Fitting in with the Squares

Before I can work with a material a moment of understanding has to happen. Sometimes newsreels deliver this moment. At other times it appears in a book or a conversation or right before I fall asleep. When it arrives, I am able to discern how a material can unite with an idea to form a conversation. I often wait, sometimes for years, maintaining awareness of the world around me, anticipating the right fit.    

This post narrates how my latest piece Fitting in with the Squares (Self-Portrait) came to be. 

Fitting in with the Squares by Niki Johnson

Fitting In With The Squares (Self-Portrait), Porcelain Norman Rockwell commemorative plates on wood, 67″x 47″, 2019


An Unscripted Chain of Events (timing)

The warm saccharine glow of Norman Rockwell’s imagery is burnished into the periphery of my childhood alongside my grandparents’ soft smiles and my parents’ simultaneous eye rolls. Winking coercively from pages of magazines and television advertisements, his illustrated armies of perfectly imperfect girls never resonated with me. I was generation Atari 2600.

Nearly thirty years later however, I relished finding Rockwell’s commemorative plates in thrift stores. In the hilarity and horror of discovering new Rockwellian vignettes, I admit to being awash in what I can best describe as feminist schadenfreude. No matter the collectors boxes, serial numbers or certificates of authenticity, these heirlooms weren’t making the generational cut- and thrift stores appeared to be struggling to move them for three dollars a piece.

Initially I took their second market failure as a glimmering sign of cultural progress, yet the sheer volume of plates available revealed the mark of indelible cultural relevance. Rebuffing the content of Rockwell’s images didn’t distance the persistence of its messaging in my life either. If anything it gave me a clearer understanding of how formative resistance can be. Sensing their value within the timeline of American material culture, and with no clear plan I began to collect. I figured I’d store them until I knew what to do.

Then Leonard Cohen died in early November 2016. The next evening our Electoral College selected the 45th president. Somewhere in the malaise of the days that followed I bought You Want it Darker and Cohen’s songs became a balm, a sacred auditory guide that ferried me across the swirling waves of despair I felt when the words “president-elect” and “Trump” were said in succession.

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As weeks passed, the projects in my studio went from full color to black and white and then to black on black. I reverted into my sketchbook, and then pulled back from drawing to journaling. Soon I quit writing, finding solace in arranging shelves and combing through boxes.

While stacking and sorting, I came across an old photograph in a memory box. It was an accidental self-portrait; the kind you’d discover after printing a roll of film. The moment it captured took place in the late ’90s after an iron pour. I had just taken off my leathers. My fingers were still sooty with coke. A short time after this photo was taken, I’d withdraw from school, drop my classes and drive my ’92 VW Golf packed with everything I owned to California. I was halfway through my bachelor’s degree, in a relationship, surrounded by friends and family, yet I knew in order to become who I was meant to be I had to leave. I had met the path of self actualization. 

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As I continued through the studio, it became clear that my habit of thrifting commemorative plates had gotten a little out of hand. Amassed slowly, a couple dollars at a time for over a decade, I now had few hundred Norman Rockwell plates. Mixed in with church fundraiser plates, Mother’s Day plates, an assortment of creepy toddlers, flora and fauna, idyllic American landscapes and state plates, their assortment was representative of what was on the shelves. Stacks of old white men interacting with school age white children, old white married couples nestled in domestic settings, middle aged white men happily doing chores, white women in the kitchen, white women nestled into furniture with pets, white couples enjoying leisurely activities, comfortable white families, safe white children, and happy white teenagers sat in piles on every available surface in the studio. 

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Seeing the collection together stung with uncanny relevance. Shining back at me was an America where father knew best, women knew their place and people of color were not part of the story. It was MAGA illustrated.

And then I understood. I saw the photograph take form out of pieces of the plates. Aesthetically they shared a color palette. They also resisted each other in a way that instinctually fit. I was going to insert myself in this narrative in a moment of my own becoming– a woman not to be sidelined, censured or cleaned up. In order to do this I’d have to again, break the frame. 


Object Lesson (thoughts before sawing)

I like to imagine thrift stores as the last screen in a filtration system for valuables. They are where sentiment and surplus go to enjoy an unruly afterlife together. The meaning of an item orphaned from it’s original context may warp and twist in generational translations, relying upon a shopper’s point of reference to reestablish it’s purpose. Organization is dictated by shelf space. Grouped in color gradients (if you’re lucky) and seasonal themes (kinda), the whims of charity reign supreme when thrifting. A few steps up from the trash heap, thrift stores are one of my favorite places to sift for cultural signifiers and learn about material habits.

