Michaela Slavid talks with Marilyn Artus about how feminism, patriotism, and signifiers manifest in her work.
Michaela Slavid: Start us off. Where did your career begin?
Marilyn Artus: I had just gotten an art degree when I married my husband. He wanted to go to law school, so I needed to start making money. I became a product designer for a gift company. It was a really cool, creative job but I was designing things for a certain demographic: 35- to 45-year-old women with a certain income level. That box can get kind of narrow. Eventually something inside of me started screaming.
The launch into my career as an artist was with the “Our Lady of the Anti-Personnel Weapon” show. It was an angry show. The ten pieces in this show were images of the Virgin Mary that I had hand embroidered pastel colored weapons into their hands. The pieces also had magazine ads from the ʼ50s that were sexist. My frustrations have changed from those first works; it has become a more muted, complicated expression of that anger.
MS: I think sometimes there’s a need for aggressive pieces, but their acceptance by the public depends on timing and location. Sometimes it is better to come at things from an angle.
MA: I’ve found that there’s good and bad about both. With the edgy work, the people who loved it were fanatical, and to have people that attach to your work is amazing. Then there were the people that hated it and sent some crazy death threats.
MS: There is also something to be said for an intense reaction, good or bad.
MA: That was my first solo show. Univision flew out from LA to interview me, my work was on national Fox news, in newspapers—it was terrifying and I was unprepared to deal with that kind of publicity. I went to the OVAC office and talked to Julia Kirt, she helped me put together a plan to handle interviews. It toughened my hide really, really fast. But what thrilled me was that it caused people to debate ‘what is art?’ I was humbled that my pieces had started a conversation between so many people. I also learned firsthand the the magical and wretched nature of social media. The personal attacks I received sucked for a while and then I said, “Eh, whatever.”
MS: What helped you do that and how long did that take?
MA: I knew I was making work that was meaningful to me and that’s all I could control. I felt good enough about what I was making that I quickly said, “Girl, you gotta let go. You can’t control this and that’s fine.”
MS: Let’s talk about gender in your work.
MA: I grew up in the ʼ70s as a little girl, and the ʼ80s as a young woman. I had a brother and two male cousins. We were close in age, and this made me keenly aware that I was treated differently. Sometimes it was in a nice way, and sometimes it was not. My works, so far, largely deal with being female. For me, as an artist, I would find it very disingenuous to presume to know what it’s like to be a man.
MS: That is actually really interesting when you think of the personal and public in your most recent exhibition: “Her and Me” at The Project Box last July. It’s a very personal project; those beads belonged to a member of your family. You had held onto them for some time and then used them in creating this universal image of a woman.
MA: Yeah, I held onto those beads for seven years before I knew what I was going to do with them. Very personal work. If you start there, with something personal, people have something to identify with in a deeper way. I have loved using icons in my work, the Virgin Mary, mud flap girl, the universal woman, and now the American flag because they bring their own baggage and I layer mine on top of it.
MS: It makes a lot of sense to me to hear about your earlier career, because you can’t help but notice your impeccable style sense. You care about girly things! I think it’s important to continue to prove that feminists don’t fit into a box.
MA: You can absolutely be a feminist and be a girly girl. That’s definitely what I am! I was a burlesque promoter for three years and what I found is that if you put down your power, either somebody is going to come by and pick it up, or it’s going to sit there in the corner and become a problem. It was so much fun watching women own their sexuality in a powerful way. Largely, audiences were female, and the performers were performance artists. It felt great to be promoting powerful women presenting their sexuality, saying, “Yeah you’re gonna have to deal with me as a sexual creature.” Within my work and my activism, female sexuality is very important to me. I am trying to get women to realize they need to own it, express it and enjoy it.
MS: You mention activism.
MA: I am an advocate for Planned Parenthood. I got my first birth control there and as an adult woman ended up being on the board of the local office. I was Volunteer of the Year a few years ago.
MA: Thank you! If you can’t control your reproductive cycle and power you can’t control anything. For women to be able to get pay equity and everything else that we need, equality for women starts with reproductive rights. Planned Parenthood has a huge event fundraiser “CHOICES” each year that includes an art sale. I’ve curated that for two years and did again this year. The guests to that event that purchase art get to support a local artist and Planned Parenthood at the same time.
MS: Let’s talk about the American flag and how that worked its way into your art.
MA: When I was in junior high in Norman, Oklahoma, I traveled with my school to Washington DC. We went into the Smithsonian and I saw the Star Spangled Banner Flag that inspired Frances Scott Key, it overwhelmed me. It was so tattered and had so many weird areas of wear and holes, and it had an energy that was really amazing. I’m starting to cry just thinking of it.
MS: It stayed with you. Hearing that emotion about the first flag in your voice and seeing it in your eyes, it seems to me that titling these works “Her Flag” is an ode to those women who made that first flag.
MA: A woman of course did make the first flag and I love circling back around to that. It’s my favorite vehicle so far and I can see myself using the imagery for a very long time. And I can use it to address anything.
MS: What are your thoughts on patriotism, since we’re talking about the flag?
MA: I am a patriotic American. I love my country. Is it perfect? Hell no. Everything that is happening with race in America right now, like the Black Lives Matter movement feels like a throwback to the ʼ60s. It is take two of America trying to deal with its baggage and the problems that are still prevalent for African Americans and other peoples of color in this country. Like everything and everybody in the world, there are things that need to be worked on.