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Women Refuse to be Mere Vessels: Plan B Art Project Refigures Abortion

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BmoreArt’s Picks: March 21-27

In June 2022, the Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization repealed Roe v. Wade, which has stripped access to abortion and reproductive health care for millions of Americans and denied individuals and doctors the freedom to make their own health care decisions. Since the Dobbs decision, 14 states have already implemented near-total abortion bans, leaving one in three American women without access to safe, legal abortion care. Also, state legislatures across the country have introduced hundreds of bills to include medically unnecessary restrictions that limit access to abortion care.

Seemingly overnight, the landscape of female reproductive rights has changed utterly, with the majority of Americans’ views being ignored. The time is right for artists to express their dissent and to protest through compelling arguments in a variety of media.

In one such exhibit, Plan B, currently on view at the Rebecca Myers Gallery at Cross Keys through the end of March, artists and jewelers address contemporary reproductive politics using a form from ancient pottery: the Greek amphora. The touring exhibition, which has already been shown in New York, Oklahoma, Chicago, and across the country, is the curatorial brainchild of Shauna Burke. Plan B offers us a series of artists’ perspectives on both our moment and the very long history of abortion. Burke sent artists a small amphora, and asked them to make work that responded to current threats to reproductive autonomy. 

Why an amphora? Archaeologists have recovered traces of abortifacient plants from amphoras used in ancient Greece. Plus, the curves of the form echo the female reproductive body. These clay vessels were used to contain olive oil, wine—and abortion-producing herbs. In the ancient world, abortion was rarely illegal or immoral and Greek and Roman women could easily harvest or buy plants to terminate a pregnancy.

Doctors knew that the procedure could save a woman’s life, and listed many abortifacient recipes in their manuscripts. However, it was impossible to accurately determine a safe yet effective dose, so the process could be risky.

 

Image courtesy of Plan B Art Project and Rebecca Myers
Francesca Vitali, "Untitled"
Sharon Massey "Desperate Times: Pennyroyal Tea" (ring)

Some of the most compelling works in Plan B seamlessly combine an artist’s own creative idiom with the theme. Sharon Massey’s “Desperate Times: Pennyroyal Tea” employs her characteristic enameled steel in a signet ring that is also a tea infuser. Pennyroyal has been used as an abortifacient for millennia. The robust form of the ring is beautifully counterbalanced by the delicacy of the piercings in the infuser, which nests, hidden, inside the top of the ring. Similarly, Liz Clark’s “Covered on Both Sides” features her signature tiny sawn-out silver flowers on the stopper of a small blackened silver amphora. At first glance, it’s a delicate wearable work of art that might hold perfume. But its grace conceals its potential as a container for an abortifacient drug, just as so often women have had to hide their attempts to manage their reproductive destinies. 

This idea of concealment, of hidden aspects to a work, is one of the most consistent themes in the show. It echoes historical realities. Much knowledge of abortion was passed quietly from woman to woman by word of mouth. Even once newspapers started to advertise abortion medication in the nineteenth century, they used coded language, such as “removing female obstructions.”

Perhaps some women never knew the code, while others had it explained to them. Like Liz Clark’s piece, Jessica Calderwood’s “Pennyroyal Pin” uses innocuous flowers to conceal the true nature of the work. It is a small enameled bottle-shaped form with a decal of pennyroyal flowers. The deceptively simple piece hides its more subversive meanings; those might just be flowers, unless you recognized their potential as abortifacients.

 

Emily Rogstad, "Not a Vessel."
Leslie Shershow, "All In, 2022"
Art has always been a symbolic tool to bring societal injustices to light.
Shauna Burke

Other artists chose to push the amphora prompt further. Emily Rogstad, for example, made a pair of earrings from slices of the original silver amphora. Four slim lengthy irregular rectangles cascade in a series to the wearer’s neck. Her title “Not a Vessel” says it all; women are not defined by their roles in pregnancy. Slicing the amphora puts that metaphor into three dimensional space and creates subtle shapes that invite the viewer to wonder about their origin.

