- Views & Opinions
A provocative poster with the U.S. Capitol superimposed over a female’s lower torso was among signs carried during the Women’s March in Washington D.C., as well as marches in Milwaukee, Madison and elsewhere. Commissioned by activist Megan Holbrook, the “Tear Us Down, We Rise” poster was designed by local artist Niki Johnson and Christian Westphal. It was based on a work Johnson spent years creating — “Hills & Valleys” — as a response to the loss of reproductive rights and access to health care in Wisconsin.
When Johnson learned in 2013 that Wisconsin Planned Parenthood health care centers were closing due to defunding by Gov. Scott Walker and GOP legislators, she arranged to collect their signage. She gathered metal signs from six defunct health centers.
In her process blog, Johnson described waiting for inspiration: “For two years, I considered how to best honor the materials. They sat inside my garage, greeting me as I parked my car. As a lifelong supporter of Planned Parenthood and women’s rights, I recognized the aluminum signage as a powerful symbol of love and loss. I knew not to hurry. Like other political pieces I have made, whatever it needed to be would come….
“It’s strange to wish the materials you’re working with weren’t available in the first place. … These signs had the power to build a symbol capable of confronting the precarious state of reproductive rights in the United States.”
Johnson, who earned MA/MFA degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012, often purposefully engages political issues in her art. “Eggs Benedict,” completed in 2013, addressed Pope Benedict’s speaking out against the use of condoms to curb the spread of the HIV/AIDS in 2009. For this piece, she wove thousands of colored condoms into a beneficent-looking portrait to call attention to church policy and a world-health crisis. Art collector Joseph Pabst acquired the piece and donated it to the Milwaukee Art Museum, where it is now tucked away in storage.
In October 2015, a vision for making art with the Planned Parenthood signs came to Johnson moments before she fell asleep one night. The next morning, she sketched a pair of women’s hips standing in front of a quilt. “Across her pubic mound rose a vajazzle of the U.S. Capitol.”
Johnson had previously worked with artist Greely Myatt to transform “scrapped street signs in Memphis into beautiful reflective ‘quilts’ to cover an air conditioning unit on city property. I loved the way the industrial materials spoke to heritage and the domestic experience when altered — feminizing the message of the metal while giving it an arguably enlightened second life.”
For “Hills & Valleys,” Johnson chose a traditional star-shaped quilt pattern called Sarah’s Choice for the background. She planned to shear the signs into linear shapes for the quilt background and varied small circles for the torso — for an intricate relief-style sculpture with thousands of small pieces.
The artist also pondered “vajazzle” options, a style trend in which women accessorize their nether regions with bling.
Johnson wrote: “I have to admit, I was immediately struck by a wave of feminist boredom when I heard of vajazzle. A close relative of lawn mowing and other metrosexual activities, vajazzle seemed akin to a merkin’s insidious and less funny cousin.
“However, the glistening red hearts and hardcore Hello Kitties continued to flash through my mind days after my first Google search. It was then I realized I wasn’t bored by vajazzle at all.
“In fact, reevaluating vajazzle as a component for self-expression recast it as a potentially valuable cultural signifier to work with in the studio. Expression through artifice has been a part of women’s practice in patriarchal cultures for millennia, after all.”
The vajazzle of “Hills & Valleys” was made with mirrors from Hobby Lobby, a corporation that successfully sued to become exempt from having to include birth-control coverage in company-sponsored health plans.
“If ‘Hills & Valleys’ was to incite civic action the audience needed to see themselves literally reflected in the U.S. Capitol. And while ‘Hills & Valleys’ needed to be beautiful and speak to the power of a civic reclamation of human rights, the materials language had to tie to back to the entities most committed to stripping of those rights.”
Shortly after Johnson’s design gelled, Glenn Williams, a fellow graduate student at UW-Madison, invited Johnson to work as a visiting artist with his Advanced Sculpture class at UW-Milwaukee.
As Johnson blogged:
“In February 2016, I began slicing the signs into strips, separating the lettering from its background. The first week of shearing the signs down was deeply upsetting. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was physically partaking in what legislatures across this country take part in every day — the careful deconstruction of women’s access to health care and legal abortion.
“It was only when I began punching circles out of the strips with a hammer and a jeweler’s punch, I began to feel hopeful about rebuilding. I sensed regeneration — one of my favorite parts of upcycling materials.”
Volunteers were enlisted to help with the time-intensive metal-cutting process. The piece took about 2,500 hours of labor to create. “Hills & Valleys” was unveiled at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin’s 80th Anniversary celebration in October. At that event, Johnson also accepted the 2016 Voices Award for supporting women’s reproductive rights by creating the piece. It is currently traveling nationally through a collaboration between Niki Johnson Studio and Planned Parenthood affiliates.
Johnson attended the Women’s March in Washington. She said it was exciting to see the poster of “Hills & Valleys” carried, photographed and shared on social media. Nevertheless, “the march itself was so powerful and meaningful — connecting with so many individuals committed to expressing their specific concerns and making positive change.”