Death of an AR-15

This summer I received a message on Facebook from a man who wanted to give me a gun.

Having only shot a handgun once in my late teens, walking away from the range nonplussed by the loud bang and kickback, I never developed an affinity for them. It was such and unusual offer. Reading his message brought up questions, so I sent a few his way.

His reasoning was pretty straightforward. With mass-shootings ravaging communities across our nation, the gun had become symbolic of something he didn’t stand for. This lifelong gun owner, raised in the thick of northern Wisconsin gun culture, hoped I could decommission it in a meaningful way.

He was offering me an AR-15 assault rifle.

As an artist who’s work does not shy from debate, I understood why he contacted me. However the gravity of this ask was not simple. In order to understand the rifle, I’d need to live with it, to sit in contemplation of the ramifications of its existence, as well as potential outcomes from granting it a death.

I seldom pause when considering materials, but like the signage from shuttered Planned Parenthood healthcare centers from my home state of Wisconsin, I sensed this offer deserved both time and reflection. My final decision hinged on whether or not I felt I could transform the object into a vote.

We set up a visit.

His home was welcoming.  The rifle lay in a case on the living room couch. Immaculately designed, lightweight and beautifully surfaced my tongue slicked with sick. A civilian version of the M-16, engineered to fire bullets that tear orange size chunks of flesh from the body in quick succession, and yet it’s curvature asked to be lifted and held to mine.

I left empty handed and shaken.

I said yes.

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In the state of Wisconsin, you don’t need a receipt for the transfer of ownership of a firearm, but we both thought it best to make one. A background check isn’t necessary either. This is commonly referred to as the “Gun Show Loophole”.

Between Bodies

I began this project with questions.

The answers arrived in the form of drawings.

As I began working though ideas, I soon realized handing the AR-15 off to a foundry– while it could help me avoid the uncanny feeling of being in the rifle’s proximity, would mediate the project too greatly. A corporeal exchange between my body and the gun was necessary. I had to use my hands to bring it down.

The AR-15 needed to be reduced to a powder reminiscent of what we all become. This project would be in part a ceremony.

As guns are designed to fit and respond to the human form, the AR-15, like all other weapons is engineered to mark, impede or kill another body whether human or animal. Guns don’t fire without a body. The AR-15 is designed to deliver a bullet that jaggedly carves through a body on impact. This inherent relationship shared by the assault rifle and the body spoke to why my body should be an active agent when cutting, sanding and grinding it to dust. Like preparing a loved one’s body for burial, my hands could grant a humane end to a inhumane design.

I embraced the many hours ahead as a meditation on mortality, power and transition.

To UnGun

Untucking the AR-15 from a hiding spot in the basement I brought the rifle upstairs and set it on the dining room table. My parents had dropped by on their last day visiting the Midwest. My stepdad, a retired Army veteran and rancher from Northern New Mexico, had agreed to help me learn how to break the the assault rifle down.

While I wanted to learn the steps, I also wanted to talk with someone I knew and loved about guns and gun culture. This time with William provided both. As soon as we got started the usual family banter began, but this time the debate was on if guns killed people or if people killed people. Mom weighed in from the couch holding their Chihuahua.

For a little over an hour we practiced. His hands moved across the weapon like a concert pianist disassembling and assembling its components. I on the other hand, fumbled through each step awkwardly handling each part like the city slicker pacifist I am.

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He was patient and good humored. I was over exuberant from nerves.

While I will always be ambivalent about the 2nd Amendment and William will support it, we found common ground. We agreed more mental health resources need to be readily available for all, as do mandatory background checks, and semi-automatic and automatic weapons really have no reason to be in civilian hands.

Relieved and giving hugs as they headed out, the AR-15 was in pieces.

From Live to Inert

Over the next four weeks, I set to work on the AR-15 in a small corner of the studio usually used for wet working ceramic and glass.

Work sessions began with checking the seams of my makeshift work tent made of draped plastic and rubber sheet to ensure they were still sealed. Then I’d attach my iPhone on to a tripod, put on safety gear and hit record.

While I’m pretty disciplined about documenting the stages of my projects, this was the first time I’d recorded a series of full length videos. I felt others may find meaning in watching the transformation an AR-15 from live to inert, whole to part, weapon to dust. I saw my studio as a sight of synthesis involved in a much larger conversation, and hoped these contributions would be of service in some way.

As hours passed at the bench, understanding how to unmake each part became easier. The chest strap needed to first be frayed by picking it apart with a needle before being snipped to fluff with scissors. Chopping 1/4″ segments from the steel barrel expedited the grinding process, leaving the grinding wheel cleaner as they generated less heat than larger chunks.

I focused on the material at hand as a strategy for overriding the physical discomfort of the process. I thought of the school yards, the synagogues, the mosques and the churches. I saw the faces of the survivors leaving night clubs, concerts and movie theaters. I recalled the voicemails shared by media outlets made by people hiding under desks, in classrooms or caught out in the open. I envisioned surgeons in theater and in waiting rooms talking with families. I sat in a space of reflection as the weapon shifted into sparks and powdered debris.

At the end of each session, I’d dust myself off and methodically collect as much of the debris as I could. Then I would write.

This video combines footage from the process with The Time It Takes– written word recorded during the project.  Full length segments are available here. Click here for a link to the text only.

To Dust

To Dust and the Revolution Print Series are the resulting physical artworks to come from the AR-15.

Niki Johnson

“To Dust”, Ground AR-15 assault rifle, glass box, 4”x 12”x 7”- Niki Johnson, 2018

Detail image of “To Dust” with box open

Niki Johnson

Detail of striation and layering of materials

Niki Johnson

Detail from side

Niki Johnson

“Revolution Prints- Plastics 1-3”, Remnants of the handgrip and buttstock of an AR-15 assault rifle on sanding discs- Niki Johnson, 2018

Niki Johnson

“Revolution Prints- Aluminum 1-9”, Remnants of the upper and lower receivers of an AR-15 assault rifle on sanding discs- Niki Johnson, 2018

Artist Statement

I’m wrapping up this post with my statement to place this project into my broader practice.

I create when I can see how the right alteration to a material will animate its meaning. In the studio I am regularly scaffolding upon techniques so I can incorporate unusual materials into projects, to shape the voice of each piece. As a woman, I am invested in addressing power structures, equality and identity.

