Interwoven art confronts gender norms

Professionals and students come together to celebrate Women’s History Month through the Gender Weave Project.

As soon as the Mt. Airy Art Garage had a sturdy building and functioning bathrooms, co-founder Arleen Olshan decided it was necessary to celebrate two things: Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day.

The Mt. Airy Art Garage spent the month recognizing the accomplishments of women for a third consecutive year. The Gender Weave Project features professionals as well as students from the Moore College of Art and Design – the only all-women’s college for visual arts in the nation. The exhibit runs until March 29 at the combined gallery, studio, performance space, teaching center and marketplace at 11 W. Mt. Airy Ave.

The Gender Weave Projects pieces vary widely both in subject matter and medium. On one side of the MAAG’s Solomon Levy Gallery hangs an abstract painting splashed with crimson and ochre – a piece that Olshan says was created by the artist to represent a stressful end to a relationship.

Nearby, three swatches of deep indigo hang unwaveringly from the ceiling, suspending stones in a conceptual self-portrait that artist Emilie Didyoung titled “Weighted.”

Olshan, a graduate of Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Philadelphia College of Art – now University of the Arts – possesses a career that fuses activism and art seamlessly. In 1974, Olshan participated in the “Philadelphia Focuses on Women in the Visual Arts” festival. Between 1976 and 1986, she worked as a co-owner for Giovanni’s Room bookstore, the oldest collection of gay literature in the country.

Olshan said she remembers these decades as a time when International Women’s Day was recognized in a more active and enthusiastic manner.

“Many organizations would come together – we took over the whole Bourse building years ago, and something like 75 organizations would have displays there,” Olshan said. “There’d be a lot of music, and a whole day of celebrating.”

Olshan said she recalls listening to 88.5 WXPN exclusively play women’s music over the radio for the entirety of March 8, International Women’s Day. Many of these lively traditions, Olshan said, are now nonexistent.

“It just fell off the face of the earth,” she said. “It was popular, and then they stopped it. But we do it. Every year.”

Ava Mallett, a featured Moore student in the show, experiments with mixed media to confront social norms and stigmas as effectively as possible. A fine arts major with a minor in business and curatorial studies, Mallet said she is not a thoroughly trained photographer. This did not stop her from printing a digital photograph onto a 40 inch by 60 inch piece of Georgette silk and displaying it in the Gender Weave Project.

The transparent image, which portrays an unclothed woman resting in bed, is Mallet’s method of questioning the sexuality in nudity.

“It’s not like she’s posing, or in some pornographic image, it’s just her being comfortable in her own space,” Mallet said. “And because of that, there’s this sexual charge to it that is in a way really appealing and confronting and challenging.”

This piece is the first in Mallet’s upcoming series, “Skin and Sheets,” a discussion regarding security – and lack of security – for an individual in the bedroom setting. Mallet’s ideas for the future include a series discussing the stigmatization of mentally impaired children. Additionally, she said she wishes to create a set of portraits raising awareness for foster children in the area.

Olshan’s piece in the project also explores the idea of comfort and sexualization in relation to nudity. The painting, “Amazon Reality,” depicts several nude women in a forest.

While working in various women’s and lesbian organizations, Olshan attended a trip to a camp with several friends; the setting and nature of the camp gave her the idea for the painting.

“I took photos, and we were able to be nude and feel safe, and so it was really wonderful to have that,” Olshan said.

Other featured artists in the Gender Weave Project have taken more anatomically experimental routes with their work.

 “I have always been fond of the idea to pee standing up,” Sabrina Salgado, an art education major at Moore, said.

As a result, Salgado crafted two ceramic pieces based on the Shewee, a female urination device designed to make it possible for one with female anatomy to urinate in a standing position. Salgado was invested in the concept of granting a new sense of empowerment to the female body.

“My ceramic Shewees are phallic, but are juxtaposed by the cultural representation of the flower as representative of fertility and the female genetalia,” Salgado said.

On March 8, a group of panelists comprised of writers, performance artists, weavers and painters partook in an informal discussion.

One of the panelists, Van Nguyen, is a preschool assistant teacher, middle school basketball coach, performance artist and activist. Nguyen is a performer and board member for the Liberty City Kings, a queer drag and burlesque troupe. Nguyen, a genderqueer person who was assigned male at birth, discussed the experience of transitioning.

Nguyen also works with hotpot!, a queer Asian women and transfolk group, and has participated in the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference Kids Camp. One of Nguyen’s goals is to help trans women of color possess the opportunity to identify as a person, not a statistic.

“By all physical purposes, I should not be alive right now, doing what I’m doing, working in childcare and being able to be out with myself,” Nguyen said, referring to the low life expectancy for transgender people, who experience murder and other violent acts at higher rates that cisgender people, according to the 2012 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

As far as recognizing International Women’s Day, Nguyen said they think intersectionality is extremely important.

“For International Women’s Day I felt like women can come in all kinds of shapes,” Nguyen said. “Whether it is by some kind of gender identity or body shape or appearance. I think it is very important to show that not all women may appear in a typical fashion.” 

Angela Gervasi can be reached at

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