Machine Dazzle, costume designer for performer Taylor Mac, is doing a week-long residency with Maine College of Art students, including Shamira Tanguay of Pittsfield, left, and Alaura Gonzalez of Pulaski, N.Y. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The man who calls himself Machine Dazzle spent many hours this week working with students at Maine College of Art to create what the gender-bending costume designer and maker called a “fantastic, unusual and fabulous” costume that his boss, performer Taylor Mac, very likely will wear at some point during a performance Thursday at the State Theatre in Portland.

Made with recycled sails that have been cut up and shaped to look like the state of Maine, it will be flashy and large, and it might appear more as wearable sculpture than any kind of stage costuming. Very likely, it will include elements of an over-sized American flag and some kind of flashy, outrageous headdress, and somehow it also will reference Maine’s bicentennial and find its way thematically into Mac’s stage show, the widely-lauded “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged).”

And there probably will be pink.

But the lasting value in Dazzle’s week-long residency may be as a role model.

“I am an example of someone who has a career as an artist,” Dazzle said as he built a display Tuesday morning in the Congress Street window of MECA using buoys, fishing nets and other materials from the sea. “My story is different than other stories.”

Dazzle’s residency is a collaboration between Portland Ovations, which is presenting Mac’s performance at the State, and MECA, which has offered a textile and fashion design major since 2013. Dazzle, whose parents were born and raised in Maine, arrived in Portland on Sunday, though his collaboration with students began last week with a video chat.

Mac is considered one of the most daring and outrageous artists working on stage today, mounting theatrical musical spectacles that combine social and cultural commentary with over-the-top performances that are rooted in drag, history and social activism. Dazzle’s costumes are at the center of Mac’s show – daring, regal and lyrical, just like the 6-f00t-5 designer.

Machine Dazzle is his professional name. He was born Matthew Flower and grew up in Texas, gay and feeling very out of place until he left home and moved to New York in 1994, where he found his friends and his creative voice in the drag scene. But it was a tough road getting there.

Machine Dazzle works on a window installation Tuesday at the Maine College of Art on Congress Street in Portland. His parents were born and raised in Maine, and he still has family members in Bar Harbor and Ellsworth.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Dazzle’s father, James, who lives in Colorado, was born in Calais in 1945. His mother, Deborah, was born in Eastport in 1947. She died in 1996. His parents grew up together in Pembroke.

“But I didn’t grow up there, at all,” Dazzle said. “I was born in Philadelphia and raised in Texas, Idaho and Colorado. Growing up in Texas, a few summers – maybe three times, maybe four – we drove up to Maine. We would pull a small camper and stop at KOA campgrounds along the way. They were fun trips.”

He still has family in Bar Harbor and Ellsworth, and returned recently for an aunt’s memorial.

His example to students is one of having a vision and trusting it, despite having to overcome people along the way who don’t share that vision. “I was always a little strange. I was gay. I was a weirdo,” he said. “I was really tortured at school. People spat on me.”

His parents, he said, “were a little embarrassed about me.”

He left Texas in 1994 at age 22 and felt liberated. He bought a one-way ticket to New York, a move that his parents did not condone.

Machine Dazzle lays out an American flag that he planned to use in a dress design. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“But it was the first big decision that I made,” said Dazzle, who is now 46. “I was fine on my own, calling my own shots and making life happen for myself. It was scary, but I was tired of other people making decisions for me.”

For more than a decade, he juggled jobs but always worked in the arts. For 15 years, he worked as a jewelry designer by day and, at night, worked as a dancer and performer, honing his routine and building his confidence and getting ideas for costumes.

He quit the jewelry job only a few years ago to focus on costume design and his own stage show. His worlds of dance and costume design collided with crescendos after he met Mac and began making costumes limited only by Dazzle’s imagination and Mac’s willingness to indulge it.

When working for Mac, Dazzle designs costumes that represent ideas and emotions. He told the New Yorker last year, “I like to put stories in the costumes. Taylor is basically wearing a bunch of ideas and stories.”

Dazzle’s work has been widely recognized. He was a co-recipient of the 2017 Bessie Award for outstanding visual design and the winner of the Henry Hewes Design Award in 2017. Last year, he was the grand marshal of the Village Halloween Parade in New York. In September, before coming up to Maine, the Guggenheim Museum featured his work as a designer and performer as part of its Works and Process series.

He came up with his name during his nights in the New York dance scene. Dazzle references the Dazzle Dancers, a drag troupe that he joined in the 1990s. His friends called him Machine because of his dancing skills.

Maine College of Artseniors Alaura Gonzalez of Pulaski, N.Y. and Shamira Tanguay, right, of Pittsfield cut out pieces of sail material in the shape of the state of Maine, for use in a dress design. The sails were donated by the Sea Bags company in Portland.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The MECA students worked with Dazzle before his arrival, chatting with him by video conference last week and collecting material for the MECA window installation over the weekend.

On Monday, they accompanied him to collect sails donated by the Portland company Sea Bags. They began shaping the sails Tuesday, helping Dazzle transform what began as a very loose vision about something nautical and seafaring into an idea that also recognized Maine statehood and Wabanaki history.

Mac has praised Dazzle and his costumes for elevating and energizing the show.

“I get to wear this art – and it’s not just costuming, they’re little art pieces – so that fact that you get to bring your own personal art into somebody else’s art and they get to co-mingle and make something bigger than both together is energizing,” Mac told the San Francisco radio station KQED in 2017.

In the sun-filled textile studios on MECA’s third floor, senior Chloe Adams and her classmates filled plastic tubs with cutouts of Maine in various sizes and colors, with a goal of creating 200 by day’s end. Sometime before Thursday night, those cutouts would become a new costume available to Mac for the show. The vision was still forming in Dazzle’s head Tuesday morning.

“Machine is a really great artist, and this is a great opportunity for all of us,” said Adams, who lives in Portland.

Machine Dazzle works on a window installation on Tuesday at the Maine College of Art in Portland. He says he always knew he needed to be an artist.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Alaura Gonzalez, also a senior, liked working with the recycled sail cloth and said the experience opened her mind to possibilities. She’s interested in costume design and described working with Dazzle as “really inspiring.”

For MECA, the value of having an artist like Dazzle in the classroom is the chance for students to collaborate and interact at various phases of conception, design and execution, said Alysha Kupferer, assistant professor and program chair of the textile and fashion design department.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to get to work directly with an artist and see a different kind of process,” she said. “There are so many different ways to be an artist. To see that exemplified in practice, that’s really helpful.”

The department is in its seventh year and has 10 majors – four seniors and six juniors. The largest graduating class was 2017, with nine students.

Innately, Dazzle said he always knew he needed to be an artist. School was never fun and always stressful. The only relief he felt, he said, was when he was given the opportunity to create and make. He always followed that desire, and took advantage of the opportunities that he helped create along the way.

From feeling picked-on and ridiculed growing up, he’s become an artist whose ideas are valued by his community – even if he doubted his relatives would make the trek to Portland to see his work on Thursday.

“They’re not quite ready,” he said.

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