A Month of Dirt 

April features a documentary, art show and fundraising dinner inspired by the legendary Donnie Corker, aka Dirtwoman.

click to enlarge Artist Matt Lively created a dozen illustrations of Donnie Corker for the film using tar on enamel.

Artist Matt Lively created a dozen illustrations of Donnie Corker for the film using tar on enamel.

The best way to make a documentary for less than $3,000 is to call in a lot of favors.

It was 1999 when producer and critic Jerry Williams decided to make a documentary about Richmond's infamous Dirtwoman. Born Donnie Corker, he'd come out as gay as a teen and went on to become Richmond's best-known 400-pound drag queen before dying in 2017.

Corker was the subject of a 1993 pin-up calendar, a mayoral candidate and for years, Mrs. Claus at the annual Ham-a-Ganza event that collects hams for the ham-less.

Originally, Williams began by doing interviews and shooting a video with Dirtwoman collaborators Gwar, a shoot that involved puffed rice standing in for pubic lice. Then real life intervened and the project was put on the back burner until two years ago when Corker was diagnosed with major health problems. Williams realized he had limited time.

That's when he began calling in favors to complete "Spider Mites of Jesus: the Dirtwoman Documentary." Over the course of shooting the rest of the film, Williams worked with seven local videographers, all of whom he'd worked with in the past. Each agreed to donate a day or several to shooting for the project.

Artist Matt Lively signed on to create a dozen illustrations for the film using tar on enamel — "it seemed appropriate: It's close to dirt and it's easy to work with," he explains. They were then animated to give visual reinforcement for subjects that had no footage or photography.

Local band ThingII, comprising Barry Fitzgerald, Johnny Hott and Jeremiah Shriver, penned "Roses and Garlic," the song that opens and closes the film, with verses about Oregon Hill and Grace Street and production by John Moran of Sound of Music Studios. Carlos Chafin and Andrea Steff of In Your Ear Studio did the audio mix for the film. Nick Marfing provided drone footage because, according to Williams, every documentary these days requires drone footage.

"Each one of them said they wanted to do it for Donnie," Williams says of his volunteer crew. Over the next year, Williams interviewed more than 70 people. People began giving him footage they had of Dirtwoman for inclusion in the film, including a rare clip of Donnie in drag eating dog food at the Lee Art Theatre.

Lively welcomed the chance to work with Williams, whom he'd followed as a TV movie critic when he was young and long admired, because he saw Corker as emblematic of Richmond.

"When I moved to Atlanta in the early '90s, all my friends there knew about Richmond was the Civil War and Dirtwoman," he recalls, laughing. "So when Jerry told me about this, I jumped on it. Anything working on the underbelly of Richmond, I want to do."

The resulting documentary screens this month as part of the Richmond International Film Festival, the sole public showing until November. Before that, it screens at the Florida Film Festival and will show at Cinema Diverse: The Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival in September, while submissions have gone out to an additional 45 festivals.

Williams is anticipating spending the rest of 2019 on the film festival circuit, an effort he says will cost more than the making of the documentary. For more about the film, check out dirtwomandoc.com.

But the movie is only one component of a month dedicated to Richmond's infamous drag queen. Gallery 5 plays host to an April exhibit called "Paint Me, Bitch!" featuring a range of images depicting Corker by local artists including Lively, photographer Alice McCabe who shot the 1993 calendar, Noah Scalin and Catherine Venable.

For years, Corker sat outside Mamma Zu, peeling garlic for the kitchen in the afternoon and returning at night to sell flowers to passersby. In tribute, owner Ed Vasio is holding a buffet dinner fundraiser called "Eat Me, Bitch!" to benefit Massey Cancer Center. That evening will also be the unveiling of a memorial plaque as distinctive as the local legend.

You'd think it would be enough for the mayor to declare April Dirtwoman month.

Remembering the few times he'd run into Corker over the years, Lively sums up the local legend. "He was nicer to me when I was a student, but when I got old and gross, he got less nice to me."

Anyone who's known Corker agrees that sounds about right.

"Paint Me, Bitch: the Dirtwoman Art Show" opens April 5 from 8-10 p.m. and runs until April 28, with viewings all weekend April 25-27 during the Richmond International Film Festival at Gallery 5, 200 W. Marshall St . "Eat Me, Bitch!" is held April 7 at Mamma Zoo. The documentary "Spider Mites of Jesus" screens Thursday, April 25, at the Byrd Theater as part of the Richmond International Film Festival, rvafilmfestival.com.


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