March is National Women’s History Month and time to recognize the women who have shaped society, politics, arts, and culture throughout history. As we reflect on women’s experiences, contributions, and triumphs, let us consider too the critical role of feminist art in shaping and reshaping our understanding of women’s lives. Champaign Urbana has been host to a wealth of such art in recent weeks. The Krannert Art Museum presented the exhibit, Within and Beyond the Premises, by renowned feminist artist Carolee Schneeman. This same week, the Women’s Resources Center on campus screened Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !War, Women Art Revolution– this documentary film project charts the growth of the feminist art movement, spanning over 30 years. We’ve seen feminists on screen and off discuss the importance of a feminist art movement, prompting us to ask,where is feminist art today?
I was given the opportunity to sit down with contemporary artist, Sarah Beth Woods, an MFA candidate in her final semester at the School of Art + Design here at UIUC. Woods’ work has also been on display these past weeks in a show called, Love for Sale: You Know You Need It, at the University of Michigan’s Work:Detroit exhibition space. She currently teaches a painting course for non-majors at UIUC.
Sarah Beth, you’ve often described yourself as a feminist and an artist and not always necessarily a “feminist artist.” What defines feminist art to you and how do you see yourself reflected in that definition?
Rachel, that’s a great question and one that will have many different answers depending on who you ask. I find it difficult to define “feminist art.” As Third Wave Feminists, the doors have been opened for us by our foremothers. We have so much content that we can explore. There is no longer defined or rigid ways of doing or thinking about things. The options are endless. My work utilizes domestic, everyday materials and processes like braiding that are historically feminine activities. I think back to the yarn wigs my mother used to construct for one of my many handmade Rainbow Bright or Strawberry Shortcake Halloween costumes. I was given permission at a very young age to play, braid and act through these objects. As a Third Wave Feminist, I embrace these gendered objects and re-appropriate the bright colors and materiality to suit my own needs.
Have you always worked with “gendered objects?” How do they shape the form or direction of your work?
My work has taken on many different forms since I arrived at UIUC. I came in painting and drawing but I’ve never been able to work comfortably with just one kind of material. I refer to myself as a material slut. I love stuff. I love collecting disparate materials and seeing what kinds of shapes and forms I can get out of them. Recently I’ve been obsessed with bath poufs. I was using a bath pouf in the shower and I realized it looked a lot like the plastic chains I had been using in sculptures. I immediately ran out and bought a few bags of them. In the studio I unravel the poufs and then braid them together. They form long tendrils that resemble hair extensions. Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair inspired the integration of hair weaves into the braids, mostly because of the attraction/repulsion that people experience in relation to hair and femininity. The current sculptures have already cycled through many different lives. They started as installations in my studio and then evolved into head pieces worn in Either Once or Twice, a performance that took place last fall at the Armory Free Theatre at the University of Illinois.
I was able to see your performance art work with Nibia Pastrana Santiago in Either Once or Twice at the Armory Free Theater. Your piece was extremely striking. [NOTE: Wood’s piece in Either Once or Twice,involved her and Pastrana Santiago eating bananas and simulating masturbation on stage.] What has been your experience as a woman in a still extremely male-dominated art world? What advice would you impart to women artists?
I’ve really bonded with my female professors in a unique way. If it weren’t for their support I wouldn’t be making work that I truly enjoy. Overall, I’ve had the privilege of working with some really amazing male and female professors. On occasion a professor will casually make a sexist comment or downplay a feminine characteristic or process in relation to your work. I had one professor who used to tell me what words to use when I spoke about my work and how I should make my work. It was jarring and I internalized it a lot. I had to tell myself over and over that this was my work. When people do things like that I always try call attention to it. Quite often they don’t realize they’re doing it because its so ingrained in our culture.
Your work seems to make an important intervention in a number of ways–there’s a sex-positivity to the work and the reclamation of feminine objects calls attention to them in a way that questions their roles in shaping and reshaping our relationships to them. Where do you see your work going from here?
Sarah Beth Wood’s work can be viewed online at: www.sarahbethwoods.com