Phenomenology of Message

What the Female Power Project is meaning

I am an artist and I have an art business. These are intertwining occupations, obviously. There is making, and there is making ABOUT making. Art is, among  other things, a mode of communication in itself. The object itself communicates. At the most fundamental level this is an interaction between an object and a viewer’s nervous system. An artist doesn’t have to be there when this happens. In fact, the artist is often—or almost always—absent when the communication happens. However, because I have a public studio—Black Lab—I often see people interacting with the objects I have made. This is part of the “Laboratory” aspect of the place where I make stuff. I don’t think I could make things without this kind of laboratory right now. Without this place my art production would be extremely slow, because communication, for me at least, needs to be tested in the world outside my head. So the business, the making about making, is also the art.

I have a long background in graphic design. This field has almost always been separate from fine art. Good design is supposed to communicate, visually and verbally, as quickly and precisely as possible—but not through direct and literal statements. Designs have to be persuasive and to that end they need to rely on culture-based associations and desires, and universal needs. Graphic design sells something through visual and verbal stories. These stories should have a natural narrative structure: this, then this, so this. This is the message.

I’ve realized that this website, this blog you are reading, is a poor design for the art business, although it maybe is okay as a document of art production. It has been created through time as the work is being made. I start out presenting my work here before I entirely know how to talk about it. I throw this content into the world before I know what the narrative structure, the “business story,” should be. This is probably true of many artists: I make something, and I’m thinking in a certain mode about what I want to say with the object, or how to externalize a particular image that has stuck in my head, then I make it, and the object turns around and starts talking to my own nervous system. Then I figure out what the object really means, or could mean, and what it is for, especially when I get to see other people interacting with it. For example, the perSISTERS prints: at first I called them “Positive Protest Principles Posters.” That was essentially their message. This made sense from the perspective of the development of the work. But then later I thought of a better name with which to approach the work after it already existed for a while.

I thought of writing about this here because I’ve just been rewriting the promotional postcard I have for the Female Power Project. This is a card with my contact info, studio location, photos of some works, the logo for the project, and a short description. The short description is the hard part. I first rewrote it because I adapted it for the display of my Female Power Project works at Femme Fatale DC, a pop-up shop for women-owned businesses. When I rewrote it, I thought, THIS is what I really want to say about this work, THIS is the message. Then I thought, I’m running out of the postcards, I should update and reprint those too. So I looked at what I had rewritten, and realized, no, not exactly, that’s not what this project is really about! I need to rewrite. Again. There’s a rushing of thoughts and ideas, but the words have their own flow, and sometimes, almost always really, these two processes just don’t line up right. The message is very slippery for me. That is what I am saying here: the message is slippery. Any message.

Here is the most recent iteration of the Female Power Project message. I would not be surprised if I change it again in a month.

Imagination is the Seed of Power
Female Power Project Shawls, Scarves, and Pins
perSISTERS Prints, Posters, Cards, and Stickers
Inspired by the powers of human and divine females, I have created these objects to represent a person as well as her attributes and message—or power—in words and images. The perSISTERS series reminds us of the positive actions women use to improve all of our lives. Because of the history of women’s oppression, these actions are often heroic and are messages we should celebrate. The shawls, scarves, and pins allow us to wear, and virtually to embody, the powers of exalted females. Women’s experience is human experience.

Here is an expanded version of the story I tell when people ask me how I came up with the Female Power Project and the perSISTERS prints. I’m going to use bullet points to break it down:

  • In 2015 I decided to make some shawls with Catholic themes because the Pope was visiting the neighborhood of my studio.
  • I made one with a dove image and another based on the iconography of the Virgin of Guadalupe—the Catholic image that I liked that I was most familiar with from growing up in New Mexico. I thought a lot about making such an image: I’m not Catholic or Latina, is it unacceptable appropriation to use this image? What is my approach to the image—is it respectful? What is the story of the image, where did it come from?
  • I made the shawl and watched someone put it on her shoulders. It seemed sort of magic, like she was wearing the Virgin’s power. I started thinking a lot about costume and dressing up and how that engages our nervous system. What an interesting thing to do with a work of art!
  • I thought that it would be interesting to make shawls about other females. I asked my friends about human and divine females they admire. From there I started with a short list: Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Marie Curie, Erzulie, Malala Yousafzai. I added scarves because I could make those less expensive. It wasn’t enough to do a little research on Wikipedia and then produce something. I really wanted to visually capture something important and fundamental about these characters. Then I wrote about this process here on my blog. The writing became part of the artwork and I print out these short essays and include them in the box with the scarf or shawl when someone buys one. I give them to people who don’t buy, if they ask.
  • The graphics I made right after the Women’s March were mostly complaints. There were lots of wonderful signs at the march, but most of them were poorly designed, so I thought that was something I could contribute. I made 10×8 posters with many colors and layered images, using a technique that was relatively quick and allowed me to print the images at any size. I printed them on canvas, varnished them, and supplied pins so you could attach them to your coat or bag and make every trip into a demonstration. The style of these is the seed of the style I use in the perSISTERS. But I ran out of complaints and I got tired of complaining in my art.
  • There are women who interest me, who don’t seem like shawl people. Ieshia Evans is one of those. She became famous because of a photograph taken of her. I made other artworks about her and that image. After the election I made posters based on photos of three women who were famous for such photos. The posters seemed to be a better way than shawls to express the powers they represent. These posters are BE PRESENT (Ieshia Evans), BE BRAVE (Danuta Danielsson), and SHOW UP (Tess Asplund). This is how the perSISTERS graphics came to be, although I didn’t call them that until I was making labels and packaging for the cards and small print sets. First I called them Positive Protest Principles Posters, because they state ideas in active verbs describing how amazing women have acted in the world and what message I think they are telling us, as women.
  • I want people to be able to imagine women as powerful and competent—as leaders—as heroes and strugglers. That is what I think the perSISTERS graphics help with. I believe that one big reason why we don’t have a female president is because of a lack of imagination. That is why I said “Imagination is the Seed of Power.”
  • I was surprised at how strongly and positively some people react to the images I have made. I don’t really remember what I was thinking when I paired the image of Ruby Bridges with the meme-ing phrase “Nevertheless She Persisted.” My inspiration must be related to the potency of that photo of the six-year-old leaving her school surrounded by federal marshals. Unlike the other three I mention above, Bridges isn’t just famous for that photo. In any case, many many people love that poster and must have it for their own. It seems to fill a need. We need to imagine what it is like to be a hero.