“On the Bias” and “Postpartum”

UPDATE:  Photos from the exhibit Working on the Bias

 

My artwork will be included in two forthcoming exhibits opening in February and March: Working on the Bias in Salina, Kansas, and Postpartum in El Dorado, Kansas. Both are projects of the Kansas branch of the Feminist Art Project.

 

Working on the Bias

Watson Gallery

151 S. Santa Fe, Salina, KS

Feb. 22 – Apr. 21, 2013

 

I decided to make a banner for this exhibit after re-visiting a book I found years ago at a library book-sale called Banners and Hangings: Design and Construction, by Norman Laliberte and Sterling McIlhany, published in 1966.  The book was musty and plain with no dustcover, but the banners in it by renowned artist Norman Laliberte, and his banner-making process, were exciting and of their time in a good way.

 

I remember banners as a child growing up in the 1960′s and 70′s, some political and others religious.  My mother taught me rudimentary embroidery and sewing skills back then too, and these were the basic skills that I brought to my banner project.  The passing on of sewing skills from mother to daughter is relevant for Working on the Bias because the exhibit is framed as a feminist art show intended to link needlework and “identity”.

 

My banner’s themes also relate to my memory of the banners I saw in my youth because the words and images fall somewhere between  political and spiritual, calling for action on climate change. The angel in my banner is both a mother and a farmer, and a blazing sun and cracked earth of a drought surround her. The text is a plea, but not to a spiritual being for help. Instead the plea is directed to our own better selves or better angels and reads: “It’s too hot!” and “It feels wrong.”  And then, “Listen to our better angels, heed the warnings, and act!”

 

I learned from working on this banner that needlework, at least for a novice like me, takes time.  After working on the piece for several hours a day for numberswiki.com

a number of weeks, I began to develop a repetitive motion injury and a badly strained back.  It seemed a bit ridiculous to become injured by simply hand-sewing and yet why not? A friend whose mother is a quilter told me that this kind of injury is common among quilters. Think of our grandmother’s gnarled hands.

 

Rachel Epp Buller, regional coordinator of the Feminist Art Project, and Carolyn Wedel, director of the Watson Gallery in Salina, KS, are curating the exhibit. They will include artwork that explores gender and identity by either physically or conceptually incorporating stitched, embroidered, or woven elements. The exhibit will serve as an accompaniment to the nationally touring exhibit, A Complex Weave: Women and Identity in Contemporary Art, opening this month (February 2013) at the Salina Arts Center.

 

Postpartum

Erman B. White Gallery, Butler County Community College

901 S. Haverhill, El Dorado, KS

Mar. 1 – Apr. 5, 2013

 

Postpartum explores the postpartum experience of women through art, including such themes as the postpartum body and mind, the lactating body, maternal loss and grief, the reevaluation of family gender roles, and more. I will have two small scratchboard pieces in the exhibit: Steamed and Blessing.

 

I sometimes joke that even ten years after giving birth to my beautiful boy, I’m still processing his colic! Trying to console an inconsolable baby every evening for three months was stressful indeed, but in this piece I was considering a different kind of noise and stress. In Steamed (2011) the screaming baby, chattering squirrel, and steaming tea-pot are metaphors for what sometimes feel like a clamorous, confusing, out-of-control world crying out for attention and comfort — with a bit of whimsy thrown in, too.

 

When my son was a baby, I carried him around in a sling. When I was walking downtown on one of those days, a Native American man who seemed to be experiencing hard times or was maybe even homeless called out to me and said, “Don’t let those angel’s wings get scraped nowhere.” These words were a blessing for me, a reminder of the great responsibility that I was taking on as a new mother and a reminder that raising children really is the work of an entire community.  I call the piece Blessing (2003).

 

 

 

 

 

“Art Lives!” in “Art Lives!” at CityArts of Wichita

Here is the story of Art Lives!, one of two pieces that I co-created with Erika Nelson for the collaborative exhibit Art Lives!, coordinated by Rachel Epp Buller of the Feminist Art Project.  Women artists from across Kansas were paired for this project to make both individual and collaborative artwork addressing the theme “Art Lives!” in light of the elimination of the Kansas Arts Commission a year ago.

