Murray thinks about history and I think about art. I think we might have similar motives–trying to figure out the meaning of life and what is real–but just come at it in different ways. So when video artist Jennifer Levonian, a 2009 Pew Fellow in the Arts, gave a talk at the Library Company to introduce her new work on exhibit there alongside Civil War-era printed materials, we happily joined hands and caught a trolley to Center City.
The new video, Rebellious Bird, grew out of Levonian’s one-year artist-in-residence gig at the Library Company of Philadelphia where she explored the collection and found stories and images of women who fought disguised as men during the Civil War.
That germ of an idea inspired her video, which is part of a small exhibit of cross-dressing and gender issues expressed in historical printed matter. The exhibit is an addendum to the Library Company’s current exhibit of printed materials from the John A. McAllister collection–John A. McAllister’s Civil War: The Home Front.
Levonian, who has an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design, said her father’s hobby was stop-motion animation, and he and his daughters collaborated on claymation films. She showed a picture of how she created the animations, with a camera focused down on the table where she laid out her drawings.
And she talked about her journey through the collection during her residency. When she began doing her research into the collection, she opened an accordian binder with a noose inside. The tag said it was a rope used to hang a rebel soldier. “I felt overwhelmed,” she said. Levonian said she was interested in the uncanny in everyday life.
Then, looking through periodicals, she became interested in ads–and how the more things change the more they remain the same. One headline read “To the nervous. Dr. Adam Laurie’s Life Pills.” She said,”I could use one right now.” She didn’t seem at all nervous to me. Other ads promised to cure bunions or promised beautiful wavy hair–snake oil for hopeless causes.
For a while she focused on the illustrations for news articles. Portraits of missing men struck her as ironic–“absence turning into presence” in the historical record.
But then she found the stories about ladies who passed as men. Sarah Emma Edmonds became Frank Thompson. Albert Cashier, born a woman, kept his gender secret until he was 67 years old. One woman in disguise reported on the thrill of having voted. Another reported her delight in being able to eat alone in a restaurant.
Coincidentally, Levonian found a mention of these Civil War women soldiers in the first few lines of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest. Why aren’t these stories more widely known?, Levonian wondered. She was pregnant at the time, and during an ultrasound at 20 weeks, the discussion in the room was all about what color to paint the baby’s room. She found the locked-down gender-defining comments surprising. (Levonian was well-along in the pregnancy on the night of the talk).
On the internet she found a cross-dressing Civil War re-enactor, Wendy Ramsburg, who lives in the same city where Levonian was born, in West Virginia. A visit ensued, which became the centerpiece of the video.
Ramsburg, who developed the role of the cross-dressing Civil War soldier “Craig Anderson,” came up from West Virginia to talk after Levonian. She appeared in costume. Civil War re-enactors didn’t much welcome cross-dressing women infiltrating their ranks, she said. People back in the 1800s just didn’t know what hoop-skirted women looked like in trousers, so women were able to pass, especially as very young men. She talked about their varied motives, from patriotism, to unemployment, to the desire stay by their husband’s side. Ramsburg put their numbers between 600 and 1,000, a number hard to pin down because many who died on the battlefield were never identified by name, having shed their identities with their hoop skirts.
The 9-minute video–on Levonian’s video page— is charming and autobiographical–the story of Levonian and her husband’s visit to Ramsburg. Based on her watercolor drawings, her animation technique is similar to Martha Colburn’s. But her subject matter is more personal–a window onto our times based on the artist’s own life.
Levonian is interested in how culture colors gender definitions. She places all the events against the backdrop of her own marriage and its roles. Levonian drives. Her husband talks on the phone (he’s Mexican and he speaks Spanish–subtitled). Levonian’s eye for the relevant odd detail comes out when she spots a snowman with breasts. The rather quirky Ramsburg is specific, and hard to pigeonhole in person and in the video. The 20-week ultrasound gets replayed in the video. And Levonian’s husband tells the tale of Cashier, who ultimately is put into an asylum and forced to wear a dress–after which his mind deteriorates along with his health.
Levonian is a humanist and a sharp observer of the details of the everyday. She is comfortable enough with the contradictions and self-delusions to present them all with a humorous touch. Recognition of her accuracy is one of the pleasures of watching. Murray and I both liked this.
The exhibits run to Dec. 9, 2011.