breath, breathing

IMG_5065Just before my seventh birthday I began to lose motor control of my eyes and couldn’t bend or turn my neck. I had headaches, the kind where the inside of my head sounded exactly the noise you hear during a sonogram. A rhythmic liquid pounding drowned out everything else for days and then weeks on end.

Growing up in a rugged farming family in rural Maine, there was generally a ‘rub some dirt on it’ attitude toward illness, but when it was clear that no amount of dirt was going to resolve this situation I was taken to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, the same hospital where my brothers and I had been born. It was clear right away even to my little kid brain that the doctors thought something really bad was happening and that they had no idea what it was or what to do about it.

I was admitted, injected with blue dye and x-rayed. Blood was drawn and my mom promised me a Cabbage Patch doll if I was brave. I was driven to Portland and then Boston to be scanned with increasing levels of detail and expertise. Nothing was explained to me at the time, but I know now that they were looking for a brain tumor and couldn’t find one. All of the symptoms were consistent and worsening daily: I started to have trouble seeing at all; sounds and sunlight were excruciating; speaking became difficult. But none of the glowing images of my brain showed a cause.

One morning a tray of pancakes was delivered to my bedside in the Lewiston hospital, but placed out of reach on a nearby table. A bearded man named Dr. Belding came in with a small team of nurses and opened a heavy text book at the foot of my bed. I was instructed to lie on my left side, facing away from the window. With my future Cabbage Patch in mind, I did as I was told despite catching a glimpse of  Dr. Belding handling a enormous needle. He told me to pull my knees up to my chest, but I couldn’t physically do it. At his prompt, a couple nurses pulled me into a fetal position and I cried out. The extra pressure on my brain and spine hurt in a way that I don’t have words for even now. It hurt. It was scary.

I cried and tried to get away from the nurses holding my legs. My mom started yelling. From behind me Dr. Belding yelled back and she was pushed out of the room. More nurses came running in and he said. “Hold her down. Hold her still.” Four or five adult nurses piled onto me and did just that.

Under their combined weight I gasped “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

Without missing a beat, the nurse nearest my head snapped “If you couldn’t breathe, you couldn’t talk.”

Her logic technically made sense, and for one moment it shocked me still. In the next moment Dr. Belding guided his needle into my spine, and it was as if a cedar fence post was being twisted through my back and threaded out my belly button. In the next moment the pressurized spinal fluid caused a popping sound as it broke the equipment and spurted into the bed, floor, and wall.

The recently surfaced video of the NYPD’s fatal assault of Eric Garner has caused me to remember this childhood experience anew, mostly because I have shouted those same words to an authority figure and also had my physical and emotional distress ignored. It is inaccurate (and not my intention) to say that our experiences are alike; I did not die and my abuse did not occur as a culmination of a long and awful history of cultural mistreatment based on race. However the presence of class discrimination in both instances is worth noting. Throughout this medical mess my low-income, farming family was talked down to, disregarded, and outrightly harassed by the medical and administrative staff associated with my care. At one point DHHS threatened to take me away from my single mother after she cancelled an appointment for my fourth spinal tap so I could have a break and go to a birthday party like a normal kid.

The fear of not being able to breathe, of being restrained and harmed by authority figures has been with me for nearly thirty years now. My heart is broken for Eric Garner because I still feel a little of the fear he felt during that fatal choke hold back in July.

In October, before I was aware of Garner’s death, I began a series of pepper spray paintings, which I call my pepper spray affirmations. I originally thought of them as attempts to achieve well-being and trust in the face of abuses of power and the accompanying worries. They increasingly are looking like illustrations of PTSD to me– that feeling of conflicting, simultaneous flight and fight responses to everyday life.

I will just leave them here for now and see where this process takes me. Updates to follow.


Winning at Art

Sometimes I ask myself “How can I let the world know that I’m winning at Art?”

Today I saw a (un-ironic) promotional picture of an artist that showed me the way. Picture it: in high contrast grayscale, a Serious Artist, challenging the camera with self-assured yet mysterious eye contact, his name whispering in the background while he holds a medium-to large trophy to let you know that he WINS at being an Artist.

The moment I saw him, I knew what I needed to do.


I hereby solemnly swear that I will hold trophies in all of my serious promotional photos, and at least some selfies.


I’m pleased to finally offer obeast t-shirts online through Etsy!

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For the past year I’ve been waiting for the time and capital to make Obeast t-shirts and the occasion is finally here! I’m starting with three new designs in a combination of five colors. (These color combinations were chosen by MOCS fans on facebook.) If interest and demand is great enough, I’ll expand the options.

Etsy is a fast, easy way to buy fabulous handmade things. You do not need an Etsy account to shop there–so checkout has never been simpler.

I hope you’ll buy a shirt for yourself and a loved one. All proceeds go toward saving the endangered North American Obeast.

it’s Earth Day– do you know where your Llamas are?

