Niki Johnson's Controversial Artwork 'Hills And Valleys' On View At Planned Parenthood Benefit - 27 East

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Niki Johnson’s Controversial Artwork ‘Hills And Valleys’ On View At Planned Parenthood Benefit

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author on May 29, 2018

Late last week, voters in Ireland, one of the most conservative and Catholic countries in the world, went to the polls to repeal the country’s long-standing ban on abortion. The vote for repeal won by a landslide—a 2-to-1 margin.

Meanwhile, in the United States, reproductive rights are regularly under attack, both at the state and federal levels, as legislators are slowly but surely chipping away at laws pertaining to women’s health.

This concerns Milwaukee-based artist/activist Niki Johnson, who isn’t afraid of controversy, especially when it comes to women’s reproductive issues. Her artwork “Hills & Valleys” is a direct statement on the federal government’s involvement in the regulation of women’s health—specifically, access to birth control, family planning information and abortion.

“Hills & Valleys” is a large work depicting an image of a woman’s hips set against a background of a traditional quilt star pattern known as “Sarah’s Choice.” On the woman’s pubic mound is a shiny “vajazzle”—a genital decoration using crystals—in the form of the U.S. Capitol building.

The piece was created using signs from six Wisconsin Planned Parenthood health centers that were closed in 2013 under the administration of Governor Scott Walker. The work was unveiled in fall 2016 to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

On Saturday, June 2, “Hills & Valleys” will be exhibited at Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic’s (PPHP) 30th annual East End benefit at LTV Studios in Wainscott.

The artwork has been shown in several cities throughout the Midwest in partnership with Planned Parenthood events, but Saturday’s benefit marks the first time the work will be displayed on the East Coast. Ms. Johnson, the featured guest at the PPHP event, will speak to the vital role artists play in addressing social change.

“The tour with the piece has definitely been eye-opening in that I’ve never before partnered with an organization in my work,” said Ms. Johnson via a Skype interview from Germany last week. “It’s amazing to have an ally that is arguably one of the fiercest advocates of women’s rights.”

The “Hills & Valleys” project began in 2013, when Ms. Johnson started collecting signs from the shuttered Wisconsin Planned Parenthood clinics. At the time, she had no idea how she would incorporate them into her artwork, but she felt it was important to keep them.

“I remember becoming aware that there were signs on the back dock, ready to be recycled. I just asked, ‘If those are going to be tossed, can I take them?’” she said. “When I look back, I can’t believe the amount of trust placed in me. I put the signs in my hatchback and took them home. I realized the material itself was imbued with something powerful. I had become a steward to the message.”

The message that ultimately developed from those signs, however, took a few more years to cultivate.

“I have strong internal radar, and I need to sit and give myself time to process the information and figure out ways to create generative conversation and raise awareness back to the subject matter,” said Ms. Johnson, who kept the signs stored in her garage. “I would see them and smile, because I felt positive about the relationships I had with Planned Parenthood as a patient and advocate of women’s rights and family planning. Then, in 2015, finally, the design came to me when I was falling asleep.”

The next morning, Ms. Johnson woke up to a rough drawing of the image that would ultimately become “Hills & Valleys,” and while envisioning the composition was one part of the challenge, creating it from signs was another matter altogether, and a labor-intensive one at that. Ms. Johnson began the process by deconstructing the signs, separating them into various materials and using metal tools to punch out shapes that could be used like mosaic tiles in the artwork’s construction.

Realizing the intensive nature of the process, Ms. Johnson turned to volunteers and transformed the creation of “Hills & Valleys” into a community project, much like women once gathered to work collectively on quilts.

“The idea of art doesn’t happen in a vacuum and my practice is based on this interaction with the public,” she said. “When I realized I would need help from volunteers, that changed the dynamics of the project. I never thought of my studio as a place to foster other people’s political activism, but that’s where I realized I was able to help facilitate and witness it—through volunteer’s stories.”

One of the stories Ms. Johnson heard from volunteers during creation of the artwork came from a lesbian who served in the military during the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Raised in a conservative family with a father who didn’t support Planned Parenthood, the woman told Ms. Johnson that in order to enlist in the military, she first needed to have two full vaginal exams—which she received at Planned Parenthood and couldn’t otherwise afford, because she had no insurance.

“People misunderstand Planned Parenthood. If only they understood the breadth of support they provide,” Ms. Johnson said. “And that was just one example.”

In the two years since its unveiling, “Hills & Valleys” has garnered its share of praise—and protest—but this is not the first time the artist has courted controversy in her work.

In 2013, her piece “Eggs Benedict,” which was created after then-Pope Benedict XVI refused to advocate for the use of condoms against the spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa, depicted a likeness of the Pope made entirely of condoms.

“The piece took on a life of its own and went viral. I had huge ‘Eggs Benedict’ coverage in 2013, and again in 2015 when it was acquired by the Milwaukee Art Museum,” Ms. Johnson said. “It started an incredible conversation I had never expected about freedom of speech and the role of art and museums in society.”

It’s a conversation that continues with “Hills & Valleys,” and one that Ms. Johnson is committed to facilitating in her work.

“The power of art is that everyone walks away with something different,” she said. “In respect for my audience and their time, I try to build in multiple ways to view it—imbuing it with more questions than answers.”

For Vincent Russell, the president and CEO of PPHP, having the artwork and the artist on hand at this Saturday’s benefit is significant. “I am excited for our supporters to hear from Ms. Johnson and see ‘Hills & Valleys,’” he said. “The piece is inspiring and conveys an important message about the current state of reproductive health in our country.”

Since joining PPHP in 2015, first as CFO, Mr. Russell has witnessed the erosion of reproductive services at many levels as conservative states enact laws restricting access and information.

“It’s very much a political discussion in terms of where the state level attacks are on Planned Parenthood,” said Mr. Russell in a phone interview on Friday. “The Iowa governor recently banned abortion after six weeks. In Tennessee, Medicaid patients can’t get birth control, cancer screenings or other services at Planned Parenthood.”

But he notes the restrictions are not just happening at the state level.

“Earlier this week [the Department of Health and Human Services] and [President Donald] Trump and [Vice President Mike] Pence put out the proposed rule for what is essentially a domestic gag order, making it illegal for doctors, nurses and health clinics to participate in Title X and discuss safe abortion.”

Enacted in 1970, Title X is a federal program that provides family planning and preventive health services primarily to low-income or uninsured people.

“Any Title X recipient, whether or not they provide abortion services, will not be able to refer out or discuss all the options,” Mr. Russell added. “Of Title X providers on a national basis, 13 percent are Planned Parenthood centers. Of Title X patients served, about 41 percent get their care from a Planned Parenthood site.”

As a result of the politics, Mr. Russell notes that a key part of his job at PPHP is debunking preconceived notions and myths about the role of his organization.

“I tell people that Planned Parenthood always gets labeled as an abortion provider. That’s one service we do provide, and it’s critical to a woman’s choice,” he said. “But we’re very much a preventative health organization that provides cancer screenings, prenatal care, pregnancy testing, counseling, woman’s gynecological care, HIV and HPV care, and menopause management.

“We do so much as a healthcare provider and are critical in the communities we serve where we are the only organization that provides preventative services.”

The 30th annual Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic East End benefit is Saturday, June 2, at 5 p.m. at LTV Studios, 75 Industrial Road, Wainscott. Tickets start at $250 and must be purchased in advance at pphp.org/eastend2018. For information, call Jenifer Van Deinse at 631-240-1128 or email jenifer.vandeinse@pphp.org.

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