Our "Artist Features" section is one of the driving forces that makes Cooties what it is. Here, we hone in on specific artists and tell their story. Whether it's what inspires them most, or their drive for creating art, or their take on feminism in today's world, we've got a lot of fantastic artists with some amazing things to say comin' your way.
We are so excited to share this interview with you guys! Cooties had BFF’s Sophie Brill and Haley Sanders get together to discuss Haley’s new photo project which explores the medical field, the body and intimacy. Haley lives in Harlem with her two cats, Brooks and Beetle. She currently works at Mount Sinai as a medical researcher studying sleep disorders. Haley graduated from the School of Visual Arts, where she studied photography. Read more about her below!
Sophie Brill: “So tell me about the photo project you’re working on!”
Hayley Sanders: “The project that I’m working on currently started very organically; everything I’ve made in the past few years has been in the same vein, but just kind of evolved and changed ever so slightly.”
SB: “What vein is that?”
HS: “It’s dealing with the body and the medical sphere. It started with my final year at SVA: I was making work about a back injury I had; I had herniated a disk in my back and it ended up giving me a lot of residual pain; I was in pain every day and it prevented me from doing a lot of the things that I loved, so I started making art about it. Most of the art that I was making work up until this point was very personal, it had a lot to do with personal experiences that I had, about who I am as a person, and what I go through, and trying to make that relevant to other people. So I started making work about my chronic injury; having a chronic injury, you’re also a chronic patient, so I was at the doctor’s office at least two times a week; I saw a physical therapist all the time, and I really learned what it meant to be a patient, not just for an annual physical, but really being there and your doctors knowing you just by seeing your face, and the receptionist knowing you, and you’re a really familiar face because you’re there so often, which was in great contrast with where I worked, working in research, I was the person who was taking care of and dealing with patients, and I wanted to go to med school so I was used to being on the other side of that. But I was kind of forced into being a patient. So I was making work about that, and then...being with your medical providers so often you build a sort of intimacy and trust with them; I trusted them with my body, you know, I had to, in order for them to take care of me, I had to let them, you know, in a non-sexual way, undress me, and like, touch me, and um, move my body and poke it, and prod it, and deal with it, and [I had to] be comfortable with that and trust them. So I started getting interested in the idea of physical intimacy with medical providers, and what that means and how it differs from other types of intimacy.”
SB: “Differs, and is similar.”
HS: “Yeah, you know, comparing and contrasting what it means to be physically intimate with someone. Like, the different ways in which you can be physically intimate with someone. Like, I went to my physical therapist, and I was completely physically intimate with her, and it was very different from when I, you know, would have sex with someone.”
SB: “Right. But you were also noticing the similarities?”
HS: “Yeah, for sure.”
SB: “And then you were also playing with the ideas of power, and submission, and dominance…”
HS: “Yeah, that was my next thought, about the power dynamics of the situation. When you’re physically intimate with someone there is that aspect of trust (ideally), and that means that you’re giving away control, and you’re giving power to the other person, and you’re relinquishing some of your...not autonomy, but you’re relinquishing some of your control. Like when you’re having sex with someone, there is a power dynamic, even if it’s equal, you are giving and taking and intimacy requires trust. There was this one point where I was getting an injection into my back to reduce inflammation and help with the pain, where I was lying, prone, on a cold, metal table, getting an x-ray to find out where to insert the needle, and there were three people that I’d never met before in the room, and there was this really beautiful man, and I was like ‘damn, you’re hot.’ And he came up to me, and he was preparing me for the injection, and he was like, “Okay, I’m going to peel back your underwear now.” And I just sat there, and I was like, “Fuck.” You know, in any other context, this would be great! This man is beautiful, like, peel away, baby, peel away my underwear, but in that particular setting, it was preparing me for something quite clinical, and quite painful. So that’s one of my most distinct memories of that. Another thing was that with my back injury I couldn’t have sex, because it was high impact. So once I was on a date with this guy, and we were a little bit tipsy and we were talking about sex, and he was throwing out some cheesy lines and he was like, “I’d fuck you so good I’d break your back.” And I remember turning to him and being like, “Oh, baby, it’s already broken.”
“I think it’s the vocabulary that interested me a lot, sort of how in very different contexts, it’s the same word but it means vastly different things. Like, for example, ‘penetration’ has one meaning, but in a surgical context it has another. And, you know, the idea of going to a gynecologist, that’s essentially a lot of the same motions you go through when you’re having sex, but obviously, hopefully, in a very different context. So I started investigating that, and outside of that I was coming more into feminism and cultivating those ideas within myself, and I wanted to shift it more towards what it meant to be a female patient, and that played even more into the power dynamic, because as female-identifying [people], we’re automatically more vulnerable--culturally, politically, physically, in every way, pretty much. Even biologically, we’re smaller--not always weaker, but we are smaller, for the most part. I guess you could say that we’re generally at a disadvantage. So, what it meant to be already in that vulnerable situation as a patient, you know, putting this trust in this caretaker, you put your body into their hands; and they take it, and they essentially control, it, in a way.”
SB: “That feels like a real parallel with traditional male/female relationships, where the female is dependent, and submissive.”
HS: “Yeah that’s a good point, and it’s where the male kind of dictates, and he’s more educated, and--”
SB: “He’s the caretaker.”
HS: “Exactly, he’s the caretaker, and he’s the gatekeeper, he says what goes and doesn’t go. So you’re already put in that vulnerable situation, because that’s what it means to be a woman. And we hear about doctors taking advantage of their patients, and I think that’s a small percentage of it, but I’m interested in how doctors and patients walk that fine line.”
“So I’m still keeping it open to both genders, but, as I’ve grown as a person, there’s been a lot of things that have happened to me, that have pushed me more towards women, and being a feminist, and I came out [as bisexual] last year, and I’ve definitely been more interested in the female experience, and I always include that in my art. I want to push it in a more feminist direction, but specifically it’s about what it means to be a human in these medical environments, where your humanity is reduced to this very clinical, sterile experience: you come into the doctor’s office, and you’re this complete human being with all these diverse experiences, and you’re kind of sterilized and made into this clinical specimen.”
“Another ‘spark’ moment in this project was when I was at the SVA library, and I was trying to look for art having to do with medicine, and I found this book called, “Anatomical Venus,” and I just fell in love immediately. The anatomical Venus is way that they taught anatomy in the mid- to late-1700’s, when cadavers were hard to come by. So these scientists made this wax figure of a woman, that you could essentially take apart in layers; all of the organs were in different pieces, so it could be re-used and you didn’t have to get a fresh body for every single anatomy class. But the thing is that it’s always this beautiful white woman. There are many iterations of her, but in the main one, she’s reclining, and her face looks like she’s orgasming. She has real human hair woven into her head, and she has a string of pearls around her neck, and she’s this beautiful naked woman, and then you pop off her skin, and you can basically dissect her and pull out her innards. And direct intersection of women’s sexuality, and how it’s been integrated into the medical sphere kind of pushed me to the point where I am today, which is where I am really interested in how the human body is reduced to an object, when women are more vulnerable to being objectified and being turned into objects for consumption.”
SB: “Yeah, that’s basically a universal female experience.”
HB: “Yes, and it’s critical in the medical field, where it’s that power dynamic directly dealing with your health.”
SB: “It’s as necessary part of the medical field, where you’re treating part of the physical body, but what you’re interested in is how that necessary reduction of humanity into a physical object parallels, and the sexism that is ingrained in the medical field, parallels the female experience in general, i.e. being disadvantaged, and objectified, and being especially vulnerable to sexual violations.”
HS: “Yeah, that’s right. I’m compiling a lot of images, and I’m keeping it open to both genders, but I’m stockpiling medical imagery and seeing the different ways that men and women are depicted, because that’s kind of the most concrete way to quantify this experience. I’m currently in the 7-1800’s of medical illustration and imagery, and back then it was binary and men and women are depicted very differently.”