Affective theory guides my decisions in how a piece is made and what it is made out of, as both are essential to the way art can communicate.

Simply, I sculpt for justice. I build in meditation. I work to better understand.

This year I am building a new body of work as a reflection on resistance. To Dust and American Tapestry: Border State are part of this new body and are representative of both the subject matter and visceral nature of what is to come. My intention is to exhibit the culmination of artwork made in the upcoming year in a solo exhibition by 2020.

Please visit my website to see more artwork and for further information.

Hills & Valleys

Many women in my life have had an abortion. Or two. We’ve sat together, holding hands in the waiting room. A drive home. A pint of ice cream. A new, uninterrupted shot at the future ahead.

I am one of these women.

Many of my friends have not been able to afford health care. Putting off appointments. Waiting until payday to take care of themselves. Fearing shame in the exam room on top of the bill. I have also struggled to pay for care.

Hills & Valleys, the latest piece produced in my studio, only exists because of legislation successfully passed by the Walker administration in Wisconsin, defunding six Planned Parenthood health centers in the past six years. These laws not only limit access to health care as well as safe and legal abortion, they restrict our independence.

This post is dedicated to the community of people who helped me bring Hills & Valleys into being and to Planned Parenthood for the past century of successful leadership in the national fight for health care and human rights.

13147613_10209572084808963_6526649459789626701_oMAKING HILLS & VALLEYS:

I began collecting signage from defunded Planned Parenthood health centers in Wisconsin in the fall of 2013. The first time I pulled up to the loading dock, five large signs from three clinics were loaded into my car. Six smaller signs would make their way to my studio before the project was completed.

For two years, I considered how to best honor the materials. They sat inside my garage, greeting me as I parked my car. As a lifelong supporter of Planned Parenthood and women’s rights, I recognized the aluminum signage as a powerful symbol of love and loss. I knew not to hurry. Like other political pieces I have made, what ever it needed to be would come. Some pieces take time.


It’s strange to wish the materials you’re working with weren’t available in the first place.

With that said, I was hit immediately by the need to incite action with the material. These signs had the power to build a symbol capable of confronting the precarious state of reproductive rights in the United States.

In October 2015, a design appeared moments before I fell asleep. The next morning, I woke up to a rough drawing of a pair of women’s hips standing in front of a quilt. Across her pubic mound rose a vajazzle of the US Capitol.


The first digitally rendered design of “Hills & Valleys”

Kind of like alphabet soup, the components of Hills & Valleys had been swirling around in my mind for years. The first element was the quilt. It was inspired by a project I assisted Greely Myatt with in 2009. We spent months transforming scraped street signs in Memphis into beautiful reflective “quilts” to cover an air conditioning unit on city property. I loved the way the industrial materials spoke to heritage and the domestic experience when altered–feminizing the message of the metal, while giving it an arguably enlightened second life.

After the design came to me, I reached out to Greely to see if he would be okay with me incorporating his visual language into the piece, to which he replied, “Of course!”.

Thank you Greely.

In 2010, capitol buildings began to appear in my work. Each morning I drove to the base of the Wisconsin State Capitol on my way to the graduate art studios at UW-Madison. It took a few months before I realized how much I was looking forward to that part of my commute, which sparked a fascination that inspired weekly tours of the building, investigating meta-narratives of state, symbols of government and emblems of national power.

The last element for Hills & Valleys entered my vocabulary while driving a group of employees to a job site in the summer of 2015.

I have to admit, I was immediately struck by a wave of feminist boredom when I heard of vajazzle. A close relative of  lawn mowing and other metrosexual activities, vajazzle seemed akin to a merkin’s insidious and less funny cousin. However, the glistening red hearts and hardcore Hello Kitties continued to flash through my mind days after my first Google search. It was then I realized I wasn’t bored by vajazzle at all. In fact, reevaluating vajazzle as a component for self-expression recast it as a potentially valuable cultural signifier to work with in the studio. Expression through artifice has been a part of women’s practice in patriarchal cultures for millennia, after all.


The vajazzle pattern for “Hills & Valleys” was first bedazzled onto a tan pair of pantyhose so I could better understand how to make one.

The mirror pieces used to create the US Capitol vajazzle element had to come from Hobby Lobby.  If Hills & Valleys was to incite civic action the audience needed to see themselves literally reflected in the US Capitol. And while Hills & Valleys needed to be beautiful and speak to the power of a civic reclamation of human rights, the materials language had to tie to back to the entities most committed to stripping of those rights.

Shortly after the design for Hills & Valleys gelled, my friend and fellow UW-Madison alum Glenn Williams asked if I would be interested in working with his Advanced Sculpture class at UW-Milwaukee as a visiting artist during the spring semester of 2016.  Excitedly, I agreed and asked if there was a metal shear.

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In February 2016, I began slicing the signs into strips, separating the lettering from its background. The first week of shearing the signs down was deeply upsetting. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was physically partaking in what legislatures across this country take part in everyday- the careful deconstruction of women’s access to health care and legal abortion. It was only when I began punching circles out of the strips with a hammer and a jeweler’s punch, I began to feel hopeful about rebuilding. I sensed regeneration-one of my favorite parts of upcycling materials.

With the basic design and dimensions set, the rest of the piece, including its overall look and engineering, developed responsively in the shop. I followed the quantity of available colors, materials and structural needs as issues presented themselves, and kept adjusting to make it work. One example- I decided not to clean or paint the original signs, so they would remain affectively representative of their previous lives as street signs, which had guided patients into health center parking lots across the state. Shiny, marred and oxidized in places-the soot and dirt on the signs were the clues I was relying on to peak the curiosity of viewers in investigating what the image was made of.

It was only after the last of the signs were pried up from their backings, the original color palate I thought I was working with (green, white and silver) expanded to include tan and two shades of turquoise. Three new colors were introduced into the design, which was unexpected but completely welcome! The residual glue lines and chunks of embedded plywood left on the backs of these signs added textural elements and another level of material language to the piece.

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From the inception of the design, it was important to me that Hills & Valleys was built to travel. I had no opportunities lined up, but building it with that vision in mind made it capable of being able to do so. (You never know, right?) After years of presenting work within art communities, public libraries, art museums and hospitals, I became ever more curious about the impact this piece would have if presented outside of the box, on tour, and was able to make in contact with divergent communities of political interest. The issues this piece engages are based in the bedrock of our democracy. It was bound to speak beyond the borders of Wisconsin.

