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FEATURE | fall 2006

Letters to an Army of 3
Artist Andrea Bowers honors pre-Roe pioneers

The handwritten letters are wrenching.
—I took my 15-year-old daughter to a doctor last Wednesday and found out that she was seven and a half weeks pregnant…. The doctor said she could never go through this mentally, and neither can I.
—Due to circumstances and my strong belief against forced marriage, I am unable to bear the child and give it a name.
—I am almost two months pregnant and I don’t know what to do…. It is really disgraceful that in our great country it is illegal to do a five-minute operation under completely healthy conditions.

 

Andrea Bowers

The letters fill two walls of the REDCAT art exhibition space in down-town Los Angeles, displayed as photo blowups between squares of brightly patterned wallpaper. On a video screen in the gallery, various women and men, seated next to incongruously beautiful flower arrangements, recite the pleading missives—bringing to life words written some 40 years ago by people desperate to locate doctors who could perform safe abortions.

Detail of abortion-rights drawing

All of the letters request “The List”—names of abortion providers in Puerto Rico, Japan and Mexican border towns—compiled and distributed by activists Pat Maginnis, Rowena Gurner and Lana Clarke Phelan. At the time, in the mid-1960s, Roe v. Wade had not yet been decided, so U.S. abortions were either illegal or highly restricted, difficult to obtain, prohibitively expensive for many and often dangerous. The California activists—later dubbed the Army of Three—were so appalled by the situation that they risked imprisonment in order to educate women about their options, even teaching a method for self-inducing an abortion.

“It was pretty lonely out there. There was no one else,” says Maginnis, 78, one of the two surviving Army members.

"Letters to an Army of Three" installation view, gallery at REDCAT

When artist Andrea Bowers, who created the REDCAT exhibition, learned about the Army of Three a few years ago, she felt compelled to honor their work through hers. “I knew very little about Roe v. Wade,” says Bowers, 41, an art professor at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), “so I bought every used book I could find on the subject. [I realized] we’ve taken for granted our freedoms.”

She then began a meticulous creation of images that would not only be artistically sophisticated but communicate her passion for the subject matter. She decided to present the images in several ways—collage, a bound book, video, drawings—so that viewers could read, listen or both.

Drawing of an activist comparing Vietnam deaths to those from botched abortions.

In each medium, Bowers wanted to provoke direct involvement. For the video, she wanted the volunteers to speak directly to the viewer. “They’re asking you for this help,” she explains. The fancy flower arrangements, she says, slyly critique classical still-life portraiture, in which women are rendered as part of the decorative pattern.

For the huge decorative wall collage, she made the work visually appealing in order to draw people in—and then confront them with an emotional shock. “You look from the outside and it’s really pretty and inviting,” she says, “And you get up close and read the letters, and it’s so intense. It was very much about making it personal.”

Stunningly, Bowers then drew copies of the letters. The drawings are so realistic that, without reading the labels, one mistakes them for photocopies. Bowers also made color drawings of some of the wallpapers, adding small images of pro-choice buttons from the era. These works are particularly lush, celebrating the message of the buttons in a riot of lively design.

Detail of abortion-rights drawing

But why would Bowers spend hundreds of hours copying these letters and reproducing the buttons and wallpaper designs? “I could never learn [about something] just by reading,” she says. “I internalize it by copying it. I think there’s a general attitude that artists shouldn’t be emotional, personal. … [For me] it’s about my commitment and personal investment. It’s about trying to create an activist or political voice.”

In that way, Bowers is a welcome throwback to 1970s feminist artists, who weren’t above melding formalist technique with social justice concerns.

“A lot of earlier feminist artists, and artists of color, have created space so that artists like Andrea can talk about content,” says Eungie Joo, director and curator of REDCAT gallery, which is housed in a corner of L.A.’s iconic Disney Concert Hall. “The reason [art viewers] are afraid of what they deem as political is because they’re afraid to be told what to think. When people encounter Andrea’s work, they feel free to think what they already think—but to think about it more.”

