If there were ever a walking, talking, bloviating illustration of the American political tragicomedy, it is Donald Trump. The man who very well may win the Republican nomination for president due to his bottomless cash reserves is, for roughly the same reason, given carte blanche to say more or less whatever he wants under the guise of "it's what everyone is thinking." It bears pointing out that very few of his comments or platforms are "what everyone is thinking." A more apt description might be "what the anxious and insecure white male middle class is thinking."
This is likely why the art of Sarah Levy went so phenomenally viral during the month of September. The socialist, feminist and artist's rendition of the duck-faced one was a clever inversion of his words about Fox News' Megyn Kelly's menstrual cycle. Painted entirely in her own menstrual blood, and with proceeds from sales intended to go to immigrant and refugee rights organizations, it became something of a sensation, first appearing in a few independent news outlets, then major national and international papers and sites. Levy recently spoke with Red Wedge about the painting, the process of making it, and the attention it's received.
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Red Wedge: Walk us through, if you'd be so kind, the thought process that took you from Donald Trump's comments about Megyn Kelly to the decision to do this painting. It's well known of course that his sexism was a catalyst, but how did you make that leap into deciding to do this painting how you've done it?
Sarah Levy: I had heard his comments, and saw the “women tweeting their periods at Donald Trump” under the hashtag #periodsarenotaninsult. I was really excited by that idea but when I read the actual tweets I thought they could go a bit further. A few nights later I had just come home from my art class and was removing my tampon and looking at the blood, and thought, what a perfect material! That’s the perfect thing to paint Trump with! That was the last day of that period though, so I had to wait a whole month until I could actually do the painting. I was worried it would be too late after his comment by September for people to care but guess I was wrong. But that’s sort of how it all started. I was looking at my own blood in the bathroom.
RW: Let's talk about your process. Your other drawings are in charcoal, which as you know allows you to render a certain expressiveness in the faces of your subjects. How did you find working with menstrual blood? Were there specific challenges presented by painting in this... "unique" medium? Was there a learning curve in, say, figuring out how to use a tampon as a brush?
SL: So the first major difference is that you can’t erase blood. I suppose I could have used white paint over it, but I really wanted it to be all blood, so I realized that when I did it I would only have one chance. I also haven’t really ever successfully painted before, so there was that. That said, the main challenge was figuring out how to collect the blood. The day I painted it was the first day I had actually ever used the DivaCup — though I’m definitely going to keep using it. So I had several friends who were collecting their blood for me that I was planning on using, but once I got my own with the cup that was all I needed.
As far as the process of actually painting it, I used the tampon that I had saved that morning before going to work in a little bit of water so that it wouldn’t dry up, as well as the blood I had collected from that day in the DivaCup. I really liked the concept of using the actual tampon in the process just to sort of make the most out of the whole thing. Plus the tampon (dipped in water to control the shade of color) worked nicely like a sponge to paint a base layer of his face and skin. From there I used paint brushes and q-tips which I dipped in the vials. It’s great because menses is so varied, so I was trying to figure out how to use it in a way where you could really see that it’s blood — including the clots in strategic places, etc. It was all really fun.
RW: Originally, if memory serves, you had named the painting "Wherever," which was a direct quote from Trump's words about Kelly's vagina, but you changed it to "Whatever." What was the rationale behind the change?
SL: Yes, I originally called it “Wherever” as a direct reference to his quote. The next morning (after I had posted it on fb but before it was picked up by Buzzfeed) I had the idea to change it to “Whatever” to sort of throw it back at him. He referred to a vagina as “wherever” so I’m referring to him as “whatever.”
RW: Can we assume that you knew the blood would turn from a vibrant red as it dried into more of a brown? Was that taken into consideration when conceptualizing it? Is there any particular significance in its transformation from one to the other?
SL: I would bet someone could come up with something but I had no intention with it. Basically I was worried it would just turn almost black, but I layered enough blood on the final one, and before it was dry I sprayed it with the fixative which I use to spray my charcoal drawings, and I think that helped it stay reddish. It’s a pretty nice color now.