Leslie Shershow’s brooch uses brightly colored luminescent glowing plastic material, formed into the iconic shape of female legs, arranged almost like petals of a flower. The colors are luscious and the piece has a joyful feel to it. Shershow is no stranger to combining art and politics, exhibiting work in Amend, a project commemorating the centennial of the 19th Amendment which enabled many women to vote.

Kelley Ann Temple based “The Hookup” on the structure of a pocket watch, with a string of handmade beads in soft pale peach tones. The piece has double brooches to fix the string to the wearer’s clothing, similar to the way a pocket watch was fixed in two places to a man’s vest. A powder-coated pale pink copper vase on one end can be hidden in the wearer’s pocket. Again, the potential import—a container for an abortion medicine—can lie hidden.

 

Rachel Quinn, "Untitled"
Kelley Ann Temple, “The Hookup”
This timeless image of the amphora reminds us that women have long sought to control their reproductive lives, and will continue to do so, whatever the law might say.
Mary Fissell

Baltimore-based jewelry artists are well-represented in the gallery. Shana Kroiz’s “Decisions Brooch” is a big, bold, and beautiful sculptural silver amphora bearing a bronze flower. The scale of the piece proclaims that abortion is here, it’s out in the open, and it is of value. Alison Jefferies’ “Impurity” works in a smaller register, combining tiny sprays of moonstones and peridots with a silver amphora on a delicate feminine necklace. Ancient jewelers were skilled in the technology of casting, which gallerist and artist Rebecca Myers updates using new CAD-based methods. Her amphora features a delicate latticework of the Roman numeral XIV. It references the Fourteenth Amendment, which Harry Blackmun invoked to ground Roe v. Wade in rights to privacy and due process. The fine openwork could not have been achieved using traditional casting methods, and it energizes the tiny sculpture with its negative spaces. 

Also using new technologies, Rebecca Strzelec laser-prints various amphora forms in bright blue, red, and purple plastic, and hangs them on chain necklaces. The pieces are surprisingly lightweight and delightfully tactile. The printing process creates miniature ridges on the three-to-four inch vases that invite a wearer to fidget with them. Calling her work “Gross,” Strzelec points to the way this technology invites repetition and multiples, in new types of reproduction. The necklaces are displayed with a touch of wit, in egg cartons.

 

"Gross" by Rebecca Strzelec
"XIV" by Rebecca Myers

Jewelry in cheerful colors, such as the pieces by Strzelec and Shershow, offer a counterpoint to those Plan B works which use the color red, suggesting images of bleeding. Rachel Quinn’s untitled pendant is a silver bottle in the shape of a female torso, with three teardrop lab-grown rubies hanging from it. The stopper, which fits into the female form’s neck, has a cross atop it. The work seems to mix its metaphors. Are the rubies suggesting blood? Why is this a legless and headless torso, with its suggestion of violence done to a female body? Is the cross a referent to some religions’ prohibitions of abortion? 

All the Plan B artists identify themselves as supporters of women’s right to choose and 25% of the sale proceeds go to Planned Parenthood. The variety of perspectives in the exhibition reminds us that abortion will always be understood in myriad ways.

As curator Shauna Burke says, “Art has always been a symbolic tool to bring societal injustices to light.” In choosing the amphora, she has made a powerful intervention to the representation of abortion. So much imagery is overworked or has violent connotations, as in the much-repeated coat-hanger.

The anti-abortion movement has commandeered fetal imagery in attempts to shame or shock women. This timeless image of the amphora reminds us that women have long sought to control their reproductive lives, and will continue to do so, whatever the law might say. Using this potent symbol, Plan B’s artists offer rich critiques of the inequalities inherent in restricting abortion.

 

Images courtesy of the Plan B Art Project Website and Rebecca Myers Collection, Header Image: Karin Jacobson "Restricted"

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