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


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.


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.”

“Muse” Exhibition Interview on Metaphor, Gender, and Collaboration

This summer, Niki and I were awarded an alumni artist residency at Columbia College Chicago. For two months, we used the gallery as our studio and then transformed it back into a gallery for the exhibition of photos, costumes, and set installation. During the residency, the Columbia exhibitions staff recently sat down with us to discuss the visual choices, social contexts and concerns, art historical references, and collaborative processes involved in our on-going collaboration, Muse.

How do you address gender through the use of metaphor?

James Kinser (JK)
Visual metaphors are very potent reference tools (purse = woman, neck tie = man), and I love to play with them. They are effective tools for challenging preconceived gender associations. DeepV-imagesA lot of the costumes I make have a deep V neckline, and there’s several reasons for that. First, it reads feminine, despite the fact that if it were worn by a woman it would show a pretty hefty amount of cleavage. Second, it’s a neckline that we rarely see in men’s ready-to-wear fashion. And lastly, it’s a little bit sexy without being vulgar.

Similarly, the waist of several of the costumes for the Muse series align with the natural waist (at or slightly above the belly button) instead of the waistline where most men’s pants fit. Raising the waist tends to read more feminine since it hints at a more hourglass silhouette. Other visual metaphors, or hints of gender play as I like to call them, can be found in hemlines, sleeve lengths, and of course, the use of rhinestone/sequin embellishment.

Of all the costumes I have designed and constructed, I think the rhinestone football and football costume most overtly exemplify this mashup of gender, object, and metaphor.

© Niki Grangruth & James Kinser

Football costume with rhinestone football and football pads, 2014

First, I covered an entire football in rhinestones and then made a costume to go with it. Football became a metaphor for masculinity, aggression, what society said I should be. (I endured my fair share of harassment from that camp of athletes in high school and college). I also covered football pads and undergarments in rhinestones and fringe – materials that, to me, represented celebration and pride. Ultimately, the football costume became a visual metaphor for the reclamation of those negative experiences and ownership of them as just something that happened, without any sting. Essentially, I could find more balance within myself simply by mashing up these disparate objects/visual metaphors.

Niki Grangruth (NG)
In terms of symbolic gender, we are referencing both masculine and feminine genders within the images to create a character that falls in between the gender binaries. Moving beyond gender, biological sex also becomes an important element.

Magie Noire [After Magritte], 2012

Magie Noire [After Magritte], 2012

In the image Black Magic (after Magritte) James appears to be biologically female, but again this is an illusion or performance. I feel that while we tend to think of sex and gender as existing on one spectrum, it actually exists in a three dimensional form with various points of intersection. One term I particularly like is “two-spirit” which is a term used by some indigenous cultures to describe a person who possesses and expresses qualities of femininity and masculinity. Our intent is more to question the socially-constructed gender binary than to provide politically correct definitions for gender expression. Certain features reference the masculine, such as James’ beard, his body shape, and his angular jaw line. His biological sex is not hidden, but instead celebrated in combination with features that emphasize the feminine, such as the posing, costuming and props.

Objects and Gender:
How as an artist do you use objects, style, or symbols as devices in your works? How do objects became stands in for genders or metaphorical genders?

NG: Both James and I use gendered materials in our own work, as well as our collaborative work. For me, this is out of an interest in the way society assigns gender qualities to inanimate objects, which can seem very absurd. From a young age, mainly due to gender-based advertising, we are taught that certain materials, objects, and colors are gender specific. Assigning gender to inanimate objects reinforces the gender binary, and in turn, gender stereotypes. I think that both James and I like to subvert gendered materials in a playful way to promote the questioning of preconceived ideas of gender.

JK: The practice of applying gender to objects fascinates me. Since we do not conjugate nouns with gender, we really do have freedom to look at objects with a subjective or individual point of view. It can be really entertaining (and enlightening) to look at everyday objects, assign them a gender quality, and then ask why it deserves that label. There are elements in clothing that I have thought of as belonging solely to women or solely to men. To my eye these associations are based on cultural influence. For example, the skirt squarely belongs to women despite on-going efforts by American clothing designers since the 1960s. The cap sleeve, most flowing or ruffled design elements, and most sparkle, rhinestones and sequins are all considered feminine. I think of men’s clothing as the female cardinal of fashion compared to the range of expression found in women’s clothing. I suspect this is all a byproduct of our patriarchal society’s historic fear of the feminine, but that’s a whole other deep conversation.

