Jaime Lynn Shafer
Interview conducted by Zara Singh, Scripps College '20
With various different formats of presenting art, what drew you to create this piece in the form of an artist's book? How do you think the format of an artist's book best explores/examines race and identity?
I choose the book format because it provides an intimate setting where a person can reflect on his or her own beliefs privately. I think that in providing someone a less intimidating environment to process their preexisting notions about a subject they are more likely to thoughtfully engage in an internal dialogue that may challenge these notions. In this manner, a person can approach the work, digest it, and reflect on it without the pressure of an immediate, public reaction or response. The privacy that a book affords gives the feeling of experiencing something first hand, as if the content could be coming from a good friend. This is especially important when approaching subject matter that can be seen as controversial like race and identity. With Mix and Match Families, I wanted to give the viewer the chance to create their own family and the book format provides the intimate experience of creating something without onlookers judging the creation. The book can be closed or “reset” so that the next person can discover and experience the possibilities privately. This piece is meant to aid in the ongoing discussion and hopefully prompt conversations among the viewers. The book format is meant to be intimate and give a first hand account of how challenging it can be to revise previous perceptions, which is what I had to do in order to move forward in a positive, healthy relationship.
How would you like your audience to interact with your work?
I would like the audience to be able to handle the work so they can fully experience the piece and understand the content. In order to achieve the full effect, one has to be able to flip through the pages and create the family/families. If the viewer can’t handle the piece, I think the meaning is lost.
How are the central themes/messages of your work relevant to contemporary issues?
This piece addresses how we see and define families. It especially focuses on same sex families, intergenerational families, and interracial families. Although some people see these types of families as the norm now, there are many who want to see same sex families/marriages abolished. In light of our current administration and their views, many people have become more vocal in their opposition to any family/marriage that does not follow the biblical model. When I created this piece, I was struggling to redefine family, and so was our country. The Supreme Court was hearing the United States v. Windsor case around the same time that I was creating this piece. And now, we as a society, are once again struggling with the idea of who we are allowed to love. The fact that there is still debate around LGBT rights indicates that this issue is just as relevant now as it was when I crafted Mix and Match Families.
I interacted with your piece and what I found most engaging and intriguing, in fact probably the single most profound and powerful part of your piece, were the statements made about parenthood and family. And from these statements I found myself wondering if these statements are reflective of your values and thoughts on familial ties and were these maybe drawn from personal experience?
Yes, these statements are most definitely drawn from personal experience. I grew up in a very conservative family. We went to church three times a week and I was told that being gay was unacceptable. This message was delivered in church services and through daily comments. I truly didn’t know that being gay was an option. My parents and my relatives modeled what a family was supposed to look like—one man and one woman. As a child, I was told that it was a woman’s duty to have sex with her husband. And as a Catholic, it was expected that I would marry a man and have children. It was expected that I would follow the rules set by my family and the church. As a young adult in college, I realized I was attracted to women, but I wanted to please my family. I was also fearful that my family would shun me if had a relationship with a woman. So I convinced myself that I was not gay and it would never be an option. I dated men, and married a man, not once, but twice, in my efforts to cover up who I really was. It was after my second marriage that I had an epiphany. I realized that I could no longer live a lie and that I would only ever be happy if I was true to myself. I spent a long time rethinking my idea of family and how I could create my own family in any way that I wanted. Mix and Match Families was part of that thought process. It was part of accepting who I was and acknowledging that my family could look like any one of these combinations if that was what I wanted.
So drawing from the previous question, why use the medium/the format of an artist book to convey these themes/values/beliefs about family?
I choose the book format because it provides an intimate setting where a person can reflect on his or her own beliefs privately. I think that in providing someone a less intimidating environment to process their preexisting notions about a subject they are more likely to thoughtfully engage in an internal dialogue that may challenge these notions. In this manner, a person can approach the work, digest it, and reflect on it with out the pressure of an immediate, public reaction or response. The privacy that a book affords gives the feeling of experiencing something first hand, as if the content could be coming from a good friend. This is especially important when approaching subject matter that can be seen as controversial.
