Kerri Augenstein – Body Language
Kerri Augenstein is an artist, writer, and designer using her subjective personal experience to explore issues of beauty, gender, womanhood, age, and self. She uses her art to process these issues as an individual, what they mean to her, and how she can learn and grow from them, making her art first her own experience of the world, and second an object to share with her community. She believes that art is both a powerful therapy and transformative tool for connecting to each other.
GDW: In reading your master’s thesis, I was struck by how passionately you describe your reactions to both external and internal circumstances. Here is a passage that particularly resonated with me:
Where I collide with a woman who wants to detach her self from the things she feels are arbitrary constructions of her culture, and the woman who gravitates towards aligning, conforming, resisting to question, wanting to feel a part-of and comfortable. Often at odds with each other but careful to listen. Careful to remember that each woman, comes from real places and needs to feel heard. Despite perpetual confusion. Despite wanting change. Or wanting to stay the same. So when one part of her is desperate to smash every mirror she sees. To walk naked in the street. To quit her job and abandon her paper-handcuffs. The other woman remembers never to run out of concealer and pictures her yellow shoes with that stellar black dress. She’s never been skinny dipping. And admires the view of her bank account on pay-day. These women and their opposition to each other, feed my curiosity and my wanting to make. My wanting to know if I could test their perspectives. If I could break them. Or strengthen them. Or just know more.
– from body language: a study of dots + figures + self, K.Augenstein, 2013
GDW: What a beautifully personal account and yet so relatable! As you wrote your thesis how did you imagine it might be interpreted by other women?
KA: I really really—really—love reading memoirs, or anything that feels like a memoir (self/personal accounts). I would probably read only memoirs if I didn’t have a nagging fomo, (of course I do) and if I didn’t read in a little book club my sister and I made together. I think it’s because of this connection I have to other’s personal stories—the ones that are so totally unique and authentically their own—that made me feel comfortable writing from those places myself. I wanted what I was writing to be as true to me as possible. (Given of course, the reality of subjectivity and looseness of definable “truth”.) But, none the less, if I’m going to put myself out there, I feel like it’s at least got to be something that’s honest with my self. Otherwise, if anyone did by random chance connect with it, I think I would feel like an imposter, and thereby ruin any chance I actually had of connecting. So really it’s selfish, because I’m just dying for connection and I want it to be with the me me, not the one I’d like to look nice on Instagram. Though, in writing this way, I really had no idea how women might interpret it. That part was mildly terrifying, and I know you know what I mean, because every time we put our true selves out there in any way, it can be terrifying, no matter in what form. When I decided to do the full scale self portraits at thesis residency, and pair that with a little documentary of the filming day, I was really nervous. I was nervous that it might be interpreted as self glorifying or cliché. How many times can an art student stand naked for an audience?! But I reminded myself (like I still do almost every day) that it’s my story and I get to own it and do whatever I want. And if I’m actually going to do what I want, I really can’t pay too much attention to what other people think. Especially the “other women” whose respect I do very much crave… (those perpetual, cyclical dualities at play again…)
GDW: You have done a tremendous amount of research on body image. Can you tell us more about this study and what you’ve gained personally?
KA: Oh my gash. I feel like my research in this area is so sparse! What have I gained? In having read the things I have from other men and women, their stories, or the psychology/history/studies/etc., I find I’ve collected a little extra ammo for my internal dialog. By broadening my spectrum of information, that reservoir helps me on the days that I hear/feel the nag (mind you—admittedly, embarrassingly—this is still just about every day). Clearly I can’t claim that it’s severed my attachment to negative body image. But instead of that dialog ruminating on my reflection, it wanders off and more often leads to a mix of mild irritation and hopeful acceptance. And ultimately more questions. (All research does this to me actually.) I’ll often end up feeling annoyed that we’ve invented and conditioned this experience in each other. That our culture perpetuates this wholly negative attitude, and one that continues to keep us further and further from connecting with each other, there again that nasty, self replicating cycle. Then again. We’re all infants when it comes to understanding what works for us, what’s good and healthy for us, in this, the age of human consciousness. Of course culture does this. How many times in history has there been seven billion people on the planet? With wild access to infinite sources of information, objects, alcohol and drugs, ahem… money? And we’ve made it all up. After we started talking to each other—the last significant, biological shift in our evolution as far as I’m concerned—we came up with all of this shit. All because of our incessant, obsessive, nagging need to. Create. (Have I strayed enough in my answer here? Gees.) So. The research, the stuff that I read from other people, and the research I did on my own body. I think it’s all become a way to remind myself, when I get that asshole voice in my head who wants to ruminate on my missing thigh gap, that I definitely do not need to take myself too seriously. And it’s far more important to enjoy what ever this is. Than to worry about my appearance, and a million other things. So, what I’m really trying to say. Is that I can laugh at myself more easily now. 🙂
GDW: Will you explain a bit about how you developed your figure/dot series?