 

Here is the process of how Erika and I made Art Lives!  We wrote an artist statement together, trading our writing back and forth to work on in the same way that we worked on the piece itself.  I begin:

 

Stage 1 -  Lora:

 

Erika and I began collaborating on two art pieces after exchanging a couple of emails and talking on the phone. Because we live hundreds of miles apart and still to this day have never met, we decided on a process in which we would each begin making a piece that we would then mail to the other for additional work.  We would mail the pieces back and forth until our deadline — one focused loosely on “politics” and the other on “art lives.” The process would be a conversation, a slow-moving, visual-heavy conversation about the state of the arts in Kansas.

 

I began our piece, that we eventually titled Art Lives!, by painting a baby bird held in someone’s hand. I had toyed with using this image in some of my own art ever since seeing a photo of a baby bird in a National Geographic magazine a couple of years ago that I had made sketches from. I think of the baby bird here as a stand-in for babies of all kinds who are both fragile and yet are amazingly strong and resilient. Was this bird dead or alive? Maybe that would be a good way to start a piece about the state of the arts in Kansas.

 

Stage 2 – Erika:

 

I saw the beginning of Art Lives! and thought about some of the conversations that had been occurring throughout the past year regarding the arts – when is it endangered?  When is it cared for?  Whose hand is that?  It brought to mind a Christmas visit to an area racked by the same issues, but with dire results.  On the banks of an inland sea, two shores exist.  On one shore, bird hatcheries and aviaries, on the other, a mass of death where the wildlife of the sea washes up to become a part of the beach – a beach made only of the remnants of the life that grows just on the other shore.  The bird image that makes up the second layer came from this second shore.

 

Stage 3 – Lora:

 

I had been curious how Erika would respond to my baby bird image, and getting the package in the mail with her visual response was akin to birthday mail. I immediately liked her overlay of the adult bird image, and read her note about where the image came from. While I hadn’t viewed this bird as death absolutely, the image did remind me of a photography project that had made its way around the internet a couple of years ago with photos of dead sea birds whose decaying bodies revealed all kinds of crazy human-made junk that the birds had eaten.

 

Already our image was complicated and I didn’t want another layer to visually clutter the piece. So I decided to include simply the outlines of two sets of embracing hands bordered in yellow, an image I had used in some past work to represent interpersonal support. Bringing women artists from across the state together to support each other as artists was one of the goals of the entire “Art Lives!” project. I felt that this goal had taken hold in our collaboration and I wanted to show this with the image of embracing hands.

 

Stage 4 – Erika:

 

As with the partner exchange being mailed back and forth, weekly, seeing the slip of paper in the PO box alerting me to a package became an exciting part of the process. This time, in seeing the interlocking and overlapping hands, seeming to strengthen and surround the lil’ bird in the center of the image, I thought about the cycles, the circles of life and death, inspiration and struggle, that were recurring themes in the process.

 

I added a swirling, emerging set of forms, derived from the same Christmas exploration as the Salton Sea bird.  Leonard Knight, a visionary artist working in a destitute and desperate area of the California desert, has created a colorful, playful, powerful mountain in the midst of this hard place – a multicolored mountain of adobe and castoffs and paint. The bird forms used in Art Lives! come from the millions of soaring birds that pepper the mountain, appearing in every surface of Leonard’s work.  Their simple innocence of flight, and the marriage of bird-yet-human form seemed to be a connector for the hands and birds in the collaboration, as well as bringing the life/death cycle to the desiccated bird form from Stage 2.

 

Stage 5 – Lora:

 

At this point we evaluated our project over the phone and decided that it was at a comfortable stopping point. And our time was up. I liked the way that Erika’s energetic birds-in-robes (maybe even in bathrobes) seemed to come from death and encircle the baby bird giving the whole piece a sense of regeneration. I added some light blue marks into these robed beings to make a visual connection to the original baby bird. It was also time now to glue down “little guy,” a dead baby bird that Erika had found somewhere and painted blue, that we had mailed back and forth a couple of times for contemplation. The real baby bird added something visceral and tangible to the work.

