Tilda!

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Nearly two years ago during the chill of winter, upon Niki‘s suggestion, I stopped by the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago one night to view John Singer Sargent’s painting “Mrs. George Swinton.” At 7.5 feet tall and surrounded by a hefty gilded frame, it is nearly life-sized and retains a commanding presence on the end wall of a long gallery. Upon my first glance, I felt a palpable upwelling of excitement and immediately drew in closer to examine its luminosity, lush details, and painterly quality. Mesmerized, I took a picture of the painting with my phone and texted Niki the with a resounding “Yes! We have to do it.” Shortly thereafter, I started drafting patterns and sewing muslin.

About six months later while celebrating my 40th birthday on a solo trip to Paris, I stopped in a fabric store near the foot of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Much like the luminosity of the Sargent painting, the sheen of silk shantung beamed toward me from the wall. Having managed with my rudimentary French skills, I walked out with seven yards of fabric. Upon my return home, the fabric took on a new life that filled me with the same giddiness as my first experience standing in front of the painting.

As we are often prone to doing, we gave the painting/project a nickname. It typically serves as shorthand and also tends to endear us more toward the subject of the painting. Besides, “Portrait of Mrs George Swinton” doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue, so we opted for Tilda after the actress Tilda Swinton. What I didn’t know, until doing my usual research on the painting, was that Mrs. George Swinton turned out to be the great-grandmother of the actress for whom we nicknamed the project. In fact, as I dug further, I learned that the painting was commissioned by George Swinton’s mother to honor her Scottish politician son’s engagement to socialite and professional singer Elizabeth Ebsworth. It has been noted that the painting took two years to complete because of Sargent’s insistence upon taking breaks to play the piano while Elizabeth would sing. Regardless of timing, Sargent’s skill is not only evidenced through the many lush details present within the painting, he seems to effortlessly capture his subject’s signature poise and beauty—a major reason in our choice to reinterpret the piece.

IMG_4832When I went back to revisit the painting, I began to notice distinct elements of Impressionism in how Sargent rendered the translucent folds of the organza cascading down her arm. Up close, the brush strokes look like abstract squiggles of paint, yet at a distance, a luxurious pouf of iridescent fabric appears. Again, upon further research, I discovered that the portraiture for which he is most well-known composed the majority of his commissioned work. Yet he regularly employed Impressionist techniques in his informal work and landscape paintings. Not surprisingly, at least in hindsight, the portrait of Mrs. George Swinton marries the two approaches with a seamless grace and adeptness.

It likely goes without saying that we are enamored by this painting and much of Sargent’s work. We are excited for the opportunity to hang this piece next to our reinterpretation of A Portrait of Madame X, one of Sargent’s most well-known works. There’s also an element of delight in little secrets that Niki and I share in the process (like the fact that I’m standing on top of two art history books instead of wearing heels in the photo). But those are for telling another time. For now, below is our latest addition to the Muse series. We can only hope our gender-bending reinterpretation would bring honor to the original painting’s creator and subject.

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Mrs. George Swinton (after Sargent), 2017
© Niki Grangruth & James Kinser

References
Wikipedia: John Singer Sargent, George Swinton
ConversationsAboutArt.com
Art Institute of Chicago

Why All the Costumes, Makeup, Rhinestones, and Glitter?

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Photo: ©Niki Grangruth & James Kinser
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Believe it or not, that’s actually something I ask myself quite often! Despite those having been my go-to choice of mediums for many years now, I think it’s important for myself and other artists to step back and question why we do what we do. Generally, I find it imbues my work with a consciousness, certainty, and openness to change that wouldn’t be present otherwise. But here’s a deeper insight that might better answer that question.

I think it’s important… to step back and question why we do what we do.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had these internal parts of myself that loved stereotypically feminine things: braiding my friend’s dolls’ hair, rainbows and unicorns (not even kidding), and elegant dresses. At the same time, I had a lot of internal parts that were stereotypically masculine: rough-housing with my brothers, running around, and getting grimy while playing in the sandbox. Eventually, I learned that some of those internal parts were more socially acceptable than others. So I adapted to fit in and get others’ acceptance. Years later though, I realized that those feminine parts that were shoved aside never went away. They persisted, and I started to bravely listen to them as generously and carefully as I did all of my masculine parts.

