Cherries: "What Are Little Girls Made Of"

Lauren Granado is a longtime RedLine member, supporter, and volunteer. She is a self proclaimed "local Latina nerd" who investigates reality through art, literature, and music. She is currently working on embodying and promoting brown girl love through artistic expression and writing. The following contemplative and observational piece was inspired by a friend who was working with conceptual sculpture and environment installations (Granado's two favorite mediums) to explore femininity and the binary structures that restrict women and femme-identifying people. Granado thanks Kristyn Shafer for her work.

This piece was originally published in Metrosphere Arts & Literary Magazine, Volume 34, issue 1, on Nov 19, 2015 and is republished here with permission of Granado.

Shafer, Kristyn. What are little girls made of. 2015. All photos courtesy of the artist.

Shafer, Kristyn. What are little girls made of. 2015. All photos courtesy of the artist.

The abhorrent ooze of melted cherries placed in an eloquent porcelain vanity paradoxically urges the viewer to look closer, perhaps even smell the delectables in front of them, despite the provocative and vile resemblance to menstruation blood.

Kristyn Shafer is spatial media artist working and living in Denver, Colorado. Her work consists of breaking down ideas about femininity, scopophobia, lost identities, and the persistent fear of being seen or stared at, through her sculptural work. She confronts female issues that young women today find relatable. Her work is grounded in the concept of the female situation, which for Shafer is a descriptive term for her experience as an objectified woman in society. She explains her work as “gently macabre” because it is somewhat familiar to the viewer, but also eerily disturbing and uncanny.

She intends her sculptural work to involve the viewer in more than just a visual experience. She wants to create connections between objects and notions of identity. Her work highlights taboo subjects, such as menstruation, scopophilia (sexual pleasure obtained from looking, especially at erotic objects), and feelings of shame. In her installation What Are Little Girls Made Of, she uses porcelain, a lace doily, a mirror, cherries, wax, nylon, and cement. This amalgamation of materials brings together seemingly disconnected objects and creates a tactile element to reveal a narrative of womanhood.

The cherries are a deep, burgundy red that allude to menstruation blood, but are still inviting and enticing to the viewer. They are poignantly placed within a delicate porcelain vanity set that has the words “What Are Little Girls Made Of” as an inscription on the plate. The visual of the porcelain set evokes feelings of nostalgia and associations with femininity, while juxtaposing the gooeyness of the cherries with menstruation. This object placement creates a direct dialogue about her concept of the female situation.

There are historical expectations of womanhood that are deeply rooted in our patriarchal society, including the clandestine nature of menstruation. The work wrestles with the shame felt by the slightest allusion to menstruation, which is an essential element to womanhood. The aesthetically pleasing qualities of the porcelain vanity set atop the lace doily are appealing to the viewer, and once they are engaged, the cherries and their representation can be repulsive and may even bring about feelings of disgust in the viewer.

This is exactly where the power in Shafer’s work lies. Her ability to subtly integrate the quintessential imagery of femininity with one of society’s most forbidden taboos creates a multi-sensory experience, rather than just a visual participation. This connection begins to break down the boundaries between art and life.

Shafer describes how misogynistic encounters with catcallers and degrading strangers commenting on her physical appearance has fueled the creative fire that propels her work. As inspiration, she utilizes “the psychological damage that happens because of [the focus on her physical appearance] and being catcalled because people say insane things sometimes, and they’re very demeaning, and you’re just supposed to accept it and move on and take it as a compliment.” Shafer discusses and scrutinizes the violent act against females by the male prerogative and gaze. Through the materiality of her work she is able to literally dig further to understand these constructs, and to push the corporeal realization of her theorized observations.

Shafer delves further into this idea with the inclusion of a cast of her face covered in pineapple chunks on the floor of the installation. There is a sense of an abruptly violent act against the face, which is the physical embodiment of her identity.

Shafer, Kristyn. What are little girls made of. 2015. All photos courtesy of the artist.

Shafer, Kristyn. What are little girls made of. 2015. All photos courtesy of the artist.

She explains this element as a visual manifestation of the verbal assault of catcalling and the privileged male authority to view the female as an object without repercussions in society. The pineapple also has interesting evocations with colonialism and the conquering of one’s body and cultural identity. The lack of a nose is indicative of suffocation, or a being without agency.

As the viewer continues to examine the connections between the other objects, they will notice the Castration piece that is included in the series What Are Little Girls Made Of. The piece consists of wax, nylon, and cement. The use of industrial materials lends to the conceptual weight of the work in that it references the weight of society that is placed on young women, starting at a very young age.

The omnipresent pressure to conform one’s body and physical appearance to the canonized standard of beauty is a pervasive problem for young girls. The nomenclature of castration or torture is effective in influencing the viewer’s reception of the work as a reference to social issues. This title provides a precedent of severity in understanding the work and its concrete associations with issues of body shaming, sometimes resulting in body modification, or even body mutilation, along with self-loathing.

The work makes compelling connections about current issues within political, social, feminist, and artistic contexts. The scope is quite large, but Shafer creates an environment that discreetly addresses a multitude of issues with a unified conceptual foundation from the female perspective. Shafer explains how she has been influenced by and is art historically connected with theories of the abject: “I think for me, abject is probably the most freeing, that you could make something that is [both] gross and yourself, and talk about these issues in a way that is still true to what they are and not putting in too much fluff.”

Shafer, Kristyn. What are little girls made of. 2015. All photos courtesy of the artist.

Shafer, Kristyn. What are little girls made of. 2015. All photos courtesy of the artist.

Artistically, Shafer has evolved along with her understanding of her visual and theoretical influences. She works closely with Tsehai Johnson, a sculpture professor at MSU Denver, to develop her ideas and to push her artistic practice. Her work is becoming more visually striking as the connections between her intended meanings and the physical manifestations become more closely related. She is pushing herself to understand material, color, and form, but also the relationships between objects. All of these tools are meant to bind her work to a conceptual realm.

When engaging with her work, Shafer wants the viewer to take away the value of a moment of contemplation. Shafer hopes viewers take a  moment to consider what it is to be a woman, a female, a girl, and the effects of those binaristic definitions.

Her work is meant to be a disturbing and jarring realization that leads to desensitization and then potentially a dialogue concerning female issues and the hidden taboos of the female body.

Shafer, Kristyn. What are little girls made of. 2015. All photos courtesy of the artist.

Shafer, Kristyn. What are little girls made of. 2015. All photos courtesy of the artist.

When speaking on the reception of her work by a viewer, Shafer states: “I want them to see my work. I want it to kind of gross them out enough. I want it to confront them enough, freak them out, make them really uncomfortable, so the next time they encounter something like seeing these nasty, melty, mucus cherries, I want that to gross you out and make you think about it enough, so the next time, maybe you’re in the bathroom and you see a tampon, it’s not so scary.”