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.

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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.

Eggs Benedict: Part 2


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A translator relayed this quote from Pope Benedict during his trip to Africa in 2009:

“I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.”

In 2009 I began working on a portrait of emeritus Pope Benedict, a latex embroidery made out of approximately 17,000 non-lubricated condoms. I completed the stitching just as Pope Benedict entered retirement in March of 2013. Eggs Benedict is currently on display at the Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This post covers my experience of having Eggs Benedict go viral, riding a wild media wave (or two), and engaging global conversations about the importance of interventionist artwork.  I also discuss how the events of the past month have inspired me to auction off the piece in a relatively unconventional manner, in hopes of raising money to benefit AIDS advocacy worldwide.

GOING VIRAL:

It has been just over a month since I posted Eggs Benedict on WordPress, and four weeks since I gave my first interview. In this time I have talked to numerous print reporters in person and on the phone and I just completed my third televised interview. News coverage has crossed the oceans. My thoughts have been translated into languages I cannot speak. Story lines (factual and otherwise) have caught like wildfire giving rise to an onslaught of activity on comment boards worldwide.

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When the first articles hit the internet the portrait began to take on a new life; one that was relatively indifferent to my practice and completely within the context of the daily grind. Due to the unusual nature of the story, it found shelter in an array of news sections from Arts & Entertainment to “Weird News,” and from Religion to the front page of various publications. Bloggers began blogging about it.

My age was misquoted by one source, which then was piggybacked by numerous other news agencies, making me 10 years younger in only 24 hours. While such a shot at rejuvenation might be a welcome chance for some, I’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks emphasizing the full 35 years of my life, while being ever amazed at the laxness of fact checking that can take place at the high speed of modern journalism.

With that said, I have been very pleased with the type of coverage given by the reporters who have interviewed me. It is through their interest and skill that this story has gained traction.  Barbara Munker at the German Press Agency broke the story worldwide, while  Mary-Louise Schumacher and Kat Murrell contextualized the artwork within the broader scope of my practice.  Television reporters Stephanie Brown and Angelica Duria did an incredible job crafting as much depth as possible into two-minute stories for their respective news programs.  The list goes on, but in an effort to not laundry list I can say that all of the reporters I spoke with were careful not to stir additional conflict in this story or sensationalize the piece.

Not surprisingly, some factual fabrication has surfaced. A few conservative publications claimed that Eggs Benedict was proof that federal funding for the arts should be cut entirely, which I found ridiculous. No federal funds were spent on this project. I paid for it all out of pocket, like most artists do. However, I see no reason why this piece or any other piece of artwork  gives reason to condone censorship, or the removal of federal funding for the arts. Good art often makes people uncomfortable as it asks viewers to reconsider aspects of their lives that are often accepted, denied, or just plain taboo.

The online comments have been incredible. From the anonymity of their computer armchairs, commenters have both celebrated and condemned the artwork. Some have celebrated or condemned me as a person. From what I have seen (and yes, I have peered into the small infernos of disagreement) the majority of response to Eggs Benedict has been overwhelmingly positive. While admitting this may dampen the cry of controversy from the media, I believe it makes room for the greater conversation that is at stake concerning the accountability world leaders must face when their statements put the greater good of all at risk. Over the past five weeks I have witnessed a global conversation about safe sex, scientific fact and the place of public health in relation to moral platitudes. Further, I have witnessed how important and necessary art is in creating room for these difficult conversations to happen.

MOST ASKED QUESTIONS:

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Over the past month I have been asked a number of questions about Eggs Benedict. While most of the key points of my answers have been published, I feel it necessary to take this opportunity to address a few of these questions more fully.

What do you think of all of the attention Eggs Benedict has generated? Was it expected? Was this piece a media grab?

I think the global response to Eggs Benedict signifies that people are ready to engage in a conversation about the issues the work brings up. No single person could craft the level of media interest that this artwork has received. It is a welcome surprise to me. As an artist I have very little control over how far the story of a particular artwork will travel. I simply make art because I need to. I write about it because that is part of my process. My contribution to this experience has been making artwork, writing a blog and granting interviews. If there was any media grab at all it was the media grabbing my story.

What do you say to people who think this work is disgusting or disrespectful?

I can respect that not everyone will embrace this artwork. There are also communities of people who see Eggs Benedict as a necessary and brave statement. We all may have differing opinions and ways of looking at the world, but the freedom of expression is central to who we are as a people. Respecting someone else’s perspective is civilized, and engaging in thoughtful dialogue (even if it’s heated) is healthy.

I dedicated a great deal of time crafting this portrait in a way that it is immaculate in its presentation. I encourage all of the people who have taken offense to see it in person. My guess is that you might just be surprised by what you see.

