Susan Messer McBride was wiping clay off her hands when she began talking about feminism in the age of Donald Trump. In the past McBride, an artist and educator for decades, wasn’t very politically motivated. But that’s changed since the election.
“I look now where we are in this country and I feel like we’re rolling back,” McBride said on a break between teaching classes at Lillstreet Art Center in Ravenswood. “Women’s rights are under attack, full-on.”
Her fear and anger spurred her to take on the role of lead facilitator for the Nasty Women Art Chicago show, which took place on Friday, May 5, at Moonlight Studios in the West Loop. For McBride, as for many of the other artists involved with Nasty Women, the election was a turning point. She found her worldview had changed, and that some of that change had bled into her work. She began using different kinds of clay, adjusting her usual ceramics technique and taking out her frustrations in a new medium. For Nasty Women, McBride presented a white hand-crafted porcelain plate with a blue octopus on the surface, drawing links between women and the sea creature, describing both as “diverse, creative, and intelligent.”
“It’s the intersection of art and activism,” McBride continued. “You do it because it is your voice—to let that happen, to let that come out. I’m almost 50 years old, and I’ve not been political until now. Because I have to be.”
The Chicago show was one of more than 40 that have taken place since January of this year—the first in New York City—with dozens more planned across the U.S. and Europe, according to the Nasty Women Exhibition website. (“Nasty Women” refers to the now infamous moment when Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during a presidential debate in October 2016.) According to event organizers, more than 1,700 people attended; 350 women artists from 18 states and five countries, ranging in age from nine to 94, contributed works. All of the money made from sales, in addition to donations, will be sent to Planned Parenthood of Illinois. Organizers say they raised more than $30,000 that night.
At Moonlight Studios, hundreds waited in line to get into the show. DJs including Hiroko, Lady D, and Diskokitty played upbeat electronic sets while visitors gazed at pieces hanging on the brick walls, including a hyperrealist pencil drawing by Jordan Lentz in which two androgynous women in tuxedos look out at the viewer with hooded eyes. Artist Amanda Ontiveros cross-stitched the words “Yo soy capaz, yo soy fuerte, yo soy invencible, yo soy mujer” in blue and red on aida cloth. The Spanish translates to “I am able, I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman,” a play on the lyrics of Helen Reddy’s 1971 song “I Am Woman.” Another artist, Mary Ruth, presented a piece called Women’s Issues: Portrait of the Male Ego. She used menstrual blood overlaid on an upside-down American flag to paint an image of a yelling Donald Trump.
Although not officially linked to the Women’s March in January, the Nasty Women Art Show is a natural extension of the community of activists who came together on January 21. Women’s March organizers estimated that more than 250,000 gathered in Grant Park in Chicago, with millions more joining in cities around the globe. Because the Women’s March was so formidable—it was estimated by the Washington Post to be the biggest one-day protest in U.S. history—it’s informed the path ahead for the Trump resistance, inspiring like-minded events such as the Nasty Women Art show.
And the room was packed when Dianna Tyler, aka Goddess Warrior, took the floor to perform. Born on the west side of Chicago, Tyler, who lost her mother to domestic violence, came on the spoken-word scene four years ago; her work frequently addresses gun violence, loss, and healing. For Tyler, art and advocacy are intimately linked.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of women in this place tonight who have also gone through things, and they have a means to express themselves or an outlet to tell their stories,” Tyler said before going onstage. “And that’s what it’s about. It’s about telling your story and seeing who you can connect with and who relates to what you’ve gone through. . . . That communication and that message leads to political action, it leads to activism.”
It was the community of women activists and artists who were on Tyler’s mind before she took the mike. “You know, Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton nasty, and it was kind of in reference to all women,” Tyler said. “So we’re here today to represent every nasty woman across America. I know I’m nasty at what I do. We look at it as a means of being dope, at being great at what you do, so I’m just here to give it my all.”
Orn Panmunee was drawing portraits in a corner of one of the galleries. Dressed in overalls and a backward red baseball cap, she sat and intently sketched throughout the night. Originally from Thailand, Panmunee moved to Chicago five years ago, and she too is new to political activism.
“Oh my god, I need to do something,” Panmunee said, describing her response to the election. “I just had a son—seven months old—and he’s Thai-Mexican, so I feel like it’s going to be quite difficult for him if he grows up and we live in a white neighborhood.”
She started drawing small four-by-six-inch portraits using pencil and marker in a series called “People of Color,” taking traditional portraiture and using greens, purples, and blues to draw human faces, challenging the myths of white purity and beauty.
She’s worried her son will face the discrimination she has as an immigrant, but she’s also concerned about how her son will grow up to view women in the Trump era.
“I want to teach my son to respect women,” Panmunee said. “I want my son to look at women in a different way than our president looks at women.” v