SB: “It’s a stereotype, but the assumption in medicine seems to be that the doctor is always a man?”
HS: “Because of that power dynamic, and that goes for all spheres, you know I think the default is that you assume that whoever is in power is always a man, whereas when someone’s oppressed, or when they’re more vulnerable, it’s feminine--strength is a male trait, weakness is more feminine, so when you picture a doctor-patient relationship, most people’s minds go to a male doctor/female patient, and that holds true statistically, too.”
SB: “And you’re drawing a parallel from the stereotypes in that medical relationship to the stereotypes that exist in real male/female relationships.”
HS: “Yeah, there are a lot of different ways to care for a body, and medicinally is just one.”
“I could also talk about not just how women exist within the medical realm, but how they’re treated also. So I’m reading this book Doing Harm, by Maya Dusenbery, and it’s quite extraordinary: she goes really in-depth into statistics about how women are treated differently than men, how they’re diagnosed differently, how their interactions are different with patients, all the way down to how they’re prescribed medications differently, and how, for example, the term ‘hysteria,’ meaning, ‘crazy,’ comes from the latin term for ‘uterus.’ So the term for ‘crazy’ has a root that essentially lies in PMS. So to be hysterical is to be hormonal, or have a uterus. And you know, women are shunned for their natural bodies, and that’s still true now, we get pregnant, we’re not able to be treated, we get a period, we’re shunned, we bleed through our pants, it’s a bad thing. The natural processes of our bodies have been stigmatized. So the term ‘hysteria,’ even though we don’t use it medicinally anymore, still carries that stigma, and women, when they say they’re in pain, when they say that they hurt, when they say that there’s something wrong, they’re not believed nearly as much as men. And in medicine, we say that the patient is their own historian, they know their own medical history, and a lot of the time they talk about the patient, “Oh, they’re a good historian, they’re not a good historian”--for example, someone with dementia wouldn’t be a good historian. And oftentimes women are not considered good historians, which means that they’re not considered good gatekeepers for their own bodies.”
SB: “Which also relates to how women are treated with respect to their sexual history. Women’s sexual history is dissected and analyzed and mistrusted far more than men’s ever is.”
HS: “Exactly, there’s not nearly as much validation of a woman’s experience, and that holds true for everything, every part of a woman’s life. And it’s explored a lot in reproductive health, I think, but it permeates all of women’s bodily health. For me, it’s exciting, because I have a strong science background, I’m obviously very interested in art, I’m studying for the LSAT, I’m very interested in advocating for women, fighting for women’s rights, and I’m not exactly sure where I want to go with that, but I know that I want to advocate for women’s autonomy. So this is a great intersection of all of those interests. I’m able to pair my morbid fascination with the human body, and willingness to look at thousands upon thousands of pictures of bloody, dissected human bodies, with my love for women and my appreciation for women’s experience, and my understanding of the timeless nature of our oppression, and how it saturates every part of our lives. I think that there are a lot of things that are important about your life experiences, but physical, bodily concerns are oftentimes more immediate.”
SB: “So with this project, you’re not necessarily exposing a specific injustice per se, but you’re pointing out a fundamental inequality.”
HS: “I think an important part of art is taking your individual experience, and magnifying it and universalizing it. So my personal experience as a patient, I kind of picked and poked and prodded, and saw that it’s not that different from all women’s medicinal experiences, and if you zoom out from that, it relates to women’s experiences in general, whether it’s bodily or mentally or socially or politically, it relates to all female-identifying experiences. So I think that the scope of my project is huge, and I’m trying to focus it, but for me it’s really exciting because as far as I can tell not a lot of people are looking at it in a fine-art kind of way, so it’s kind of all unknown territory.”
SB: “Yeah, and I think another part of it is how women feel about their doctors themselves...I’m thinking about the context of seeing my gyno, she asks me, because it’s her job, and it helps her do her job of keeping me healthy, she asks me how many sexual partners I’ve had in the last year. And my instinct is to downplay it, and to lie about it if it’s more than, like two--”
HS: “Even though it’s a safe space.”
SB: “Yes, and she’s not there to judge, she just needs to know.”
HS: “So she can figure out how to treat you.”
SB: “Right, so she can decide whether I should be tested for STDs, or pregnancy, or whatever, and I just feel ashamed, because I’ve internalized the fact that my sexuality is bad.”
HS: “And I think that people tend to downplay the importance of the intersection of your outside life, but that’s important because you are a whole human being.”
SB: “And it’s so much more complex. Like, I’ll go to see a new doctor, and they’ll ask, Are you sexually active (yes), How many sexual partners have you had in the last year (several), Do you smoke (no), Do you drink (yes), How many drinks per week (depends), how many pregnancies have you had (one), how many children have you had (zero), how many terminations have you had (one)...and it’s this numerical quantification of very significant parts of my life.”
HS: “Yeah, it’s the reduction of your life to a number, to a statistic, to a pill, to a pile of blood in the toilet, it’s the reduction of that entire experience. I mean, everything we experience is emotional, whether it’s a migraine, or a back injury, or an abortion, it’s emotional and it affects us in all ways--physical experiences are very powerful, and when you go to the doctor’s office you essentially have to quantify that.”
SB: “Right, and that’s something that for the most part I don’t hesitate to disclose to a doctor, but if I were to meet a random person on the street, I would definitely need to know you and trust you and be intimate with you to share that information.”
HS: “Yeah, and another thing that’s very interesting is that with people, it takes a long time to develop that kind of intimacy. With doctors, you go in, you shake their hand, and it’s established. Theoretically, you sign your name on that clipboard at the front desk, and that intimacy is established. You walk in that door and you’re expected to give your body over--you don’t even know your gyno, but you walk in and you take your clothes off and you put your feet in the stirrups.”
SB: “Well yeah, but also, eventually they’ll take your blood and they’ll know most of your secrets anyway. They might not know the number of people you’ve slept with, but they’ll know if one of them had chlamydia.”
HS: “For sure. The definition of intimacy is to know something, or someone, completely. And as a side note, biblically, the reason that a lot of Jewish people can’t say the name “God,” and the reason they can’t write it out is because to name something is to know it, and to know it is to be able to quantify and understand it, and you can’t understand mystical beings. But, you know, with medicine, we can take your DNA and we can know every single protein that exists in your DNA. We know the very core of your being without knowing anything about you. There’s this project I’m working on where we take a sample of your blood and we take your DNA and it’s used for medical research and it’s very important because we can look at general trends of certain demographics, but then we also know you so intimately, we know every piece of your body...we know every cell in your body, but we might not even know your name.”
“There was this one time when I was pre-med, I was shadowing this heart surgeon. Heart surgery is wild. And I remember shadowing him in the OR, and I watched him saw open someone’s sternum, and I watched him crack open this person’s body, he broke this person open, and he replaces a valve in his heart. And I remember watching him hold this man’s heart in his hand. He literally held this man’s heart in his hand, and if you asked him in that moment, he wouldn’t have known the guy’s name. So in terms of intimacy--he broke this guy open and held his heart, and healed him completely and sewed him back together, but he’ll never see him in the light of day. That is the most intimate you can ever get with someone--to be inside their chest and hold their beating heart--but he’ll never know his name.”
Last week Cooties got to chat with Mychaelyn Michalec about her work and process. A painter living and working in Dayton, Ohio, Mychaelyn's work focuses on domestic life in a convergence of abstract and the figure. The dichotomy of the family is emotional closeness yet frequently, missed connections. Her paintings often show members of my family staring at their devices, huddling together but watching t.v., eating dinner around a table but involved in thought. Below she explains why she finds her paintings as a way of both embracing and resisting domestic life. Mychaelyn received her BFA from in painting and drawing from The Ohio State University and now works full time as an artist and mother of two. Read more about her below!
