Kelly VanDrisse, Unwanted Stories, 2019
I am very excited to share an essay I wrote for my Feminist Art History course last semester about my friend Kelly VanDrisse, who is an incredible photographer, artist, and graphic designer. I had the opportunity to work with Kelly at Prodigy Marketing (www.prodigymarketing.net/) and she never ceases to amaze me. This fall, she hosted a professional gallery exhibition with a collection of her own photography and graphic design pieces related to the issue of sexual assault. Visit her exhibition website (https://kellyvandrisse.wixsite.com/unwantedstories) to see the artwork. Below, I will give a brief visual and contextual analysis of one work in her show Unwanted Stories.
The backlash against feminism was a pivotal time for the women’s movement and its associated artwork. Where feminist art of the 1970’s once celebrated the female body, art of the 1980’s and 1990’s quickly erased carnal references for fear of being deemed essentialist. Jenny Holzer, a third wave artist, turned to a new form of representation – text. This medium allowed her to critique patriarchal society in a powerful, yet impersonal manner. Holzer’s textual methods continue to subvert patriarchal norms of oppression in contemporary art, as clearly seen with Kelly VanDrisse’s digital media print Survey Stories.
Kelly VanDrisse is a Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate of the University of North Dakota (UND). She is an active freelance photographer and was a Photography and Graphic Design Specialist at Prodigy Marketing, a student-run marketing venture housed in the UND Center for Innovation. Her artistic philosophy is to “capture a moment, as well as [make] others feel good about themselves,” while maintaining a “simple and straight-forward” aesthetic (VanDrisse). The majority of works in her portfolio are related to social issues, including the unhealthy body standards imposed on fashion models and the discrimination of marginalized groups throughout history.
During her years at UND, VanDrisse heard horrifying stories of sexual assault from her friends and peers. This served as the inspiration for her Bachelor of Fine Arts show Unwanted Stories. Among the pieces in this show was her four-foot by ten-foot digital media print titled Survey Stories, created in 2019 (Figure 1). Forty women from across the nation shared their personal accounts of sexual assault for the project. To convey their stories, VanDrisse designed a simplified graphic of an open mouth. The mouth may allude to the screams of assault or a shout for awareness. In the Pop Art style, she printed repetitions of the mouth in a grid-like form, each square with slight variations in color and context.
Figure 1: Kelly VanDrisse, Survey Stories, 2019
An especially striking element in this work is the predominant application of text. Each printed mouth in the grid contains a quote from one of the participating women about her sexual assault story. Some of the quotes are only a handful of words, others go into explicit detail. To form a background against the mouth graphic, VanDrisse printed lines of repeating text with short emotional sentences or words from the statements.
VanDrisse’s approach is reminiscent of Jenny Holzer’s rolling electronic text, exemplified by Motherhood from 1990 (Figure 2). Holzer was known for her work with truisms – statements accepted by society as truth – which questioned the omnipresent voice of authority. She asserted power over these traditionally patriarchal statements by claiming them as her own. Holzer’s work was typically placed in public settings where the messages could “intervene, weaving themselves insidiously into the fabric of city life” (Mahoney). The rolling text, much like VanDrisse’s repeated statements, captures the audience with its intensity and creates a compelling, visceral experience.
Figure 2: Jenny Holzer, Motherhood, 1990
Neither VanDrisse nor Holzer allow the patriarchal status quo to seize the power of their voices. Survey Stories reveals and subverts the societal agenda aimed at silencing women affected by sexual assault. Holzer was one of the first artists to recognize the authority and social implications of the written word. Decades later, VanDrisse adapts this concept to grant authority to the marginalized voices in society. The unanimous, enthusiastic response of students, faculty, and community members to the Unwanted Stories exhibition suggests that the systematic oppression of assault victims will inevitably be eclipsed by a culture of unstigmatized support.
Mahoney, Elisabeth. “Say It Loud, Say It Proud,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2000/oct/31/artsfeatures1. Accessed 7 December 2019.
VanDrisse, Kelly. KV Photo N Design, https://www.kvphotondesign.com/. Accessed 7 December 2019.
I am so proud of you, Kelly! Thank you for letting me share your work. I encourage everyone to further explore the artwork of Jenny Holzer and Kelly VanDrisse (www.kvphotondesign.com/). If you are experiencing the effects of sexual assault, please reach out to a trained professional at 1-800-656-HOPE or visit the RAINN website for more resources and support (www.rainn.org/).
Thank you for reading!