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Sarah Unruh ’12

Miller creates portraits to stimulate conversation on gender labels

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Knowing well that a picture can speak 1,000 words, Audra Miller, Hesston, wants to start a conversation about gender perceptions.

Miller, a fifth-year senior finishing degrees in graphic design, fine arts and communication arts, decided she didn’t have enough to do with getting her senior show (drawings) ready and her senior communications seminar project done in her final semester.

So – “for fun,” she says – she began doing a series of what she thought would be “androgynous portraits.” Miller has been taking photos for years and even has her own photography business.

Her idea for these portraits was to use contour makeup (employing shadows and highlights to emphasize, change or create certain physical features), clothing and poses to create photos of people whose gender couldn’t be determined just by looking at them.

She enlisted the help of several friends, Bethel students who are leaders of the campus group FemCore, whom she knew to be interested in the ways gender is perceived in U.S. culture and would know others who had thought about the issues.

“We went around campus asking people if they’d like to be part of a photo shoot,” she says. “We put this together as an all-day event, with a whole rack of clothing options, and people to help do hair and makeup.”

However, she says, “As we were working through the details, I realized that to do what I wanted, I had to start with people who already looked androgynous, because to try to make them look that way ended up making them look like the opposite gender.

“So this morphed into doing double portraits that showed people as both sides.”

Almost as soon as she was done shooting, participants began asking to see their portraits.

“Normally,” Miller says, “I would use social media for something like this [a collection of portraits].”

But she was already surprised, she says, by the reaction of some of her subjects to their two-sided presentation. “It was hard for some people to see a photo of themselves taken as the opposite gender.

“Men are perceived as weaker when they’re seen in any kind of feminine way. They’re brought up to be tough, emotionless and the complete opposite of what the culture considers ‘feminine.’ And some of the women were unnerved to see themselves looking masculine.”

If the portraits were presented out of context, she says, “maybe they wouldn’t be appreciated, or have as much impact. They wouldn’t do the people in the shoot justice.”

Plus, the reaction was making her think more deeply about her efforts.

“These portraits needed words, or a speaker, or an event,” she says. “They needed to be part of something beyond a local gallery, because I think they’ll have more impact on people who don’t know the subjects. [If you know them], you use your previous knowledge of the subjects when you look at them.”

And that’s where serendipity occurred. Heidi Johnson, a Bethel graduate living in Fort Collins, Colo., contacted Miller “out of the blue, to ask me if I had any work, or was willing to make some art, for a gallery in Fort Collins that is doing an exhibit on gender roles.”

Johnson is connected to the Downtown Artery, which is part of an event taking place in Fort Collins in late April with an overall purpose of raising awareness of “rape culture.”

“This will involve multiple artists, including performance art, slam poetry and speakers,” Miller says. “The idea is to think about how our society views gender and what that has created in our culture.”

As she began to think about preparing an exhibit for the Colorado gallery, she also began pursuing other display options such as Bethel’s Fine Arts Center Gallery and a venue in Wichita. These are possible but still in process.

“Some of the photos will be printed life-size or larger than life,” she says. “Some will be regular 8x10s, side-by-side. I might project some on the wall. I would like to have one large double-sided portrait hanging from the ceiling, so you can’t immediately see the contrast. I’d also like to put together a book.”

Miller realized that to do these things, and to transport the portraits to galleries, was going to cost some money. She asked her former theater instructor, Megan Upton-Tyner, about ideas for raising funds. Upton-Tyner pointed her to GoFundMe, a crowd-funding website.

Miller put out the word – and was gratified by the results, nearly 2/3 of her goal raised within about a week of the initial invitation.

Kay Schmidt, Bethel’s associate registrar, was one of the contributors.

“I’ve enjoyed seeing Audra’s growth as a photographer over the past few years,” Schmidt says. “It’s important to encourage and support young artists. I also think she’s working on a timely topic that will be exciting to portray visually.”

“This has made it a lot more fun, and not so stressful, not to have to come up with all the money myself,” Miller says.

She is stepping into the midst of a whole host of artists, past and present, who have used their art to try to make viewers think, says her Bethel art professor Rachel Epp Buller.

“There is a long history of artists using their work to engage with social and political issues,” Epp Buller says. “Think, for instance, about famous printmakers like Käethe Kollwitz and Honoré Daumier, whose work spoke so clearly to social injustice and the disastrous effects of war and militarism.

“I think Audra’s photography project follows in that tradition of trying to spark discussion and critical thinking about a complex issue.”

“The meanings we put behind gender labels are strong,” Miller says. “They come from many years of repetition and symbolism. As a society, we treat people differently depending on whether we see them as masculine or feminine.

“It’s important to recognize that we link a lot of connotations to those terms – there’s a lot of power in the way we use them.

“Hopefully, the show can portray some of that, and get people to think about the fact that we all have both masculine and feminine characteristics, and it’s not necessarily related to whether you are male or female.

“I want viewers to draw their own conclusions, to make up their own minds,” she says. “I want this to be a conversation starter.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2013-14 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2013-14. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.