Who is your next condom portrait going to be of? Any other spiritual leaders on your list?

I would like to encourage everyone who has wondered this to visit my website. Perhaps it’s natural to think that condoms are my specialty with the amount of coverage this piece has gotten, but if you take a look at my other bodies of work you will see that I work in a wide array of materials. Each project I begin usually demands learning how to use materials I have little experience with. Material choice plays a central role in each artwork I make and is necessary in helping create the total meaning of each piece.

While looking at my other bodies of work you will also begin to notice that the people I have chosen to depict are from popular culture. I am not particularly interested in taking on spiritual leaders nor do I have issues with Catholics or people from any denomination. What I am interested in is bringing focus to a number of public figures whose statements, life decisions, or personas are reflected in the personal challenges we face as participants in our current cultural climate.

If there was one thing you could say about this Eggs Benedict what would it be?

Art starts multiple conversations at a glance. Eggs Benedict encourages dialogue about our world leaders and their responsibility to public health. It also presents condoms in a festive and positive way. Further, Eggs Benedict incorporates the plight of the poorest of the poor; women and children, in that the portrait itself is made through embroidery, which is a form of women’s traditional craft. Family planning and sexuality are woven into the very way the artwork was made. AIDS prevention and advocacy are the central to concepts to Eggs Benedict, but included in it’s message are notions of sacred sculpture, ritual and reverence.

ART FOR A BETTER WORLD:

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The events of the past month have brought me to make an unconventional decision concerning the sale of Eggs Benedict. I have decided to open the sale of this work to the world through an online auction. My hope is this will continue the global conversation this artwork has generated.  I have also decided to donate a portion of the proceeds to help fund AIDS advocacy and relief.

Eggs Benedict, which began as an intervention will now to evolve into action. Through the power of contemporary art and philanthropy this artwork will bring positive change to the world. The more generous the bid, the more good will be done. My hope is that Eggs Benedict will be purchased by an institution or collector who envisions this work on public display with the possibility of seeing it travel.

The percentage of the sale that to be donated and the organizations to be awarded funds will be decided in collaboration with the highest bidder. Once the piece is purchased the details will be made public.

I look forward to reporting back on the results of this auction! Thank you all for your interest. Without all of you, this would not be happening.

Eggs Benedict

To begin this I should start with a confession:

I believe in sex.  It is an integral part of being human.  Healthy sex makes for strong communities and happy people.  Love in all of its colors, partners and kinky curiosities is to be enjoyed by those who are in it.  Understanding the self and expressing personal identity are interwoven in our sexual experiences.  As it is our bodies that create each successive generation, healthy sexual choices are at the root of creating a healthy nation.

THE WHY:

I was eating a bowl of cereal when a radio news story perked my interest.  It was March of 2009.  A translator relayed this quote from Pope Benedict during his recent trip to Africa:

“I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is.  If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.  The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spirtual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others, and secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practice self-denial, to be alongside the suffering.”

Wait, did the Pope just say that prophylactics will increase the AIDS epidemic in Africa and offer self-denial as the remedy?

Why yes, he did.

A few days later the Lancet called upon the Pope to retract his comments, saying that anything less would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates fighting to contain the disease.  No retraction was given.

In 2010 the Pope engaged the condom debate again, this time stating that encouraging condom use amongst prostitutes, with the intention of reducing the risk of HIV infection, may be an indication that the prostitute is intending to reduce the evil connected with his or her immoral activity.

Now the Pope was conflating being a prostitute who practices safe sex with encouraging a moral deficit.  Had he any compassion for their position in life; their poverty, their plight?

Apparently not.

Over the next few years Benedict’s fervent embrace of a more “traditional” Catholic doctrine continued to make me wonder what time-machine he had fallen out of. Homosexuality as a moral disease…  Same sex-marriage as a threat to world peace… Gender as clearly definable…  Each time a new message from the Pope hit the airwaves I became frustratingly perplexed.  I felt I had to do something.

Eggs Benedict exists because I believe it is my responsibility as an able bodied person living in our current cultural climate to incite further discussion about the direction our leaders point us in.  As an artist, my thoughts manifest in my artwork best.  It’s a pretty simple relationship.  During the production of this piece I made many intentional choices; from selecting a cheerful moment from the Pope’s earlier years to reproduce, to going with a festive color palette, to putting great care into the making of the portrait to ensure that both the subject matter and the materials were on some level being celebrated in the midst of the questions that their combination raises.  I made these choices because it is important to me that this piece opens more doors than it closes, by remaining both glorious and irreverent at the same time, if that’s possible. Like other portraits I have made, I see Eggs Benedict conceptually existing in a grey space between the black/white nature of political statements- creating room for a nuanced experience that has an added degree of complexity.