Cooties: Your work is incredible, We are so excited to be sharing it with our viewers. Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
Mychaelyn: I grew up in Ohio where the Rust Belt meets Appalachia. The current observations I make about my home life are often compared to my childhood experiences. After completing my BFA in painting and drawing at The Ohio State University, I lived on the East Coast and in the South before we ended up in Dayton, OH. I took about 12 years off from my studio practice to work in the arts, get my Masters in Library & Information Science, and have children. I have only been making work again for the last 4 years. I think the break from my studio practice actually made my work stronger and my focus more specific.
Cooties: When did you first discover your urge to create?
Mychaelyn: I always enjoyed making things as a child, but I wasn’t particularly an artsy kid. We visited museums when we traveled, but other than that we were quite remote and there wasn’t a lot of exposure to that sort of thing. I took the minimum amount of art in high school, just one course. It wasn’t until college that something happened. I was in a general art appreciation survey course and saw Franz Klines’s "Chief". I was so excited by it. That’s when I started taking studio classes in college and ultimately changed my major.
Cooties: Your work focuses on the mundane moments of domestic life, what drew you to this subject matter?
Mychaelyn: The importance of the mundane and the seemingly uninteresting is that it is wherein most of our life experiences come from. The domestic as a subject for artists, has historically been underrepresented and trivialized. As a role for women, it is perceived as less valuable. Now with social media there is a new view of domesticity being portrayed- perfectly decorated homes, studio quality faux candid photos, curated social media feeds featuring the best in family life. I find that my work is somewhere in the middle, not a damnation or a celebration. That is what interests me.
Cooties: You’re a mom of two, how does this influence your work and process?
Mychaelyn: Being a mom and family life is the primary interest in my work. It is great being a parent but it also not the only part of me. My work is both a way of embracing and resisting domestic life.
Cooties: In your latest piece, “The Dance” the canvas is cut and drapes over the painting. This adds another element we have not seen before in your work. Is this a new direction for you? How has your work evolved over the years?
Mychaelyn: The last couple of years my work has focused on my immediate family. I take random photos of our day often covertly, which I make drawings of for use in my paintings. I am experimenting on working with loose, unstretched, cut canvas in my work. The loose cut canvas I feel is a nod to the sort of frugality one faces as a parent with two kids. I am simultaneously working on large scale works as well.
Cooties: If you could choose any female artist to grab a coffee with, who would it be and why?
Mychaelyn: I think it would be Honoré Sharrer. Sharrer was an under-recognized painter during her time who made fantastic narrative paintings, very Magical Realism. She was a mother and a successful artist. Her paintings have the dreamiest colorscapes which influence my own work. Sharrers’ work grapples with womanhood and family life. I find her works both both personal to her and relatable to current society.
Cooties: What does feminism mean to you?
Mychaelyn: Feminism for me is having equality while recognizing the full complexity of the human condition.
A couple weeks back, Cooties sat down to chat with New York City based collage artist Nicole Maroon. Having studied photography at SVA, Nicole's experiences in the studio inspired her to kick it old school. She replaced photoshop with collaging, and from there has created an incredible array of moving images that aim to dismantle societal expectations and stereotypes of women. Admittedly, during one point of our interview, a technical difficulty forced us to backtrack entirely. Nicole reacted with a bubbly laugh and brushed it off as no problem at all, and so we started anew. That moment was telling, because her vibrant and positive personality is fully apparent in her work. Speaking with her was not only a pleasure, but super insightful in terms of her creative process, the discovery and development of her style, and her take on feminism within the fashion and art world.
Cooties: When did you first discover your passion for creating art, and more specifically collaging?
Nicole: “My passion for art was definitely first discovered in middle school. My oldest sister gave me my first camera. It was this dinky little powershot camera. She really nurtured my love of photography because she herself is an artist; she’s a painter and a sculpter. My mom paints too, so I come from a family of artists. It was definitely a very creative environment to grow up in- I would go out into my backyard and take these self portraits that were very posed. I would take pictures of everything I was seeing. It grew from there, until I went through high school, and then decided to do photography in college. I went to SVA, where I developed my collage style during my junior year. I had gotten really sick of studio photography. With the things I was seeing people create at school, everything started to look the same. I got frustrated because I couldn’t really [capture] what was in my head; this crazy neon pop world wasn’t possible to make when it was just me, a camera, and some lights. I started to do stuff with photoshop, but everything kept feeling flat. I was thinking ‘why am I here? Why do I love photography? How does this make sense for me anymore?’ I had to really revisit that, so I wanted to go back to my roots of falling in love with the creative process. [And for me, that was] being very young, in about kindergarten. I went to a private school, and they had this art room that was a really tiny space under a staircase. They shoved all the kids in there, and everyone sat on these stools super close to one another. The room, though, was this amazing display of everyone’s art. It was all over the walls and there were supplies everywhere. It was so colorful, and vibrant, and alive. So I ditched the studio and went back to the basics. I bought a pair of scissors and a purple glue stick, went ‘fuck all this!’ and decided to take photoshop off the computer. By that I mean I did everything by hand- that’s how I started to develop this collage process. It really makes everything feel more dimensional. I get so much joy out of it, too. It’s definitely a step towards trying to be happy and optimistic about art.
Cooties: Totally. Your work is some of the most vibrant and unique that we’ve seen! Was this kind of aesthetic something that developed over time or have you always had an affinity for glitz and glam?
Nicole: “Pop art is definitely my favorite style of art. I love that it elevates ordinary objects and makes them something extraordinary. The most common example is the Warhol painting of the soup can. He turned tomato soup into art; I think that’s insane. In terms of being based in fashion and beauty photography, that’s where I drew my inspiration from, because you’re focused on a product. In the same way that fashion takes clothing and elevates it into art, I like to take that product and make it into something that’s art. [For me] it’s a culmination of pop art, fashion, and beauty. Tying everything together.”
Cooties: Tell us a bit about your gifs; how did that process come into being?
Nicole: “I was doing mostly still collages at first. I developed the style and honed it a little bit, but then I hit a wall. I thought to myself ‘where can this go next?’ I changed my perspective, and I saw them move while I was creating them. I was beginning to see action instead of singular flat photographs. So I decided to jump on that; I wanted to nurture this world that I was creating. The gifs were the best way to do that, because it brought this sense of reality and surrealism together. It merged the worlds and made this weird space that’s not exactly reality but not completely surrealist. It’s somewhere that fashion and beauty can happen. The in-between is my world. The first gif I made was a hand wearing a bracelet and touching a flower to make it pop up. There’s a lot more humor in them when there’s action happening. Using the movement and the humor definitely makes things feel more captivating and alive.”
Cooties: Is it stop-motion?
Nicole: “Yes, everything is by hand. There’s a lot of programs [you can use. There’s] After Effects, and you can even do it on Photoshop. But I do everything by hand. I print everything out through a computer, and then I hand cut it all. Every part of the gif is a separate image. When I move the piece of what’s happening, I’m taping and un-taping, gluing and un-gluing, and then scanning each piece in separately. It depends on how intricate the gif is. I think the most scans I’ve had in one was about 40.”
Cooties: Having put so much effort into creating these moving images, what messages do you most want to convey in your work? What do you hope viewers take away from it?
