Nine months ago, when Michelle de la Vega began making new art for a show coming up in 2017, she didn't like talking about it. A few people responded to her ideas awkwardly, one dismissing her topic as old news. So if someone asked, she softened her answer or spoke quickly and changed the subject. She felt less and less motivated to work, so the sculptures and video were developing only in fits and starts.
Then came the tape.
The leaked recording in which Donald Trump bragged to another man that he kisses and grabs women as he pleases set off a storm of protests from women speaking out about unwanted sexual attention. Celebrities, politicians, writers, and women all across social media came forward with their stories. More important than any single detail was the size of the wave, every woman in it rising against silence.
It was as if the presidential election had reached a hand into de la Vega's studio and shaken it awake. Suddenly, what everybody else wanted to talk about was the same subject de la Vega had felt silenced about—women's silence itself.
"I had thought, well, it will be interesting to do this project when Hillary is running, but I didn't really see the last week and a half coming," de la Vega told me. "I feel so emboldened. We have each other now. There's so many voices. I'm blown away—it makes me hyperventilate sort of, that this is all going on and it's this crazy overlap."
The reason I was sitting with de la Vega in her studio last week talking about all this is that she is not alone.
On Facebook, I'd posted that morning, "I'm struggling pretty much all the time with the constant backdrop of the election. Is it affecting you, artists? Remember the 'Hope' art of Obama? This feels like despair. How are you coping? How is it showing up in your work?"
On a very good day, I'd get 20 Facebook comments about an art post. This time, 130 racked up fast. Clearly, I'd hit a nerve. Yes, it's affecting artists. It's affecting them a lot.
Paralysis was a common response. "I am working less" is all Sonya Shannel Stockton wrote. "Very distracting," posted Cass Nevada. "I make a living by making people laugh and sometimes people yell at me," wrote the Portland studio artist Francesca Berrini, who has a side business in outrageous prints and greeting cards. "But I can't figure out how to make any of this funny in my own style yet. It's all just too f***ed up right now." (The asterisks were hers.)
"Literal nightmares, constant twisty, anxious stomach, urge to draw only vagina dentata," wrote Kristin Wood Harwell.
Then there were those channeling rage, or disgust or devastation, into action.
"'Feeling down' is a luxury afforded to those who aren't busy already fighting the White Supremacist Patriarchy," wrote Tashi Ko (Natasha Marin), the artist behind the Reparations website, where people of color can make requests, and white people can fulfill them. "Work harder. Feel better."
To that, artist Sharla Laurin had only the energy to respond, "No."
Fascinatingly, one artist, Kait Rhoads, wrote that the outpouring of socially engaged art during this heated time has her feeling left out. She makes abstract glass sculpture and jewelry. "With the election and such sharp rent rise in the city, I deal with panic every day," Rhoads wrote. "The way that art is funded has changed dramatically. I'm having a hard time transforming to keep up, social work is not my forte. My strength is making work that helps me calm down, that soothes my PTSD, which is object-based."
As a critic, I'd like to reassure Rhoads that funding priorities will always change, and still, no one kind of art is more valid than any other. It's cold comfort, but I applaud an artist who knows who she is and is also trying to see adaptation as potential development.
"It's hard to have nuanced art when it's just the polarities of tolerance vs. intolerance," wrote Portland critic Jeff Jahn. "Artists thrive in the gaps."
I'm not worried about that. Good artists find a way to make good art. I do agree with Satpreet Kahlon, a Seattle artist who wrote that her work found a subtler reception back before it seemed nationally necessary to congratulate people who don't call Mexicans rapists. "I don't know," Kahlon wrote. "All I know is, at some point a few months ago, I became really disheartened and tired and deeply sad. The work that I am creating now (and I am not creating very much, to be honest), is for [People of Color], is for those with marginalized voices. I can't change white folks. I can't change bigots and sexists."
What made me want to go out and talk to de la Vega right that day was that she was rare in representing both ends of the emotional spectrum. She wrote on Facebook that she felt both "brutalized" and "emboldened," full of "despair" and "inspiration."
Visiting her, I found the reasons for her ambivalence hopeful. She is still making art, and making it in the storm's eye. For female artists this election season, the personal is political even more than usual.
When de la Vega's installation opens in April at Bridge Productions and Oxbow in Georgetown, it will have been informed by her interactions with Seattle prostitutes, with her grade-school niece in Los Angeles (who inspired the whole thing), and with other artists and friends living in this restrictive category of female.
An advertising image de la Vega noticed last week became the basis for a photograph she made spontaneously, of a female friend's face smeared with red lipstick and her mouth coated in sugar, keeping her from being able to speak clearly. De la Vega is also molding stiletto high heels from spun sugar. She calls them her "sugar shoes," and explained, "I have to play this cultural role where I have to be sweet and sexy and pleasing, and then I put aside my own self-advocacy at times—and I just don't know how to get these sugar shoes off. And I'm afraid what will happen if I take them off, and I'm afraid what will happen if I don't."
Sitting on a chair next to de la Vega, there's a box. It's labeled as a rape kit, and it's unopened. I ask her about it. It's part of the project, part of the research that goes into what she'll make. She asked for rape kits from various local hospitals. This one is from Swedish Medical Center.
"I have been dismissed as a woman, and I have a personal history, like most women do, of times when I was violated and knew to be silent about it," she said. She doesn't elaborate in language because her art is her voice, and now, because of the events of Clinton v. Trump, "I don't feel so helpless."
In other words, in this open season for sexism and racism at the highest level of national politics, this woman of color has found a way to make art vulnerably yet boldly. We sit with the opened rape kit, the "Pubic Hair Combing" envelope having fallen nauseatingly atop many others referring to the evaluating, always the evaluating, of a woman's body.
There are five months left until de la Vega's show, and only days until the election. Yes, she predicts, the art she makes—and how it's perceived—will depend on who is elected president.