Runs through Oct. 27 at the Morean Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-822-7872, moreanartscenter.org.
In 2004, Tampa artist Jono Vaughan embarked on a series of 21 drawings of the back of her head that changed both her art and her life. In exquisite colored pencil renderings of her braided, dyed and otherwise coiffed hair, Vaughan — who then identified as male — discovered a safe space to explore her growing desire to change gender. In professional terms the drawings clicked, too, precipitating positive critical attention and an entire body of work: a spot on the back cover of New American Paintings in 2010, a public performance piece funded by the Visual Artists Network in 2011 (titled “Safety In Numbers,” it entailed cutting volunteers’ hair into the same bob-style cut as Vaughan’s, an action of hair solidarity she says was intended to assuage the anxiety of feeling different), and an invitation to draw local hairstyles in North Adams, Mass.
Through Sunday, an exhibition of her recent work — large-scale self-portrait drawings of Vaughan and her vibrantly red head, always facing away from the viewer, against backgrounds of black-and-white stripes, watercolors, lithographs and performance documentation from 2010 through 2013 — remains on view at the Morean Arts Center. Her next exhibition, an installation that addresses crimes against transgender individuals, is scheduled to open at the Englewood Art Center in November.
We sat down last week at the Morean to discuss her work.
CL: Let’s talk hair. You told me a few years ago that your fascination with hair and hair styling stems from two women in your life: your mom, who cut hair when you were a kid, and your wife, Sarah, who first lost her hair years ago to chemotherapy. Let’s start with your mom. What was it like to grow up around her business?
JV: I grew up with the smells of hair, so much so that when I went to college, there was a hair salon in the little school that I went to, and the smell of the peroxide and the perms made me homesick.
I remember cutting my hair from a very young age and driving my mother insane. For me, it was always a battle because I wanted my hair really long, and my mother always wanted my hair really short. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I finally made a deal with my parents that if I got good grades I could grow my hair out, and they said yes, so then I never fell below a B average as a result. So hair itself in my life — and in my work — has been something related to power.
And then with Sarah and her hair, she had cancer when she was 24 and and then when she was 34. Seeing the types of things she had gone through in terms of her hair was interesting as well; the types of comments people would make, both positive and negative, made me think a lot about hair as a signifier of health and its role in our culture. People would say really rude things to her about having short hair, and Sarah would just be like, in her way that she is because she’s wonderful, “Well, you know, sorry, but I just had cancer.” Usually that made them think a bit about the way they were approaching the situation.
Seeing her go through a loss and a rebirthing of the hair both times has been very interesting. Her hair both times came back very curly, whereas before her hair had been straight. That happens to most people because the chemotherapy damages the hair follicle.
Until I saw your drawings, I didn’t know the back of someone’s head could have so much personality. Where you surprised by how immersed you became in the process?
I didn’t expect to become so immersed, no. I had been so afraid to expose myself as who I was, and making the drawings became a way to expose myself without revealing who I was. Even now, that anonymity is still important to my work. Then it got exciting — I started working with hair stylists who would come over and do my hair and making deals with photographers so the hair stylists were getting documentation they could use in their portfolios. That allowed me to open up and become more comfortable with myself.
Watching your career and personal life off and on from a distance, it has seemed to me that at some point the gender-bending stepped out of your drawings and began to be fully present in your life. Are you identifying as transgender at this point?
Yes. I identify as transgender, and it’s not an easy thing to talk about. I speak about it in some ways, and in other ways I don’t speak about it. I still haven’t figured out a way to address this with my family; that’s part of the issue. I personally identify as a woman, and that’s what the work has been about for a long time.
When Amanda [Cooper, Morean Arts Center curator] curated the show, we decided that we would put it in the statements, but we didn’t want to make it a focus. I like the viewer to find themselves in the questioning. But I do want to be clear and specific that my work isn’t deceitful, because I’ve had people say things like that to me — that I’m trying to trick them into thinking that I’m something I’m not. That’s often an issue with people when they meet trans-people. They think they’re deceitful because they don’t realize that this is more honest than anything I could ever do. The work is fully truthful, but in some ways I am not yet prepared to turn around [as a figure in the drawings].
What’s the significance of the black and white stripes? A friend of mine asked if they were ironic — a world dressed in black and white stripes where gender and identity are gray areas.
That’s an interesting way to put it. It started as a way to distort. The first time I used it was in “Safety In Numbers.” In the POD [where the performance was staged in downtown Tampa], we had white-and-black striped walls, white-and-black striped floors, and white-and-black striped uniforms. The idea was that when you looked in the mirror and were getting your haircut, you had a white-and-black-striped cape on and the people moving around you would create a moiré pattern. Distortion is part of my experience. I live in this strange, distorted identity that is constantly fluctuating between a binary.
The other thing is that it’s a relationship between figure and ground, and I like to kill that relationship in these drawings. I’m getting interested in flat space as a dimensional space, and I really like, as someone who makes drawings, to find the edge without the edge, to define shape through cross contour.