Studio Visit: Sasha Steinberg and John Jacob Lee

Studio Visit: Sasha Steinberg and John Jacob Lee

Studio Visit is a Q&A with local artists. Here, former Urbana resident Sasha Steinberg, 27, and his partner, John Jacob Lee, 31, both of Brooklyn, N.Y., chats with Melissa Merli. Steinberg and Lee recently launched their new magazine, Vym, about drag art and culture, at Figure One in Champaign.

Why did you launch Vym in C-U?

Sasha: Half convenience, but also, from the very beginning, we wanted to do a launch party here because we have a lot of people from C-U who are in the magazine: Kinzie Cornell Ferguson, Ben Bascom, Veronica Bleaus and Sophie McMahon, who created the cover for the second issue.

When we did the Kickstarter to fund the magazine, a lot of support came from what I call the "mom network" — all these great people in my parents' lives who have always been supportive of me. We also wanted to reach people who are interested in a drag magazine but have never seen a drag show before. I thought, "Oh my God, we have to show them how fun, great and clever this world can be."

Are there other magazines about drag culture?

John: There are some online magazines, but only one other print magazine, but it's really limited, exclusive and expensive. It's all about fashion and not about performance or the ideas of drag.

Sasha: We wanted to focus on the aesthetics and ideas of drag and how the fashion and performance come from those ideas.

What are some of those ideas?

Sasha:I guess at its heart, drag kind of laughs in the face of identity, specifically the limitations of gender. So just in the act of changing the way you look, in terms of gender, there is a questioning of the rules.

John: And of the validity of the construct of gender.

Sasha: And there is a kind of radical freedom in designing your own identity in drag, and that's something that inspires people again and again.

Do you two do a lot of drag performance in New York?

John: Sasha performs in drag, and I perform with him. I spent all of my 20s acting in musical theater, most of it in some kind of drag, on tours and in regional productions.

Were you surprised that so many people came to your launch party?

John: It was wonderful to see such a wide variety of people from the community. We had 79 people who came.

Sasha: Lots of people from my Uni High days were there.

When did you graduate from Uni and what did you do after that?

Sasha: 2004. I received a bachelor's degree in modern literature from Vassar College. My focus was on translation studies. I'm really interested in the way performance and design can translate ideas and the way people speak different languages culturally. Then I received an MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. That's where we met; John was performing at the theater in town.

Before that, I went to Russia for a year on a Fulbright to look at political art, especially from the gay community. I did a lot of interviews with gay activists and found very little art from that community because it's hard to create art under oppression. I actually think drag is a great tool for political art.

Sasha, you seem to have a 1930s Berlin vampire look to your drag act.

Sasha: That's definitely what I'm drawn to.

John: The Nosferatu look is definitely an inspiration.

Sasha: I also try to think about the ways of creating feminine beauty that women might find empowering. Like not having a lot of hair. I do bald beauty a lot. I try to make sure that the characters I show are strong women.

I have to ask you two what you think of the Caitlyn Jenner thing?

Sasha: I am of two minds about it. On the one hand, I think tons of people in America just found someone they "knew" is transgender and they've seen the media treat her pretty well — a gorgeous photo shoot and an in-depth interview. I think every trans man and woman should be so lucky.

John: The problem is most trans people don't have the opportunities and wealth that Caitlyn Jenner has, and most trans people we know don't look in two months like a flawless beauty. It sets unrealistic standards for people. Most trans people live in between.

You two aren't interested in being trans, right?

John: No, we're just plain old cisgender gay boys.

I've been seeing that term cisgender a lot. What does it mean?

Sasha: The simplest meaning is not trans.

John: It's someone who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth. The word creates a way for us to talk about gender in nonjudgmental ways, which is really important.

For more about Vym, go to


Topics (2):Music, People