In Conversation With:
Interviewed by Fleur Adderley
Photo credit: EG Schempf
What influenced your love of art?
Reaction. Art is about where it is and where you are.
Your works hold both a playful and sinister energy. Do you consciously combine these two elements?
My work is an ongoing dictionary of intimate scenarios, inviting viewers to observe without the fear of trespassing or offending. We are captivated by the resilience of our own virgin selves and beguiled by the lure of shameless sensuality.
A work that really stands out for me is The Twin Fawns. Talking about this poignant and delicate work you state that the “tragedy of beauty is its transience.” Can you explain to me a little more about this piece and how it has influenced your approach to art and life cycles?
I purchased the fawns from the case of a toy and science store. Their mother was hit by a moving vehicle and when someone went to move her body off the road they realized she was pregnant. The dead unborn twins were taken to a taxidermist. I made them a cloche. The glass was custom blown and the wooden base was carved to the shape of the curved edge. I hired master photographer EG Schempf to document the final object.
The Twin Fawns are preserved and organic allowing for infinite translation. They illustrate every reality on the spectrum of rebirth to post death. Their fragility is natural and the bubble is imposed. I sell photographs of them but the piece is in my studio. I return to them the way I read my Enchanted Forest tarot cards. They are questions and answers.
Recently I have projected both the pandemic and the revolution onto them. Americans want to own art and culture, specifically Black art and culture, without archiving and documenting the people who created and are creating it. A four hundred year history of “discovering” and profiting from Black and Brown people without crediting, preserving or sanctifying them has been amplified by our recent pedestrian ability to survey their murders and document their mortality during a pandemic. The nature and nurture of hereditary trauma paired with a nationalist leader has permitted the bell jar to crack.
I have sold images of this sculpture but I did not the cause the mother to perish, biologically make, stuff or mount the central object. It took five years to convince the shop owner to let me purchase the twins, then three to pedestal and publish them. I debuted the 8 x 10’ photograph to five million people on the final episode of a reality tv show in 2010 with state of the art video equipment capturing the reactions of a curated live audience at a New York City auction house. The twins are immortalized in their mortality. They possess the space between fortune and tragedy.
Photo credit: EG Schempf
What are the key ideas you want to express to your viewers?
My is work is delicate and disturbing- deceptively simple executions of complicated subjects. My line documents early sexual awakenings, the visual manifestation of disease, and the social anxieties of realized and fictional characters. By illustrating stifled habits, residual adolescent vulnerability, and issues of beauty and popularity, my imagery documents trends in fear, private and public, commercial and independent.
Rendering the progress of innocence into awareness, my work chronicles the beauty of awkward moments.
"The twins are immortalized in their mortality. They possess the space between fortune and tragedy."
"Rendering the progress of innocence into awareness, my work chronicles the beauty of awkward moments."
Your illustrations exude a timeless fairy-tale narrative, where did this particular style originate from?
My work is most effective when my invitation to a difficult idea has a beautiful or invisible envelope. Everyone is a guest. Being included creates permission to have an exclusive emotional experience.
Fairytales are familiar. We are introduced to the characters as children but we don’t meet them until we are older. The Wolf is sexy, Goldilocks wants to talk to the manager and Sleeping Beauty was not authentically rescued. I draft the reflections and record the inflections between exploit and exploit, chased and chaste, exotic and erotic, patronize and patronize. My drawings have been published since I was three and I am the youngest living artist in The Whitney Museum of American Art among others because my line quality is rare and antiquated and I use it to discuss contemporary conflict.
"My work is most effective when my invitation to a difficult idea has a beautiful or invisible envelope."
Lots of your works hold political and social significance. How do you attempt to use your art to spark important discussions?
My work aggravates both sides because it is well lit in the grey area. My 2015 ADA compliant restroom sign WE DON’T CARE is nearly invisible- my covert protest to a bill that was on the table in Durham, North Carolina requiring proof of and adherence to biological gender in public restrooms. Gendered public restrooms are unsafe spaces for people who do not essentially “pass” and forcing people who have transitioned to go to the bathroom marked for a gender they do not identify as; this is inhumane. The terrifying question of how this bill was going to be enforced was already amplifying documented situations where masculine presenting women were being stopped by police as they entered women’s restrooms and trans women were being attacked by cis women. Fear of public restrooms causes urinary tract infections and incites isolation which in turn triggers depression and suicide.
