UW-Green Bay professor Jennifer Mokren created a flag for the project.
Last spring Helen Klebesadel, a local artist and educator, encountered a problem when trying to plan a women's studies conference with UW-Green Bay professor Alison Gates. Neither woman could get down to business because both were incensed. Attacks on reproductive rights were happening left and right, including laws requiring women seeking abortions to have transvaginal ultrasounds. Then there was Rush Limbaugh attacking a law student for speaking out about the importance of insurance coverage for birth control. To channel their rage, Klebesadel and Gates considered their role as feminists.
"We both started thinking, 'Maybe we could do a giant uterus,'" Klebesadel says, laughing.
But the idea was no joke.
Though Klebesadel is a watercolor artist, she found herself working with textiles and clip art. Before long, she'd created a fabric printed with a uterus design. The Exquisite Uterus Project was born.
"We invited anyone who wanted to participate to take a blank uterus canvas and create whatever they wanted to on women's reproductive rights," Klebesadel says.
Just what participants should do with the uterus was entirely up to them. And that was the point.
"I believe that if people learn to use their creative voices, there's a good chance they'll figure out how to use their political voices, too," Klebesadel says. "Art's one of the few places...where you're asked to do something authentically your own."
This notion of the personal as political is not new. What was novel was how moving the work turned out to be.
"I had piles of boxes appear on my porch," Klebesadel recalls. "There were pieces about facing cancer, losing people, being fearful for loved ones. There were stories about having to grapple with the healthcare system and not having insurance."
The first submission, from a woman in her 80s, responded to a doctor who told her that her uterus was like "an old sock" since she was past her reproductive years. She decorated her fabric uterus with painted flowers in the style of Georgia O'Keeffe. A group of three women made a uterus apron that read: "I decide what cooks in this oven."
When health educators joined the project, girls as young as 9 submitted work. Submissions even came from men. One gay man in Texas submitted a piece thanking his working-class mom for letting him wear a dress in 1961.
Over the past year, pieces from the project have been exhibited at Woman Made Gallery in Chicago, the Gail Floether Steinhilber Art Gallery in Oshkosh and the UW Red Gym's Armory Gallery in Madison. Works are on display at UW-Milwaukee's Union Art Gallery through Oct. 11, and there will be future opportunities to submit a uterus for exhibition.
Klebesadel says the Madison community has been an especially fertile source of uterus art.
"The idea that your creative voice is also your political one is not at all uncommon in this community," she says.