Nicole: “I’m always considering the sale of identity, and society’s stereotypes regarding beauty and personality within women, which is why in all of my work you never see a model’s face. You never see an identity of a person. There’s so much oversaturation of the same models. We live in a world where you can’t walk down the street in New York City without seeing Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid plastered on something. It bothers me because there are so many young girls looking at them saying ‘that’s what I need to be,’ while trying to emulate something that’s completely fake and unattainable. That is what I hate about the fashion world, so I wanted to get away from that and create something that wasn’t rooted in this idea of [imitation]. Instead, I wanted viewers to have this reaction of wonderment. ‘Woah. This neon, pop, fun world is something I can relate to and want to be apart of.’ Rather than them looking at a face and wanting to be that face, it’s unidentified body parts: hands, legs, mouths. It’s easier to place yourself into that than to place yourself into another person’s identity. The hands are meant to be the viewer’s hands; the mouth is meant to be the viewer’s mouth. It becomes more about placing yourself into [the image]. I’m not selling identity, it’s more about [creating] a world of optimism and a way of thinking: a sense of confidence, rather than the selling of an actual person. I also like to replace models with animals or inanimate objects. I have this whole dinosaur series that I did, where the subjects were a t-rex and a velociraptor instead of women. If a woman gets old, she’s a dinosaur. If she’s angry, she’s a bitch, so she’s a velociraptor yelling at you. I like to use those double standards and add a little bit of humor to poke fun at stereotypes. [I enjoy] taking those ideas and playing with them while using something that’s fun and colorful and energetic. [Something] that doesn’t necessarily scream that it has an ulterior motive in trying to make the viewer think a little bit.”
Cooties: There’s layers! Literally and figuratively. What does feminism mean to you as a female artist in New York City? And what role do you think art can play in that process?
Nicole: “For me, living in the city [has really demonstrated that there’s] a lot of underrepresentation for women in art. Especially learning art history in school: it’s all men. Every famous artist, or a majority of them, are all men. You’re surrounded by this idea that women are underneath the art world, which I don’t think should be true. Especially when it comes to hiring. More male photographers are hired than female photographers and it’s harder for women to get their foot forward because of these gendered stereotypes regarding personality. If a woman is trying to advance her career, and she knows what she wants, and she focuses on it, that is still looked down upon by a lot of people. She’s either being too straightforward or marked a bitch. If you’re a man, you’re well-respected by default. I think women are using art through a feminist lens to turn stereotypes on their head and reclaim those double standards. Feminism is being used through art to give women a voice, to tip the scale and switch the standards of power. I would love to see a world where women are given equal opportunity within artistic industries. I was just working at Refinery29, and the photo team made this switch: they started working mainly with female photographers, which was really inspiring [for me]. I love seeing companies build a female-driven media base: hiring women, giving them that voice, and celebrating that, because it’s really easy to be pushed into silence. I think my art, and the work I’m doing uses feminism in this way: working to change the way society views outward perspective and personal appearance. There always need to be a conversation about it, and I think that’s what female artists are now leading.”
Cooties sat down for a highly intellectual conversation with Brooklyn based artist AnnaLiisa Benston, who creates her work under the pseudonym Famousonmars. Having received her BFA in Painting from Pratt and her MFA in Fine Arts from SVA, Benston’s education has allowed her to become a well-spoken, woke, and confident artist. She not only creates awesomely unique and authentic articles of wearable art, but she also creates and curates interactive installations for viewers to engage with in their own way. Having hung out with AnnaLiisa and her awesome kitties, we were blown away by her attention to detail, and the unique quality of the clothes she creates. She then sat with us to chat about the development of her style and aesthetic, her places of inspiration, what she aims to achieve with her art, and what we can do as feminists to promote and practice inclusivity.
Cooties: Your work is incredibly unique; it’s got functionality both as standalone pieces and installations and then a lot of it is really wearable pieces of art. Tell us about your background as an artist.
AnnaLiisa: "I approach everything like fine art; I’m a fine artist and my background is in fine art and design. I wouldn’t reinvent the bomber unless I’m making something that’s perhaps less wearable. I might make something elongated, or resized, or way too big that no one can wear it at all. But right now I’m focusing on things that are really formed to the person. Everything right now is really oversized [in general] so it fits most people. If it doesn’t, I’ll either make one that does or I’ll source something that will fit you and alter it to make it as inclusive as possible. Sometimes I’ll hand cut things I add to the clothing, or I’ll alter things as they come because they don’t end up fitting the way that I want them to. I think of them as living canvases that are altered by someone who’s wearing it. Just the same way a painting breathes and changes depending on how old it is and where it’s lived. A painting can be cracked as it’s moved from several different places, or the environment is humid or acrid; those things alter the color, form, everything. I think depending on what you wear, it becomes you. You know, you say ‘this is mine now.’ Some people say ‘oh, this is my Chanel.’ But in some ways things aren’t going to look the same on everybody. This generally ties into social codification, which is the background of what I’ve started to make wearables about. If you’re going to wear something, have it say something. Have a stance. It doesn’t have to be everyday, but you can wake up and be like ‘I really want to say something today. I don’t want to just blend in with everyone else.’ It should be part of your personality."
AnnaLiisa: "I really started making things for myself; that’s how it all started. I wanted something and I couldn’t find it, or I wanted it to be a bit different. As I started I was lucky enough to have people like what I was doing. And [then] I was like ‘okay great. I’ll make more of them.’ Now I don’t make any more than five, 10, 50 or 100 of any one object. For example, each version of the enamel pins will only ever exist in an edition of 100. With the jackets I’ll make five, 15 or 20, but they’ll be limited editions too- they’ll also be numbered and signed. Every jacket comes in its own Famousonmars garment bag, and it comes with a certificate of authenticity with its own a custom tote. So everything is in some ways commodifiable, but then it’s also considered like a print, or a series, or a numbered print, so that you know when you buy something from me, it’s very unlikely anyone will have anything like it. [For example,] the eye motif is something everyone has seen for a really long time. I started doing it about six years ago, and I actually found an artist who was making those decals before. (It was around back in the 90’s too, and it all stems from Greek culture. Which is pretty much with everything: someone did it first, it’s just a matter of what you’re doing with it that’s different.) I’ll get the decals; I’ll cut them apart. I’ll add things like the puffy eye or the puffy pink [material] that looks like cotton candy eyes. It’s important to me to recognize the source of something. It’s also equally important that I make every effort to bring originality to the pieces. Obviously the phrases are super important as well: resist, persist. The message needs to not be lost."
Cooties: Having initially studied painting and then receiving your Master's at SVA, what was the process like of coming into your art and the work you create?
AnnaLiisa: "It took a really long time. It happened in my MFA. I created this imaginary line of demarcation between my painting and my wearable pieces because I was also a jewelry maker. I had always felt like I needed my name, but then that’s where Famousonmars came into it. It was actually the beginning of Instagram that I began going by Famousonmars. First it was my name, but I wanted more of my humor to be in it - and more of my personality. So many artists go by their name, and I know it’s leaning a little bit into brand culture, but I like the tongue-in-cheek of Famousonmars. The whole ‘I’m big in Japan’ thing; the joke that a person is really big in a foreign country and you have to take their word for it because you can’t really prove it. So I [thought] ‘what’s farther than Japan? What’s the new frontier? Not the East, it’s Mars.’ It’s funny, in grad school, I had a professor who made me cry one day. I was sitting there, and she looked at me as I was wearing some of the stuff I made. She asked me about what I was wearing and said ‘I wanna look at you more than I wanna look at your art.’ I was like ‘I spent so much time making this huge painting installation, these large-scale fabric pieces!’ She eventually started loving them, but she was basically saying ‘you’re more interesting than your work.’ And that was really hard to stomach, because you do develop yourself as a person but you don’t think about that. Because that’s where the ego comes in; you wanna shove that down if you’re trying to stay level-headed, but artists are all about themselves. Some of us are in denial, or don’t want it to be only focused on us, so we like to take a back seat. But I think coming into my own, and understanding that perhaps it wasn’t me, but that the work that I was wearing at the time embodied more of who I am than the work that I was making. It was more sterile, very form-based or large geometric sculptures that were of the minimalist scheme. It was the ‘boys club’ art, you know? [But] I love form; I’ve always loved form. That’s why I make things and turn them into interactive installations, because it’s first and foremost about your experience with the work; while [also] a concentration of who I am, and my personality embodied in these inanimate objects."
Cooties: We actually wanted to ask you about that. Tell us a bit about how that interactive process works?