Recently, I came across a video by Derek Scott, a therapist who utilizes the Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy model. Centered on the idea that our self is composed of a collection of internal subpersonalities or parts, Derek applied this model to gender and sexuality.

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Photo: ©Niki Grangruth & James Kinser
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He stated that each of these internal parts retain their own gender expression and sexuality, and collectively, they are what informs or comprises a person’s overall sexual orientation and gender identity. Understanding this idea was transformational to me.

I could now understand that masculine and feminine internal parts didn’t have to be at combat with each other.

It also allowed me to understand that my artistic practice is an active way of listening to all of those internal parts in a fair and equal way. From their collective, I have learned so much. It is their unique chorus of voices that has had me put rhinestones on football pads; and design and construct costumes with traditionally feminine shapes and apply them to a masculine form. More than ever, I understand that my creative practice is centered upon the desire to externalize the unique internal makeup of my whole self — all parts embraced without shame or exile.

So back to my original question…

Why all the costumes, makeup, rhinestones, and glitter? In short, it reveals who I really am: my most unbridled and beautiful collection of internal parts I call my self. And ultimately, I believe it is this creative practice and exploration that will have me look back at the end of my life — hopefully many years from now — and say “Yes, I fulfilled my purpose.”

Expanding Notions on Gender: A Journey

About a year ago I started writing this essay as something my friends and family could read to better understand my creative work. Thanks to them, it has led me to a deeper understanding of the multiple facets and notions interwoven in my exploration.

In the process of a recent moving meditation, I heard an inner voice proclaim, “I am feminine.” Not to be outdone, another inner voice (yes, I have multiple inner voices) charged, “I am masculine!” Then a third asserted, “I am femininely masculine – or am I masculinely feminine?” And with that, like my own parents of three boys did countless times, I blurted “Enough!,” put the voices in time-out, and moved on with the task at hand.

“I am femininely masculine – or am I masculinely feminine?”

Despite the annoying effort of having managed an argument within myself, the experience highlighted something I’ve been exploring for a while now: the distinction between sex and gender and the degree to which gender variety is accepted (or not accepted) in our culture.

Looking back, I can see that gender exploration has been an integral part of my creative work for nearly 10 years, with threads of it trailing back to my undergraduate work. Along that journey, I have come to discover that most people in our culture aren’t aware of a distinction between sex and gender. So for the sake of clarity, let’s refer to the World Health Organization’s definition of the two. “Sex is the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women,” whereas “gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.” Some have further simplified the distinction to  sex=body and gender=brain/mind. Going further, I personally lean toward the notion of sex as biological and fixed (save for the intervention of modern medicine and sex reassignment surgery), and gender – thanks to Judith Butler – as a performative act.

70s-picOnce introduced to the separation of these definitions, I was able to build more of a connection between – and context around – many of my childhood and adult experiences. I realized that even from an early age, I was unintentionally bucking the gender norms. At three or four, deep in the mid ‘70’s, I had soft looping curls of blonde hair. I remember getting compliments on it, wrapping it up in a towel turban, covering it from the heat of summer, and running around the local park pretending to be a supermodel. I also remember running to my mom, upset because once again, another child had asked me if I was a boy or a girl.  (While I don’t remember the occasion specifically, I suspect my flowing locks were shorn shortly thereafter.) At six or seven, much to my brothers’ dismay, I became adept at bathtime towel-to-evening gown transformations. Conversely, near this same time, every Sunday morning I would religiously don my dusty cornflower blue-violet velour suit with white pearl snaps (did I mention it was the ‘70s?). I would walk up to anyone in the church foyer with a proud chest, tug my jacket hem and assuredly state, “I am a prince!”

Fast forwarding through the awkward juvenile and high school stages of development (a whole topic of richness to discuss another time), it wasn’t until I turned 25 that I felt a responsibility to own my man-ness. At the time, I hardly knew what that meant. And even now, while I have a bit more of an idea, I still can’t say I am entirely sure. However, I have asked an assortment of questions along the way that have provided insight. Fifteen years ago I wondered, “What does it mean to be a man?” Eight years ago, when I was heavily into my thesis research and considering Jung’s theory of anima, I explored expression through a drag alter/persona and asked, “How does embracing my internal feminine energies amplify my authentic self-expression?” Since then, the pendulum has swung closer to center and the current questions are, “What does it mean to be a male (sex) who fully and equally embraces his masculinity and femininity (gender)?” and “How can that gender expression be authentically manifested?” It is a query that has led me to look outside of myself and toward anthropological, cultural and art historical references for answers.