Today is Earth Day and also the day of Bonded Llama Studio’s semi-annual open house! Those of you living in and around Raleigh NC should come say hi and drink beer with us. (Click here for info)

In the spirit of Earth Day, I made six pairs of earrings by recycling scraps of plastic (specifically, scraps left over from the other earrings I make, which I wove together and fused with heat). These funky little tree-huggers will be available at the open house for just $15!

mine & bawdy

I like making earrings a hobby and side source of income. To me, earrings are the perfect gift/accessory: they are affordable, versatile, and small yet visible enough to add a subtle splash of personality to any outfit. In 2006, I started making and selling simple gemstone earrings in galleries and shops across the southeast US.

Last fall, I began working on a new line that jived more with my sense of humor, as well as aesthetic and regular art practice. The result is a line I’m calling Mine & Bawdy. These earrings are made with artist-grade shrink plastic, printed with images of historic photos from the Library of Congress re-imagined with animal characters. I like to think that I’m revising American history, one pair at a time.

As of next week, Mine & Bawdy earrings will be available at The Collectors Gallery and Designbox, both in Raleigh NC. They are available wholesale for galleries and boutiques (if you know anyone who might be interested). I might give in and do an Etsy page for them if there’s enough interest.

big fat montage

Fat as portrayed on the news & social media

I made this video montage as a tool for my artist talks, since it seems like I’m often having to prove that fat stigma exists before I can talk about my project. This is a quick and dirty compilation of footage from recent news broadcasts and internet resources (including viral videos). This stuff isn’t difficult to find, and I hope it will help to shortcut conversations past the dubious-about-this-whole-fat-bias-thing phase.  Not sure if it will be successful, but since I spent a Sunday afternoon on it, I thought I would post it here. To view click the link above or the image below. (Note: there is no sound– nothing wrong with your hearing or speakers.)

Won’t somebody think of the children?!

Something interesting is happening in Lawrence, MA. The venue hosting the MOCS installation coordinates many art classes for children of all ages. When I was in town I met with several of the classes to talk about the work, but since I left there has been some concern amongst teachers and parents about the impact of my project on young minds. Normally I don’t mind if people are confused by (or out-rightly hate) my work, but it seems unfair to leave young art lovers in the lurch.

The Essex Art Center staff has been fielding questions about the obeast work– with the predictable number of viewers experiencing general feelings of upset and confusion as to what is going on. It wasn’t clear to me why there would be such a kerfuffle since I left ample explanation about the work for the staff, who then made an informative binder available to all patrons– until I remembered that most people don’t read. Still, it seemed to me that this was well within the ability of the gallery staff to handle.  Then I (or rather MOCS) got a couple emails and facebook posts from Lawrence students (judging by their facebook images and the tween-ish tone of the email addresses– something like “lmaocandywashere@…”) who wanted to apparently join in on what they interpreted the project was trying to do: fat bashing. Obviously I find this unsettling. It would seem particularly awful to me (as an artist and a human) to leave young/tween/teen girls with the idea that an artist came to their town to confirm that fat is bad..

To go back to the beginning, before I actually set foot in the building, I did not understand that EAC was a youth-focused organization. (Addendum: the gallery director just corrected me on this point, explaining that EAC does not coordinate its show for a young audience, instead challenging them and adults with art that invites thought– which is great.) I had no idea that most of the people who would walk by that space would be aged 6-15. (This is a good lesson for me in audience anticipation- though I trust that the gallery considered all this before they invited me.) Frankly this project was not originally designed for kids. It’s not that it’s risque (though a bit graphic, granted), but rather that the sarcasm of the work gets lost on kids and they think it is confirming social prejudices about fat, not subverting them.

Youngsters experiencing this work should do so with adult guidance.  That said, I am not there in person to do the guidance, so it is up to the capable EAC staff and teachers. I trust that teachers and staff will inform themselves in order fully participate in a teaching dialog with kids (and adults as needed). I feel that I’ve given them tools to accomplish this (including access to my written thesis and critic reviews), but I refuse to become the narrator for my own project. As an artist, it is important to me to not dictate the “meaning” of my work. I don’t want to tell people what to think. I’ve already made my point in the best way I know how– through the art itself.

Given this (perhaps idealistic) stance, perhaps it would be useful to guide the thinking process by asking confused/concerned viewers some loaded questions (aka: go all Socratic on their asses). With that in mind, I sent the gallery a ‘MOCS 101’ list of questions to get conversations going. I’m posting them here in case they benefit any of your understandings or conversations about MOCS. I would love to hear some responses to the questions in the comments below, if you are so inclined!

  1.     Does knowing that the Obeasts are all played by the artist herself change how you look at the work? If so, how?
  2.     Why do artists do self portraits? Do self portraits always have to look like the artist? Why would Rachel Herrick (the MOCS artist) do self-portraits pretending that she is an animal rather than a human?
  3.     Does this look like a real museum? Did it fool you into thinking it was? How does it do that? What are the clues that it is all pretend?
  4.     What is satire? If we understand that satire is a technique of using humor to explore wrong-doing or social injustice, how might the Obeast project be a satire? What is the social wrong that it is satirizing?
  5.     What is dehumanization? If we understand that dehumanization is when we make people less human in our minds by ignoring their personalities or individuality, how does the obeast project display dehumanization? What group (or groups) of people is dehumanized in this project?  (hint: people are often dehumanized based on physical features)
  6.     Does art mirror society or shape it? How does the Obeast project mirror society? How might it be trying to shape society?