Though less well known by her given name of Thanalakshmi Subramaniam, San Antonio artist ST Shimi had many names, guises, and talents.
The Singapore native and longtime San Antonio resident died Wednesday at age 49 after being struck by a sports utility vehicle shortly after stepping off a VIA bus on Blanco Road, according to media reports. She was taken to University Hospital and pronounced dead an hour later. Shimi is survived by her husband, Oscar Alvarado.
At the time of the accident, Shimi was heading to the Soft Sensuous Moves studio, where she taught a pole dancing class. The studio’s website still features Shimi leading her class, wearing a plastic clown nose and a broad smile, details that only hint at the complexity of the popular and deeply engaged personality. Though just under 5 feet tall, Shimi had a personality that was larger than life, according to her friends and colleagues.
Some knew her as burlesque performer Black Orchid or her drag king counterpart Buck Orchid when appearing with Stars & Garters Burlesque, while her elementary students at Bonham Academy simply called her Miss Shimi. Others knew her as a friend, neighbor, colleague, fellow student, active social media presence, avid walker, community activist, and social justice advocate.
“Her interests were so diverse,” said Leah Larson, a literature professor who taught Shimi in the literature, creative writing, and social justice graduate program at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU). A Dartmouth College graduate in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies with longstanding interest in writing and theater arts, Shimi relocated to San Antonio in 1994 to begin work with the Jump–Start Performance Co., where she eventually became artistic director and a regular cast member.
Larson, who most recently taught Shimi in a class on disability literature, said after she heard of her student’s death she gathered the eight-member class to mourn and reflect.
“She was a huge influence on all the graduate students,” Larson said, mentoring and forming study groups to help them. “They’re really tight group and they’re taking this very hard,” she said of losing their valued classmate, and they spoke of wanting Shimi to be recognized for her scholarly accomplishments. “She was such a major figure in the arts community here, but the students all wanted to emphasize that she was also a top-notch scholar,” Larson said.
Larson said the university planned to grant Shimi a master of fine arts degree posthumously.
Performing artist Marisela Barrera graduated from the same program years before Shimi entered OLLU, but acknowledged, “she was a big influence on me.” Barrera cavorted with Shimi on the rasquache floats of unofficial Miss Southtown neighborhood parades, and appreciated her work as a fellow member of Jump-Start, once performing together on a show titled Otherwise Occupied.
Barrera said when she and Shimi taught elementary students together in Jump-Start’s Historias y Cuentos program at Bonham Academy, she considered Shimi “a master mover,” not only for encouraging the students to learn to control their bodies through movement, but for her ability to inspire and motivate.
Shimi also regularly helped Barrera strategize approaches to arts advocacy among city officials and said that as glamorous as her friend could be on stage, she was just as fierce off of it. “She was a true badass,” Barrera said.
Add aerial dancing, hula hoop dancing, and fire-eating to the list of Shimi’s evolutionary performance personality, said Dino Foxx, a multidisciplinary performance artist, drag queen, author, and educator. Foxx once performed with Shimi as the burlesque duo The Flaming Orchids and considers Shimi among his “burlesque mothers.”
Foxx has since relocated to San Francisco to pursue his career, but fondly recalls his time with Shimi. “She remains the most unique person I’ve ever met in San Antonio,” he said.
Shimi married Alvarado, an artist, in 1997 and the couple purchased a home in the Lavaca neighborhood 15 years ago. But she “definitely didn’t fit the role of San Antonio Southside housewife,” Foxx said. “She changed that role completely.”
For those who don’t necessarily equate burlesque dancing with social justice, Foxx identified Shimi’s empowerment of young people, LGBTQ+ people, and nonconformists of all kinds as essential to what she brought to the world. He said Shimi could be gruff and aloof, but only because “this woman lived her truth, no matter what, no matter how much it cost. She was 100 percent herself, all the time.”
“She moved through the world expecting for it to move out of her way, as very well she should,” Foxx said. Though, noting that Shimi walked everywhere, he said, “she was always afraid of cars.”
Shimi and Alvarado were known as gracious hosts. Foxx recalled their annual Christmas open house parties, where guests freely came and went all day, often staying long into the night, when Shimi would magically appear with what they appreciatively called “Shimi pasta” to feed everyone. In summer, Shimi would make champagne cocktails to cool off and invited people to their remodeled rooftop porch to enjoy the fireworks display nearby at Hemisfair.
Longtime friend and Lavaca neighbor Cherise Rohr-Allegrini described “a tidal wave … of emotion” experienced by the neighborhood as the reality of Shimi’s death became apparent, describing her friend as “a Southtown icon” in part because she was such a fixture walking in the neighborhood.
Next door neighbor Angela Martinez described Shimi as a deliberate and determined pedestrian intent on safety. “She was very careful because she walked everywhere,” Martinez said. Martinez and husband Rick are the owners of the portable movie venue Slab Cinema, and Martinez said she was enjoying a showing of the romcom Love Actually during a cold night at The Good Kind restaurant when she learned of Shimi’s death. She waited anxiously to inform others of the news while the gravity of the moment sunk in, she said.
Rohr-Allegrini emphasized that Shimi was extremely cautious and knowledgeable about getting around town safely as a pedestrian, so the way she died was especially shocking.
Though media reports stated that Shimi had attempted to cross Blanco Road outside of a designated crosswalk, the nearest crosswalks are either two full blocks south or more than two blocks north, with no sidewalks on the western side of the street where her destination was located.
Whatever the mishap that caused her death, “our hearts are forever broken,” Rohr-Allegrini wrote in a Facebook post notifying the social media community of Shimi’s passing. In the same post, Rohr-Allegrini said, “I can’t say her light has been extinguished, because it will forever shine brightly in all of us who have been touched by Shimi.”
Martinez said a memorial service was scheduled for Sunday at 3 p.m. in a Lavaca location to be determined. Further details were to be posted on a special Facebook page dedicated to Shimi’s memory.
Earlier Sunday, Jump Start will hold its annual Brunch of Champions brunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Honoree Leonard Cruz will dedicate a fan dance to the memory of Shimi, Barrera said, with tickets available by donation here.