I was thrilled to be featured in Femynynytees, an exhibition curated by Renata Azevedo Moreira and Treva Michelle Legassie in Montreal, Quebec.
This was a new iteration of "The Menstrual Cup Project," one that encouraged participants to partake in shots across the whole of the exhibition, as opposed to a single performance the night of the opening. The efficacy of this approach is hard to gauge, but we were able to make a humble donation to a non-profit that serves LGTBQ+ youth to support access to menstrual care.
From the curators:
In 1476, the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer penned the word femynynytee for the first time. A term of Middle English origins, it described one who is free from evil – free, in fact, from all independent desire or autonomous action. We reach back in time, pulling into present this term in order to address that which has been built upon and decolonize our understanding of it.
For more information about the exhibition and to see other featured artists, check it out here.
If you've met with me in the last two years, I may have told you about my new art-making philosophy: I only make one new artwork a year.
This might not be the case for all artists, but when I'm not in the studio, I feel bad! I feel guilty for not culturally producing, guilty for not putting in the work that art-making requires, guilty for lacking rigor and experimentation, guilty for not selling work or making money, it goes on.
And the reality is that, as an art-ministrator and writer, I have relatively little time remaining to put into artworks. I'm not a maker by nature, it's something I work diligently at, and my projects are always planned years in advance, in order to allow me to troubleshoot them fully before they make it into the world.
In 2018, I had the pleasure of repeating "The Menstrual Cup Project" in Montreal (more on that later), but began the year with a new project entitled "One Year."
The premise is simple, inspired by ceramic's history of use and function, and recent projects like Jeni Hansen-Gard and Lauren Karle's Cups of Conversation and Ayumi Horie and Nick Moen's The Democratic Cup. I slab-built a simple coffee set, a pitcher and two cups, and left these on a table during the opening of the exhibition "Centered," my first curatorial project at the Lewistown Art Center that highlighted Central Montana artists and their global connections.
Participants were invited to sign up for a coffee date with me, every day that the Art Center was open, on hour before it opened. As someone who isn't a morning person, this project challenged me to wake up in service to others for a month, to make them coffee and comfortable, to ask questions and host.
March 2018 marked "one year" of my living in Central Montana, undoubtedly the hardest thing I've had to do. As a rural area with a low population, folks could immediately pick me out as "not from here," but I lacked that specific kind of sight, and assumed that most folks were from Central Montana, not an outsider like me.
The "One Year" project sought to connect me with my community in new ways, and each coffee date began with: How did you come to be in Central Montana? and I was shocked by the responses.
First, the majority of my participants identified as women (like Sandy (left) and Rosie (right)), and very few of them were from Lewistown originally. Many had moved for marriage, but just as many had moved for work.
Secondly, folks were excited to share their history, whether it was centered in Lewistown or not. I heard stories about breaking horses as a young girl, meeting the Poet Laureate Richard Hugo, earliest concerts, highschool hijinks, and tragic loss.
An hour wasn't enough for the majority of the conversations we had, although the pitcher perfectly held two cups of coffee for each of us. I was struck by how quickly the familiarity of ceramics, dishes, and ritual can set participants at ease, how difficult it is to wake up early consistently, and how diverse and multitudinous the Central Montana experience can be.
One of my favorite things about my work is its ability to transcend borders. In September of 2017, I was one of a lucky few to attend the Canadian Craft Biennial as a Writer-In-Residence with Studio Magazine (based out of Craft Ontario in Toronto).
The experience was challenging and complex, enlightening and confounding at the same time. My graduate program lacked focus in craft, as did my undergraduate program, so my writing (and I) have been in a sort of craft-writing-less vacuum, rarely encountering peers or mentors. To be suddenly confronted with the real, loud, and divergent opinions of young craft writers was the best kind of challenge, and the work was strengthened because of it.
In particular, our group consistently returned to the "defining of craft," whether it was in a van on the way to the Art Gallery of Burlington, in workshops with established critics, or in series of letters I exchanged with my new friend Andrew. I kept returning to this as a theme, the idea of defining craft, and the craft field's obsession with delineation and hierarchy. Having based a large portion of my research in the DIY-emergence of the early 2000s and having been educated in a contemporary, critical theory environment, these squabbles seemed outdated and less-than-useful.
