Monday, June 1, 2015

Let Her Be Elevated: Andy B's Exploration of Movement, Fearlessness, and Vulnerability

I've known Andy for her mosaic work, in particular, a project she developed with the Chicago Public Art Group at Foster and Lake Shore Drive, Belmont and Lake Shore Drive, and Osterman Beach, and for her smaller scale projects as part of RedBull curates. Her work is frank, fresh, dynamic, and energetic. More recently I saw Andy perform in the Fierce Queer Burlesque festival in Pittsburgh this past month. Dancing to the "Sound of Silence," Andy offered a beautiful, and almost melancholy choreography with jerky arm, back, and leg movements, all the while her face covered in a shroud. This performance was surrounded by others, all different, from a woman that did a play on Catwoman Selena Pyle with a (submissive) lover, a woman doing a flamenco-type piece, a trans performer doing calisthenics with a glow in the dark hula hoop...and yet what united these performances, all extremely erotic displays of confidence and humor of the flesh.

Burlesque is the theme of Andy's new pop up show, "Let Her Be Elevated," where she uses the medium of glass, line, and light, to pay homage to a genre that has served as an inspiration for her, personally and aesthetically. In the show, one can understand glass not only as what one can see through, but full of color, memory, and lines. The viewer can also see surprising similarities between glass and flesh in terms of their fragility, expressivity, and that they are mediums of energy and light. The etchings that animate the majority of the work are part of a collaborative process, working with Sean Felix Andy created cut glass frames that serve as "homes" for the figures.

Image of Andy B. Photo credit: MC Newman

What follows is the transcript of an email interview conducted with Andy about the show.

1) I am approaching this project from maybe an obverse angle from most of the show's potential spectators-- I have seen your burlesque performance in person, but the art works through digital images-- but this to raises an important question that seems to be at the center of the exhibit. What does it mean to translate or transform the live, three dimensional, embodied experience of burlesque into colorful, flat, and fixed images? What do glass and light have to tell us about this performance practice that maybe cannot be said in the same way as photography, or videography?

One of the first things you learn as a burlesque performer is how to make lines with your body. When onstage standing in the light and telling a story to the audience, your arms are strong and posed, your legs, face, shoulders, everything has a purpose. The lines your body makes on stage can setup the entire performance and the strength that lies inside it. When I make art, I begin with lines. I draw curves, shapes, and what I consider to be movement. When I transfer these lines to glass, I imagine the cut glass to be shaped into forms that are posed and strong or move just right. The images of burlesque dancers connect to the glassworks in many ways. First, performers are standing in the light and waiting to be seen and different kinds of light will effect what is seen on stage within the performance. Glass is similar in that I imagine it also needing light to embrace all the things about it that make it magnificent. In different light, each glasswork will take on a completely new look and meaning. I don’t see the glassworks as flat like paintings, but 3-dimensional with life and force and intension, just like performers. By etching these performers’ portraits into glass, I feel like I am acknowledging their strength and intention by permanently etching this moment into glass shapes and lines that have been created specifically as a home for each performer. Each portrait is chosen precisely because this specific performer has inspired me at some time. I take this experience and carry it with me through the entire process of drawing the lines the portrait will be etched onto to carefully choosing a photographer to capture the exact image I am imagining will work to evoke the feeling in the image that I am trying. Each glasswork is created with a major intention of highlighting the beauty and strength of each burlesque performer.
“Unearthed”  hand cut glass, 3 ft. x 4 ft. Photo Credit: Mary Clare Runchey 

2)     What is your favorite piece in this exhibit? What is the story behind it?