AnnaLiisa: "Everything is meant to be touched: worn, tried on, everything is for sale. If I make [an installation] and you really love it, I can mount that in your home. I want every bit of it to feel multisensory, and truly interactive in the sense that you feel you can enter it, and be part of it, and experience it in every way possible. For example, in Miami, I will have the second iteration of Famousonmars which involves a feminist tattoo element. I usually bring down an artist, or I source an artist from down there, and we collaborate on a flash that’s designed by myself and that artist- a collaboration. They feel a sense of ownership over the designs, and I feel this sense that they’re not just going down there serving a purpose as some technician; they are actually a part of the artistic process. They’re in the installation doing live tattooing. Last year was very NSFW; there were a lot of boobs and butts out. It was really great because it was [the kind of situation] where people are drawn in initially by the sound of a tattoo gun; and if you have a tattoo it doesn’t seem so strange. But there’s so many people who have never actually heard a tattoo gun, because they don’t have tattoos, or they’re underage and they’ve never been inside a tattoo shop. Or, they’re of a generation where tattoos just never interested them. Now they’re forced to be confronted with what is considered counterculture in some ways. It’s this makeshift tattoo shop in a booth that’s surrounded by wearable art pieces and feminist art. So it’s one of these things where you’ll see someone’s mom be like ‘no, no, no, not for me.’ These moments where you see people get really uncomfortable and you’re like ‘good! You feel fucking uncomfortable for once because in a way, you chose to enter these spaces. You’re choosing to look at art that’s probably a bit more difficult than your average standalone paintings.’ And it’s not that paintings can’t really change how you view things, but you can pass a painting and ignore it. Someone getting their tits tattooed is a little harder to [deal with]. So you’re gonna have to be confronted with it because it’s both auditory and visual stimuli. This is just one example of how Famousonmars can be experienced."
Cooties: Where does your inspiration come from?
AnnaLiisa: Oh my god… friends, everyone. I spend a lot of time with goth, underground art, and techno scenes; a lot of my friends are designers and artists. I love following brands that toe the line between art and fashion, like Gypsy Sport and Whatever21. But for the most part, it’s really my neighborhood and my friends. We’re all feeling the same things; we’re all nostalgic for the same things. Even a generation behind is still interested in many of the same things. We care a lot more about what we consume. That consciousness is not something I could ignore. We want to support each other. Before that, it was like ‘oh, what big box brand are you buying from?’ Did you have American Eagle, and you know, the heyday of Abercrombie & Fitch, where everyone was preppy and preppy was cool, or you weren’t and that was it. In Brooklyn, we are in a bubble. I’m much more aware as someone who is queer, as someone who is in a relationship with a person who is non-gender binary, [and] as someone who’s with people who are constantly able to find community here. People are just much more honest in the way that people feel they can’t be in other places. And for that reason, my work is more honest, because I get to see people in their most raw form. I’m glad to witness that and come to terms with it within myself."
Cooties: You incorporate a lot of feminist themes into your work; what does feminism mean to you as a female artist in New York City?
AnnaLiisa: "Choice. 1000% choice. Feminism at its core, at its root, and in its purpose was women having choice. It’s not anymore. [Now it also applies for those who are] femme, non-gender binary, queer, and LGBTQAI. Feminism is about choice and inclusiveness and never forgetting about intersectionality. Intersectionality is not something I can claim because that’s for black feminists. But it’s something that [myself], as well as any other feminist who isn’t black, should always be aware of. Because feminism at its height isn’t white feminism; feminism at its height is intersectionality and inclusiveness. And I don’t know any of that without the people in my life, because I don’t live that life. I have my own privilege moving through the world as someone who is racially ambiguous, and then I also move through the world with privilege because I can be white-passing which is something that I’ve learned I didn’t know I had. And then I have the luxury of being able to be outside of what is the hardest role in our society, which is basically being a black women. Next to being a black queer [woman]."
Cooties: Having said that, what do you think we can do as feminists to forward social progress and what role do you think art plays in that process?
AnnaLiisa: "Make more opportunities for women of color, artists of color, and that extends to queer, non-binary, and all marginalized groups within the POC community. When we have opportunities, produce more opportunities for them as well. If you’re going to curate or put events together, make it a point to set a standard for yourself. Make it more than half of the artists that are a part of it to be people who aren’t like yourself. Do the research; meet the people; have the hard conversations. Right now I’m doing curation and making it a huge point to be as aware as possible of who I bring on. Because going to grad school means it’s very white; even going to undergraduate fine arts, it is very white. It’s because it’s a place of extreme privilege. Not a lot of people have the option to go to college let alone for them to choose the arts as their future. So [it’s a matter of] finding people who aren’t classically educated, thinking about the ‘outsider’ artists, thinking about local artists, thinking about the communities here that existed before we came in, and how to give them voices when we have opportunities with which they may have done something differently. You don’t have to say no to an opportunity, but just think about who you can bring into that opportunity to create more opportunity within those communities. I don’t curate anything with less than 80% female artists now. At least. That’s a standard, and you need to just keep creating new standards for yourself: at least half of them have to be POC, or at least half of them have to be queer. You don’t want it to feel like affirmative action, to put a number on it, but I wanna put a goal on it. I want to make it a point to broaden my horizons, to meet more people. I sat here the other day thinking about how I really want to bring more artists down to Miami who are not white. And I was like ‘who do I know who isn’t?’ I only know a handful, and even then, they’re not doing work that is aligned with Famousonmars; I can’t change the structure of what I do, but say I have the opportunity to do a pop-up, then I can find an opportunity to bring those people in. You’re not putting yourself in the back seat, but you’re not limiting who it is you work with in the future based on what works best for you. Just try. Always keep that in mind."
A couple weeks back, Cooties hit the road to Philly for a change of artistic scenery. While we were there, we got in touch with Nala, one of our submission artists. We wanted to chat about her thoughts on art and what she’s up to as a Philadelphian cake artist. What better place to meet than Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens? This incredible space, created by artist Isaiah Zagar, is truly one of a kind. Aside from having mosaic’d walls and stores all around Philly, Zagar created this outdoor space of his own that sparkles from the ground up. Equally as sparkly was Nala herself, both in her shimmering glow and personality. As we were surrounded by artistic expression in this awe-inspiring setting, we spoke about her creative passions, how she views art, and what she’s up to as a cake artist. Nala gave us a lot of powerful insight especially when it comes to being a self-taught artist, and pushing oneself to try new mediums despite not having professional training. Cooties is always inspired by women who make their own opportunities, those who are always willing to work hard to achieve their goals. Thank you Nala for giving us an awesome afternoon!
Cooties: How did you first get into making fondant sculptures and cakes?
Nala: I used to watch a lot of Food Network’s cake-decorating challenges; I was always so amazed that they could make seven foot sculptures out of chocolate and all edible materials. I was like ‘I’d love to learn how to do that!’ so I just started watching YouTube videos and teaching myself how to sculpt with fondant. Eventually I opened up my own Etsy shop where I was selling cake toppers on there for a couple years. That actually helped me be a stay-at-home mom for the first couple of years, just running my Etsy shop. I would mail them out all over the country, sometimes internationally too. And none of it needs to be refrigerated; sometimes I’ll sculpt things and then just put it on my shelf.
Cooties: When you first opened your Etsy shop, did everything come together pretty quickly or was the process of starting your own business something that was gradual?
Nala: It was a slow process. I put up a couple of items that I thought people would be interested in and then I built an inventory as people would request custom things. A lot of moms would say ‘oh, I wanted some whales for my kid’s birthday party’ or there’d be a safari themed party, etc. Over time I built an inventory of different items that I would make for different themes. Then I also did custom orders whenever people reached out to me.
Cooties: What’s the craziest request you’ve ever gotten for a cake?