Following the curvature of the image, I cut seam lines along the paper pattern I had been using to map out the piece. It would be able to separate into nine parts. This feature allows Hills & Valleys the ability to exhibit in locations that may not have industrial loading docks, large freight elevators and it would be easy to ship.

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Shearing the signs and prepping the aluminum required a large space and access to equipment at the shop, so I punched dots in my studio when I wasn’t there. After a few weeks of hammering circles, the enormity of the undertaking presented itself. Originally, I thought I’d only need larger dots ranging from 1″-1/2″, but as the image developed and new colors appeared, I realized smaller circles were necessary. In order to achieve the gradient I wanted, I needed to limit the amount of the aluminum shining through from beneath. Punching down to 3/16″ became the new reality.

Rather than wallow in how much work was ahead or accept that the next few years of my life would be spent scooting metal through a punch, I put out an open call on Facebook asking for volunteers. All I required was that volunteers must support women’s reproductive rights and be skilled with a hammer.

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Over the course of two months, thirty-two volunteers ranging in age from 14 to 82 helped process the materials, bringing friends and family to join in, traveling across county lines and state borders to help expedite the process. It led to something totally unexpected happening. During the period of volunteer involvement, I became keenly aware that something far beyond my grasp was taking place in the studio. It was the first time I had ever experienced my art practice as a conduit for grass roots activism. While I offered direction and kept the project moving forward, it was with respect for and in tandem with the community that was being created within the space.

I really can’t say enough about how important this experience was. Thank you to everyone who lent a hand this summer. It was simply incredible to witness.


Time lapse image: 20 day progress of patterning dots

In order to pattern the dots, I needed to be able to stick them on to the aluminum surface temporarily, so adjustments could take place. (I joke that I bought out all of the sticky-tac within a three mile radius of the studio in an afternoon preparing for this, but now think there may be some truth to that.) Several more packages were picked up as the process continued. After the pattern was finalized, all dots, mirror and quilt pieces would need to be glued down permanently.

The last major hurdle in completing the piece required building frame that could both hang or self-stand and would break down for travel. That process is narrated in the slide show below:

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I estimate this project took 2500 hours from start to finish.


As a feminist, my artwork voices my politics, and being politically engaged is part of my everyday life. To create social change, I believe you must be willing to speak up, listen closely to others, and you must be willing to give of yourself. These ideas shape my studio practice.14711153_10211021153394772_953555156677576831_oDuring the making of Hills & Valleys, aluminum signs from defunded Planned Parenthood health centers in Wisconsin were carefully deconstructed, repurposing nearly every square inch of the signs into the artwork. Hills & Valleys unites these reimagined materials to create a large scale sculptural image of the hips, groin and thighs of a woman. Atop her pubic mound is a mirrored vajazzle of our nation’s capitol.

A traditional American star quilt pattern known as “Sarah’s Choice” forms a backdrop behind the hips. This element integrates the language of women’s traditional craft into the artwork, infusing notions of heritage and heirloom as the fabric upon which reproductive rights have been forged by feminists in the present and past.

The US Capitol is symbolically placed at the center of the artwork, to carry forward the central intention of the piece, as it is the place where decisions take place legislating a woman’s liberties over her body. The mirrors, purchased at Hobby Lobby, not only mimic the sparkle and appeal of vajazzle, they also reflect the viewer. At a time in our nation’s history it has never been as important for people to take hold of their power to choose our legislators.

In short, when they tear us down, we rise. When we vote, we win.


Hills & Valleys was unveiled at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin’s 80th Celebration on October 14th, 2016. During this incredible event, I had the honor of accepting the 2016 Voices Award for my visibility in support of women’s reproductive rights through the making of this piece. Currently on view at my studio in Material Studios & Gallery, Hills & Valleys will begin national travel in mid-November as part of a collaboration between Niki Johnson Studio and Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country.

Hills & Valleys is designed to travel so it may stand with communities across our country. The artwork can hang or free-stand and breaks down into four crates. Updates on when and where Hills & Valleys will be on view will be updated on this blog as they become publicly available. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in bringing it to your area.


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In Closing:

While Hills & Valleys is made out of signage from six defunded Planned Parenthood health centers in Wisconsin, I see it as being symbolic of a larger national fight for reproductive (and therefore human) rights. And while Hills & Valleys was independently produced in my studio without sponsorship from any organization and is currently owned by my studio, it wouldn’t be where it is without the collaborative relationship that I’ve developed with Planned Parenthood.

This collaboration began with a friendship and that friendship began four years ago. I met Linda Neff before Eggs Benedict was made. When that story went viral, Linda became a personal friend and ally helping me think through live television interviews, and laughing me out of some of the hardest moments. This spring, it was Linda I reached out to to say I had a design, a shop and was moving forward with the piece made out of Wisconsin’s signs. As an independent artist, I value my independence- but as a steward of the signs and supporter of Planned Parenthood, it was time to make that call.


Linda Neff standing with me before the Voices Award Ceremony at PPWI’s 80th Celebration- Image courtesy of Lee Matz, Milwaukee Independent

Over the past year, Linda not only supported every aspect of my vision for Hills & Valleys (from the first day we sat down this spring and I showed her the design, to the unveiling ceremony a few days ago), she has worked tirelessly to created opportunities and connections to help this piece do her work. The future of this piece will forever benefit from efforts of my dear friend Linda.

To the moon and back, thank you Linda Neff.

Many many more thanks to my good friends, co-conspirators and volunteers:

Thank you Linda Marcus, Glenn Williams, Doug Cheever, Joseph Johnson, Kayle Karbowski, Audrey Jerebek, Claire Desfor, Fran Kortof, Sam Kortof, Stephen Kortof, Jess Haven, Dave Blank, Gerry Wuersling, Margie Hess, Emma Robbins, Aza Quin-Brauner, Katie Mullen, Jordan Pintar, Jason House, Helen Hardinger, Chuck Hardinger, Johanna Kuhn, Brian Kuhn, Abby Campbell, Katrina Sustacheck,  Breanne Pemberton, Nicole Schanen, Kerry Tylenda, Jeanne Olivieri, Andrew Nordstrum, Brittnay Nordstrum, Yvette Pino, Carley Knight, Denita Long, and Robert Dempsey for the time, effort and stories shared in creating this piece.