RW: There's been a lot of sensation around your painting. Certainly a lot of coverage from the Huffington Post, USA Today, news stations, various other news and internet outlets, both domestic and international. They seem to have generated a lot of encouragement for you and your painting. But there's also been some shock and disgust at the fact that you would dare use menstrual blood in a painting. Where do you think this kind of disgust comes from?
SL: I think a lot of people are disgusted by menstrual blood and periods the same way they are disgusted by women breastfeeding in public. Both are obviously vital for society to continue but today at least in the U.S. most women are taught to feel shame about it. (I know that not all women have periods, and not all people who have periods identify as women, but the stigma attached to menstruation has been primarily directed at those society deems "women," regardless of the very real and actual fluidity of gender.)
I definitely don’t think that it has always been this way for women, but that there has been a correlation between the rise of class society and capitalism with the creation of women as second-class citizens, and that the menstrual shame has come out of this. There are many factors and dynamics to this which I am currently trying to read and learn about, but a piece of it that I think has to do in a way with the way that menstruation has in other societies been associated with extreme power and capability. In old Roma societies there was a myth that if a menstruating woman passed you on the street and raised her skirt up to show you her ankle, that you could be cursed. Then you have the Bible and the Old Testament which both refer to menstruating women as “unclean.” So in a way I think there is a contradiction between the power and life-force in menstruation and the need to devalue the female sex, and so one of the ways this is solved is through making women feel bad about their own bodies.
RW: What are the most memorable responses from right-wingers regarding your painting? How about the most memorable responses generally?
SL: Besides being referring to as “The Oregon Lesbian,” I think my favorite comment so far has been “Why don’t you make a portrait of Bernie Sanders out of your own orgasms? If you’re successful, you can sell it to an organization that sells body parts of dead babies.” Overall I’ve definitely received more positive than negative feedback, but out of the negative most of it is about how the painting is “gross” or how I’m a disgusting whore/cunt/pig/bitch/etc.
However, besides that there has been an impressive about of antisemitic comments, about half of which come from Holocaust-deniers. “The ovens will be real next time,” or “Too bad the Holocaust didn’t actually happen.”
I like to think my art has the effect of bringing out the best in people.
Seriously, though, I think it says something about how relevant the work/piece/issue is that the haters have felt such a need to respond. As friend, comrade, and fellow artist Adam Turl commented early on, it’s a good sign if people either love it or hate it, so I guess I should be flattered that people are responding so intensely.
RW: Going along in that same vein, there have been some other recent attempts by artists to destigmatize women's menstrual cycles. How do you think your work differs? Do you think art can play a particular role in breaking taboos?
SL: It’s not exactly menstrual art but Betty Dodson has done some of my favorite art which is simply portraits of women’s vulvas. She is responding to the lack of knowledge women and most people have regarding the variety and forms that vulvas have — how there is no “normal” and that porn is mostly inaccurate — and through that she is trying to raise women’s own sense of confidence and pride in their bodies. (The rest of Dodson’s art is beautiful and some of it is hilarious and besides that she is doing really great work in the field of sex education.)
I also really love the work of Jamie McCartney who did the “Great Wall of Vaginas” project. To me that is art that can have a real impact, when labiaplasties have been rapidly rising in popularity over the last decade and adequate sex education is sorely lacking in most schools.
As far as menstrual art, there is the work of Carina Ubeda which I think is great and trying to fight the stigma around periods, as well as many other people doing creative things with their menses.
I think that just sort of by chance my piece was able to force the conversation onto a bigger audience, which was part of its power. For the most part, people who are grossed out by menstruation aren’t going to seek out artists who are using their own blood as medium, but because this was a portrait of and commentary on Trump, it was able to force itself into a broader media realm and so force people to think about menstruation who would have avoided it otherwise.
Sarah Levy is an artist, socialist and journalist living in Portland, Oregon. She has been active in the Palestine solidarity movement (including a recent stretch of time living in the West Bank) and is a member of the November Network of Anti-Capitalist Studio Artists.