Home Arts A University in Idaho Removed My Abortion-Related Art, Strengthening My Resolve to Tell These Stories

A University in Idaho Removed My Abortion-Related Art, Strengthening My Resolve to Tell These Stories

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One day in 2018, I found myself in a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York City waiting for abortion pills and, as an artist, I was concerned about visualizations. I kept asking myself: how could the stories of the individuals in this waiting room be heard and translated through the sculpture?

Three years later, when I was isolated during the pandemic and had time to reflect on my own past medical interventions – including abortion – as a catalyst, I began to realize my vision of an artistic series entitled As I sit and wait scouring social media for people willing to share their stories. I spoke with people on Zoom, listening to their personal experiences with abortion access. To date, I have produced 18 short documentaries and created sculptures to reflect each one’s story. The series covers experiences in 12 states and is ongoing.

Amid the onslaught of censorship in American schools, As I sit and wait unexpectedly made national headlines last month. Two days before the opening of the exhibition Unconditional Care: Listening to People’s Health Needs at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho, I was informed that four plays in my series would be removed.

My work has been exhibited in museums and galleries like the Brooklyn Museum, Lyman Allyn Museum, Latchkey Gallery, and Lump Gallery, and supported by residencies like Pink Noise Projects and Field Projects. He is currently financially supported by the New York Foundation for the Arts.

The college claimed my art violated Idaho’s Law on Prohibiting Public Funds for Abortion (NPFAA), which prohibits the use of public funds for abortion, including speech that may “promote” or “advise in favor of abortion.” The college also excerpted works created by Katrina Majkut and Michelle Hartney to reference abortion. But our job is not to promote or advise in favor of abortion. It simply reflects the stories of those who have had access to abortion in this country.

Visualize tough decisions

Unconditional care was organized by Majkut at the college’s Center for Arts and History and takes an unbiased educational approach to important health issues such as chronic illness, disability, pregnancy, gun death and sexual assault. For months, Majkut and I had worked together to select which documentaries from my series would be included in the show.

Installation view of Unconditional Care: Listening to People’s Health Needs at the Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts and History Courtesy of Katrina Majkut

The documentaries we chose for the show included one about Cat, who was forced by Michigan state law to maintain her pregnancy at just 17 in 2007. Amid severe postpartum depression and hallucinations, she brought her baby to the hospital for adoption.

Another topic was Blair, who was so happy to be pregnant with twins. When she discovered that one of the fetuses was not viable, she was devastated. Using a needle inserted into her abdomen, the doctor terminated one of the fetuses, so that the life of the other could be born. Blair saw the scar from the needle expand, as the other fetus grew. For Blair’s sculpture, I found a high chair whose protruding top reminded me of a pregnant woman’s belly. I cut the tray in half and stretched the high chair with fabrics – leather, jersey, velvet. The leather has been squeezed into the cutout, creating depth in honor of Blair’s scar.

A third woman, DeZ’ah, 25, was a single mother of two when she realized she was pregnant. The ultrasound revealed they were twins and she questioned her decision. The financial reality of her family growing from two to four children was unrealistic. The sculpture honoring DeZ’ah has two sculpted half-domes, both of which depict twin fetuses and celebrate her two children. If DeZ’ah got pregnant now, Georgia’s six-week ban would prevent her from having an abortion. In Idaho, she would have had no choice but to raise four children below the poverty line.

Fight for freedom of expression

Believing that Lewis-Clark State College had violated my First Amendment rights, I sought help from organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Coalition Against Censorship. Together, these groups wrote a letter to quorum leaders urging them to reverse their decision. They do not have. Additional advocacy came from PEN America and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The college administration never responded.

Art censorship has a long history, with prominent artists like Dread Scott, betty tompkins, Adrian Piper and Aliza Shvarts all have their works removed. This type of censorship not only deprives individuals of their fundamental right to freedom of expression, but also hampers creative and intellectual exploration. Currently, US lawmakers are considering a nationwide ban on TikTok, marking a potential new era of internet censorship. My own artistic content on TikTok has been viewed by over 9.8 million people.

As I sit and wait shows that access to abortion is not a monolithic story. It is unique to each person. As an artist, I strive to portray these stories with integrity, transparency, and respect for diverse experiences. I demand the same from the galleries and museums that exhibit my work. I thought Lewis-Clark State College was synonymous with education, learning, and curious conversation, but I was wrong. The college’s censorship of my work represents an exaggerated and expansive interpretation of the NPFAA.

Censorship has only fueled my passion for using art to elevate individuals’ abortion stories and amplify barriers to abortion access. I am more motivated than ever to continue honoring abortion stories through sculpture and film.

  • Lydia Nobles is a New York-based conceptual artist whose work focuses on societal constructs that affect gender. The censored works of Unconditional careare exhibited at the Weinberg/Newton Gallery in Chicago until April 15

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