Social Messaging:
In some of your own artistic statements, you use the term “social messaging.” How do you define “social messaging?”

JK: Social messaging is the same as conditioning. I use the term to describe the direct and indirect messages around us that tell us how to behave and assimilate. In our every-day lives conditioning tends to be more subconscious since we are most often very familiar with our surroundings. Today, I think conditioning comes most prevalently from the media, television, and social media. In general, I hold a pretty skeptical view of these outlets and try to be a conscious media consumer.

Having said that, I think there are some truly spectacular messages out there in the media sphere that are really making a difference. The It Gets Better project, the HRC rainbow profile picture initiative and last but not least, RuPaul! Beyond the earth-shaking 1990s “Covergirl” days and the contemporary seasons of Drag Race, RuPaul has commonly dispersed existential messages that address the relationship between drag, authenticity, and spirituality. There are two outstanding interviews with RuPaul – one at the NYC Public Library and the other with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast. Both keenly hit at this notion of drag vs. identity/ego. Both are a serious “must listen” for anyone. I don’t want to steal or butcher RuPaul’s words, but I have to underscore his notion that identity/ego hates drag. Ego likes the contained, the finite, that which can be easily defined. Drag and gender play upends those labelled buckets, spills their contents onto the floor, and says defiantly “How d’ya like me now!? I am fierce. I am glamorous. I am strong. I. Am. Love.” And this is why the social messaging that RuPaul is fostering in the world is so important. Unlike the news media or much of ego-centric social media, at the heart of RuPaul’s message is love for one’s self, love for others, and love for the collective whole of which we all compose. And as far as social messaging goes, that is something I can stand for!

And speaking of social media…
Muse Summer Residency

Art History and Representation:
What are your thoughts on the canon of art historical works that you refer to? Do you refer to them passively, as only a sort of source material for composition, or are you engaging the contexts of their histories as well?

NG: I feel that it is important to address our appropriation of these works – they become reinterpretations rather than recreations. We critically analyze each reference piece through the veil of contemporary issues surrounding gender non-conformity. There is a power that comes from the rich history, the perfection of craft, the resolved composition and an element of the unexpected in these works. I find that the aura surrounding [these] particular works in art history very enthralling.

The works we choose to reinterpret are painted by male master painters that depict female subjects. In our images, we question this traditional relationship simply in my being a female studying a male subject and by depicting James in a more active role through the use of posing and expression – the subject becomes both artist and muse. The reference to painting in my work is a bit more complicated. I’m not necessarily interested in the fact that the reference imagery is itself a painting, but am drawn to specific elements in the original works.

Our Lady (with child and stuffed animal), 2009

Our Lady (with child and stuffed animal), 2009

For example, my photograph Our Lady (with child and stuffed animal), 2009, from my series, New Madonnas, looks at the idealization and prevalence of maternal ideals. There are certain gestures, poses, and compositional elements in paintings of the Madonna and Child that perpetuate the ideal. In my work, I both use and subvert those elements. I am also particularly interested the idea of nachleben, a German word meaning the “after life” of a work, teaching or philosophy. We understand our present visual culture based on a history of imagery. This has been an ongoing interest in my work and research.

You both have been working together for eight years on the Muse project. Do you consider the works themselves to be collaboratively authored? How does that disrupt the relationship between artist/muse?

JK: Authentic collaboration comes from a truly egoless place. It is the act of opening one’s self to another, and in return, giving them the space to do the same – an artistic marriage of sorts. Niki and I have been collaborating on Muse since 2009 and from the very beginning, it started with a feeling – an inner ding on our authenticity meters. Something felt right and we have tended to that feeling since. For two highly sensitive and intuitive people, this process of following what most feels right works for us. It’s our way of working, and it may not be what collaboration looks like for others. It’s worth noting though, that even our process of collaboration challenges gender norms – something that I suspect allows for more distillation in the work. To intuit, feel and ask questions are all traditionally associated as feminine approaches. Yet, regardless of our respective sex or gender identity, it’s this feminine approach that allows our strengths to come forward in our collaborative process.

