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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Cydra Vaux

Pittsburgh,
USA

Cydra Vaux was born in 1962 in Utah. She lives and works in Pittsburgh. Awards include the Vivian Lehman Award for Portraiture, 2010; Art and Society: Brazil, Fulbright Hays Group Project with the Andy Warhol Museum, 2009; Paul G. Benedum and Wimmer/Kamin Fellowship for figurative sculpture in India, 2005. Her work has been shown at the American Jewish Museum, Three Rivers Arts Festival, The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, and numerous galleries in Pittsburgh.

Since 1998, Cydra has refined her focus on the female terracotta figure. Her work is firmly rooted in traditional and feminist art history. Often, she works spontaneously from her subconscious and dreams, invoking surrealist traditions. She explores the relationships among archetypal images from different cultures, including the mandorla, swastika, heart, and serpent. These symbols form an amalgam reflecting a modern feminist world view that unites dissimilar cultural traditions, religious traditions, and gender roles.

Cydra reimagines and reclaims the lives of historical and mythological women by reassigning meaning through a feminist lens. At times, the women in her sculptures project a reserved distance, a feeling of coolness that speaks to the veracity of their strength and self-containment. In this way the mother archetype is expanded to favor a more comprehensive view of woman.

Travels to India, Egypt, Brazil, and the Southwest also inform her work. Through exposure to a myriad of religious, spiritual and humanist traditions, she explores tension and harmony between the secular and the divine. Making sculptures that are multi-sided, Cydra uses sculpture as a metaphor for multiple viewpoints. Seemingly fixed images morph among different vantage points. The three dimensional sculpture, with its unlimited number of views, becomes an allegory for mercurial thoughts and multifaceted perspectives. This tension between seemingly opposite sides fits well with her exploration of the yin-yang as it is expressed through female/male, secular/divine, life/death, image/word.

Symmetry and beauty inform much of her work, holding out hope for Utopian ideals. However, in recent work, Cydra explores her battle with breast cancer metastasized to her liver. This work is deeply personal, while having a universal reach. Death and the Divine are figures in her work which struggle to resolve the irresolvable.

Feminist Artist Statement

A favorite photograph of mine shows Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro sitting on the steps in front of Womanhouse in 1971. At that time, I was too young to join one of the most profound feminist dialogues in my life. However, every time I go into my art studio, located off my kitchen, I am forwarding that revolution.

My earliest remembrance of using my art to further my sex’s liberation came at the church of my youth, overseen by a distant white bearded god who neither desired a companion nor needed one to single-handily father the whole universe in his own image. Even at a young age I felt this inequity in my core. My response: to cut out the construction paper words “God loves you, pray to Her,” and staple them to a bulletin board in the main entry of the church. My brazen words proclaimed their truth to the painted cinder block hallway for the briefest period - before a pack of laughing boys tore it down.

My adult years find me continuing the work of that grade school girl, creating for myself the presence of the divine feminine. My work is often Utopian, imagining a world where women and men validate each other, cultivating compassion and equality between the sexes. I need to imagine a world of transcendence and wholeness. To this end the hallmark of my work is symmetry, harmony, and beauty.

Because much of women’s history has been absorbed into patriarchal frameworks, I create feminist sculptures that reclaim and revision women’s symbols, history, and mythology. The writing that accompanies my visual work is an integral part of the work, and not an afterthought. These written and visual components are a metaphor for a symbiotic relationship between the masculine and feminine. The written word (masculine, left brained) is married to the figurative image (feminine, right brained) to form a complete whole, or yin yang.

I am grateful to my beloved husband Carl, and my son for helping me to battle cancer and supporting my artwork, and my brother Gregson Vaux for encouraging me to study art. My sculptures are dedicated to my mom, Verna Sylvia Robinson, my role model and spiritual sister.