 

We agreed that I would mount this piece and that Erika would bring our Brownback- collaboration to its conclusion.  After casting about for how to mount it (frame it? stretch it?), I decided to simply paint a solid piece of plywood and glue the canvas to the board with acrylic gel medium.  I’ll spare you the details of my various mounting missteps and simply note that I am pleased with how the piece came out, and I like the way the canvas is set off visually by the black and stippled background.

 

(Also read about Brownback Puppeteer, a second piece that I made in collaboration with Erika Nelson for Art Lives!, and On With the Show, a scratchboard piece I made for the exhibit.)

“Brownback Puppeteer” collaboration for “Art Lives!”

Here is the story of Brownback Puppeteer, a piece I created in collaboration with Erika Nelson for the exhibit Art Lives!, coordinated by Rachel Epp Buller of the Feminist Art Project.  The exhibit opens on March 30, 2012, at CityArts in Wichita.

 

Women artists from across Kansas were paired with each other to make both individual and collaborative artwork addressing the theme “Art Lives!” in light of the elimination of the Kansas Arts Commission.

 

Here is the process of how Erika and I made Brownback Puppeteer.  We wrote an artist statement about the piece, trading our writing back and forth to work on in the same way that we worked on the piece itself.  Erika begins:

 

 

 

 

Stage 1 – Erika:

In the collaborative project and exhibition “Art Lives!,” created in response to the cut in Arts funding in the state of Kansas and the elimination of a nationally recognized arts organization, Lora Jost and I have been exchanging two pieces via mail to work on together. These two pieces, Art Lives! and Brownback Puppeteer, reflect two sides to the concept – the politics behind the frustration of the arts community, and the resilience of Art itself.

 

Brownback Puppeteer started as a simple set of portraits of Gov. Sam Brownback, gleaned from publicly available press photos.  The original thought was one of political cartooning, akin to the sort of editorial cartoons that have peppered the conversation on the media front.  This was a new realm for both Lora and me, and the collaborative voice changed and evolved through the discussion, reflecting both the urban(ish) and rural impact of Brownback’s policies and actions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stage 2 – Lora:

When I received the two portraits of Governor Brownback from Erika, I was perplexed about what to add next. Artists have been satirizing political figures since classical Greece if not since the earliest cave paintings, and given these portraits in this context I had a feeling that our collaboration would go in the direction of satire as well.

 

I wasn’t a political cartoonist but still I decided to add a cartoon bubble to the governor on the left (that’s how I oriented the two pieces) with him asking, “Art?! What is it good for?!” Maybe the question would read as incredulous on his part but also as a real question I was putting out there to be answered; a question for Erika.

 

The text that I added to the second portrait is based on a refrigerator magnet that my artist-brother gave to me many years ago that read, “Art can’t hurt you.” I had always read this statement with a certain irony, and it seemed an interesting backdrop from which to view Governor Brownback’s elimination of the KAC. I have always assumed that Governor Brownback was comfortable eliminating arts funding because he didn’t think that the arts community could hurt him politically. So I changed the text in this piece to read, “Art Can’t Hurt Me,” to represent Governor Brownback’s arrogance towards the arts community, first firing the entire staff of the KAC and then line-item-vetoing the organization’s entire budget.

 

Stage 3 – Erika:

When I got the Brownbacks back with text, I was happy to see the pointed, yet upbeat turn.  I didn’t want to demonize BB, but create some sort of commentary on the policies enacted and their effects on the art world in Kansas.  Since there were two panels, with two possibilities for related yet complimentary messages, I decided to add both the activist reaction to policies, as well as the continued growth of the Arts in Kansas.