My favorite piece has to be the one that has made me cry a couple of times as I worked on it.  It’s called, “My Last Companion.” Featured in this portrait are two burlesque performers, Tila Von Twirl and Switch the Boi Wonder. They are two performers who met in the world of burlesque and ended up getting married last October. The piece makes me feel super emotional because I have watched their relationship grow over the past couple of years and have witnessed first-hand the support they have given each other both on stage and in their personal lives. It’s almost as if they use the art of burlesque to say the things that are the most important to them and while one is on stage telling this story, the other is always there watching, cheering, clapping and supporting to the fullest extent. It’s love through art and love through truth. But, the truth is sometimes hard, and not so easy to face which is why their bond of love through this process is amazing. The strength they find in each other directly channels into the work they put on stage. “My Last Companion” is about finding that person who you imagine you will grow old with and who will stand by and watch you light up on stage and off. Tila and Switch will be each other’s companion for life and I have no doubt will continue to inspire people through the art they create and through the people they are. I love them both dearly and consider them to be two of my closest friends.

“My Last Companion”, hand cut glass, etched portrait, 3 ft. x 4 ft.,
Photography: Kriss Abigail
Burlesque Performer Featured: Tila Von Twirl & Switch The Boi WonderPhotograph Credit: Mary-Clare Runchey

3.     In your artist statement you speak to burlesque as a practice (and community) that builds self confidence. Can you say more about that? Having seen it for the first time at the queer burlesque festival in Pittsburgh it seemed, yes, to involve lots of nerve, but also a huge amount of vulnerability. Perhaps this is contained in your reference to the "monumental" and the "intimate" but I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on this.

The first time I had a spark of inspiration for doing this exhibit and creating this work was during the rehearsals of a burlesque show called, “Black As Eye Wanna Be” It was a burlesque show that featured the work of Po Chop, one of the most amazing burlesque performers I have ever seen. She created a collaboration to produce this work and asked me to be one of her performers in the show. The essence of the show was about oppression and what it means to feel oppressed. It was through this process that I realized I was experiencing what burlesque is fully and completely. It was through this collaboration that I gained the most self confidence that transferred into all aspects of my life. I began to understand what it meant to be a part of a community, to be vulnerable in front of your peers and eventually an audience and what a true and meaningful collaboration of artists is like. I began to journal the process and through this experience I developed a drawing that I felt embodied our leader in this experience, Po Chop. I created a visual space for her to sit and pose and be that was inspired by a photo taken of her by fellow artist, M.C. Newman.  After I designed the line work, I reached out to a local artist, a master glass etcher, Sean Felix, to teach me how to etch the image on glass. We collaborated on the piece and it was the first piece that came to life. He etched her into the home I created for her and the collaboration sparked energy to create more etched works. This energy was in direct alignment with what I was experiencing through the process of Black as Eye Wanna Be and working with Po Chop. It was as if the experience of collaborating for this show opened up some inspiration inside of me that has been a constant flow from then on out. I feel open, alive, and awake now and it was through the most vulnerable process I have ever been through. Burlesque gave me the strength to pay close attention to who I am and just be that person. Be that person in my art and in everyday life.

“Po Chop”, hand cut glass, etched portrait, 3ft x 5 ft. 
Photography: MC Newman Photography
Burlesque Performer Featured: Po Chop
Etching: Sean Felix
Photograph Credit: Mary-Clare Runchey

3)     Anything else you'd like to say about this project or your artistic practice that you didn't have a chance to talk about here?

I think the only thing that comes to mind is that I am constantly coming up with new ideas for how I think these glassworks can be. The more I work on them the more ideas I have for future works and find new ways that I can tell stories through this medium. I’m so excited to work through this process and really push myself to make the artwork better and bring more meaningful stories out through the pieces I created. It’s a humbling and energizing process to work through something that makes you want to keep working. I feel lucky that I am able to align my life with making art and grow as a person at the same time.

  “Red Bone” hand cut glass, etched portrait, 3 ft. x 3 ft.
Photography: Laura Nova, Mustache Jim
Burlesque Performer Featured: Red Bone
Photo Credit: Mary-Clare Runchey

The show will open Friday, June 5th at R. Hanel Photography Studio, 119 N Peoria St., suite 3A,
with a reception open to the public from 6pm to 9pm. Additional viewing hours will be on Saturday, June 6th from 12 to 5pm with an artist talk starting at 2pm. More information on these events can be found on the gallery’s website,