It is all that much more because of you.

To Speak and To Be Heard

A couple of months ago I was approached by the Local IQ for an interview.  As I grew up in New Mexico, and this was the first interview I have been offered in my home state, I enthusiastically agreed.  For several days I wrote.  The questions were great, open ended, and I talked in greater detail about myself and my practice than I ever had shared with a publication before.

Today, the piece was published online, and while aspects of my interview are present, reading the article left me with a familiar disappointment that I often feel when my practice and statements are shoehorned into an easily digestible format.  While I understand a need to adhere to word count and a need to appeal to easily distracted readers, it’s difficult to read about myself as an artist who is, for example, “use to finding herself in sticky situations” or that I am, “making waves with her fun, contemporary spin on hot-button issues”.

The nature of journalistic writing is one that resists in depth explanation, which is at the root of all good art.  I think it is important to share an example of how mistranslation happens, as it does to most practicing artists at some point.

Below you will find my full interview, which I am proud of.


Let’s begin with your life in New Mexico. Could you tell me a little bit about why you lived here and for how long?

My parents packed my sister and me up in the winter of 1978 and moved our family from Green Bay to Albuquerque. I was 6 weeks old when we arrived, and I spent the next 17 years growing up all over and around the city. My sister and I joked that our parents must be fugitives, but in all reality they were hippies pursuing a horizon just beyond where we were. My memories of growing up in student housing at UNM, on a commune in Placitas, and in a smattering of 1970s pre-fab and rustic adobe houses in Corrales, Santa Fe, and the Northeast Heights are predominantly good. I attended Eldorado High School, yet graduated from Freedom. I went to UNM for a minute, and then spent a few years at New Mexico Highlands University and Santa Fe Community College before dropping out to pursue rock climbing and life in San Francisco in my early twenties. Since then, I’ve called Memphis, Tennessee and Milwaukee, Wisconsin home, but New Mexico is still where my heart is. I don’t see that changing no matter the time or distance.

Is there something from New Mexico that inspired you and your artwork? 

My earliest experiences definitely shaped who I am as an artist. I attribute my interest in incorporating materials and iconography from popular culture to my upbringing in New Mexico. My reasoning is pretty simple: the Cosby’s had a more consistent presence in my life than any set of neighbors we lived near. They were available as soon as the cable was installed.

Nights spent dancing to new wave and industrial music at Maxwell’s and UN offered opportunity for new friendships, no matter what school district I had relocated to. Listening to music has always been and remains a key factor in my studio practice, and those formative experiences with music in Albuquerque’s club scene influence my daily ritual today.

I began art school at New Mexico Highlands University when I was 18, and I attribute much of the studio work ethic I have to the close-knit group of friends I made while in school there. Matthew Eaton, Kirk Naegele, Joshua Woodlee, EIi Garcia, Ramona Lee, Aaron and Beth Juarros were all a few years ahead of me in the program. Each of them demonstrated a commitment to their studio practice and creative thinking. Their example fostered my own desire to both clarify what mattered to me, as well as to manifest those ideas through making things. David Lobdell was (and still is) the head of the sculpture department, and under his direction I learned how to mold and cast objects—something that I now do everyday.

Years later in 2012, my thesis exhibition for my MFA at UW-Madison drew from my experience of living between places while growing up in New Mexico. More specifically, the work emanated from my experience of feeling transient, displaced, and uprooted. Each piece in Mover featured a portrait of separation in which place and belonging mixed with apparitions of desire. The exhibition—mostly made of slip-cast porcelain, soil and moving boxes—focused on issues of fragility and fortification. Objects associated with house and home were recast as symbolic agents of crisis.

You use so many different types of mediums in each of your pieces, what is your most important artist tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?

Wow, that’s a hard one. Right now my 99-cent cuticle pusher from Walgreens is among the most prized possessions I use everyday. It’s just perfect for creating clean parting lines for the separable-part plaster molds that I am waist deep in. Next week I will likely be singing the praises of plastic spatulas and how silicone rubber is so easy to clean up if you just walk away from it for a few hours. If you had asked me last year while I was inter-stuffing and triple folding nearly 17,000 condoms to produce a massive portrait, I would have told you that manual dexterity was at the forefront of my arsenal.

I suppose what shapes my practice is an intense material curiosity, which often leads me to working with unfamiliar materials, and calling friends who know how to coax the materials into doing the things I want. I don’t think I’ll ever be an expert in any one area or material. Perhaps then, laughter is my favorite tool, because when I’m trying new things, humor and tenacity are what get me through all of the set backs.

Why do you think that your work is so controversial?

As an artist, I strive to create work that encourages generative thinking about American cultural identity. I wouldn’t say I hedge controversy in my work, but I wouldn’t say I actively seek it out either. The very nature of the subject matter in my artwork, especially the pieces that address issues of gender, sexuality and race have always sparked debate. I never worry about the potential controversy a piece could make; rather I am more focused on bringing together material and form to instigate conversation about the complexities of contemporary life.

I believe the artwork that most specifically addresses this question is Eggs Benedict. When media coverage of that piece went viral last spring, my title transformed to “the condom pope artist” overnight, which is kind of like calling a pastry chef “a cake maker.” While all of the conversation the portrait continues to create is wonderful, working to broaden people’s understanding of my practice as an artist beyond the piece that put me on the map has been a job within itself. With that said, I feel truly fortunate for the community that has found my work through this experience.

When you are coming up with ideas for projects is the subject more important to you, or is the way it’s executed more important?

Idea and execution are equally important in my work. When I sandblast images off of found porcelain, it creates a silhouette in the preexisting image. The low relief that is cut into the plate physically manifests traditions that have been lost through changing cultural values. The cropping and scale of my large format photographic bookend prints shift the view of a common everyday object into a colorful display of architectural possibility. I suppose re-seeing the world around me is a big part of my practice. Execution and materiality are central components in making that happen.

Many of your projects are made out of “found” materials, do you find the materials first and pull inspiration from them, or do you pick your subject and then find materials?