This intimacy is important to all of my work and my goals as an artist. As an artist, I hope to engage people, hold their attention, and most importantly, encourage them to reconsider their point of view (if it is opposing) or at least empathize with the stance that I have taken in my book. I aim to be firm, but gentle in my creations—providing my point of view, but in a subtle, approachable way. With Mix and Match Families, I wanted to give the viewer the chance to create their own family and the book format provides the intimate experience of creating something without onlookers judging the creation. The book can be closed or “reset” so that the next person can discover and experience the possibilities privately.
I thought it was interesting how you used actual photos of people, each on a separate piece of paper to convey that sort of mix and match feature within your book. Initially going into the piece, I thought from your title Mix and Match Families, that we as the reader would be able to physically change which people made up which family but that obviously was not the case. Why did you choose to put certain figures with others and what was the thought process behind that?
My intention was to allow the viewer to create new families in a book format. I was inspired by children’s flipbooks. The viewer is somewhat limited by the fact that the choices are only the three opposite panels. This means that the first person pictured in each family can never be with the first person in another family and so on. The colored background can be used to identify the original family.
The people photographed were, for the most part, people in my life at the time: friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues. So the groupings mostly reflect real life families that I know and care about; families that push the border of how a family—in the traditional sense—is defined.
I did take some liberties, since at the time; I was rethinking how I defined family. So for example, in one of the groupings, I am pictured with my wife, but I also included my niece and my father-in-law. I choose to include them because I have always had a special connection to my niece, and my father-in-law was more supportive and accepting of my relationship with my wife than my father. This goes back to the idea that we can create our own families; that we do not necessarily have to be bound by the family that we are born in to. This was a challenging concept for me at the time because of my upbringing and the modeling my parents provided as to what a family should look like and what my parents expected of me in regards to creating my own family.
I also noticed that the photos themselves were black and white, yet your statements regarding the interracial/sexual orientations of families is quite progressive. Why make the photos black and white? What response were you hoping to get from the reader by keeping the photos black and white?
Removing color from the photos helps the reader to focus on the people. Color images would have been a distraction. We can still discern age, race, and gender from a black and white photograph, and it also forces the viewer to look closer at each image. Converting the photos to black and white also allows the viewer to clearly see the colored background that identifies the original family unit.
Does your piece comment more on the idea of love or the system that says certain types of love should not be/are not “right”?
First and foremost, I was considering how society views marriage and the changing views of society. I was focused on the idea that people saw my relationship with my wife as not right, especially since my parents were not so supportive. The community I grew up in was very conservative, and I always felt on edge and worried for our safety when we were in our hometown. The year before I came out, a colleague of mine had been fired from her teaching job for coming out. In the state of Pennsylvania, there were no protections for LGBT people. I was constantly fearful and nervous, and never felt that I could relax in my hometown. When I moved to Washington D.C., which was where I was when I created this piece, I began to see that I could lead a normal life—that people in the city didn’t think any less of me or my relationship. In fact, most were supportive and happy for me. So when I created this piece, it was a way for me to work through these ideas of acceptance, as well as the conservative, Catholic views that I heard on a daily basis in my home and at my church. After almost 30 years of telling myself that I could not be gay, I was finally coming to understand that those were not my views and I did not have to live my life by those rules. So my piece is a comment on the changing views of people, on the changing role of familial relationships and how they fit into our society.
Is this piece more about empowerment, education, or social change?/What would you say you hoped this piece would do for readers?
My hope in creating this work was to give people the opportunity to see things from an alternative perspective. I wanted people to stand in my shoes for a moment and to empathize with a view that may be contrary to their own. I also hope that the piece empowers others who might be in a situation similar to my own. So they might know that things can change and that we have to be true to ourselves. I hope that people might walk away and realize that love is love and it doesn’t matter what gender, what race or how old someone might be, they still deserve happiness and love.