An Artist Speaks to the Moment
Community care: this piece contains mentions of suicide, gun violence, and mental illness.
As I write this, we are anxiously waiting for the conservative-majority Supreme Court to hand down its rulings on one of the most controversial dockets in modern history. So controversial, in fact, that instead of delivering their opinions and dissents in person, as is customary, the justices are expected to flee Washington, under 24-hour armed protection, in advance of their decisions being published online. At the press of that button, the lives of hundreds of millions of us will be dramatically altered for the foreseeable future, for better—or, as is more likely—for far, far worse.
I recently reached out to artist Holly Ballard Martz—whose work I've long admired—because the themes that she's been exploring in her practice for many years seem impossibly timely, urgent, and reflective of this moment.
To give you a sense of what I mean, let's look at her work through the lens of three issues that SCOTUS will be ruling on before the end of the month:
Abortion and Reproductive Rights
If SCOTUS rules to overturn Roe v. Wade, women in some states will be denied access to abortion and life-saving medical care even in cases of rape, incest, and medical emergencies like ectopic pregnancies. Women who miscarry could be denied essential medical care and some could be charged with a crime. Mortality rates will rise for all women of childbearing age and Black and Indigenous women will bear a disproportionately higher level of that risk.
For her 2020 exhibition, Domestic Bliss, at the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, Ballard Martz devoted an entire wall to her installation danger of nostalgia in wallpaper form (in utero), a nod to the backalley abortions that preceded Roe and a recognition of the lengths to which women will go to take charge of their destinies even when the state tells us we don’t have the right to.
Also included in that show was the piece prime cuts, for which Ballard Martz meticulously hand-sequined a range of forms knows as dressmaker hams, which are inserted into the difficult-to-iron parts of a garment so that they are easier to press. The piece is a searing commentary about the fact that even though women make up half of the world’s population, we are still treated—in the eyes of the law and under the crushing weight of patriarchy—as little more than pieces of meat, a composite of parts to be objectified, denegrated, and legislated.
When I asked about her reasons for making work about reproductive rights, Ballard Martz—who had a hysterectomy last year—replied, “I’m just someone who used to have a uterus being pissed off about someone else thinking they have a right to say something about it.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “The Supreme Court is poised to issue a ruling in a New York gun rights case that will likely expand the scope of protections the Second Amendment affords individual gun owners who want to carry a gun outside of their residences.” If SCOTUS rules to expand 2A protections, the biggest issue will be “…how far that majority goes in signaling that other licensing measures created by government officials are now constitutionally suspect.” It potentially opens the door to guns being allowed in places like schools and hospitals.
In 2016, Ballard Martz was invited to contribute to a show about gun violence. “I had already started making some work,” she says referencing pieces that she created in response to and in honor of a family member who took his life with a gun, “but I started making more about it because in the midst of that show another family member was shot by her former boyfriend while she was pregnant." [Both she and the baby survived.]
While Ballard Martz and I are talking about how many lives are touched by gun violence in this country she wonders aloud, “If we had firearms in our home, would my daughter still be with us?” Her daughter, who lives with mental illness—and who has given her mom permission to talk about it openly—is the reason that Ballard Martz switched from printmaking to sculpture a decade ago. Ballard Martz remembers when she and her husband got a call that their daughter had attempted suicide: “We met her at the emergency room and she had on one of those polyester medical alert bands that said ‘fall risk.’ Because of what she ingested, they didn't know if she was stable enough to get out of the bed. I saw that and immediately thought, 'What do you mean fall risk? She's fallen as far as you possibly can already. It's a little late for that.’
Ballard Martz, who had never worked in sculpture before, went home, ordered 500 of those fall risk medical bracelets and made a net out of them to catch her daughter.
“Not only was she alone, but we were so isolated and alone because nobody talked about it,” recalls Ballard Martz who describes mental illness as, “not a casserole disease.” By this she means that friends and family don’t rush over to your house to bring hot dishes, baked goods, and moral support after a suicide attempt (or as a continued show of care for someone who struggles with chronic depression).
What struck me the most about my Zoom conversation with Ballard Martz was how entirely unguarded she was, how raw and vulnerable she allowed herself to be from the first minutes of our time together. She is a person who seems to want to stare every wonderful and difficult thing in the face and not look away until it’s been given its due time and consideration. It occurs to me that this is the exact quality—the unblinking light of her attention—that makes her work so captivating, regardless of what issue she chooses to address.
The Place of Religion in Society
There are at least two cases before SCOTUS right now that will have direct bearing on what many news outlets are calling “religious liberty.” That term is a misnomer here because what we’re talking about is actually what author and exvangelical activist Chrissy Stroop calls, “Christian hegemony.” If true religious freedom is what SCOTUS was after, there would be no consideration of overturning Roe because to do so would be to infringe upon the religious freedoms of many non-Christians.
One of the cases is looking at whether rural parents should be allowed to use school vouchers to send their kids to religious schools. Another involves a high school football coach who was fired for praying on the field after games. CNN’s Ariane de Vogue reports that “the school district said it suspended [the coach] to avoid the appearance that the school was endorsing a particular faith, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.” About this clause, I will let Ballard Martz’s work speak for itself.
When people say that art doesn’t apply to regular life, I want to point them in the direction of Ballard Martz, who often produces work in direct response to what is happening in the world, as it’s happening. This is the sampler she hand-stitched in the wake of Jan 6th:
In January of 2017, after Trump issued an executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations—Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen—from entering the U.S., Ballard Martz created a sculpture named after the order:
Ballard Martz’s work is uniformly confrontational and unflinching, which necessarily makes it uncomfortable to some and comforting to others. For me, I find that it gives voice to the swallowed scream that lives in my throat, it reminds me how deeply other people care about the same issues I do, and it reassures me that we’re not going down without a fight.
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For example, in Judaism the life of the mother is sovereign and prioritized over the life of the fetus. There are many instances in which abortion is not only allowed but recommended to protect the physical and mental health of the mother.