It really depends on the project. Sometimes I’m drawn to altering objects I find. Other times materials and processes round out the overall meaning of the piece I am working on. And then there are the odd opportunities when materials find me—like last fall when a distribution company shipped 10.5 tons of condoms my way. The shipment is now being sent across the country to 20 artists, who are transforming the material into art. All of the artworks will later be shipped back to Milwaukee for an exhibition that Kim Hindman and I are co-curating called Preservatif. The exhibition opens on World AIDS Day, and all proceeds beyond the cost of the show will be donated to local organizations helping people who are living with HIV/AIDS.

Did you have to make changes to way you normally work for your new residency at the Pfister Hotel?

The greatest challenge working in the Artist’s Studio at the Pfister Hotel has been smoothly transitioning between being a working artist and engaging patrons in meaningful conversations at the drop of a hat. I am definitely getting better at it, but I do have moments where my gears stick. In addition to the incredible support this residency offers, it makes discussing what you do second nature. It’s great to be in contact with so many curious people everyday. On a daily basis, it shifts up making my work into a community experience.

Beyond the social aspect of the residency, the studio has never housed a sculptor before. Thankfully, the garage is above the studio, and I’ve been able to use an air compressor as well as a number of saws in the space. Casting large molds and working in wax in a studio outfitted for a painter has required a bit of creativity, but two months in, my projects are ahead of schedule.

What do you think the future holds for you and your artwork?

I do have a few things on the not so distant horizon. First is a solo-show opening at New Mexico Highlands University in mid-August. I’ll be giving an artist talk, so please come if you can. There are solo shows held seasonally for the Pfister AiR, and I have three upcoming exhibitions in July, October, and January.

Beyond making art, I also curate and organize exhibitions. At Your Service, is an exhibition I’m co-curating with Amelia Toelke that is currently on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington. The show will be traveling to the Houston Center of Contemporary Craft in January, and then moves on to the Clay Studio in Philadelphia where it will remain through the summer of 2015. I am also curating Engendered opening at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design in early January. This exhibition engages the contemporary experience of gender, identity and sexuality through an array of artworks made by national and international artists. And then, there is the condom show, which I mentioned earlier…

At this stage I feel like I’m planting a lot of seeds, and my hope is that good opportunities will continue to present themselves. There are days when I would really love to know how all of this is going to turn out, but when I start to think this way, I try to focus on the breadcrumb trail in front of me. My career has been an unexpected, if not somewhat wild ride. I would love to continue being able to make art at the rate I am for as long as possible.



NCECA 2014: Pritzlaff meets the Material World

WebHeader-CollectorTour2014 The annual conference for the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts descended upon Milwaukee last Tuesday and stayed through Saturday afternoon. In those few days, over 4,000 people came to the talks, demonstrations, and exhibits in the Wisconsin Center. The Milwaukee Art Museum alongside numerous galleries in the 3rd Ward hosted concurrent independent exhibitions, showing ceramic based work from local, national, and international artists. Potters, sculptors, collectors and clay enthusiast mixed and mingled. Perennial friendships were renewed and new connections were made.

If you have yet to participate in an NCECA conference, this annual celebration of clay takes place in a different city every year. While the rhythm of the programming (with staple events like the keynote speech, cup sale, student perspectives talks, emerging artists talks, etc.) remains consistent, the conference fully transforms and takes on the flavor it’s host city. It just so happened that this year I lived in that host city, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: home of beer, cheese, brats and two of my favorite ladies who know how to get things done:


Paul Sacaridiz, my former professor, mentor and friend stayed in contact with me following my graduation from UW-Madison in 2012. He knew that I enjoyed organizing exhibitions and was quite familiar with my natural inclination to knoll like objects together from the semester I shadowed him in teaching Ceramics I. Late in the fall of 2012 Paul approached me about helping with the 2014 conference. I said of course. What began as a relatively minor role in helping out evolved over the next eighteen months into something much much larger.

By the fall of 2013, I had taken on the role of Lead Coordinator of the Concurrent Independent Exhibitions for the Pritzlaff building. My job was to help in organizing and facilitating 12 exhibitions featuring 70 artists within two large ballrooms. In order to wrangle a project of this scale in tandem with my studio practice, extracurricular curitorial endeavors, and sanity, I brought 10 student interns on board from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design for spring semester. 450 of the 900 hours they would spend with me would be dedicated to bringing NCECA to Milwaukee.

My interns (who are also my heros) are:  Ariana Vaeth, Cody Powers, Audrey Jerabek, Kayle Karbowski, Alyssa Anderson, CJ O’Connell, Luke Arndt, Tony Mau, Claire Hitchcock Tilton, and Ayla Boyle. Each intern agreed to create a website, business cards and forfeit their spring break in an effort to perform good works and professionally navigate while working with NCECA.

I encourage you to check out their work. These young artists are not only dedicated, they are brilliant.

This blog post is dedicated to my interns and the unprecedented job they did helping bring NCECA to Milwaukee. The following slide shows and writings will work to illustrate the many task this group took on leading up to and following NCECA 2014.

If you would like to use any of the images contained on this post, please be sure and include photo credits in your publication. Thanks so much!



The bulk of my involvement with this project began in the fall of 2013, when Paul and I met at the Pritzlaff to create the layout of the exhibition space. We reviewed the selected proposals for space requests, thematic content and types of work that would be on view.  Over the next few weeks, we talked a great deal about the way the placement of each show would read throughout the entirety of the space. Once we settled on a preliminary map, I translated our mutual scribble maps into a legible map and sent it to the CIE leaders.

In an effort to help the CIE leaders better envision the space, my intern Alyssa Anderson and I visited the Pritzlaff a few weeks later to photograph the space. Alyssa then took the images and edited them, overlaying each photo with a graphic map. This new, more dimensionally friendly way of interpreting the space was complied into a pdf and shared with the CIE leaders.

After making a few minor adjustments, we were ready to draw up the exhibition map that would be on hand during the duration of the exhibition to help guests navigate the building.  Alyssa spent the beginning of her spring break designing, proofing and negotiating drafts with me, Paul and Josh Green. Her efforts were incredible. Not only was Alyssa reliable and fun to work with, she also has the fastest turn around I have ever seen.

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Over spring break, I met with my interns and divided them into two teams: the Builders and the Flyers. The Flyers (Ariana Vaeth, CJ O’Connell, Kayle Karbowski and Alyssa Anderson) concentrated on creating a map of venues around town where information about the upcoming conference could be dropped off. After two hours of working together, they had put together one of the most through distribution maps out there.

