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.