“What does it mean to be a male (sex) who fully and equally embraces his masculinity and femininity (gender)?”

In his extensive research, Will Roscoe reveals a four-gender cultural construct within many pre-Colonial native North American Indian tribes. Specifically, Roscoe states that “in North America, individual, acquired, and ascribed traits outweighed sex-assignment in determining gender identity. *1” More to the point, in assessing the division of labor by gender basis, he finds that “Gender is a property of activities and objects as much as a trait of the individuals…. *2” In other words, the work a person of a tribe performed and the objects with which they adorned themselves were stronger signifiers of gender than the person’s biological sex. Reducing this down even further, and recognizing that sex = male/female and gender = man/woman, it appears that a biological male (sex) could be identified as a woman (gender) based upon his/her social role, clothing/adornments, and work performed. By this notion the tribes would have four genders: male man, female man, female woman and male woman. Roscoe also details in his research how these third and fourth gendered individuals – the female man and the male woman –  were often referred to anthropologically as “berdache” and more contemporarily as “two-spirit.”

“In North America, individual, acquired, and ascribed traits outweighed sex-assignment in determining gender identity.”

Bringing this notion of four genders into the modern world, I find myself now looking at people anew as I walk down the street. Consciously setting aside my initial assessment of their sex (and presumed sexual orientation), I now focus more on their gender attributes and expression. As noted in Roscoe’s observations above, I choose to look at a person’s gender signifiers first – clothing, hair, adornments, and even posture – and then bring awareness to their sex.  It has become an awareness game of sorts, and has rendered a few surprising insights. Although the process still involves assigning labels to people, it has generated an increased openness towards people’s personal expression, especially genderqueer and transgender people who do not align with our culture’s predominantly binary notion of masculine/feminine, male/female.

While Roscoe’s research has provided much insight and inspiration, I have also found answers to this authentic gender expression question in my own creative practice. For the last five years, photographer Niki Grangruth and I have been reinterpreting iconic works of art history as a means of looking at notions of beauty, non-conforming gender identity, and the artist/muse relationship. On a deeper and more personal level, the Muse series is an opportunity to more accurately externalize my internal gender energies/identity. It allows me to meld the masculine and angular features of my body with a softer yet assertive feminine aspect of my internal self. It also incorporates an appreciation and reverence for art history, which for many audiences, provides a key note of familiarity and point of initial entry into the work.

…borrowing from both sides of the gender closet, these garments challenge traditional boundaries.

kimono-600Beyond the Muse series, a collection of costumes and garments has also emerged from my creative process. Again, borrowing from both sides of the gender closet, these garments challenge traditional boundaries. In process, they are deeply spiritual acts of meditation, prayer and connection to the Universe — a resource for connecting to and fulfilling my soul’s purpose. My hope is that my work will make a difference in the world, one that fosters more openness and safety for people of all ages in regard to gender expression.

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Of Spirit and Sparkle

Nearly eight years ago, I was introduced to Authentic Movement, a practice of shifting one’s awareness from the mind into the full body as one performs free associative movement. Since then, it has been a regular element of my creative practice. As Janet Adler noted in her book Offerings from the Conscious Body, energetic phenomena can be part of an authentic mover’s experience. As such is the case for me, I often feel waves of energy, light and color moving through my physical body and sometimes the space around my body. These sensations and experiences are accompanied with a joyful, bright and happy emotion. As I’ve grown accustomed to this phenomena in my movement (and at times in my everyday life), I realize that in these moments I feel most connected to the Divine* and sense that a non-linear message or chunk of knowledge is being delivered to me.