<p>Leaving Perdah and the Palace of Wind</p>

Leaving Perdah and the Palace of Wind

Perusing a book of architecture from India, I came across the beautiful Hawa Mahal, or Palace of Winds, built in 1799 in Jaipur. The building is captivating and I longed to visit it. Yet reading about the palace, I discovered its disturbing history. On the facade are windows with lattice work that catch the wind and provide a breeze inside the palace. However, the underlying reason for the lattice was to enforce strict purdah, or face cover. The women of the harem could watch the world outside their prison without passersby seeing them.

The front of this piece shows the Palace of Winds; the reverse side finds a modern-day woman standing on a train platform surrounded by her luggage. She represents women who have been able to break free from horrific practices like purdah. On the surrounding walls are traditional tessellating tiles and behind her is a wall clock that reads two o’clock, a play on the word “to,” as she is going “to” someplace. The circular form of the clock serves as a halo and speaks of divinity amidst the secular. On the tableau beneath, birds in flight echo her freedom.

While I was making this sculpture I was preparing to go to Brazil on a Fulbright Group Study Abroad. I was wrestling with feelings of responsibility to my husband and son and how although I love being a mom and wife, I was looking forward to this new adventure.

Leaving Perdah and the Palace of Wind

Perusing a book of architecture from India, I came across the beautiful Hawa Mahal, or Palace of Winds, built in 1799 in Jaipur. The building is captivating and I longed to visit it. Yet reading about the palace, I discovered its disturbing history. On the facade are windows with lattice work that catch the wind and provide a breeze inside the palace. However, the underlying reason for the lattice was to enforce strict purdah, or face cover. The women of the harem could watch the world outside their prison without passersby seeing them.

The front of this piece shows the Palace of Winds; the reverse side finds a modern-day woman standing on a train platform surrounded by her luggage. She represents women who have been able to break free from horrific practices like purdah. On the surrounding walls are traditional tessellating tiles and behind her is a wall clock that reads two o’clock, a play on the word “to,” as she is going “to” someplace. The circular form of the clock serves as a halo and speaks of divinity amidst the secular. On the tableau beneath, birds in flight echo her freedom.

While I was making this sculpture I was preparing to go to Brazil on a Fulbright Group Study Abroad. I was wrestling with feelings of responsibility to my husband and son and how although I love being a mom and wife, I was looking forward to this new adventure.

The Holy Act of Cleansing

I made this piece in 2008 before I was diagnosed with liver cancer. In retrospect, this piece adds an even deeper appreciation of the body’s ability to rid itself of urine waste. I wonder if my body knew in 2008 that my liver was sick. At this time I had a blood test that showed a slight elevation. My doctor reassured me that the discrepancy was caused by medication I was taking. He was wrong, very wrong. On the side of this piece, Gothic windows suggest the spirituality of a church, and below them are public toilets, like the ones found in Rome.

Cancan Girls: Baubo and Demeter

Instead of narrating Baubo and Demeter in a traditional way, I have expressed their mood and the emotions they stir in me when I hear their story. Traditionally, Boubo is rendered without a head, and her face superimposed upon her torso, giving voice to the body and circumnavigating the intellect. In Greek mythology Baubo is the trickster who shakes Demeter from her deep mourning with sacred obscene jokes. In addition to a high kicking boisterous dance, the title “cancan” refers to a woman’s ability: Yes, We Can!

Ardhanariswara / Tennis Everyone!

The front of the sculpture features the Hindu figure of Ardhanarishwara who is half male and half female. The writing below reads:

There is no Jew nor Greek.

There is no Bond nor Free.

There is no Male nor Female.

You are all one in Compassion.

On the back is a woman with a tennis ball for a halo; she embodies the trickster archetype. Orbiting tennis balls reference the moon and its changing phases. The writing below reads:

Burning Her Bra?

She Was Burning Her Tops!

Goodbye Tan Lines, Hello Sunshine!

Goodbye Male Gaze, Hello Carefree Days!