 THE HOW:

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In May of 2009 I made a donation to a health advocacy group in exchange for 6,000 condoms.  The piece was intended to be quite a bit smaller than it is now, as I had chosen a 1/4″ mesh to weave the condoms through.  The focus of the image was limited mainly to the Pope’s face.  It was while creating the tonal range by inter-stuffing the condoms that I ran into my first hurdle.  The small grid wouldn’t allow for the thickness of 3-4 condoms that some of the tones required.  I needed to scale up.

I also began to notice that the latex was breaking down, and that several of the first condoms woven in the grid were beginning to become ashy, losing their vibrancy.  I was presented with the second hurdle; learning more about latex degradation.  In order to do that I needed to spend some time experimenting with different preservation techniques and essentially put constructing the piece on the back burner.

Over the next year and a half I laid condoms in window sills, on top of book shelves under fluorescent and incandescent lights, dipped them in castor oil, Astroglide, sprayed them with WD-40 and Armorall, as well as dusted them with talc.  The results were pretty clear.   First and most importantly, the condoms needed to be non-lubricated in order to inter-stuff  them in an expedient fashion. Secondly, condoms treated with spermicidal lubricant, Armorall, WD-40, and castor oil crumbled or became more prone to snapping within 12-18 months. Talc, though effective in sealing the latex dulled the colors. Sunlight, fluorescents and heat also were a detriment to the material.

These findings led me back to the design board, this time drawing up an airtight case with plexiglass sides on the front and back that I could then flood with argon gas.  Filing it with a silicone based lubricant was also a preservation option I played with (and the idea of putting a bubbler in could be fun) but the cost and weight of the piece would increase greatly.  Gas being more cost effective and less gimmicky won.

I also decided to include more of the Pope’s body in the image, including the gesture of his hands and more papal garb.  The stitching surface had trippled by 2012, which brought me to the third hurdle: Finding more condoms.

By the fall of 2012 I had relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin over 1,000 miles from my first condom connection in Memphis, Tennessee.  My second search began similarly to how I had conducted it before.  I began by calling and visiting AIDS testing centers and calling health advocacy groups in search of a helpful person who might be interested trading donations for condoms.

Trying to create a connection this way was tenuous to say the least.  First off, the organizations that supply testing and sexual health information have been under fire for a number of years, and more recently following several conservative referendums are walking both political and financial tight ropes.  The last thing I wanted to do was in anyway jeopardize the crucial services they provide by involving them in a project that could potentially be politically inflammatory.  I found myself skirting the exact content of the piece until the last minute with the first two organizations I spoke with, as if the don’t-ask-don’t-tell rule might make it easier for both of us.  I felt like I was seeking contraband, goofy as it may sound.  My request for 14,000 condoms in specific color quantities inevitably brought the conversation around to the goals of the project.  Thankfully it was embraced by each person I spoke with.

While waiting to hear back from a these contacts I was encouraged to try and secure the condoms by creating my own account with a national sexual education group.  As luck would have it, my new job teaching at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design had the added benefit of affiliating me with a 501c3 non-profit institution… and apparently that’s all it takes.

In mid-November 2012 the cases of condoms arrived.  I began unwrapping, unrolling, stuffing, configuring and stitching the portrait.  During those months I sat on the couch at night, exacto blade within reach, methodically slicing open hundreds of foil wrappers, pulling out their contents, unrolling them and then bagging each color group.  (New fact to wow your friends at the next cocktail party: You can fit 500 unrolled condoms in a gallon bag; just give yourself 4 hours to do so.)  For those of you who are curious as to how long this has taken, I began to time myself during the middle of the project to see exactly how long each row took to decipher color, inter-stuff condoms, triple fold (yes, all of the condoms are folded) and stitch through the mesh.  The answer: 1 hour and 20 minutes per horizontal line.  As there are 101 horizontal rows, the stitching the portrait took roughly 135 hours.  Unwrapping, unrolling and bagging took nearly the same amount of time.

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I finished stitching the week Pope Benedict retired.

THE PIECE:

The images that follow are of the completed stitch-work for Eggs Benedict.  I am currently building the frame that will hold the stitch-work as well as a plexiglass aquarium that will encase the both the frame and the stitching.  More images will be posted when it’s ready!

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Dimensions: The stitching area measures 41″x 51″x 5″.  The frame and case will increase the size to 48″x 72″x 12″.  When seen in person the case will be attached to a short weighted pedestal that will ensure the piece doesn’t tip over.  The stitch-work contains approximately 17,000 non-lubricated condoms.

QUESTIONS/COMMENTS:

I’d love to hear what you think.  Please feel free to send any questions or comments my way and I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as I can.  Thank you!  More updates to follow soon.

To visit the online auction of Eggs Benedict click on this link: eggsbenedictproject.com