For example, during the past year of my authentic movement practice, I have repeatedly found myself lying flat on the floor with my arms extended near my sides with my palms up. My mind is in a meditative state, quiet except for conscious awareness of movement impulses with in my body. Mind and body are relaxed yet attentive. My heart and chest feel warm and open as if my rib cage and skin do not contain the swelling bubble of energy within. The energy eventually reaches out of my body and to the heavens. I feel white light return, beaming down and creating a loop cycle. My awareness shifts to the palms of my hands. My fingers are spread as if holding something round. I experience a tingle like a light draft is passing across them. The tingle begins to flow and fold in upon itself, recycling, growing. In my minds eye, I see white glowing orbs of energy in my palms. They vary in size. The more I connect with the experience, the more the orbs grow in size, brightness and intensity, and initiate the flow of the light and energy through the rest of my body. In these moments I feel ecstatic, alive, vibrant, uninhibited and available to the Divine. These experiences can last for a mere moment or they can be prolonged for several minutes. Regardless of the amount of time, each experience fills me with joy as if I have connected with my Creator and have moved one step closer to fulfilling my Divine purpose in this life. I luxuriate in these moments and slowly bring my awareness and consciousness back to the the physical space I am inhabiting. I do so slowly as to honor the experience and retain the memory within my mind and body.

Rhinestone FootballAbout five years ago, I felt compelled to cover a football in rhinestones. (Stick with me. I promise this relates to the accounts detailed above.) After 24 non-consecutive hours of gluing thousands of rhinestones, the football seemed an adequate metaphor for the mashup of masculinity and femininity that is often central to my work. Shortly thereafter, I began having visions of football pads covered in rhinestones. Knowing the amount of work and expense that would be involved, I moved on to other projects. After two years’ passing, I finally listened to the recurring impulse and began collecting materials and working on the project. (Read my recent post Football, Fear & Fringe for an initial insight into the project.) The underlying notions of the project have continued to address and digest fear. However, as art making is a ritual of transforming my life, it should have come as no surprise to me when the project led me to murkier places, deep crevices ripe for the Alchemist’s touch. On the flip side of fear, I’m learning how to love more – myself and others.

rhinestone-palmAnd now, as I hold rhinestones in the palm of my hand before tweezing them into place, consciously feeling that familiar orb of energy, I find myself reaching out in faith to the Divine. I find peace in the placement of each rhinestone, a confirmation that I am right where I am supposed to be, and a knowing that this sparkly ritual is a prayer to the heavens for transformation such that I may better fulfill my spirit’s purpose.


*I use the term Divine, Universe, Divine Creator, Spirit as proxy for God as they carry less dogma and negative associations for me. However, I view them all as the same.

 

Football, Fear & Fringe

Rhinestone FootballA couple years ago, I spent twenty-something hours applying thousands of 4 mm rhinestones to a football. At the time it just seemed like the right thing to do. But as I worked on it, I began to see the football as a visual metaphor for the simultaneous combination of masculinity and femininity – a central crux of my work. Since then, I’ve continued to fixate on this notion of football as a personal metaphor for extreme masculinity. That fascination lead to my current project in which I am adorning a football uniform with sequins, beaded fringe and rhinestones.

Recently, as I was working away, I began hearing the echo of a question I often hear in response to my work, “What are you making it for?” Beyond the obvious answers (at least to me) of “I’m an artist. It’s what I do,” or “It’s what I’m meant to do and it makes me happy,” I found myself diligently asking “Why am I doing this? Why football?”  Without a moments pause, it was as if the universe opened my mind’s eye and began showing me a slideshow of teachers, coaches, high school classmates and frat boys from college, all of whom in some way or another directly made it known through critical glances, enlarged body language, insult and even bullying, that my effeminacy and sexuality were not acceptable. Undoubtedly, football represented fear.

I learned early on that to be different in this way meant that I wasn’t always safe, especially in rural and Central Kansas where I grew up and went to school. Over time, it invoked a hyper-vigilance toward people and situations – a quick eye that could assess my level of safety. It became a survival mechanism of sorts that I use to this day, so not all was bad.

Football-fringe-400Snapped back to the present, I realized that the presence of football in my art-making is an act of alchemy – a taking of trash and turning it into gold. The football (and sparkle) is my way of digesting that fear, transforming it into a golden thread and weaving into the current evolution of life. Now, I’m also wise enough to understand that the lesson isn’t complete. The costume is still in process, so there’s plenty more about fear, football and transformation to be learned during the construction. And for all of that, I feel fortunate.