Beatles tunes as we walked down to the main road.  Our first ride out was on the back of a flatbed truck, which felt like an idyllic end to our little adventure.

The neighborhood where Craig lived (Eichler homes) seemed to attract artistic types, so much so, that an annual art fair was established in 1962 for residents to share their art.  The fair became known as the Fairglen Art Festival.  One year Craig invited me to sell my work out in front of his house. I only sold one painting, but it was a lot of fun. I believe that was the day that I met Craig's dad. His dad was very friendly and upbeat like Craig, and the whole family seemed infused with this positive, artistic energy.  In fact, Craig's younger sister Cohl went on to become a celebrity hair stylist and make-up artist in New York.

I believe that Craig's serious artistic efforts began soon after graduating high school in 1979.  He turned the family's single-car garage into an art studio and began scouring the neighborhood for materials that he could use.  A neighbor asked him if was going to take art classes and he replied, "Oh no, they'd ruin me."  One of the last times that I saw Craig, was at an art show that he gave at his house. His work hung everywhere, lining the hallways. Steve Stevens was there (dad owned Steven's Music on Lincoln Ave.) with his sister (who was our friend Paul Simon's girlfriend at the time). Paul and I wound up crashing in the guest room that night. It wasn't too long after that that Craig took all of his belongings to a flea market and sold them for pennies on the dollar, then moved up to San Francisco to strike out on his own. By 1981 he was in New York, and he held his first exhibition in 1983.

Craig held numerous shows in New York throughout the 1980s. Shows were also held in St. Louis, Belgium, and Rome.  In 1988, he produced hundreds of paintings for a cooperative multimedia event The Year 8000 with his friend Steve Stevens.  In 1989, Craig moved to South Beach, Florida.  While he continued producing art, he also became involved in drag performance in Miami.  He soon acquired a cult following around his alter-ego "Varla."  As Varla, he appeared on a cable television show, Varla TV. He also began writing a gossip column for a local magazine.

Craig has been described as brilliant, sardonic, handsome, promiscuous, and recklessly creative.  I knew him as soft-spoken, kind, and just a lot of fun to be around.  It was a sad day in 1995 when I learned of Craig's death through a mutual friend.  He had died of complications of AIDS on December 3, 1994 in Miami, Florida.  Craig remains an inspiration to many of us not only in how he embraced life, but as I learned from his mother, in how he faced life's end with courage and compassion for others.

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