My criteria for loading a plate into the cart begins with if it makes me wonder why it exists in the first place. Dinner plates rarely make their way into the basket. They make sense. Decorative plates as a genre however, are truly curious. To take the most universal utilitarian object in the world, the very item we share our family recipes upon and render it a wall hanging glazed with materials deemed unsafe for food is both decadent and bizarre. Their function enters the realm of the symbolic.

Similar to the process art goes through before hanging on the walls of a gallery, imagery on commemorative plates is assumed to have undergone some form of vetting before being presented to the public. From what I’ve observed, images with the capacity to abate emotional insecurity, encourage a reliving of the past or ease anxieties of time passing are most desirable in this genre. The valuation of selected images accrues when they are glazed on fine porcelain, a material associated with class and heirlooms through the ages. Add mass production into the mix and these kitsch collectables are made accessible to millions. Their cultural metanarratives offer to supplant lived experiences with perfected archetypes, at times even employing anthropomorphism to do so. (See above.)

Many of the plates I picked up came in original boxes with certificates of authenticity and at least one brochure promising a high second market value. Averaging $20 each in the late 1970s (equivalent to about $80 now) it is easy to see why these assurances were crucial to their popularity. Made in limited editions (though often numbering in the thousands), commemorative plate campaigns framed the customer experience as akin to being a member in an exclusive club. These clubs were highly popular. From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, collector plates enjoyed one of the longest running speculative markets of any modern-day collectible. The bubble burst in the late 1980s.

The largest cohort of collectors to purchase commemorative plates during the last quarter of the twentieth century belonged to the Great Generation. This group of consumers grew up on limited means during the Great Depression, experienced World War II as young adults and retired from the working class having achieved higher levels of material comfort than previous generations. Noted for their rubber band balls, hoarding of used tools and scraps of cloth, they bought commemorative plates as investment pieces.

By the mid-1970s, with decades of his ad work being reproduced on commemorative plates, Norman Rockwell’s career spanned over a half century. Championed the “Painter of American Life”, Rockwell was a technically gifted commercial illustrator and a household name. Enlisting neighbors and young children he approached in school yards to model, Rockwell crafted narratives of everyday working class white American life during the Jim Crow era. This was the audience his advertisers and publishers targeted, and he catered to their wishes. Beginning in the early 1960s Rockwell’s works included imagery sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement, however those works were not the selected for commemoration. Instead, one decade after the Civil Rights Act became law, a decade remembered for strides made women’s rights, the end of the Vietnam War and acute civil unrest, plate manufacturers chose to commemorate selections of Rockwell’s imagery that served to reify traditional gender power dynamics and placate white fears within an ever changing American cultural landscape.  

As Rockwell’s imagery shifted from advertisement to commemorative, the original commercial purpose for his illustration faded into the background. Consider the example above. While both presentations are designed to invoke desire, the consumer experiences of the ad and the plate are nuanced and quite different. In 1920, The Melody of Music and the Melody of Light (At the Piano) asked the public to envision future evenings with friends improving with the addition of Mazda Edison light bulbs. In 1984, Close Harmony encouraged a nostalgic reminiscence of evenings in the past spent with friends and family. The lightbulbs become a tertiary concern, if that. Assembled into cohesive thematic series, often across a mishmash of periods in Rockwell’s career, Simpler Times, American Heritage, Rediscovering Women and other plate lines, provided a platform for his illustrations to exist without the trappings of their history.

Finding these plates in large numbers at thrift stores underscored their failure as heirloom momentos. However in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, with white nationalism on the rise and restrictions on women’s physical autonomy ratcheting up, it was as if their messaging had found new hosts. The indelibility of their messages had spread across the Twittersphere, and was being shouted by talking heads on various media platforms. These plates no longer appeared to be relics of the past fulfilling an aging generation’s need to self soothe. This America, untethered from the social niceties of Rockwell’s era, was in power again.


Process (part to whole)

My set up in the studio included a tile saw, an assortment of tile and glass blades and piles of plates. I fashioned a jig out of scrap plywood and bolted down a piece of leftover plexiglass on top to help keep it dry. (A year into cutting, this jig disintegrated and I upgraded to a plastic square. -Tip for future plate cutters: Go plastic!) 

