Jono Vaughan’s Project 42 is more than an ambitious artistic endeavor. It’s a conduit, using beauty to highlight a serious issue — the violent deaths of transgender individuals.
Transgender women are four times more likely to become homicide victims compared with the general female population. According to the Human Rights Campaign, advocates tracked 28 deaths of transgender people from violence in 2017. It’s considered to be the deadliest year for trans women in the past decade.
Transgender people live at the intersection of racism, misogyny and transphobia.
“It’s just a normal identity,” said Vaughan. “It’s our culture that is telling these people that it’s OK to other someone to the point of violence.”
Despite the bleak statistics and the realities of navigating a culture where they are othered, Vaughan is actively creating her garments to honor 42 transgender individuals who died violently. The project began in 2012 and she’s created 15 so far. Vaughan also collaborates with a dancer who choreographs a performance for each garment. Whoever dons the garment hosts the spirit of the fallen person. The goal is to reach 42 — a number that represents the average age of death for a transgender person, which Vaughan found through her own research.
Vaughan is still catching her breath from a whirlwind of activity. From her show at Seattle Art Museum (SAM) to a Seattle Art Fair performance, she and her collaborators have been working nonstop. At Seattle Art Fair, Vaughan memorialized Paulina Ibarra, who was fatally stabbed in her East Hollywood apartment in 2009. The headdress had 27 silver rods to represent every year of her life, as well as 27 pink, white and blue flowers. The SAM exhibition wrapped up the first week of August after a three-and-a-half-month run. The memorial garment for Deja Jones was among three dresses on display. Strong shades of purple and pink dominate the multi-colored patterned piece.
Vaughan is specifically reaching out to White cisgender people. The intention, she says, to stop the viewer in their tracks and “then have this really intense discussion with them.”
“This is a discussion that many people don’t want to have and to take the opportunity to make something beautiful and to stop somebody in their tracks.”
The garment process begins with a Google Earth image of the location where the victim died. Vaughan and her assistants pull colors and textures from that image and sometimes from clothing the victim wore as well. A wallpaper created from the same pattern as the dress hangs behind the garment, acting similarly to camouflage. Vaughan uses a specific measurement of space between the two to represent the precarious nature inherent in being transgender.
“It’s within that space that danger occurs,” said Vaughan. “It’s not a really big space. It’s a small space because it’s a very quick transition.”
Vaughan cites discriminatory bathroom laws as a scenario where transgender and non-binary-identifying people are in danger. While conservatives have framed the argument in terms of cisgender women being at risk, the opposite is more likely. As a transgender woman, Vaughan has encountered men in the bathroom who have openly told her they don’t want her there and blame her for walking in and thinking the men’s room was the women’s bathroom because they saw her in a dress. Given the potential for volatile interactions, Vaughan doesn’t have the luxury of going about her day without a bathroom plan. Bathrooms at businesses such as Target, Whole Foods and Starbucks — businesses that have gender-neutral restrooms — are safe spaces, but they’re not always available.
“There’s nothing worse than having to plan your day around the bathroom and that’s what a lot of trans people have to do,” said Vaughan. “Some trans people will end up damaging their bodies because they won’t use the toilet anywhere but home.”
Vaughan began openly transitioning in 2000 and is on a journey of self-acceptance. Trans identity is openly discussed now through shows such as FX’s “Pose” from Ryan Murphy and through celebrities including Janet Mock, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. That wasn’t the case for Vaughan growing up in England and Florida.
“The only word that I really had for myself growing up was monster. And that’s how I felt about how I identified. I didn’t have a word,” said Vaughan. “A lot of times people say things like ‘well, you know, fine, be transgender but just don’t talk about it.’ You know what, we talk about it so that little kids growing up don’t have to have words like monster to describe themselves.”
Her “After Boucher” series of engaging drawings, mixed media and watercolor paintings reflects that time. She depicts trans bodies as anamorphic. “Transitioning Identities” is a series of self-portraits focused on the back of ther head, brows and bangs.
“That body of work pushed me to accept myself. And then my identity pushed the work,” said Vaughan. “Everything that I have right now in terms of the success of my work is because I accepted my transness.”
In addition to shedding light on the deaths of trans folks, Vaughan teaches fine art classes at Bellevue College. She has an MFA from the University of South Florida in Tampa and has exhibited nationally and internationally. Last year she was named the winner of the Betty Bowen Award and is currently a finalist for a Neddy Artist Award.
Project 42 is Vaughan’s first foray into fiber art and her skills have evolved through the work. The stories of the people she’s honoring can evoke strong emotions. Once the audience pushes past what she calls the first-level response, which can include tears and sadness, Vaughan will ask, what they will do next. What action will they take to be an ally? She suggests hiring them and stepping in if they encounter a problem in the bathroom.
“If you see a trans person on the bus and they look like they’re doing their all — you know they worked hard to look good. Say ‘hey I like your hair today,’” said Vaughan. “That little tiny generous moment might be the difference between that trans person going home and killing themselves. That’s a reality.”
As Vaughan, her assistants and her collaborators continue working on Project 42, she’s continually reevaluating the project. She’s set a high standard for herself and isn’t cavalier about remembering the lives of Myra Ical, Lorena Escalera and Brandy Martelle. While she’s the driving force of the project, she uses her privilege to elevate and yield her space to artists of color.
“It’s an emotional toll,” said Vaughn. “I have a deep responsibility as a White artist who has privilege to do this project the right way.”
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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