Dispatches from “Crossing the Line: Crossing the Line Art Exhibition

Dr. Rachel Epp Buller, curator

20170624_211435Artists are in the habit of crossing lines. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp caused an uproar by submitting to an exhibition a mass-produced urinal that he had signed, titled, and declared art. In 1989, Andres Serrano drew fire when several prominent Republicans in the United States Congress objected to his receipt of National Endowment for the Arts funding for his religiously themed photographs that achieved saturated colors through the use of materials such as blood and urine.1 The collective known as the Guerrilla Girls regularly raises a ruckus with their activist informational posters that draw attention to the disparities of gender and race representation in the art world, calling out museums and gallerists by name for their discriminatory practices. And just this year, the online art daily Hyperallergic has been awash in articles of activist artists protesting gentrification, the occupation of Palestine, the underwhelming global response to the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as many of the policies and executive orders of the Trump administration still in its infancy.

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

Artists affiliated with Anabaptist traditions cross lines in ways quiet and bold, subtle and overt. The conference during which this exhibition takes place, Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries, invited presenters to consider border- and boundary-crossings in terms of ethnic and religious heritage, gender and sexual identity, geographic borders, private and public spaces, or disciplinary expression. The artists included in this exhibition most often cross lines in order to experiment and question, to make statements, or to think back through time.

A number of the artists represented here cross temporal borders and the boundaries of memory as they engage with the stories of ancestors. In her panels from Nine Tetrameters, Jayne Holsinger collapses varied historical references. Working in a four-patch quilt block format, Holsinger crosses easily between visual echoes of fabric patterns, historical prints, and bread baking, all modes of reaching out to the women of her Anabaptist heritage. Three prints by Gesine Janzen speak to her paternal family’s history of emigration from Poland’s Vistula Delta to central Kansas. By exploring the narratives evoked by historic photographs and letters, Janzen imagines a cross-generational dialogue, moving their stories forward across the decades and offering a meditation on family, intimacy, and absence. Teresa Braun’s video, The Plaint, explores family lore surrounding a specific place. A family cemetery and the fusion of human and plant organisms feature as mythological elements in Braun’s weaving of a fragmented ancestral narrative. Teresa Pankratz’s multi-act The View from a House in Kansas, excerpts of which are included in this exhibition and other parts of which will be performed during the conference, engages with semi-fictional narratives revolving around the artist’s childhood home, which was destroyed by fire some years ago.

20170624_211429Other artists purposefully cross borders of material. Historically, the highly regarded “fine arts” materials of painting and sculpture have far outweighed the importance of craft traditions such as needlework. However, one important legacy of the Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s has been the revaluation of media long denigrated as “women’s work.” Karen Reimer employs methods of embroidery and appliqué not only to bring feminized craft traditions into a high art context but also as a means by which to question the value of certain kinds of labor and notions of originality. Reimer intentionally copies her texts from other contexts as a way to destabilize definitions of creativity and innovation. As she writes, “Generally speaking, in the art world copies are of less value than originals. However, when I copy by embroidering, the value of the copy is increased because of the added elements of labor, handicraft, and singularity–traditional sources of value. The copy is now an ‘original’ as well as a copy.”2 At the same time, Reimer’s hand-sewn texts sometimes border on illegibility, producing a bad copy and inviting us to question the relative value of such painstaking labor. Kandis Friesen seeks to examine how textiles and other materials might impart narratives about migration and exile. In Onsa Japse Jeit Jantsied, drawing sewn onto leather makes reference to both indigenous and colonial histories. Friesen draws on a clothing pattern from a Russian Mennonite museum artifact from the 1800s, one that also incorporated buffalo skin from newly colonized lands. Like Gesine Janzen, Friesen looks to visual culture as a connection between the past and the future, yet in this case she also problematizes the narrative of hard-working Russian Mennonite immigrants as she uses textiles to implicate the diaspora’s participation in colonial processes.

Mary Lou Weaver Houser and Jen Dyck cross boundaries of medium through their work with found materials. Dyck’s collages investigate dream imagery, in some cases, and in others, such as Potluck, speak to her personal experiences of Anabaptist cultural traditions. Weaver Houser, on the other hands, positions her mixed media assemblages as metaphors: as she walks an edge between varied art materials, she also imagines edges – between generations, between different world views, between what is and what could be.3 Similarly, Jessie Pohl crosses material boundaries and points to the possibility of crossing emotional bridges as well. As she incorporates the unexpected material of scrap lumber as the substrate for delicate pen-and-ink drawings, she emphasizes a contrast of strength and vulnerability.

20170624_211422Some artists cross lines as a political gesture, seeing their methods as a way to issue public statements, either subtle or explicit. In Blamed Shamed Abandoned, one from a series of 60 paintings, Jerry Holsopple directly addresses the failures of U.S. Mennonite communities to protect, believe, or even listen to the many women abused by well-known Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. Holsopple grapples in his expressive portraits with the idea of collective responsibility and he explicitly brings the issue of sexual abuse out from behind closed doors, for public discussion and accountability. Audra Miller’s The Gender Project, which is represented here by two photographic diptychs, explores what it can mean to cross between feminine and masculine gender presentations. Through Miller’s photographs, we see not only the possibilities of either/or but also of in-between, of gender identities that are not always so easily classified in a binary system.

Lora Jost regularly engages with political activism, on topics ranging from local school closures to the local and global impacts of climate change. In her piece for this exhibition, Jost emphasizes more broadly the importance of critical thinking in our world. Informed by her experiences of a Mennonite historical focus on peace and social justice, Jost uses a combination of text and linework to ask the viewer to more carefully consider, when confronted with any issue of substance, “Does this make sense?” Jennifer Miller takes on a topic with both personal and political meanings in addressing the Keystone XL pipeline. Crude, a mixed media drawing, makes topographical references to the proposed path of crude oil transfer from the Tar Sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The map follows the same path traveled by Miller’s family in their move from north to south for her father’s job as a pilot for the oil industry, pointing to complicated convergences of politics, business, childhood memories, and a family’s financial security. While the pipeline was halted under President Obama in 2015, a new administration has proven more receptive to the interests of big oil and Miller’s piece becomes relevant for political discussion once again.

Our Anabaptist ancestors wrestled with the idea of how to be in the world but not of it, an intentional choice not to cross borders. The art on display in this exhibition might be seen to run the gamut between insularity and worldliness, yet each artist thoughtful engages with notions of borders and boundaries. Whether speaking to themselves and their Anabaptist communities or to much broader audiences, these artists traverse edges of materials, politics, identity, generation, and memory, and they invite us to join them on the journey.  

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.


  1.  For in-depth discussion of Serrano and the NEA controversy, see Steven C. Dubin, Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions (New Jersey: Routledge, 1994). Other texts that examine high-profile crossing of lines in contemporary art include Dubin’s Displays of Power: Controversy in the American Museum from the Enola Gay to Sensation! (New York: New York University Press, 2001) and Michael Kammen, Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 2006). 
  2. Karen Reimer, artist statement. Emailed to the author, 12 October 2016. 
  3. Mary Lou Weaver Houser, artist statement. Email to the author, 2 April 2017. 

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