Saturday, January 31, 2015

Art Show at the Family Literacy Center

For the last several weeks of my residency at the Family Literacy Center in Barre, VT, students have been exploring individual art projects. Many artists painted and drew, while others tried sculpture and photography.

Artist painting a classmate's portrait, titled Sam, 2015, acrylic on canvas board.
Some of the artists had very specific processes, materials, or personal ideas to explore.  The artist above knew before I arrived that she would like to explore building skin tones and values in portraiture. Other students made artwork to put in their child's room to surround them with color and creativity.
Painting a turtle for her daughter

Painting a Transformer for her son- all those shades of yellow!

Sketching a tree
All of the work that students created was hung for the group's art show on this past January 29th. Reporters from the Times Argus and members of the Vermont Art Council, HeadStart, and Capstone were in attendance alongside families and friends of the artists for the event.

The beautifully lit space had perfect architecture to organize the work.
Wherever possible, work was surrounded with a simple black mat.
Student sketchbooks were on display as well.
One project in particular stood out to everyone in attendance for its bold and brave imagery. It is not surprising to find out that many of these young mothers are grappling with issues of body image during pregnancy and postpartum, but it was particularly amazing how one young artist chose to explore this subject.

The artist at right, discussing her work with viewers.
 This artist chose to create photographs intended to elevate and normalize the group's pregnant and postpartum bodies.  Using a digital camera and software to crop the image or change the tonality, the artist documented the stretches, curves, and pathways of their marks.  Every student in the class wanted to participate and have her photo taken.

This created a bit of a stir among some staff.  The day before the show, the artist was asked to pull several images deemed too controversial to be part of the art exhibit.  I haven't had many times in my life that I have had to discuss the censorship of art with staff and students, but this was an exceptional circumstance indeed.  The student was told that close-ups of the skin were fine, but full- or even partial-body images were not. 

Macro lens skin photo. Apparently fine...
  But this one below, we noticed, got an exemption, and was allowed in the show. Hm.

Also, apparently fine...
The real kicker? The artist's self-portrait was "not fine."

Self-portrait of the artist, apparently not fine.
When she and I got down to discussing this, the reality was obvious to her before I even put words to it- images that were deemed "harder to look at" by some adults were not welcome.  In the words of the artist, images reinforcing an idealized, "bouncing-right-back-like-a-movie-star" aesthetic were fine.

Which was her Whole. Entire. Point.
That normal women don't always look the same after children. And that it's okay not to.

The morning of the art show, her teacher noticed this discrepancy- essentially, all of the images were the same, and featured the same scope of the body- and thankfully proceeded to print out almost all of the missing, censored photos.

The grouping of her work on exhibit, collectively titled You Are Beautiful.
I really wonder what she took away from that experience. Mostly, she expressed relief. What does it teach a young person that an art project, in no visible way obscene, can be censored based on opinion? I also try to keep in mind the balance of supporting student ambitions and meeting everyone involved where they are at, so to speak. Lots of people do not like to be uncomfortable, and I try to remember the importance of respecting that too. But is it not the job of art to simultaneously allow the artist to be expressive and to force the viewer to think? I would say real emotional impact tends to make art pretty great.  Many of the world's most celebrated artists- Georgia O'Keefe, Robert Mapplethorpe, Chris Burden, Judy Chicago- make viewers very uncomfortable at times.

Because often, what a person will remember is what stands out- what challenges a person and makes him or her think.  No surprise- the newspaper journalist interviewed the artist extensively about her work, while an assistant videoed the conversation.  Because in the scope of sunsets, landscapes, and cute animals, this is the work that stood out: full of meaning and intention.

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