Bowers grew up in Huron, Ohio, a small town west of Cleveland. As a kid, “I was loud and outspoken and had positions that I and people of color should be treated fairly,” she says. Coincidentally, well-known photographer Catherine Opie grew up just miles away. “Both feminists, both really care about community in our work,” Bowers points out.

Design of Choice (My Body My Choice with Stripes) (detail) 2005 colored pencil on paper 10 3/8 X 13 7/8 inches

Early on, she recognized her technical skills as an artist (Joo calls her “one of the most skilled drafts[persons] in town”). While a high school cheerleader, she turned a required assignment to create a scrapbook for one of the basketball players into such an elaborate artwork that she kept it herself. Later, while attending graduate school at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, she updated that idea with her “Cheerleading Scrapbook.” Inside its tenderly crafted cover, however, were “disgusting” pictures of athletes’ foot lesions.

The infamous 1970 shooting of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State occurred near her Ohio home, but Bowers says few of her peers talked about what happened there. “I’m from the generation of nihilism—extensive partying, a sense of hopelessness that no individual person can change anything. However, perhaps my sense of powerlessness had to do with class and geographic location,” she says.

She began to feel otherwise at the first college she attended, Bowling Green State University. There, a slide librarian, recognizing her feminist promise, gave her Judy Chicago’s 1975 memoir Through the Flower. Then, at CalArts and UCI, she absorbed the influence of installation artist Millie Wilson and feminist writer and artist Catherine Lord. Bowers always craved more than theory, however.

When she suggested to a CalArts feminist class that the students should undertake actions, only three volunteered to join her. “During the early 1990’s, while I was just beginning to study feminism in school, I felt a divide forming between an activist approach and psychoanalytic theoretical approach,” she says. “I wanted to try to unite these different approaches in my own practice.”

Detail of letter

Her own projects often tackle political topics. “Magical Politics,” a 2002-03 exhibition, was based on the actions of certain feminist, spiritual and environmental groups that undertook nonviolent antinuclear demonstrations in the 1980s. “I always pick historical things that we have to remember now,” says Bowers. That project included drawings, a scrapbook and a woven “blockade,” echoing the web of yarn strung across Pentagon doors in a 1981 action. More recently, Bowers produced the work “Eulogies to One and Another” (also in the REDCAT show) about the Iraq war. A set of photorealistic drawings first depict newspaper obituaries for Marla Ruzicka, the young U.S. activist who went to Iraq to gain compensation for Iraqis hurt in the conflict. Then the obits are redrawn with only the few lines in each that mentioned her Iraqi driver, Faiz Ali Salim, who was killed with Ruzicka in an explosion. The work eloquently calls attention to America’s overriding self-absorption and its dehumanization of those harmed by its aggression.

Her “Letters to an Army of Three” installation was first shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, in homage to the Texas origins of the Roe v. Wade case. Bowers also showed the video in Tijuana, Mexico, where many of the safe-abortion doctors were based. The REDCAT exhibition will next move on to San Antonio and St. Louis (see below).

For Pat Maginnis, Bowers’ work has been a welcome use for the hundreds of letters she saved. “That someone is able to take these things and make a physical presentation is terribly important,” she says. “I’m endlessly grateful to Andrea for having that insight.”

And for Bowers, discovering the work of pioneers such as Maginnis is both personally and artistically inspiring. “I’m always looking for moments in history—individuals doing great things and making big changes,” she says. “I’m looking back to provide a model for now—or maybe to find what’s missing.”

The exhibition “Nothing Is Neutral: Andrea Bowers” will appear at Artpace in San Antonio (October 26 through January 28, 2007), then at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (April 27 through August 5, 2007). A catalog of the show is available from redcatpubs@calarts.edu.

Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms.

Photos: Scott Groller