I’ve been enchanted by tissue paper ever since I was a little girl. Isn’t that when most of us discover it—in preschool or kindergarten? It’s something a teacher introduces to us when we’re pipsqueaks just learning to navigate the world, before we understand the concept of gendered work. The mention of gendered work matters because, inevitably, this tissue paper wielding teacher is a woman since women traditionally teach young children. I remember the fact that I had a male second-grade teacher was considered very progressive, if not a tad strange. Apparently only women were fit for such a maternal role. Maybe, just maybe, some speculated, he was a child predator, despite the fact that his criminal background said otherwise. What a cruel assumption to make! In reality, he was one of the best teachers I ever had.
It might seem that early childhood education is one of the few places where women are actually privileged in the workplace, but they’re not. They are only deemed most suitable for jobs in these fields because of sexist notions. “Women are better with little children.” “Only women would accept these salaries.” “These jobs help women prepare for becoming mothers and are suitable for them to transition back into once their children are grown. That’s why they’re women’s jobs.” These are the same notions that give arts and crafts materials like tissue paper a diminished status. Isn’t that what Miss Smith taught you to use for a blossom on top of a pipe cleaner stem to make an Easter flower in Sunday school?
Our society’s tendency to gender certain professions means that anything considered a “woman’s job” is considered inferior. The implication is that only men can be true masters in their field and that certain jobs are somehow inherently better than others. When many people think of an art teacher, they think of a woman, but when many people think of an artist, they think of a man. But the reality is that someone can be a teacher and an artist and neither job is “better.” Neither job is a “woman’s job” or a “man’s job.” A woman can be an artist and a man can be an art teacher. There shouldn’t be anything unusual about the former or degrading about the latter.
In many of my mixed media paintings, I reclaim tissue paper and other arts and crafts supplies many typically associate with a mild-mannered, cardigan-wearing woman with the perfect Beatrix Potter reading voice. The point is to remove the gendered connotation that these are somehow “lesser” materials and elevate them to the world of fine art. When most people point at the materials in my work and ask what I used, they’re astounded when I tell them tissue paper is the primary material. They were not aware that tissue paper was so versatile. With older men, sometimes it seems that they’re wowed a woman thought to use tissue paper in a novel way.
I’m a strong believer in the Craftivism movement, which intertwines craft with activism. I made these two pieces, “Tree Woman” and “Lady Blue,” specifically for Bed-Stuy STooPS, an activism-oriented event that seeks to start community conversations in Brooklyn’s rapidly gentrifying Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Right now, more and more middle-class, college-educated, white people are moving into this historically black neighborhood. Needless to say, not everybody is pleased about this change.
As a non-black mixed race person who is married to a white man, Bed-Stuy is an interesting place for me to be. In some ways, I feel that I’m separate from the traditional narrative, which is a common feeling among many biracial people in conversations about race. In any encounter with someone new, I never know how they will perceive my “whiteness” or “brownness.” Sometimes people even confuse me for someone who is half-black and half-white, especially in this neighborhood because there are relatively few mestizos. The fact of the matter is that even if I fall outside of the typical racial categories here, I’m still responsible for joining the conversation. I’m married to a white man and I have a white father. Though my father and his family are New Yorkers, my husband and I are not. We are originally from the Washington, D.C. area. So I feel this sense of belonging and not belonging at the same time.
My husband and I chose Bed-Stuy because it’s inexpensive, convenient, and has a good vibe. We didn’t come here thinking it would be so much better with a Starbucks or high-end boutique on every corner. We want to get to know our neighbors and do our part to preserve what’s great about this neighborhood—namely, gorgeous architecture, plenty of trees, lots of family-owned businesses, and testaments to black history and culture at places like the Weeksville Heritage Center. But if we’re going to integrate, not intrude, we need to enthusiastically participate in community events like Bed-Stuy STooPS.
I made relatively large-scale pieces a part of my display on the stoop that was donated to me for the event and gave neighbors a chance to come up and talk to me. They could also learn one of my tissue paper techniques and add to “Lady Blue,” which I had laid out on a table. I created “Tree Woman” in advance of the event to give passersby an idea of how “Lady Blue” would look when it was finished. “Lady Blue” and “Tree Woman” don’t comment specifically on gentrification; instead they convey feminine energy, something that’s peaceful and harmonious. That’s the kind of energy that should go into any conversation or action related to gentrification. Violence and discrimination are always the wrong approach. Now these pieces are hanging in a show I have at the Queens Lyceum in Flushing, Queens. It’s a new venue meant to facilitate public discussion and community activism.
Sometimes after I have completed a mixed media painting, I photograph it and find new ways to interpret the piece digitally. I do this to experiment, to manipulate, to print and distribute in new formats. That was the case with “Tree Woman,” which now has a digital companion at my current show in GAMBA Forest in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s called “Tree Woman Triptych.” The gallery space is run by the founders of GAMBA Zine, a literary magazine that seeks to exist outside of the “politics of mainstream publication,” to use their words. I’m very in line with their thinking with my art and writing. While I work in mainstream outlets—Marie Claire, the New York Transit Museum, PBS programming, and the Condé Nast Building in Times Square, to name a few—I’m most at home in spaces outside of the mainstream. I don’t want to subscribe to mainstream ideas of gender, race, and identity. I believe in feminism because I believe in my choice to define myself as a woman, as an artist, and as a human.