 

For one, I added a painted paper silhouette scene from one of the Arts rallies held at the Capitol.  It was such a powerful coming together of the arts, pleading and empowering the Arts community, I chose some of the messages from the many voices represented.  A John Brown that would give hugs for arts, a “Here’s My 29 Cents” illustrating the cost to taxpayers for supporting the Kansas Arts Commission, and an Arts = Business were just a few of the sentiments of the day.  I also added string images to Brownback’s hands, opening the question of “who pulls the strings?”  For the other panel, I originally envisioned a massive swirl of arts coming up to confront the BB image, but downscaled the addition to a Meadowlark, elevated via tornado to BB’s eye level, singing out for the Arts of Kansas.

 

Stage 4 – Lora:

As a response to the question “what is art good for,” Erika had painted such a nice protest scene around one of the images of Brownback that I felt that this image was almost complete.  And yet there were those silly strings to contend with, and so I decided to do something with them.  I tried to use them to illustrate the idea that Brownback appears to be responding not to what ordinary Kansans want but to particular interest groups that are far more ideologically extreme than most Kansans.  The Governor’s elimination of the KAC is but one example; rather than responding to ordinary Kansans, many of whom support the KAC, Brownback’s decision to eliminate the agency reflected more the kind of views of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing interest group.  I decided to include the logos of five of these sorts of organizations that have ties to Governor Brownback, and to illustrate these connections I attached real strings stretching from the organizations’ logos to Brownback’s hands.  As I considered these organizations, I was struck that many of them are considered secretive: ALEC, the Koch brothers, the Fellowship, and Opus Dei. Perhaps the Tea Party, that I also included, is less so. I was curious what Erika would think of these additions.

 

I didn’t know what to do with the other Brownback image. Erika’s little tornado headed up by a meadowlark was curious indeed, and beyond imagining it kicking dirt into the Governor’s face — which seemed a little mean and not something that nice Kansas meadowlarks would do — I didn’t know what to do with the image. So I added something silly.  I shrunk Erika’s drawing of Brownback and gave him the outfit of a stereotypical French artist along with a bad French accent.  This was a response to an interview that I had heard in which Governor Brownback was asked, in light of the elimination of the KAC, what he would do to help artists. He said that he’d like to promote art that is based on the Flint Hills in relation to tourism.  As an artist who doesn’t paint landscapes, my response was, “Are you kidding?”  Without knocking Flint Hills Art (which I greatly enjoy), it seemed to me that this was a pretty narrow range of art.  Governor Brownback as a French “arteest” who “lervs the Fleent Heels” evolved into a paper doll. With it I was thinking about what happens when art is subsumed into the commercial realm, which is where I fear that art is headed in Kansas if Brownback has his way. (Brownback paper dolls available for $9.99, outfits sold separately!)

 

Stage 5 – Erika:

At this point, the artists received an email regarding the show.  The gist was that overtly political works may be pulled, which sorta’ threw both of us for a loop.  However, in a phone conversation discussing how the pieces should wrap up, we decided not to censor ourselves.  When I saw the whimsical additions from Stage 4, I felt pretty good about the collaboration, and the gentle poking that resulted from the exchange.  Yes, they are important issues, and yes, the pieces were coming from a place of frustration, but the work evolved into a piece of questioning, rather than demonizing.

 

Lora added logos to the strings on one hand, leaving the others open to my input.  I agreed with the choices, so simply mounted the pieces so that the operators could act on both hands.  Suddenly, everything clicked – the paper doll, the puppet, even the puppet-like or paper-doll-like cutouts of the protestors.  I composed a set of questions, mounting them with the two Brownback boards, on a background of a Kansas roadmap.  The strings, the roadways, the cutouts, the acts on paper, coalesced.

 

Finally, I thought it’d be a nice gesture to include an Artist Approved Self-Censoring shade, if the piece was still deemed too controversial or pointed for display.  I mounted a pull-down shade on the top of the piece, which can be pulled down over the imagery, revealing a large red “CENSORED” stamp applied to the shade.

 

Note – Lora: While the threat of censorship caused quite a kerfuffle among the participating artists, we are pleased that CityArts of Wichita (a publicly-funded arts center) made no real attempt to take any work out of the show, ultimately honoring their First Amendment obligation not to censor the works on the basis of content or viewpoint.