The word “ethereal” comes up, more than once, in my conversations about Mike Sullivan’s design work and photography. I’m not surprised—it’s an appropriate descriptor. There’s a delicate fleetingness to everything he does, most literally because many of his masks and headpieces are made of natural materials. He gathers armfuls of flowers, feathers, and shrubs, and makes them into halos. Which means parts of his works, or sometimes even whole pieces, have limited lifespans. They literally die.
Spine & Clover is Sullivan’s first photo book, a reversible hardcover collection of his art. Half of it, “Spine,” is devoted to his design work: he staged and shot images of models in his headpieces, and they’re celestial-feeling, almost mythic. The other half of the book, “Clover,” features Sullivan’s documentary photography. There, he lovingly captures New York City’s queer nightlife—candid and dynamic, in spaces like the The Rosemont and Webster Hall, at parties like Ladyfag’s Battle Hymn.
“It can come down to a split second, especially in the photos where people are performing,” he said of the “Clover” photographs, many of which capture drag performance. An action shot—not unlike a flower—“is something that’s temporary. It’s only going to exist once.”
Sullivan grew up in small-town Connecticut. There wasn’t much queer community there, but there was a lot of inspiration, for a visual artist interested in the natural world—he’s had a camera, and a penchant for using it to capture his surroundings, since high school. His mother is a seamstress; he’s always been surrounded by and interested in crafts, but has no formal training in design. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2016, with a theater degree and a strong desire to work with his hands.
“I was newly interested in creating visual looks,” Sullivan recalled, of his post-grad days. “Playing around with cardboard, experimenting.” He felt a calling: he really wanted to make artworks you could wear.
Sullivan moved to New York City and quickly became exposed to queer art scenes and nightlife. He was pleased to find that many of the artists he encountered, particularly in the drag world, were working in a mode that deeply interested him: they were making constructed, dramatic artworks for their bodies. “When I saw other queer people doing stuff like that, I was totally inspired and hooked,” he said.
For Sullivan, capturing queer nightlife in action and building his delicate headpieces aren’t divergent impulses; they’re two sides of a coin, areas of artistic focus that overlap and inform one another. From basically the beginning of his time in New York City, he’s been building his own wearable sculptures, and documenting others’ as well.
Spine & Clover chronicles the ideas and the influences Sullivan has accumulated, and the very specific aesthetic he’s settled into, over the last four years: it’s “a blend of the natural, the decadent, the grotesque, and the magical,” as one of his collaborators, Katie McGeorge, described. The “Spine” images live at the intersection of the urban and the pastoral, with photographs of models both on shadowy Manhattan streets and in bright Connecticut fields. A large number of the headpieces are made with shattered mirror shards, which Sullivan became interested in because they’re delicate to handle—in their fragility, they’re like a man-made, disco-ball-esque equivalent of a disintegrating petal. And many of the masks have a creature-ish quality to them, too, with jagged glass teeth or ominous pincers beneath a sunny flower crown.
“The masks are kind of a bridge between happiness and sadness, life and death,” Sullivan mused. “They’re relatively aggressive, but then kind of soft.”
As the “Clover” images demonstrate, Sullivan has also spent the last handful of years immersing himself in a particular queer community; that’s been crucial to this project, and to the development of his art broadly. Brooklyn-based drag artist Sandy Devastation recalled how, three years ago, a “very excited-looking young man holding a camera” approached her at Bushwig and asked to photograph her: “I was instantly drawn to his commitment to the shot… his childlike curiosity, and insane creat[ivity],” she said.
That initial connection resulted in a creative collaboration, a friendship, and a ton of images. Sullivan has replicated that story many, many times, with many local queer artists. He photographs them candidly, at their shows and in bars, but also in staged shoots, with his masks incorporated into their drag looks.
“I think it’s special to print all of this in a hardcover book, in a time and scene where most photos are taken to post on social media,” said Candy Warhol, a drag artist and another of Sullivan’s regular subjects. “Mike has a keen eye for capturing nightlife queerdos, and by printing these books, he’s allowing underground personas to become immortalized.”
Last month, The Rosemont threw a well-attended launch party for Spine & Clover, which West Dakota and Harajuku co-hosted. People sauntered up to the makeshift display table near the bar, flipping through copies of the book; lots reacted, with audible excitement, to seeing their friends featured in glossy hardcover (“The community is massive, but full of connected dots,” Sullivan said). Sandy Devastation and Candy Warhol were there, each wearing one of Sullivan’s headpieces—a scorpion and a spider, towering high above the sea of bodies.
Sullivan told me he loves how pronounced the pieces are. That they force you to look at them, that they allow the queer people wearing them to “make themselves visible.” All night at the Rosemont, I kept spotting those two pieces out of the corner of my eye: striking and precarious, bobbing gently as their wearers moved. Each a hoisted mass of glitter and glass.