Their next task was getting the materials to the locations. The Flyers split into groups of two and delivered the materials across the city. A race ensued, and while I have been led to believe that safe driving practices were adhered to, they completed their respective tasks (reaching over 50 locations) in roughly three hours. The next day we met back at my house to finish the restaurant and entertainment reviews we had been working on for the NCECA Visitor’s Blog. Like with the flyer, they first made a map and then set to work locating images and writing their own reviews of local bars, restaurants, coffee shops and places they felt visitors should see.

Once the reviews were finished, the group sat back in amazement at how awesome Milwaukee is. Our collective understanding of where to go, what to do and what makes this city an incredible place was truly invigorating. I sent our information along to Cindy Bracker and within a few hours all of their hard work went live.

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One of our largest challenges in preparing the Pritzlaff for a large scale art exhibition was creating several free-standing walls that could support hanging artwork. The Prtizlaff’s historical building’s walls, while beautiful, are primarily made out of cream city brick and were not available to drill into or mar in anyway. I connected Paul with my intern Tony Mau, a skilled builder and former marine, in developing and overseeing the of building the temporary walls we were going to need. Together Paul and Tony came up with a plan.

The shipment of materials arrived at MIAD Wednesday morning. By Thursday afternoon the Builders (Tony Mau, Audrey Jerebek, Cody Powers and Luke Arndt) had constructed seventeen 2″x 4″ stud walls as well as cutting down lumber, patching and painting four custom pedestals.

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Paul and I met all of the interns at 10am on Friday, March 14th to build out the temporary walls in the Pritzlaff. We had only 3 hours to place and secure the pre-fab stud walls, skin them up with drywall, and spackle the screw holes and seams.

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With one day off, my team met back up Sunday morning to begin two days of assisting the CIE leaders and exhibiting artists in installing their work. This was one of the most anticipated days for the intern team. During their interviews each one expressed great interest in working with the NCECA artists and helping them in setting up their work. Over the course of these two days the interns forged new professional relationships with several of the artists on site. Amazing stuff.

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Paul introduced everyone on the Collector’s Tour to the CIE shows at the Pritzlaff early Tuesday morning. A number of the exhibiting artists were on hand to talk about their work. It was great meeting so many incredible people who are invested in supporting the arts. It was also pretty wonderful reconnecting with all of the exhibiting artists and friends I hadn’t seen this past year.

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Here is a peek at what the exhibitions looked like in their entirety:

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The opening celebrations at the Pritzlaff ran late. Our plan was to make the Pritzlaff everyone’s last stop on an evening filled with gallery openings and art galore. Ben Steckel and Paul Kramer performed live music throughout the night. With hundreds of people in attendance, the energy in the building was pretty glorious. Drinks were drank. Laughter abounded. At the end of the night, Paul and I did a victory lap and soaked in the success of months of hard work.

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One of things I’ve enjoyed most about being a part of NCECA over the past three years is the way the organization fosters growth for people who involve themselves in it. Each year I have become increasingly more involved, gaining experience from each conference, and this year I was able to extend this experience to my interns.

When I was asked to share my story for the 50th Anniversary interviews, I immediately asked if I could bring my interns, as their participation has been integral to the success of everything I’ve been able to contribute this year.

That morning I watched my interns sit down with Cindy Bracker and give their first recorded interviews. I think I had what I can only call a mom moment (which is weird as I have no children). While watching them record their stories I became inexpressibly proud, and felt that perhaps this internship might just give them as much as they have brought me. I sat there and watched  them speak into a camera and take another bite out of professional practices.

A consistent thread in their stories was that though they had limited experience with clay, (MIAD, where all of my interns study, doesn’t have a ceramics department) each had gained an invested interest in the community they had come to meet through working with NCECA.

My hope is that MIAD will consider what the role of clay can bring to it’s programming. Perhaps the intern interviews will help make that change possible. Clay after all is the new black.

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After all of the festivities were over and the convention center, hotel rooms and rental cars returned to their previous order, we began to deinstall the exhibitions. Energies were low yet humor was high. Many of us were under slept if not a bit hungover. Hugs were plenty as were well wishes. The next NCECA conference in Providence was part of the conversational hum in the building.

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I just want to send out a huge thanks to all of the CIE leaders, Paul, the board members, and my friends old and new for making this conference the best untertaking I’ve had in quite awhile. Thanks again to my amazing interns. It has been an absolute pleasure working with each of you.

I am completely amazed by all that was accomplished through the shared vision of volunteers.

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The people who make this happen every year.


Fairytales, Plates & Porcelain

In early January I found out that I was selected as a finalist in the Pfister Hotel’s annual Artist in Residence competition.  Learning this has been wonderful news, adding another degree of excitement to what is going to be an incredibly productive few weeks.

Over the next three weeks I will have work on display in Gallerie M at the InterContinental Hotel as a Pfister AiR finalist, at the Haggerty Museum of Art in Aesthetic Afterlife, curated by Claudia Mooney from the Chipstone Foundation, and at the Bellevue Art Museum, just outside of Seattle, in At Your Service–a traveling  exhibition I am co-cuating with Amelia Toelke.

Basically, life could not be better.

This blog post is dedicated to telling a bit more about the events taking place at the Haggerty Museum of Art and through the Pfister Hotel’s AiR competition here in Milwaukee, WI.  I’ll be following up with information about the upcoming exhibition at Bellvue Art Museum in my next one.  Enjoy!


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If chosen as the Artist in Residence at the Pfister Hotel, I will create a series of six sculptural child-sized bathtubs decorated to illustrate fairytales written by Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm.

Fairytales are the earliest narratives that join us culturally to one another.  This body of work re-imagines the bathtub as the place where children go before hear bedtime stories. It is my intent with these sculptural works to create dialogue about earliest stories we come to learn, as well as how daily rituals and self-care shape our everyday lives.