If you know me at all, you know that I'm not skilled at hiding my emotions, and this topic is no exception. When I was approached by Studio Magazine editor Leopold Kowolick to write for the Fall issue in 2018, I knew what I wanted to address. Spurred to action by a facebook post (of all things), I wrote the first of a two-part piece for Studio entitled, "Why I'm Done Defining Craft."
You can find a brief excerpt and purchase the magazine here.
The image is from an Islamic Lustre Workshop that we were able to do with Scott Barnum, a potter in Ontario.
In May of 2017, I traveled to Toronto to participate in Nouveau Reach, a conference on luxury. Originally, I had been thinking about the role of luxury aesthetics in craftivist work, often used as a "hook" and then subverted to encourage dialectical exchange. Using the work of Roberto Lugo, I looked to the ways in which luxurious aesthetics can be used as "decolonial gesture," as defined by Mignolo.
Please do not use or copy without appropriate credit.
I first conceived of "The Menstrual Cup Project" during my thesis work at OCAD in 2015/2016, but lacked the time and resources to execute the project within the CADN program.
Instead, I waited for a collaborative exhibition with my friends in the Socially Engaged Craft Collective at NCECA in 2017. "Social Objects" was held in collaboration with the c3:Initiative in Portland, Oregon.
The premise of the projects is relatively simple. I spent the early months of 2017 creating a ceramic, menstrual cup positive and then creating a series of molds for slipcasting. The positive is based on the Diva Cup, but due to the shrinkage that occurs during the drying and firing of the clay, I needed to make the cup at about 1.5 scale in order for it to hold more than an ounce of liquid. I cast about 150 menstrual cups. Each had a fact about menstruation or menstrual stigma written on the side. The facts were from a "de-gendered" perspective and make quite clear that not all women menstruate, not all those who menstruate are women, and that menstrual stigma is a human issue, not a feminine one. My partner, Jack, built me a carrying tray (above) since menstrual cups don't have a flat bottom, and can only hold liquid when held.
On the evening of the opening of "Social Objects," I swung by a liquor store and picked up locally made, Oregon-raspberry vodka. I had considered not having a red liquid, but the fact of the matter is this. "Decency" laws prevent advertisers from using menstrual blood in ads (look up the Thinx subway campaign in NYC), and instead, companies use a sickly blue liquid in its place, sanitizing and dehumanizing a bodily function, and I don't agree with that. Secondly, if I had used a color other than red, everyone would have asked why it wasn't red.
I loaded the cups into the tray, 24 at a time, and began my first performative and participatory artwork, "The Menstrual Cup Project."
"The Menstrual Cup Project" is a performative and participatory Socially Engaged Craftwork (or Craftivism) that leverages ceramic tradition (cup making and shot taking) against societal taboo. Participants were given free shots and ceramic menstrual cups (with information) to encourage dialogue around menstrual stigma. Special edition cups (with gold luster) were sold through the gallery, and 100% of the proceeds went to "Transition Projects" in Portland to buy clean underwear for menstruators facing homelessness.
"Would you like a free shot?"
It was rare that someone said "no," and I kept cranberry juice on hand for non-drinkers. Participants were incentivised to participate with the promise of a free drink, and free cup. The vodka and act of taking a shot call to mind the celebratory "whoo!" of a souvenir shot, or evening out with friends. The buzz, feeling of comradery, and free gift work to temper the social taboo of discussing menstruation. Sometimes, I stayed to ask questions, or answer them, but often, I left to offer more shots, only to return and overhear an ongoing conversation about menstruation. The following are small quotes and experiences that I remember from the evening, two years later.
I remember a woman who was in her twenties, and not menstruating due to an autoimmune disorder, talking about menstruation and breastfeeding with her peer.
I remember little old ladies using their fingers and tongues to get the last drop of raspberry vodka, then telling me that their lack of education around menstruation had affected their lifelong health care, up through menopause.
I remember hearing about someone's first period.
I remember how many people would exclaim "I'm menstruating right NOW," once they realized what the project was about.
I remember peer to peer education about menstrual cups and period panties, reusable pads and applicator-free tampons.
I remember selling a cup that read "Trans men menstruate, too," to a trans man, talking about how rare it was for menstrual dialogue to include him.
Mary Callahan Baumstark is a maker, writer, and researcher with an M.A. in Contemporary Art, Design, and New Media Art Histories from OCAD University in Toronto, Ontario. She is interested in trendspotting in contemporary ceramics and organizing socially engaged or activist projects. She is the current Resident Art Historian for the Socially Engaged Craft Collective.