This piece creates a relationship between the spiritual (Ardhanarishwars) and the secular (tennis player). To further highlight the permeable transmission of concepts between these two states, I have positioned the hands of both women in the fear-not and welcome mudras.

Ardhanarishwara represents the spirit of the law that defies logic and like many truths cannot be pinned down by judgment. It is a truth that we sometimes only see for a fleeting second out of the corner of our eye, or a truth that resides deep in our being. It is not logical that a body can be both male and female. And, it is not logical that we can hold in our being seemingly opposite and sometimes conflicting truths, and yet we do, and with great wisdom.

The sculpture comments on how women struggle to enter into the sphere of male privilege. The tennis player has literally and figuratively cut off her femaleness in order to be accepted as equal by the males. Yet, this will never happen. Even with her breasts removed, she will have to “keep her shirt on”. She mocks the law of the land by revealing its absurdity. She is sarcastic, in-your-face-defiant, with the gut wrenching desire for choice and freedom.

Which Church

Looking up at the spire of an old church, I was reminded of a witch’s hat. Witches, or wise women, were the ones who gave medicine to ease labor pains during child birth.

The front of this sculpture, the church, represents the solar or masculine aspects of fanatical and rigid religious systems. The back shows the lunar or feminine traits of humanity that have survived the genocide of gender. The church and the witch are joined together to reference the yin-yang’s light and dark portions that compose a complete circle. Conversely, Which Church speaks to conflicting ideas that suffocate one other with their bound proximity. The dichotomy of these two ideas: that of the yin-yang that forms a whole, and that of two opposites bound together in a prison of suffocation, paradoxically exist side by side.

I use pregnancy as metaphor for life and potential that is ready to burst forth into consciousness. I also use pregnancy to confront the “male gaze.” Rarely do male artists depict pregnant women. Instead, they often image women as sexual beings, or appeal to the virginal archetype. When a woman is pregnant she is no longer seen as an object of desire by other men who strive to perpetuate their own genetic line.

When I was a young girl I was captivated by the story of King Arthur’s daughter Burd Ellen. The Warlock Merlin explains that “because she went round the church windershins—opposite to the sun, she is now in the dark Tower of Elfland.” The story concludes “they reached home safely and were welcomed with great joy by fair Gwenevera, their queen mother. And never again did Burd Ellen go round the church or churchyard windershins.” (Katharine Gibson, 1901, pg. 59-68). Windershins means counterclockwise or against the sun. When we go against the sun, or against the Son of God, as expressed in rigid dogma, and turn windershins, we delight in what is right brained, lunar, and we discover the feminine, we see the witch behind the church. We see alongside the Son of God, the Daughter of the Divine, and we know that it is good.

Creation Story

This piece envisions men and women working together to create order, beauty and life. Moving beyond the narrow confines of a dogmatic creation story, it presents religious myth as a symbolic dialogue that inspires and comforts. I was inspired by my brother’s partner who labored to birth their son. My brother relayed mythic tales of her heroic efforts and how she spent many hours in hard labor to birth their dear little baby.

Working spontaneously from my subconscious I tried not to think while making this piece. I focused on chucking clay up on the stand to make interesting patterns and forms that flowed. I wanted this piece to have a flavor of India about it, without being an overtly Indian piece of art.

Jana (goddess of the past and future)

Upon returning from India in 2005 I felt out of sorts for many months. I missed India like my home. On a profound level I was leaving one stage of my life and getting ready to enter another. I was questioning a lot of my life and often felt like the ground underneath me had shifted profoundly and I was trying to make sense of things. Also, I was not able to make art for a while after returning from India. It was very unsettling and painful for me. Gratefully, I did return to my studio, and Jana was the piece that broke my visual silence. As with many of my previous pieces I did not have a plan for the piece. I just started pushing clay around on the stand. A friend visiting my studio commented that the piece looked like the goddess, Jana. Jana looks behind her to the passing year, and forward to the upcoming year, just as I had been doing since my return from India.

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