My Facebook pic of the sign for my shop ( a combined male and female figure, commercial color scheme, neutral font and braille ) went viral and made it an easy purchase for The 21c Hotel in Durham, NC for their new bathrooms. The photograph of the installation of the signs at the hotel by the Associated Press became the image for most print and online articles discussing the bill on both sides of the agenda. Conservatives threatened to kill me because their daughters were supposedly going to be raped in the bathroom by men disguised as women and a percentage of the trans community insisted I was not allowed to address these issues or produce and sell the sign because it was not my narrative.
The one hundred signs were purchased for The Democratic Convention, civic buildings as far as Germany and independent businesses all over North America. Producing small quantities of custom commercial objects is expensive and postage and packaging ate up most of the profit. What was left went to a free health clinic that was developing a program focused on post foster care trans teens. The sign has been published in Japanese school programming as an example of compassionate behavior and the image has been copied and reused all over the world in solidarity. I was able to connect the trans man who originally copyrighted the dual gender icon to Twitter and his work was featured all over New York subways. The bill was not passed and I was invited to lecture in celebration of this victory.
In 2017 I created an edition of twenty five red baseball caps commercially embroidered in white with the text “ME TOO” in the space the president was platforming his slogan “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”. The soft pink pussy hats did not get the job done. Worn en mass by hundreds of thousands, I spotted one every four months after Donald Trump won the election. Women assumed women would not vote for Trump and in part, this is why and how he won the election. I made the order and the profits were publicly ordained for an organization that provides underwear for women who have been raped. A pair is given to the victim when the underwear they arrive in is taken for evidence. Similar to the Tom’s Shoes format, you buy one and one is donated to a clinic or domestic violence facility. I copyrighted the image in hopes that the object would be protected enough that I could sell the first order, produce more and give other like minded organization further support without competition. The initial sketch of the hat was well-received and the object was confrontational. I wanted a hard sea of red and an aggressive rebranding. This garment was a platform for political dissidence and similar to the bathroom sign, you had to look twice.
The Me Too movement was started by Tarana Burke in 2007 on MySpace to raise awareness and push for social change for women of color who had been sexually harassed in the workplace. This movement was amplified by a tweet by Alyssa Milano in regards to Harvey Weinstein in 2017. Transparency that the movement only got attention when a white woman syndicated the hashtag prioritized Burke to be interviewed and acknowledged for her bravery and intention.
Soft pink hats aside, if making America “great again” included sexual violence against women, making a personal object to publicly address being “grabbed by the pussy” disempowered the ambiguity of the statement. As a victim myself, I knew producing a garment that was genderless and size inclusive had the potential of an impactful reveal. The week I produced this baseball cap my ex husband was accused of rape by my youngest employee's best friend. I was sent a text from a false phone number of a screenshot from a women’s group I had been blocked from that morning. I was having lunch with a friend. The image graphically detailed what my ex husband was being accused of. My companion asked what terrible thing had happened. I excused myself, went to my studio and wept. My ex husband and I were friends before we dated and happy most of our marriage. He was someone I had shared my life with for fifteen years. I had already disassociated from him but this was not enough.
I was labeled a “rape sympathizer” by local social media groups. My small business, an independent female owned and run lingerie shop, got a dozen one star reviews in a day. The people reviewing my business were all friends of the accuser and generally had no other online reviews. Young women who had never been in the shop said we threw open the door of the dressing room to show their bodies to customers. The dressing room has no door, only thick velvet curtains.
This prompted an interview and I was called by a radio station. The woman interviewing me was misinformed, having been told I was selling endless hats for $125 and keeping the profits. It was an awkward start that ended in eloquent understanding. The Me Too hats sold out, mostly to addresses in New York City, and the rest were purchased for public and private art collections. I wrote a check to the organization, Madi Apparel, and removed the work from social media.