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Portraits intended to stimulate conversation on gender labels

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

The results: an unusual photo exhibit on display in Bethel’s Fine Arts Center for a week only, April 21-26.

The photos will hang in the area just outside the FAC Gallery (where the Student Art Exhibit is currently on display) with a projection area inside the gallery, viewable through gallery windows on the south side.

There will be a reception for the artist in conjunction with the Student Art Exhibit artist reception April 24, 6-8 p.m. in the FAC lobby area near the gallery.

Gallery hours are Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays, 2-4 p.m. Admission is free.

Earlier this semester, Miller, a fifth-year senior finishing degrees in graphic design, fine arts and communication arts, decided to do a series of what she first thought would be “androgynous portraits.”

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

She enlisted the help of several of her friends and fellow Bethel students.

“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, “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.”

She was 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.”

The Bethel show includes 10x15 prints and projected images of Miller’s 27 subjects for “The Gender Project.” She has also produced a book, which will be displayed at the April 24 reception.

Miller 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 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

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