It’s often said that how you start the day sets the tone for the remainder of one’s waking hours. For Renee Nixon, tapping into her creative side is first on the list. Before getting ready for work, she spends time on “Recombobulated,” a series of collages. Nixon takes illustrations of women, splits them up in various ways, and then uses thread to connect the precisely sliced sections. When all the parts are reunited, she has created a new figure. Broken, yet mended. Nixon said the series came about as a way for her to process trauma done to women by callous, entitled and powerful men.
“Almost every woman I know has a before and after. They almost all have some story of something that happened to them, and they are changed as a result of it,” said Nixon. “They’ve put their lives back together and they’re moving on but there’s still a sense of there’s a before and after.”
Each piece is numbered, but Nixon refers to them as “the ladies,” in part because the series is personal to her. Nixon’s ladies are also timely given today’s climate, where #BelieveSurvivors, #MeToo and #TimesUp are used to signify that women are done being silent about their abuse.
Some of the figures Nixon uses have a Victorian appearance, while others appear to be pulled from a sitcom set in the ’50s. The use of vintage images reinforces the point that women have been dealing with the adverse effects of the patriarchy for quite a while.
“A lot of their faces, even though they’re in these very traditional feminine outfits, a lot of their expressions are very serious and powerful and snarky,” said Nixon. “It kind of challenges that idea that women have always been a very passive force in society.”
The use of thread references stitching oneself back together much like the way a garment is mended. Nixon said “Recombobulated” also relates back to the antiquated belief that fiber art is not real art. Her grandmothers made quilts and clothes and she considers them to be talented artisans.
“You can make an argument that women were the first abstract artists if you consider quilts as artwork,” said Nixon. “They’ve been taking blocks of color and arranging them into geometric patterns for centuries. But, because it was functional and they were caring for their families, it wasn’t considered art.”
“You can make an argument that women were the first abstract artists if you consider quilts as artwork.”
Nixon began the series last year and has created about 30 works so far. She posts the ladies to her Instagram account (@renee.nixon), sometimes while they are still in progress. People have offered to buy them, but she’s opted for a different model. Rather than sell them, Nixon asks the interested party to donate to the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC), or a comparable organization if they’re not local. In exchange, they’ll receive one of her ladies as a gift. All of the ladies have been claimed so she’s created a wait list. She chose KCSARC because of the vital service they provide, which includes a 24-hour resource line.
Before Nixon began “Recombobulated” she chose watercolors as the medium to express herself. At the time she was in graduate school at the University of Washington pursuing a doctorate in pathobiology. She worked on drug development for tuberculosis, which meant spending up to 12 hours per day inside a windowless room in a biohazard suit. Outside of the sterile, monochromatic environment of the lab, Nixon needed an infusion of color into her life. Using supplies she bought at an art store, Nixon began creating colorful abstract paintings.
“I came home and made really bad art for a really long time,” said Nixon. “But it didn’t matter. It was just for me and it had the desired impact.”
That impact was helping her maintain an emotional balance that continues to this day. Nixon’s skills improved to a point where she felt comfortable showing them to others. From there, she built a website and continued to work in the global health field. Like many women, she can’t escape the barrage of headlines concerning the mistreatment of women.
“It helps that my job involves trying to save the world,” said Nixon. “I at least have something else I can focus on where I am doing good in the world.”
Nixon’s foray into art isn’t unforeseen. She learned how to cross-stitch, embroider, knit and sew as a child. Growing up in Texas with supportive parents also set the stage for a woman who today proudly wears a T-shirt with the phrase “One Woman Riot” across the front.
“My father always said that if we couldn’t do something, that was OK, but the excuse can never be that I was a girl. You had to try,” said Nixon. “There was a lot of support for non-traditional girl activities, I had model rocket ships and dump trucks.”
Nixon plans to continue working on the series and posting the ladies on social media. Sharing her work with others has exposed her to new interpretations. For one friend, the gaps and tension make it art.
Nixon’s “Recombobulated” ladies are simple, yet they convey a universal message. For those new to her work, she explained what she wants the viewer to walk away with:
“These traumatic experiences happen and you are going to always be different as a result of it,” said Nixon. “But there can be beauty in that healing, which can be very hard to see when you are in it. And that doesn’t make it less traumatic and terrible.”
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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