KA: “Developed”. I’ll say this. I feel like I wasn’t totally conscious of how those things came out. Which was one of the best things that ever happened “to” me.? Have you ever read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert, or watched any of her TED talks? She did one talk on the way we collectively understand genius today, and then she talks about where it came from originally. In ancient Greece and Rome. “People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.” In other words, we had a genius visitor. We were not the genius. (Not that I’m saying any of my work was genius. Let me stress that!) But, what I connect to in this talk, is that this is somewhat how I felt with the dots and figure studies, they were little visitors. My mother often talks about wishing she knew what she loved. Wishing she knew what she was passionate about so she could go off and do it. When the dots “happened”, I was completely in this state. In this most frustrated and aggravated state. I had no idea how to connect with that thing that was mine and mine alone. Up to that point in my life, I had learned to look outside my self, at everyone else. I learned to draw by copying what I saw. I was great a quoting all the brilliant people. I could identify with other people’s answers. The term that started the dots and figures, I had written my semester plan to “study my self”, to deliberately shift away from this outward looking. But in that plan, I had very little to actually do. Beyond starting self portrait one-a-days, meditation, and daily journaling, I had zero clue what to make. One night, in literal, physical anger, I slapped a piece of yellow paper on the wall and committed myself to filling it with a grid of dots. Why? I have no idea why. The whole time through I talked to that yellow paper, telling it how dumb it was, how stupid this was—but—if I had to make something, this counted. Dumb. Counted. Days later, after my first visit to a meditation class down the street, and after the slowly meandering walk I took home, I sat in my dimly lit apartment with my journal and started to doodle. Dots. And again I repeated to myself, while I forced myself not to stop. Dumb. Over the following weeks, I doodled more. All dots. One night, while journaling (and ruminating I’m sure), I hit some kind of a wall. I remember I was writing about my body image that night and it was painful emotionally. It was hard to confront this space in any kind of physical way outside of my own brain, even if it was just through a journal. Generally all of those thoughts existed in my head, maybe some words here and there, but not many. Just self-criticizing thoughts. At the point I hit the wall with the journaling, I started to draw a little body. When the contour line got to the head, I decided to skip it. I just never liked drawing faces. I sat there and stared at her for a while. And then because I didn’t know what else to do with all the white space around her, I filled in the blank page with dots. Figure study number one. I kept up with them, with the dots and the figure studies. And I fell in love with the idea, with the feeling that this work was coming through me, in some sense. It was the only way I could describe those moments. Ultimately, who really knows how this stuff happens. But that time remains to be one of the most magical and spiritual times of my life. I had a lot of faith that all of my work would continue to come that way. What I’m convinced of now, is that we all have something to say. That the fact that we’ve even incarnated is evidence of this. Every single thing we do has our imprint all over it. How we hug, how we laugh, what simple words we put together in everyday conversations. We’re just so embedded into everything we do. I can sit in a quiet place and write to get access to that space. I think the hardest part for us all, is figuring out how to get access to that space within us all. And then to just let it come through.
GDW: I see your work as a “calling” of sorts – toward helping other women with their own body image? How do you think feminist theory may affect your work?
KA: It feels really exciting to be a part of the collective consciousness that seems to be surfacing around body image, around gender, around sexuality and just overall genuine honesty. I feel like we’re all giving our selves permission to throw back a fuck you to traditional standards of beauty, to physical and gender conformism, to anything that fits into someone else’s random box. Maybe that’s just me and my perpetual optimism. But I see so many people stepping out owning and adoring their own uniqueness and individuality. Ironically, the giantness of the internet has lit spotlights on our many million ways to be different and also gives us pathways to find our tribes. And as importantly, to claim our voices and put them out there. And then, wildly. They get heard. In this space, in the twenty first century, our voices can be heard above the din. As far as my work goes, maybe it means that something I’ve done contributes to another woman’s ability to see herself more positively. Or to give her a starting place to feel that sense of tribe. To feel un-alone. And that would be fantastic. I know I would/have felt the same in hearing her story. I feel like this work that I do, is in part, contributing to feminist theory. I find I might be rambling here, because I’m actually really not sure how feminist theory will affect my work. I know that the fact that feminist theory exists has already impacted me, because I feel a part of the voice bringing rise to a different perspective on things. I feel a sense of comfort coming out with my point of view, because I share in the voice, instead of feeling isolated. But the real affect of the evolving feminist theory on my work. I’m not sure…
GDW: What have you been working on since you graduated from VCFA in 2013?
KA: I spent about a year, well more than that, a year and a half, really really discombobulated after VCFA. A few days after our last residency, I moved from Boston to California to start a new job. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t really know what kind of ingredients would go into that recipe. VCFA felt too much apart of the making, to know how to do it, without that house to do it in, so I did a little writing, and kept up with the figure studies here and there. I started a collaborative project with another classmate Loran Del Saito for the show Leslie Tane created call TaDa that came out last summer. Otherwise, I didn’t really get back to my work until a few months ago. And honestly, I think I needed that space in time to separate the two. I needed to become my work again, versus the work feeling entangled in the experience of VCFA. Metaphorically/ironically, I decided to separate my writing from the figure study work. I really started to love writing through that series, but eventually, the drawings became a bottleneck. No writing without the figure, and I found I would stop writing until I got the visual complete. So a few months ago, I started to focus on just writing poetry by itself. Poetry is one of the only things I do that feels effortless. If I commit myself the space in time, by just sitting with my keyboard, there’s always something dangling around I can pull out. Though I love drawing, it feels to me more of a deliberate meditation, and there’s effort there. So. I went to grad school for graphic design. And now because of that experience, I can now comfortably refer to myself as a poet. Life is bazaar.
GDW: Whose creative work most excites you today?
KA: Mary. Oliver. I’m in love with Mary Oliver. With the simplicity of her images and the brilliance of their metaphor. I love the beauty of her words. I’ve also been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoirs. Eat Pray Love and Committed. I love books on tape, but I can only muster my attention when the author is also the reader. Elizabeth Gilbert has me. I must have listened to Eat Pray Love two dozen times by now. While I draw, while I drive, while I walk sometimes in the morning. I can relate to her voice and I can really glom onto her general disposition with life things. There’s something about her perspective that I just adore. I’m also very fond of her writing style and how she weaves in and out of her research, pulling it through her life experiences with sometimes brave sometimes really simple, but seemingly always honest metaphors.