Nala: This one was tricky. It wasn’t for a cake specifically but this client wanted tiny gumpaste flowers [for her wedding] but she wanted them to float on top of the champagne. She was like ‘it has to be super thin,’ and she wanted over a hundred of them. I made them as thin as possible, but I’m not really sure if they ended up floating or not. Gumpaste is sugar, it just dissolves in liquid. Not sure if it made it to the table or if it worked, but yeah, some brides want crazy things sometimes.
Cooties: Do you experiment with other kinds of art as well or are you mainly interested in edible art?
Nala: I’ve recently started playing around with clay; I really want to learn more about ceramics. Before that I was sculpting strictly with fondant, sugar, and chocolate, so whenever I would have an urge to sculpt, I would just sculpt out of fondant and just put it on display on my shelf. Sometimes they would last for a while, but sometimes when it would get really hot, especially during the summer in my apartment, I lost a couple of them. I had this large 3D parrot that I sculpted and I had him for a year; he was sculpted out of modeling chocolate and fondant. Just this summer he melted. But I have to take photos of everything, so he’s not forgotten.
Cooties: Do you find it really different sculpting with clay? Obviously it’s a totally different material, but having gotten so good at sculpting with fondant, does it translate into doing it with other materials as well?
Nala: It does. Jumping into clay has been pretty easy; a lot of the tools I would use for cake sculpting I can also use with clay. It’s just a matter of learning the technical aspects of it, like firing it, and the types of clay to use. I’m still getting the hang of that. But it’s really easy for me to work with it so I’m excited to do more with clay.
Cooties: Have you trained anywhere or has your journey with art been self-directed?
Nala: After a couple years running my Etsy shop, I decided to go to school for culinary arts and baking and pastry arts. They don’t teach much of the artistic aspect of it, it’s just about baking and the science of it, the production, etc. So even after class I would still go home and learn how to sculpt, and paint, and work with buttercream, and make roses, and how to pipe on cakes. That’s the stuff that I love. Not to say that school isn’t necessary, but you can learn so much on your own. School is good for networking and making connections and gaining exposure. And it’s become so expensive, so it’s not even worth it sometimes. Right now I’ve been working in a bakery, and my Etsy shop has been put on hiatus because that’s a full time job in itself. I ran the shop all throughout college, and as I was interning at my first bakery, but as it became more of a full-time thing, it became difficult for me to juggle both. Someday I’ll get back into it, but right now I’ve really enjoyed doing local art shows in Philly and doing events where I’m meeting people and selling art. I’ve done a couple art shows this summer, about three or four. They were all really different experiences: I did one on a farm with graffiti artists, I did another one in a nightclub where we were partying and selling art, and then I did one in a gallery.
Cooties: What were you putting into the shows? Did you bring cakes or was it sculptures?
Nala: I’ve actually done a cake show in a museum earlier this year. It was surrounding a combination of fine art and cake. Different cake artists in Philly all came together, and we each chose a different painting and then we would make a cake representing that painting. There was a show that night and we all showed our cakes next to the artwork. The painting I chose depicted two lovers intertwined and they had dark skin and dreadlocks. It was a really beautiful painting. I really love geometric and abstract art, so for my interpretation, my cake was two pyramids inverted on top of each other. It was marbled, with dark tones and gold; it was a huge challenge making that because we had to use edible materials. I used rice krispies and chocolate, but gravity is always working against you, so it was difficult to get everything lined up and to stay straight. But somehow, to this day I don’t know, it ended up working out. I really like to try and push the boundary with cake, you know, make it look gravity-defying or make it look like a concrete sculpture.
Cooties: When you get inspired by something, do you sketch it out first? What’s your creative process?
Nala: Yes, I have a little black book that I’ll sketch out my designs in. For my inspiration, I try not to look up you know ‘Birthday Cakes’ on Google. I try to look at fabrics, and what’s on the runway this summer. So I have a lot of ideas, it’s more a matter of refining them and then actually creating it.
Cooties: Do you do any 2D art or is it mainly 3D cakes and sculptures?
Nala: I’ve dabbled in a little bit of drawing and illustration. I want to learn it all really; I feel that learning all those aspects of art helps me express myself better. I think that’s the best way to put it. Because it’s like, I want to put this on a canvas, but I don’t know how to do it. So then I end up going back to YouTube like ‘teach me how to do this.’ And then you know, it helps the expression and learning how to do different things. You have to be open to learning.
Cooties: Well having seen your work, there is definitely a natural talent that you possess. Even though you’re self-taught there has to be a foundation of talent there.
Nala: Well thank you! I never really looked at it that way; I always just say that I put in the work.
Cooties: Working at the bakery you’re at, do you have a lot of creative freedom or are you mainly taking requests from clients?
Nala: Typically people will come in and tell us what they want. It depends on who’s taking the order as well; sometimes you can kind of steer them into a certain artistic direction if you’re sitting down with them one on one and having a consultation. But most of the time we’re given a list of orders every week, and we just have to cross our fingers and hope something fun comes up. Recently I did a Lord of the Rings cake; she wanted Gollum sitting on a rock eating a fish. It was pretty crazy to make something like that; he’s so cool but he’s so ugly!
Cooties: Have you always been into artistic expression, or was it something that came to you at a later point in your life?
Nala: When I was very young I don’t remember being super into art. It wasn’t until I got pregnant with my daughter that I started getting into cake decorating. But I had her pretty young, so I guess you could still say I got into art pretty young. In terms of painting and drawing, I didn’t start doing that until a couple years ago. I met two of my best friends who are also artists; we met at our college. They were studying psychology and I was studying culinary arts; but they always encouraged me to paint. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t worry about what it looks like, just paint. Just keep doing it. Really because of them I started messing around with paint. Even now I’m still just trying out different styles, seeing what I like, and exploring things. It’s really a never-ending journey. Sometimes I wish I had a specific style and aesthetic for my art because I kind of feel like it’s all over the place. It can be galaxies, or flowers, or something geometric. It’s all very different. But now I’m starting to accept that that’s just how I am. [And now] I’m really starting to see that there’s no limit with art; you can do so much with so many things. If you can grab any kind of material, you don’t have to be rich; you don’t have to have money; you can make art out of trash.
Cooties: What does feminism mean to you as a female artist of color?
Nala: We need feminism that is not negligent of women of color, trans women, queer women. We need a feminism that protects all women. Globally.
A couple weeks back we spoke with NYC based mixed media artist Mangda Sengvanhpheng. Her interpretation of the world around her and the art she creates is really inspiring and unique, so we wanted to sit down with her and allow for it to be further shared with appreciators of art. What’s really cool about her work is that she creates with a multiplicity of mediums- from paint to found objects and woven textures. Her collaging mainly focuses on visual representations of the creative process itself; she describes the motion of color and form as a spiritual rite of passage and the freeing of identity. It is all centered around the idea of a ritualistic process that transforms emotion into evolution. It is really such a unique interpretation of creativity because there are two simultaneous transformations happening; while this ritualistic process is the medium through which she can recreate and evolve in her own being, she herself becomes the medium through which this process is turned into a visual representation. The metaphysicality behind her work is incredible, and very much a breath of fresh air during a time when our society is so often caught up in technology and the images we are presented on tablets and cell phone screens. Very thankful to have Mangda sit down with us to discuss her creative process, the vision behind her work, and what inspires her as a female artist.
Cooties: Your bio mentions that you started tearing up magazines at a young age. Is that where your passion for collaging first came from?
Mangda: I think the first magazine I was exposed to was American Girl, which is funny because it was in this very small town where I just wanted to create my own reality. So it's more about the passion for the process of creation... a way to transcend from my mind and emotions. That's my true passion.
Cooties: How has your background and upbringing inspired your art?
Mangda: I’m from a very centric household - my dad was a refugee from Laos, and he was adopted from a church in Twin Falls, Idaho. My mom was a wild child; she loved Rock ‘n Roll, and actually never even attended high school. During most of my upbringing as a child, I was constantly creating my own reality since I was in these little towns with little to do for entertainment. I would be out in the country and there would be no one near me; I’d mostly hang out with animals.
