Jen Lewis, Floral #1, 2012
It was a time when I was a menstrual cup novice, not yet confident in the device’s performance, constantly preoccupied about whether or not it was leaking, and emptying it unnecessarily every 6 hours. “Did I seal it properly before leaving home?” I am certain I did not and am in the tiny stall of my work bathroom gingerly removing the cup for proper reinstallation. Despite my paranoia, I am in love with my new femcare discovery. Because the cup has been in use for less than three hours, there is only a little bit of blood inside, but the exterior is slippery and warm as if it has been in for the full 12 hours. I stand up, turn around, and look down at the bowl. In the few short months since “the conversion”, I have come to look forward to this moment, pouring the cup’s collection into the toilet. The deep crimson clots tumble out of the clear cup with ribbons of vibrant red trailing behind before gracefully piercing the water like a diver. I swirl my hand counterclockwise towards the back of bowl because the blood ribbon is still attached to cup. These clingers are fun to play with and I often find myself lingering over the bowl longer than what I’m sure is deemed proper by the cup community. But I can’t help myself. The blood dances around the bowl in the most beautiful, unpredictable patterns and I am utterly captivated.
I have a strong impulse to stick my head out into the hallway and summon anyone there to come and witness this crazy-beautiful-bloody dance that I’m seeing in the toilet. Surely, this is a sight that would captivate anyone, but suddenly the reality of menstruation in our society snaps me out of it and I fumble to hike up my jeans with my non-bloody hand. Visions of a bloody, bouncing Diva Cup taunt me in this instance as I hook my pinkie finger through a belt loop and give my pants a good tug. I do a harried shuffle to the sink with my pants unbuttoned, panties showing, eyes darting, and rush to rinse my cup in the public restroom before anyone catches me. I engage in a brief mental argument about whether or not what I’m doing is sanitary. “Am I going to get in trouble for washing my blood down the sink? I’m blood-borne pathogen-free but”…. I work in a biomedical research unit and am certain my female co-workers will freak out at the mere sight of my menstrual cup, “what the f*ck is that?!”, let alone the sight of my blood rinsing down the drain of our common sink.
When I return to the stall, I notice that the blood has sunk to the bottom of the bowl and has made a tiny red pool in the center. One dark red dot amongst all that stark white. The streaks of blood running down the side of the bowl are mirrored by the faintest trails in the water, reflecting the pour’s journey to this point. “Can I get all this detail if I take a picture with my iPhone?!” I quickly survey the stall and notice there isn’t a place to set my cup without risking it falling to the ground. The bloody, bouncing Diva Cup image returns briefly to taunt me one last time. In this moment, I am aware that I am in the midst of a revolutionary mental shift about menstruation. A socially drawn line materializes out of thin air, then blurs. “What is so gross about this, really? Why is this ‘inherently’ dirty and shameful?” I just can’t see why this blood is more disgusting than all the other blood spilled in our movies, tv shows, and video games. It is this moment, when it occurs to me that I need to capture this beauty in blood and share it with the world in order to combat this outdated social taboo.
Jen Lewis, Figaro, 2012
How the Art Is Made
There is more to my art than simply bleeding into the toilet each month. Each image is substantially more than a crass or vulgar image thrown up on a wall for mass shock appeal. Creating each piece of work is a four-step process bookended by concept and intellect: media collection, pouring/design layout, photographic capture, and finally photograph selection. Interestingly, this conceptual feminist art project is not an independent women’s only project. While the subject matter and overall thrust of the project are feminist at their core, Beauty in Blood is a collaborative project executed by myself and my male partner, Rob Lewis. Feminism is as much about men who promote women’s rights as it is about the women who fight for the movement, so enlisting a male artist to help me move this project forward was a completely natural step. From start to finish, each creation ties together guiding principles from conceptual art, photography, and feminism in the contemporary United States.
Collection: As one might assume, the life cycle of one of my pieces begins with the first day of my menstrual cycle and my trusty menstrual cup. Once the cup is sealed in place, it collects fluid for roughly 10-12 hours at a time for about 3-4 days each month. Some days we pour immediately after collection, however, there are times when we collect the blood for a couple days before doing a shoot, particularly if we are recording video footage.
Pouring/design layout: Composition is crucial to the final image and it is comprised of equal parts pouring and chance movement of the material in the water.
When the project first began in 2012, Rob would fire up the studio lights in our bathroom and get into position with the camera, while I dumped, drizzled, and dripped my bloody collections into a clean toilet bowl. Some pours mimicked a ‘real life’ dump, i.e. quick and unintentional, into the bowl while others are more carefully executed with particular attention paid to the height and pouring technique with specific intention to render ‘beautiful’ or ‘interesting’ designs. As the months passed, our technique evolved away from the toilet bowl in favor of clear vessels, like aquariums and vases, because they allow us to capture the blood movement ‘head-on’ as well as experiment with different water solutions. We also started experimenting with other tools to manipulate the blood movement, like skewers and turkey basters, to create new designs and patterns.
Photographic capture: Shooting sessions can last any where between 60 seconds and 60 minutes depending on the volume of menstrual fluid collected as well as the consistency. Samples that have more clots and tissue tend to move very slowly through the water with lots of twisting and turning as the matter dissolves and breaks free on its journey to the bottom of the bowl or tank. Rob shoots with a Canon 5D Mk ll and uses a 100mm 2.8 fL macro lens. Most recently, we added a GoPro Cam into our toolkit so we can start capturing the blood movement looking up from the bottom of the bowl, tank, or vase.
Photograph selection: After each cycle, Rob and I sit down at our computer to scroll through the hundreds of images we have captured and then carefully select images based on their compositional merit. Some images are selected for their abstract designs while others are chosen for their unintentional representational images. The macro lens allows us to capture amazingly detailed photographs, almost like looking at it under a microscope, and we cannot anticipate this detail based on what we see with our naked eye. We usually scroll through the images a couple times, once with intense focus on the details and another with looser, more relaxed gaze. Collectively, we choose the images that are most interesting and appealing for display.
Synopsis of the Formal Artist Statement
Jen Lewis, Ripple, 2013
Ultimately, Beauty in Blood challenges the long-standing cultural taboo of women’s menstrual cycles by offering viewers another perspective of period blood. There is an abstract artistic quality when blood meets water that warrants a closer look not only by women but also by society as a whole. My work captures those moments on film and presents them within the traditional context of fine art. Other people, especially women, need to see this…need to bear witness to the beauty their bodies create monthly – separate from the “beauty of giving life” that is hammered into us by society from puberty into adulthood; for what other benefit could possibly come of this “gross” “curse” but re-populating the world? We live in a world where we are completely desensitized to blood shed in violence but are squeamish at the mere mention or suggestion of women’s menstruation, something every woman experiences for approximately 35-40 years of her life. I challenge the notion that menstruation is “gross”, “vulgar”, or “unrefined”; I counter these notions with candid, real-life photos of my menstrual blood, and that of other women in future projects.
See more of Beauty in Blood online at www.beautyinblood.com.
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