Photo by Nick Eustis
Work by Dennis Bergevin.
By Nick Eustis
Studio 54, New York City, in the late 1970s. The world-famous nightclub is packed to the rafters, ready for an evening of glitz, glamour, and dancing. Among the crowd is Dennis Bergevin and his friends.
“I was in Studio 54, and there was a big costume contest. I went as Ptolemy, the brother of Cleopatra, in this fabulous costume. We happened to have this big Egyptian headdress that I used. So, we went there, all made up…and lo and behold, there was Andy, and he took a picture,” said Bergevin.
That “Andy” was none other than Andy Warhol, and Bergevin insists that, buried in the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum, his photo from that night still rests.
Today, Dennis Bergevin is a retired artist living in the Northside’s Allegheny West neighborhood. Bergevin has spent most of his life in the arts, including 25 years of experience as a hairdresser and makeup artist for opera companies around the world.
Taking after his mother, an amateur painter, the arts seemed a natural fit for Bergevin.
“I’ve been in the arts since I was a kid. It’s the one thing I could do well at school. And the teachers recognized it, and so, to keep me quiet, I guess, gave me stuff to do,” he said.
Then, in 1974, Bergevin was awarded a grant from the DC-based scholarship organization, the National Opera Institute, to study makeup and wig-making for opera. To pursue this, he picked up and moved from his home state of California to New York City that year.
After completing his education, Bergevin worked for an opera company with his partner, Charles Elsen. With opera houses in 10 different cities to manage, the two traveled regularly around North America, and even to Scotland.
After returning from a trip to the UK in 1985, however, Elsen was diagnosed with HIV. He died later that same year. Just five years later, Bergevin was also diagnosed with the disease.
“Finally, in the middle and late 90s, things started to change with HIV, and better drugs started to come in. People started living longer,” he said. Bergevin credits his survival to these advances in medicine.
Being diagnosed with HIV also influenced Bergevin’s decision to move out of New York City.
“Once I got sick, I decided to move out of Manhattan to Pittsburgh because I didn’t want to be sick in New York,” he said.
After making the move to Pittsburgh’s Northside, Bergevin continued his work wig-making for opera until he was forced to retire due to his illness. Unable to do one type of art, like Andy Warhol, Bergevin took up another medium. Since his retirement, Bergevin has worked in sculpture, painting, and even puppets.
Today, even in retirement, Bergevin lives an active life. His husband of five years has taken up the wig-making trade, continuing to operate their company.
He is the artist-in-residence at the Father Ryan Arts Center and has collaborated with the Mattress Factory. He’s painted portraits of AIDS patients to fill the waiting rooms of HIV clinics in Pittsburgh. On top of all that, he’s working on assembling art shows in both Pittsburgh and Washington D.C.
But for someone who’s lived like Dennis, that’s what he calls “just living.”