The seven female students at the Maryland Institute College of Art could have predicted the reactions when they sought donations for their production of The Vagina Monologues.
"What did you just say?"
The Vagina Monologues is the 6-year-old Broadway play by Eve Ensler that celebrates female sexuality. It is being rolled out in Baltimore this month and at hundreds of colleges across the country as a fund-raiser to stop sexual violence against women.
The title is untoward enough that some banks, restaurants and hotels, while generous, want to record their donation as simply "a benefit at MICA." Even the women's shelter that stands to benefit from the performances is asking to go unnamed.
The seven women decided to stage the racy Broadway play because keeping quiet about the female body was no longer an option for them. They decided that keeping quiet was a greater offense than shocking people.
So they formed a production company. Dubbed the "Go Girls," they include undergrad Andrea Keys from Manassas, Va., who as a narrator will deliver a "fun fact" about the vagina, and continuing education student Vicki McComas, a Fells Point antiques dealer in her 40s, who prefers the subtle approach: She's asking fellow business owners to donate to "a national campaign for battered women and rape victims and, by the way, the play is called The Vagina Monologues."
The seven came together last spring through a ceramics class. All were making art related to women. All were struggling over how to portray female bodies. All were concerned with the treatment of women who don't fit the commonly accepted notion of beauty.
For all the women, producing the play was one way to break through the cultural stranglehold on women's looks.
For one woman, being able to speak candidly about her own body image - issues she had long felt and experienced - also fueled a transformation in her art.
Different views of beauty
In an artist's basement studio off Mount Royal Avenue, an unfinished statue lies on its side on a sofa without springs. Books on history and art, covered in clay dust, compete for space on a wall of gray metal shelves holding ceramics supplies.
A soft-spoken woman with wavy long blond hair who favors dark sweat suits, Andrea Keys came late to ceramics. Like any beginner, the 21-year-old started throwing pots on a wheel. Noticing their figurative shape, she began putting them together in ways that resembled people.
The pot figures were popular, but she didn't feel connected to them in a way she wanted to be. She began thinking about her own issues with the body - what is beautiful compared with what mass culture regards as beautiful. That led her to books about the portrayal of women in art, as well as Reviving Ophelia, the best seller on the influence of crass pop culture on adolescent girls.
She sketched the female body in her notebook. Enlarged breasts or hips emerged on her figures. She realized they resembled one of the earliest expressions of the female form in art - the Venus of Willendorf - a limestone figure dating to the Stone Age whose big breasts and hips emphasized fertility.
Keys tested her figures in porcelain. "It showed me that I really could work with the material," she says.
But she wanted to know more, to integrate what she was thinking and feeling into her work. Books began to appear next to the clay on her studio shelves: Symbols and Sacred Objects, Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, a collection of essays, Minding the Body, Women Writers on Body and Soul, andWar against Women.
What captivated her was the changing perception of women's bodies in art, from the Middle Ages, when Raphael painted women naturally and voluptuously, to the 20th century, when photographers portrayed women as thin, lily--like and mannered.
Images of "women used to be based on [their role in] childbirth, or at least they looked as though they could bare children without their hips snapping," she says, "and now the idea of the body is about sex" - sex for pleasure, not for procreation.
Bodies and art
By last spring, she found herself in a class with other women struggling with similar issues related to their art. The teacher, Sarah Barnes, organized a daily lunch break for the students to exchange ideas and swap books.
The women had different bodies, different ages and different birthplaces. But they discovered they all had been judged by their bodies. Experiences about how they had been perceived or treated began to be shared. "It was amazing," Keys says.
One woman, an art teacher from Pennsylvania, brought in a book - The Vagina Monologues - based on the New York play. She read from it aloud. These were stories about vaginas. The book was bawdy, in-your-face stuff. Some of it was wrenching. The point was to help women feel better about their bodies.
"We were like 'wow,' and after that everyone wanted to read it," Keys said.
When the class discovered the play was being staged at colleges around the country as a benefit for victims of sexual violence, they immediately wanted to produce it.
"We had talked about similar stuff, but actually going public with it was a strong feeling," Keys said.
In the ceramics studio one day last spring, they picked the dates - last night, tonight and Sunday - and a name for their company: Go Girl Productions.
Forming ideas about form
Keys, meanwhile, moved from their group discussions to thinking about her childhood, the ideas children have about their bodies and the fact that adults don't talk to kids about the subject.
In the studio, she moved beyond female forms to explore her concern about the silence around women's bodies.
She focused on Hummel figurines and began to tweak their banal features. Her first was a girl carrying an ashtray and hooked to an oxygen tank. Then came a smiling soldier boy carrying a gun.
To Keys, the idea of sweet children made by adults for adults whose poses and faces don't reflect reality paralleled the paradox that modern views of women's bodies don't reflect how most women look.
In the past few months, one figure to emerge from Keys' studio was a Hummelesque Britney Spears - a little girl, her cropped shirt showing off her belly-button, standing atop a television. Another is a sweet-faced little girl pulling up her skirt to reveal her underpants in an alluring way. This is a child already starting to perceive herself through images in popular culture - stars who flaunt their sexuality, Keys says.
The figures have become Keys' senior project.
And now in her last semester, she and the other Go Girls have focused on another art form - theater. Although actresses rely on cue cards for The Vagina Monologues - funny, racy and traumatic stories with titles like "My Short Skirt," and "Under the Burka"-staging the play has been harder than anyone realized.
There were T-shirts and tickets to design. There was a silent auction to organize, a casting-call flier, auditions and the delicate matter of publicity.
A postcard announcing the play contains the title above a picture of a lilac conch, both set on a backdrop of rows of the same two phrases: "end rape" and "speak out."
"We know people are a little scared of the word - 'The Word,'" Keys says, putting quotes on it. "So we made the postcards look as non-threatening as possible."
At the same time, she says, the word "has to be thrown in your face ... to end the quiet of it."