PILSEN — Jerry Blossom is a feisty Filipino woman with a short blonde wig whose spontaneous dancing can make people feel uncomfortable.
She also happens to be a man.
Blossom is the creation of Kiam Marcelo Junio, a 28-year-old Pilsen artist who uses performance art to push people’s gender buttons.
Originally from the Philippines, Junio and his family moved to California when he was 16. After high school, he spent eight years as a closeted gay man in the Navy.
His life as a naval medic ultimately brought him to Haiti when the massive earthquake struck there in 2010.
While working on a medical boat in Haiti as a respiratory therapist, Junio found himself facing death on a regular basis. At one point, while trying to save an 18-month-old boy, Junio said he realized the boy was dying and told the boy’s father.
Without hesitating, the father told him to take the boy off the machines keeping him alive.
“That just changed how I viewed medicine and the purpose of us even being there as a power,” he said.
Frustrated by the inconsistent coverage Junio said he thought the disaster was receiving, he created a four-panel collage of photos, newspaper clippings and personal writing that captured the way he experienced the earthquake.
Before Haiti, Junio had surrounded himself with those who didn’t have strong opinions about homosexuality. But in Haiti, his teammates were vocally homophobic.
“I wasn’t free enough to explore my sexuality,” he said. “I felt like I had to keep my real life separate from my work life.”
After Haiti, Junio chose not to renew his military service and instead relocated to Pilsen, where he enrolled in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
After starting the BFA program, Junio created his character, Jerry Blossom, who he uses in his performance art to startle an audience and get them to consider the limits of gendered society.
In one performance piece, Junio sits with the audience dressed as Blossom as a film he put together is played. The film shows 80s and 90s commercials, interviews and music videos from the Philippines.
At some point, Jerry Blossom starts singing and begins dancing and encouraging others to dance.
“It’s about kind of riding this gender binary and fluctuating between feminine, masculine, male, female and then it takes into account also the sexualization of those types of bodies,” Junio said.
Alberto Gutierrez, who was Junio’s burlesque teacher and collaborated with him on past performance pieces, said Junio’s work uses playfulness to challenge his audience.
“He has a very critical eye,” he said of Junio’s work. “His artistry is critiquing society’s impact on our bodies and he uses burlesque to develop that and make it entertaining and captivating.”
Gutierrez, whose burlesque name is Mister Junior, said Junio’s work also entertains the audience, which he said is key to making an artistic impact.
“Making it entertaining is like the strongest component of any artwork or any performance piece.”
In February, Junio was awarded the Mark Aguhar Memorial Grant by Chances Dances, a dance party collective.
The $1,000 grant is given to a gay, feminine-presenting artist of color.
For his final Bachelor's of Fine Arts show at the Art Institute, Junio is creating an installation piece that will meld his military life, sexuality and performance art into one statement.
But, Junio said, it was that moment in Haiti that first allowed him to see that his career and his art did not have to live apart from one another.
“It connected those two worlds for me and taught me that both of those things have value and don’t need to be separated,” he said.
Junio’s show is Friday at Sullivan Galleries (33 S. State, 7th Floor)from 7-9 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.