I envision my residency in the Pfister artist’s studio as a professional and inspirational experience, where I am allowed the opportunity to share various aspects of my practice with the patrons of the hotel.  During my 30-hour workweek in the Pfister artist’s studio, I will primarily be working in oil clay, sculpting and carving features for the bathtubs, and drawing detailed sketches for the components of each piece.  As the final sculptures will be made out of cast porcelain, I will be spending additional time in my home studio preparing molds and casting.  To encourage a holistic experience for the patrons, I will keep a few molds on display and will also regularly post photographic documentation of the work I do both on and off site on a digital display that I can talk about.

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In addition to the bathtub portraits, I will produce a line of limited edition commemorative plates to match each of these sculptural pieces. They will be available when I begin each tub, as both an aide to help patrons visualize the direction of the work in progress, alongside the drawings and sketches that will be on view.



Last fall I was contacted Claudia Mooney from the Chipstone Foundation about the possibility of participating in an upcoming show she was curating at the Haggerty Museum of Art.  After a studio visit, we decided upon adding one of my plate based pieces in the the show. I spent the next two months working on a new piece titled Nest Egg for the group exhibition  Aesthetic Afterlife.

It opens to the public on Wedneday, January 22nd and runs through August 8th.  If you’re in town, please come and check it out.  All of the work in the show is great!

nest egg web

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Statement for Nest Egg:

I see this piece as an embodiment of the human desire to nest and place our experiences within the context of a natural world. As humans, we instill our legacies by passing on material items, traditions and stories. Ownership of objects, like lives, pass on. Heirloom objects such as plates connect communities of people together through ritual, tradition and touch.

The imagery in the second ring of plates features silhouettes of birds nesting, mating, grouping and migrating. I chose to alter those plates as a way to tease out the romantic overlay of life cycle behaviors that wild life commemoratives such as these encourage within a domestic setting.

The plates that comprise this piece were found in local thrift shops, a place that a majority of commemorative objects go to when the resonance of their message wanes, or they loose their original owners. This piece unites several incomplete sets of both practical and ornamental plates into one piece, making whole that which was once orphaned.


AT YOUR SERVICE– BELLEVUE ART MUSEUM: February 14th-September 19th

More information to follow soon.

Between the Stacks

A hand reaches for a book. The book is added to a pile. Piles build on tables, next to armchairs, moved one by one to places where they can be opened up; leafed through.   For a moment, when resting upon each other, these collections of printed materials embody a kind of new disjointed ideation; the restructuring of which is limitless.

Shelving carts wheel between the sections: fiction, non-fiction, reference, large print. Arms outstretch to replenish the content on the shelves. Books scuff and slide across their metal surfaces, organized by subject, author and code.

Before I saw an empty library, I didn’t stop to consider much beyond the ease in which I could spend a quiet afternoon reading or research a question to my heart’s content.

It took bare shelves for me to see the bookends.



In November of 2011, I toured the former Madison Central Public Library building, stripped of books and most of it’s furniture. The library was preparing for demolition with a two-year reconstruction project starting that spring.  I was one of hundreds of artists responding to a call. The city was hosting a one-night art-based fundraiser before the building was torn down. My tour guide was Trent Miller. The event would be called Bookless.

I had no way of knowing that my accepted proposal would lead to the best large scale installation experience I have ever had. The two weeks building up to the event spent with library staff and fellow artists bolstered my hopes of what the purpose of art can be.  To read more that experience, click here.


Following Bookless, the city of Madison purchased two of my pieces: Daily Exchange (a portrait of the state capitol exhibited in the show) and Arch (a wall-hanging sculptural installation made out of bookends).  Over the next two years I worked with Trent Miller and city architect Bryan Cooper to situate the bookend installation in the new library.  One logistical hurtles we faced was building a reinforced wall to support the steel weight of the bookends. Another had to do with the shape of the piece itself.  Due to the available walls in the new building I redesigned the piece. To read more about that process, click here.


I installed my latest body of artwork into the new Madison Central Public Library this summer. The bookend is central to all of the pieces in this series.  Each artwork explores the bookend as an object to be stacked, reimagined and reinterpreted. Their colors and shapes speak to the evolving nature of spaces like libraries, designed to serve the changing needs of the general public-and in small ways, doing so in style. When put side by side they reveal portraits of both place and time. While bookends have helped organize  libraries for as long as they’ve been lending books, this series also points to their decreasing presence on the shelves. As the MCPL joins the growing number of beautiful, state-of-the-art public libraries it has embraced the demand for digital technology, which has reduced the number of actual books are onsite. Shelving has evolved into docking ports, a level of on-site stacks has turned into a large children’s area with a maker’s space.  The bookend is in many ways, symbolic of a new history being written today about the future physical landscape of public space.


"Stacked" photo credit: Eric Baillies

“Stacked” Bookends from the former Madison Central Public Library
photo credit: Eric Bailles

photo credit: eric baillies

photo credit: Eric Bailles

photo credit: eric baillies

photo credit: Eric Bailles

Below is a slideshow detailing the process of making Stacked. The slideshow can be paused and forwarded at your convenience by clicking on the selection keys at the bottom of the screen.

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“Beige/Turquoise” from the “Corridor” series
Limited edition photographic print

While I was preparing the bookends for sculptural installation in early 2012, I realized that when grouped, the objects lent themselves beautiful images of abstraction.  This discovery began a two-year pursuit of photographically documenting the bookend in large format.  The Corridor series records bookends in four specific ways: in groups, in stacks, as tunnels, and from the top down.

Below is a slideshow detailing the process of making of the Corridor photographic series as well as finished images included in it. The slideshow can be paused and forwarded at your convenience by clicking on the selection keys at the bottom of the screen.

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With the sale of any photo in this series, I will make a donation of 10% of all proceeds to local library of purchaser’s choice.



“Pillar” Bookends from Madison Central Public Library
photo credit: Eric Bailles

Pillar is the most recent piece I’ve finished from during this period of working with bookends.  Each layer of the sculpture is supported by a laser cut steel ring.  It measures eight feet in height and will be on display during the one night exhibition Stacked on September 19th.

Below is a slideshow detailing the process of making of Pillar. The slideshow can be paused and forwarded at your convenience by clicking on the selection keys at the bottom of the screen.

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With the sale of Pillar, I will make a donation of 10% of all proceeds to local library of purchaser’s choice.



To see more images of the new library click here.