Cooties: What inspires you most as a female artist?
Mangda: Responding to my experience of the world and finding my own freedom within the work. There’s a lot emotion within that process, so it’s definitely about expressing that emotion, feeling it, and answering it. And it really has to do with growth; it’s evolution. I’m constantly trying to transform. I’m constantly trying to recreate. I’m constantly trying to change.
Cooties: Having seen your archive of work, all of it is very diverse in its imagery. What sparks your idea for an image?
Mangda: I would say that it all starts with the subconscious. It’s about allowing the process to unfold with a sense of intuitive experimentation. Even regarding the materials I use, it’s very much what I’m feeling in that moment. I’m responding to my impulses. Usually if there’s anything planned at all, it’s already been done through a subconscious drawing. Or, something I see through nature: shapes and forms.
Cooties: You just had your first solo show at Chinatown Soup Gallery this past summer. What was that experience like?
Mangda: Yes, my first solo show was an amazing experience; I was just so grateful to have held it there. It was basically centered around the experiences living in New York; all the work I made was from New York City and my first year living here. It was brutal but I loved it; I had a piece in there entitled “Psychic Brutality” which is exactly how I felt I was- I was constantly being tested and challenged in every aspect of my being: physical, emotional, psychic. And I love New York- it’s a beautiful thing for a human to be pushed and challenged.
Cooties: What does feminism mean to you as a young female creative in New York City?
Mangda: My freedom, your freedom. It’s really about equality, and having the same rights as all living humans. And art can definitely be used as a form of political protest, because it’s a huge response to what we’re experiencing in this life. With all that’s currently going on, I definitely feel that it’s my duty as an artist to respond to what’s happening around us because it’s all collective. We’re all connected, so it’s crucial to address the issues that have an impact on all of us.
This week we spoke with multimedia collage artists Joyce and Jessica Gayo. As identical twins, they collaborate on photography and collage work that portrays their Afro-Caribbean descent, and more specifically hair-braiding, inspired by their mother who started the first black beauty school in Naples, Florida! These ladies have such a meaningful and fascinating interpretation of hair-braiding, its artistry, and its cultural significance for black women. We wanted to showcase the amazing projects they’ve been working on by allowing them to further speak on the issues; not only is their work incredibly significant in what it strives to achieve, but it is crucial to the concept of preserving culture and subsequently history. These ladies sat down to tell us the story behind their work, their steps taken in Trump’s America and their advice for pop culture appropriation.
Cooties: You guys are twins. Did you simultaneously discover a passion for creating art? How did your collaboration come about?
Joyce: I discovered a passion for art when I was coming up with [an idea for] my Parsons application. I wanted to make something that gave a unique point of view and told my story. Jessica loved the idea, and we decided to continue to explore and experiment together. It was magical!
Cooties: What inspires you guys most as female artists of color?
Joyce: As black female artists we get to showcase hidden history or culture that people are unaware of; in a way, we [moreso] become educators than artists.
Cooties: Tell us about the "How Would She Feel" exhibition and your work featured in the gallery?
Jessica: "How Would She Feel" was an art exhibition was based on a psychological and intellectual response to a post-Trump political climate; there was a phenomenal all-women cast of artists, all platformed to express our emotions and to prompt awareness. Our work featured in the gallery was based on varied artist perspectives of hair braiding, aimed to push the world to reflect on the social issues that often accompany hair-braiding, while also showcasing how braids can bridge the divide between different cultures.
A segment we focused on was "I evolve" in my braids, which signifies the cultural craft of hair braiding that girls of Afro-Caribbean descent learn at a young age. Hair-braiding really transforms women's creativity and allows them to create art with hair- the hair is the canvas, and the hand's movements mimic the stroke of a paintbrush. This craft is perfected over time, with each head of braids advancing a woman's artistry and skill as she learns the techniques that have been passed down through generations. The art of hair-braiding also signifies the evolution of a girl into a woman. It serves as the conduit for historical and culturally significant lessons in the importance of hair-braiding, such as the identification of tribal affiliations, social status, age and even marital status.
Cooties: How do you think pop culture and society as a whole can embrace braiding without erasing its cultural significance for black women?
Jessica: We think pop culture and society as a whole can properly embrace hair-braiding by understanding its roots and its art form. For instance, within the historical context of slavery, hair-braiding was taken away from slaves in an effort to destroy their identity, cultural background and sense of belonging. With that being said, our art reclaims hair-braiding as an artistic expression of deep cultural significance in order to educate our society, and push pop culture to reflect on the social matter of hair braiding. Additionally, [we want pop culture to] showcase how braids can create unity amongst different cultures.
Cooties: Tell us a bit about your Long Live the Queen zine! What is it about and how did you get inspired to create it?
Jessica: The purpose of Long Live the Queen is to cultivate, illuminate and add to the immortality of the legacy left behind by women of exquisite stature who were amongst the ranks of those regarded as queens and princesses. These women have made an impact on our lives ranging from who we are as individuals to how we relate to what these women lived for and what they did with their lives. Through the use of visually artistic creativity, we aim to bring to light the rich history and lasting legacy of these women who have impacted us so immensely. We really want this Zine to be a collectable for women to adore and cherish. As we showcase our top five beloved women of history, we include a brief biography with a modern day, fashion forward "plot twist" in what we believe these women would look like living and thriving here in the 21st century.
Cooties: What do you think we should be doing as intersectional feminists to help fight for equality on all fronts?
Jessica: What we should be doing as intersectional feminist is start ONE common goal! We can all move forward in harmony as simple as that!
Emma Black is an unbelievably good freelance artist based in the U.K. whose work blew us away! As an illustrator, painter, and mixed media artist, her work grapples with an exploration of the unknown while using autobiographical themes. This particular series displayed throughout our conversation deals with the links between life and death, and the ability to transform beyond the limitations of such a binary. Emma’s words on the subject are quite fascinating, so we implore you to read on. We sat down with her to talk about her inspirations as an artist, the explanation behind this series of work, and what we can do as feminists living in this crazy moment in history.
Cooties: When did you first discover your passion for creating art?
Emma: “I remember when I was little, going out with my mum and dad one day and we went into an art shop. We started talking to a lady there and she said ‘Oh, we do art classes for kids. Why don’t you come along?’ So I started going to art lessons, but after a few months they stopped doing the lessons in the shop. I had gotten quite friendly with the teacher; she was really nice and said ‘I’ll carry on tutoring you from home and really teach you something.’ My parents said sure, and so every Friday night I would go over to her house and she would teach me to paint. So it really started when I was young.”
Cooties: What inspires you most as a female artist?
Emma: “Probably my own experiences. A lot of my work is autobiographical. I feel artwork is self-indulgent, in a way. Because you know, I have all these ideas; I’ll be feeling something but I’m not sure what it is. I’ll get all this imagery into my head and I start working on it. And as soon as I’m working on it I think ‘Oh, it’s obviously about this’ or ‘I’ve been thinking about that.’ It’s like the artwork comes first and then I figure out what’s happening.”
Cooties: You've described to us that you mainly work with traditional mixed media and occasionally use digital elements. Tell us a bit about how this creative process works?
Emma: “I quite like contrasting my work. With my traditional stuff I like drawing, and I guess that’s my most natural thing to do. I really like how you can scan [an illustration] in, and then color it and layer it up. I’ll scan things like water color patterns, and then I’ll lay them onto it. So the whole thing, if you saw it on a computer, looks like a painting but it’s actually digital in disguise. So I find a contrast within it. Although I still really enjoy doing my paintings; I like making work that’s beautiful and colorful and looks nice. So I still like doing works that are purely oil paintings and spending loads of time on the details of things. There’s something really quite satisfying about it, about spending so much time on things.”
Cooties: In your submission you mentioned that your current work deals with life, death, and the possibility for stages of existence that go beyond. What led you to this kind of exploration and what does it signify about our lives as people?