IMG_9491I worked in an assembly line fashion my ancestors who worked in factories would’ve appreciated. Staring each session with a stack of ten plates, I ran them through the various stages of cutting as a group to save time on changing blades. I’d begin by cutting the stack of plates into strips with a glass blade. Then I’d change to a tile blade to rough cut the feet off the back of the strips. Switching back to the glass blade, I’d finish by trimming the strips down to squares. Glass blades while slow going through porcelain prevented the imagery from chipping, as did guiding them through the saw bed face up.

Ten plates took five hours to process from start to finish, and yielded 300 squares. Ultimately I’d end up cutting 9000 to get the 2400 of the right color I needed. In the warm months, I’d take breaks when the tile saw’s water tray needed to be refilled. In the winter, I’d fill the tray with warm water and work until it got cold. 

As the plates became strips and the strips became squares, elements in the illustrations I hadn’t noticed before came into focus. Rockwell’s tightly constructed narratives became fragmentary abstractions. The visual boundaries he created by placing a figure or an object in the foreground ground stopping a viewer from entering the image were gone. The single gesture of a hand, the expression on a face, the tonal mood set in foreground and backgrounds all retained the mark of his hand, but the elements were freed. A one inch format maintained a light curvature from the plates, making the material recognizable, referential and familiar.

Unlike the measurable hours of sitting on a stool cutting, days spent sorting the squares into color palettes took on their own rhythm. Breaks happened when my coffee cup ran dry, a podcast wrapped up or my feet gave out. My Mom and my friend Kayle jumped in periodically to help out. It was like doing math with color, adding certain squares to a group here or moving them over to a tray there, but as there were no right answers, achieving a mental space of not thinking too much, but just enough, was part of the practice. 

The work surface for laying out the pattern consisted of two tables butted up against each other in the studio, taped off in a grid. This set up was the easiest to edit the pattern from, as I wouldn’t have to fight gravity or mess with sticky tack while working. It also meant I would be building the image on a horizontal plane, not the vertical one it was intended to be shown on. Also, due to the size of the space I had to work in, I could only get six feet away from it in any direction. The solution in testing tonal blends relied on using two techniques: taking photos with my phone from above and sliding my glasses down my nose to see if the colors blurred together right. 

Between cutting plates, sorting tile and laying out the pattern, I spent eighteen months building the portrait. It was the longest duration I’d ever spent on a single piece. It was also my first self-portrait. In the beginning I questioned whether this was the right image to bring forward. As someone who works with iconography, I wondered what would happen if I strayed into personal territory. Would I make myself a target? Did I want to discuss my perspective from a personal vantage point? At a certain point, I just trusted the impetus guiding me. There would be time for other art, but this piece needed to happen now. 

So it was with this portrait consuming nearly all my work space that I navigated the first chapters of what it is to live under a Trump/Pence administration. I took breaks to sand an AR-15 down to dust as a meditation on mortality, and to wrap hair around a section of fencing from New Mexico while contemplating the human systems used to dehumanize refugees. A few commissions came in and craft sale seasons too. After each intermission I’d return to her, and each time the portrait provided new challenges, both in its technical needs and the reflective personal work it offered.

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Through this process numerous pathways of understanding both the cultural value of the materials and the personal underpinnings of the image became clearer to me. The experience slowly revealed the formative and persistent role of resistance and resilience on a woman in American society.

I came to understand the woman in this portrait to be so much like the young women I’ve worked with. I see in her shades of my mother, who raised me an era she had helped fight to secure. I see a woman with greater agency over her life than her foremothers. I see a woman who knows what to take from life, what to leave and how to build a life out of the pieces that fit. 

Fitting in with the Squares by Niki Johnson

Fitting In With The Squares (Self-Portrait), Porcelain Norman Rockwell commemorative plates on wood, 67″x 47″, 2019

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Fitting in with the squares, by Niki Johnson.
67 inches long by 47 inches tall

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Fitting in with the Squares (Self-Portrait) is on view:

April 6th, 2019- June 5th, 2019- MKE Influencers, Var Gallery West in Milwaukee, Wisconsin 

July 13th, 2019- January 2020- Earth Piece, Everson Art Museum, Syracuse, New York 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

STATEMENT & IMAGES:

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.

NEWS: 

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.

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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.

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.

THE CONTEXT:

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.

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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.

RELATED WORKS:

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.

PROCESS IMAGES:

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.

THANKS:

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.