A Vision in White

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A Vision in White views Michelle Obama through the lens of recent media coverage, capturing both her splendor and the limitations of its gaze. By distilling the media’s portrayal of Michelle Obama down to her most discussed features, this piece reveals the ways in which her national portrait remains partial and fragmented. What is visible points to what is invisible, ultimately showing how Michelle Obama, as a whole person, is publicly reduced into mere parts. A Vision in White underscores intersections and overlaps between power, race, and gender in American culture.


When the term “First Lady” is used apolitically, it describes a woman with an exceptional level of talent in a particular field (Aretha Franklin has been honored as “The First Lady of Soul”; Madonna is the “First Lady of Pop”). The First Lady of the United States of America, conversely, earns her title through her husband’s election. Stars in entertainment are celebrated for their unique gifts, while a First Lady is appreciated for her ability to assimilate into a role nearly identical to that of the woman who preceded her. She is championed as a wife, mother, hostess, and volunteer. It is the First Lady’s ability to adopt this persona that is key to her legacy: her dedication to politically non-divisive causes, ability to organize and attend ceremonies, and of course, to look good doing it all.

The few who have defied the prescribed role of First Lady by remaining meaningfully employed or by voicing their political views have faced intense public scrutiny. Interestingly, these “unladylike” activities have drawn attention to the First Lady as a cultural gague for historical shifts—and at times transgressions—in normative gender roles.  Over sixty percent of women in the U.S. are currently employed, a fact which would lead one to think that a professional First Lady would be celebrated in the White House—yet the nation let out a sigh of relief after the 2008 presidential election when Michelle Obama traded in her legal practice for designer fashions and the fight against childhood obesity.

Like a majority of Americans, I was excited to see Michelle Obama become First Lady in 2009. Obama, a black lawyer from Chicago, in many ways embodied an ideal portrait of the American dream. From her blue-collar upbringing to her graduation from Princeton, Obama was a bold choice for First Lady. Campaign interviews revealed her to be both articulate and driven.  She framed her marriage as a partnership, and her children as her greatest responsibility. Doubts about her ability to put aside her professional ambitions to assume the role of First Lady were quickly put to rest in the first term. During her celebrated tenure, it has become clear that Michelle Obama holds a specific cultural significance, unlike any other First Lady. Not only is she the first woman of color to become First Lady, she has become emblematic of America’s struggle to negotiate issues of race, power, and gender.

Cultural tensions have been visible in the media. For decades a First Lady’s fashion has been part of the inaugural blitz, but in early 2009, media outlets began reporting sightings of Obama’s arms, referring to them as the “Gun Show.” This unprecedented focus on her body crossed an unspoken line of civility; a president’s wife was being freely objectified by the media. Comparing the treatment of other First Ladies during their time in office makes this difference even more pronounced: Kennedy was celebrated as a fashion icon; Clinton for her many fashion faux pas; yet news coverage of the designers Obama wears runs second to how her figure looks in the clothes.


Mainstream media discourse suggests that the American public is both mesmerized by and terrified of Obama’s strength and beauty. It is as if our nation is transfixed with the otherness of this First Lady of color. The convergence of the role of First Lady and the black female body have evoked a form of overt, sexual objectification never before directed at the office of First Lady. This focus on Obama’s body has sexualized what has been a historically sexless role encouraging a type of “parts and pieces” dialogue reminiscent of both auction blocks and meat markets in this nation’s not-so-distant past.

While some backlash against The Administration is expected in any presidency, the level of sexism and racism directed at this First Lady by men in power is astonishing. Attempts to overshadow Obama’s extensive education, professional experience, and value as a human being further reflect the unique struggle this First Lady has faced in overcoming social and cultural prejudice.


A Vision in White is part of an evolving series of artworks I have made over the past five years that explore the cultural intersections of the role of First Lady in contemporary society. As national role models, the ways in which each presidential wife negotiates the issues of marriage, identity, and power have historically correlated with normative gender trends for women and girls in the United States. Mrs. President, a piece I made in 2009, engages the obscurity of what it is to become a historical figure through marriage.  This piece features silhouettes of each first lady’s head with her corresponding husband drawn on top. The Great American Bake-Off features cross-stitched portraits of the 2008 democratic candidates’ spouses framed in bakeware. This piece focuses on the cultural interplay of gender, race, and domesticity that permeated political discourse during this historic election. To see more of these and my other works please visit my site.

While making A Vision in White, two sculptures continued to resurface in my thoughts: Fragments of a Queen’s Face, from the 18th Dynasty of the Amarna Period of ancient Egypt, and Claes Oldenburg’s London Knees, 1966.

A Vision in White draws from the formal arrangement of these works, as well as from their aesthetic, which is both minimal and refined. From the jasper lips, I drew inspiration to create a likeness of Obama that was well crafted and reflective of her beauty. Casting the arms out of glass not only gave them a diaphanous quality, but also created a resonance with sculpture from the Classical period in ancient Greece and Rome, as did the draping of cloth across the armature that forms Obama’s invisible body.

A Vision in White and London Knees share the use of a hem line to delineate what part of the body is represented in the sculpture.  Similarly, they speak to a moment in the fashion continuum. What is true of Fragment of a Queen’s Face, London Knees and A Vision in White is that they are all informed by what is missing.  It is by recognizing what is not there that each portrait becomes whole.

Other artists who also make great work about the First Ladies worth checking out: Martha Wilson, Jean-Pierre Khazem, and Sarah Ferguson.


The slideshow below details the many steps taken in creating this artwork. You can pause it and scroll through by clicking at the bottom of any image.

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A Vision in White took approximately 400 hours to produce over the course of four months in three cities.


Many thanks to Martina Igerbraese-Cole, Angela Caldera, Jill Sebastian, Steve Feren, Matt Pipenbrok, Brian Nigus, Qiang Liu, Rory Erler and Mary Hoffman for the various ways you helped to make this piece happen. This portrait is a success thanks to you and your generous lending of time and knowledge. Thank you to Lea Johnson, Ginny Johnson, and Brandi Rogers for being my faithful editors. Your eyes and ears are invaluable. Thanks to Eric Baileys for the beautiful photographs. Finally, thank you to Debra Brehmer for including A Vision in White in the current exhibition at the Portrait Society Gallery, The Personal is Political: Martha Wilson & MKE.  I am ever thankful for the opportunity, support and risk your gallery takes in the name of fine art.

A Vision in White is now on display at the Portrait Society Gallery through July 14th.