Emma: “Like I said, I’m quite interested in contrast. Life and death is one of the biggest ones you can have. In the last year or 18 months I’ve known a few people who’ve passed away, and it seems to be the older you get the more you experience that, so it’s been on my mind a lot. I was reading through an essay one day and it spoke about this idea that death might not be inevitable, and maybe it’s a natural contingency within life that can be avoided. I thought that was really interesting; if there was another way to bypass it, and people found a way to carry on living. So I quite like how [the works in my series] have a bit of fantasy to them. And so I imagined these people, that instead of dying, they were transforming and becoming something different: a higher being. They were now really strong and confident and something different. So that’s when I started depicting people who were physically, as well as emotionally, changing. I’ve been painting people: like the woman who has the helmet on; she came first. I got this idea of doing these women who were wearing this traditional medieval armor. Obviously women would have never worn that; it was all men who were knights, who went off to battle and did those types of things. So contrasting this really heavy protective armor with the nakedness; it was showing the strength and the vulnerability [simultaneously] but then having this confidence at the same time. They’re so confident that they can just wear jewelry and accoutrements on them, and own it. And then there’s also the fact that they have insects and plants growing on them, so it’s as if they’re alive, but then they have these mushrooms, which are linked with decay. So it’s like they’re a mix between the two (life and death). They’re like an aside from it, a completely different being.”
Cooties: With such feminist undertones to your work, what does feminism mean to you?
Emma: “I suppose it’s about a certain knowledge and awareness, being aware of situations and things that are going on. And even if you decide that you want to live within a “stereotype,” like wearing makeup or things of that nature, it’s important that you realize why you’re doing it and why you want to, and having that option to decide what you want. Also as well, feminism is intersectional; because I’m quite aware of the fact that even though I am a woman, I’m also straight and white. In a way it’s not as much about having my own voice but listening to other people and their experiences. And sometimes being quiet, and letting people speak about what it means to them as well.”
Cooties: What do you think we can do as feminists fighting for equality on all fronts, in light of what's been going on with Trump, Brexit, and the general wave of fascism/nationalism that's been popping up around the world?
Emma: “Some people feel that they want to go out on marches, whereas others might just feel like maybe that’s not for them, that you can just have a conversation with your family: talk about gender, and gender roles, and inequality with your family and friends. And sometimes having meaningful discussions with people can be a good thing. But I think in terms of a proactive thing that people can do, is you know, say you’re in a meeting at work and there’s someone who generally doesn’t have the most power in the room, that you include them and try to ask them their thoughts. Even small things like that I think can really help. And even speaking about things online, posting on Instagram, telling people what you think… Within [the art world], there’s a lot of women who go to art school. And yet when you look at the amount of galleries that are actually giving solo shows away and representing artists, it’s around 60-70% men, and in some cases even more. Men are definitely the ones on top. So it’s difficult in that main route for women to produce work and get their view across as artists. But I still think it’s really important that if you are feeling something, if you’re feeling frustrated and want to make a point, that you can just create art and share another way instead. There’s always grassroot ways to get involved.”
In today’s society of smartphones and tablets, the media’s influence has grown more pervasive than ever. It aims to serve as a mirror of our world. Yet the mirror is tainted by manipulation, for it only allows us to see certain representations. While the real world is filled with countless identities and experiences, its media mirror operates in such a way that it creates a falsified reality. By dividing our identities between those that are worthy and unworthy of representation, the mirror becomes less and less of an honest reflection and more like the painting of a picture, one that is artificially constructed and has little commitment to truth. As we consume this content, we’re taught to believe in the reinforcement of these stereotypes; and while they may have transformed over time, they remain ever-present in today’s society. Not only does this allow for our culture to box in what identities are considered normal and acceptable, but it also causes many of us to even participate in that self-policing subconsciously. It oftentimes may not even be clear to many of us that much of the content we consume has very little relatability to our own lives, because it has been conditioned into us that many of our experiences are not worth showing.
For Cooties, we wanted to emphasize a form of erasure that gets very little discussion in terms of media representation: ageism. When it comes to age, the boxing in of identity becomes very restrictive for women over the age of 40. In television and film, women characters are often divided between those who are sexualized and those who are portrayed as completely asexual. These lines, while developed around a number of characteristics such as race and sexuality, are also usually determined by age. Older female storylines are less likely to include a sexual dimension to their character, whereas younger women characters fit into beauty standards that come with overly sexualized storylines. Yet we know that in reality none of this actually makes sense; women don’t stop having sex after 40 and they sure as hell don’t disappear from existence at 65 like most media content would like us to believe. We need to see representations that don’t divide female experiences into those of hot girls and grandmas. We need the intertwining of those experiences to give female representations the depth they deserve; we need hot grandmas. That’s why Cooties is so excited about New York City-based artist Sinjun Strom; one of her most recent projects was a collection of photographs that shine a light on the women least likely to see representation in the media. The series, entitled “Hot Mamma,” shows older women looking beautifully-styled and fierce as hell. Sinjun spoke with us to share some insight on her inspiration as an artist, the background of this project, and the issue of ageism in today’s world.
Cooties: Can you give us a bit of background on yourself as an artist? What inspires you most?
Sinjun: “I grew up in a very creative household. My dad is a tattoo artist and my stepmom is a painter, seamstress, and works with many other mediums. I don't really remember a time where I wasn't making something. My parents both made work at home all the time so it felt normal to make work of my own. When I was in highschool I always had 2 hours after school by myself, and I usually spent this time watching Turner Classic Movies to de-stress and wind down. Since then I think I’ve subconsciously taken inspiration from all of that content I absorbed over the years and I’ve put it into my work. I was so interested in the characters, the set design, and definitely the styling!”
Cooties: How has being a young female artist in New York City had an impact on your work?
Sinjun: “Well growing up in the Midwest I had access to so many stores as well as amazing locations that I could just walk into without having to deal with logistics or legal issues. I've definitely had to become more resourceful because the thrift stores here are wack and overpriced. I literally used to be able to style a shoot for $10. Other than that, not much has changed.”
Cooties: What drew you to the subject of ageism with your "Hot Mamma" series?
Sinjun: “Underrepresentation has always been an issue for me. Growing up it was rare that I saw Latina women being represented in fashion and it made me question a lot of things about myself. I moved past those thoughts very quickly, but I am now hyper aware of what my images are doing for other people and how they might affect them. Because of this, I’ve been using friends rather than models in my work. Not only is the work more inclusive, but I have so much more fun shooting friends. They all have such wonderful personalities and energies that inspire me when we work together. Ageism naturally came into play when I noticed more and more that the older women in my life were making negative comments about their weight, age, wrinkles, what they could and couldn't wear, etc. It felt ridiculous to me to hear such comments, when in my mind they were some of the strongest and most beautiful women that I knew. I realized that the only thing they were seeing in the media was your classic young blonde, along with ads for anti-aging remedies. Not only did I have an issue with our society’s negative attitude towards aging, but I also found it ridiculous that a majority of women feel that they need to dress a certain way the older they get. We should be allowed to express ourselves no matter how old we are.”
Cooties: Did your subjects enjoy being dolled up? What was it like to shoot them?
Sinjun: “Yeah, it was pretty fun! Depending on the person, I felt out what they would be comfortable with. Of course they were wearing looks that were very dramatic, that they wouldn’t wear in real life, but they did enjoy doing it for the day. I think my favorite is when my Mexican grandma said ‘What is that?" And I said ‘What do you do you mean what is it? It's lipstick!’ and she said ‘But it's blue!’”
Cooties: What statement do you hope your work makes in our ageist society?
Sinjun: “I hope it provides comfort for future generations, and reduces the fear of growing older in younger ones.”
We met up with Bronx based photographer Kasey-Lynn to learn more about the gentrification occurring in the Bronx and how it has affected the work she creates in the South Bronx.