NG: We see the works as entirely collaborative. Our conceptual development, planning and execution of the images is completely collaborative. It is difficult for many people to accept that there are two authors to the pieces we create, I think that collaborative work is still something that the artworld has yet to truly embrace. Our creative partnership is guided by mutual understanding, respect and authenticity. Although we come from different artistic backgrounds and practice different media, our conceptual interests run parallel. This is not a project that we would each be able to execute without one another. [This way of working] creates a more dynamic relationship between the artists and the muse.

Gender in Fashion:
What do you think of individuals like Roan Louch and gender in fashion?

JK: Over the last year, my Twitter feed was abuzz with posts about Andrej Pajic, an androgynous Australian model who was walking the runway in women’s fashion shows. Andrej now identifies as Andreja after sex reassignment surgery. Roan Louch, another androgynous model with long straight hair, stubble-less face and hairless body (except legs) embodies a similar hybrid of masculinity and femininity. Frankly, I don’t understand the stir the media whips up about these models. I look at them, and feel within me a matter of fact “yes” response. It makes sense that this barrier between what is masculine and what is feminine is being broken apart at this time.

I think what lies beyond this disambiguation of gender and sex is a more generous and respectfully human way of looking at one another. And I see the presence of Roan and Andreja as signs of our collective minds beginning to move more in that direction.

NG: I feel that the increasing popularity of androgynous and transgender public figures shows a positive direction for society’s acceptance, tolerance and celebration of nonconforming genders. However, I am somewhat wary that this will be seen as a trend or fad. I believe the nonconforming performance of gender is something to be celebrated, but with cases like Caitlyn Jenner and other celebrities, it is important that the public recognizes that their experience of gender nonconformity is often glamorized and is more accepted due to their celebrity status. This does not necessarily represent the experience of the nonconforming gender population.

I can only hope that we continue to move in that direction and that our celebration of the beauty of celebrity figures will happen with “common” people who don’t conform to traditional gender binaries as well.

Sex, Art, and Archives: The Kinsey Institute Collection

Kinsey Institute tableDuring the summer of 2010, Niki and I first exhibited Girl with a Pearl Earring [After Vermeer] in the Kinsey Institute‘s annual juried show. (See postcard in photo at right.) The day after the show opening, we visited the institute to view their permanent collection of art and found ourselves in awe and giddiness. The hallways of the institute — literally the wall space between each of the researchers’ offices — feature a rich collection of photos, paintings, drawings, and sculpture pertaining to sexuality, gender, and the body from all over the world and across an extensive spectrum of human history.

Girl with a Pearl Earring [After Vermeer]After our visit, still marveling at the magnitude of our experience, Niki and I decided to donate Girl with a Pearl Earring [After Vermeer] to the Kinsey Institute art collection.

Jumping ahead to 2014, my friend (and former Chicagoan) Ann, who oversees the University of Oregon magazine, chose to profile U of O alum Katherine Johnson-Roehr, curator of the Kinsey Institute art collection in the most recent edition of the magazine. In the article, Katherine speaks beautifully about the history of the institute’s collection and how it relates to their mission “to pursue research that produces reliable information about human sexuality, gender and human reproductive issues.” Having the acquaintance of Katherine for the past five years through various exhibitions at the institute, it was easy to speak about how her bringing more contemporary work into the collection is expanding on their mission. And from a more personal perspective, it’s really gratifying to have one of our pieces be a part of that conversation.

View Oregon Quarterly profile online ›
View pdf of Oregon Quarterly in print ›


Soho Photo Gallery: National Photography Competition Winners

A few weeks ago, Niki and I received an email notifying us that Odalisque [After Ingres] from the Muse series, was selected as the first place winner of the Soho Photo Gallery National Photography Competition. Full of giddiness and disbelief, we booked a hotel and flights to NYC for the opening reception. More gratifying than the award though, is that our piece is part of a greater conversation on expanding language and notions on gender.

View the Soho Photo Gallery press release ›

Odalisque [After Ingres], 2009

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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