Professor’s art memorializes slain transwomen

Project 42 by Yadira Lopez

Three of the dresses Professor Vaughan has created so far were exhibited last year at the Englewood Art Center in Englewood, Florida.

February 18, 2015 / Volume XXXVII / Issue I

Professor of Art Jono Vaughan’s work subscribes to the notion that one may catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Her ongoing multi-media collaborative work, “Project 42,” juxtaposes a series of brightly patterned dresses and lively choreography with the grim issue of deadly violence against transgender individuals in America.

“Project 42” began in June of 2013 in response to the gruesome murders of transgender women across the country as well as alarming statistics about the median life expectancy of trans individuals. Although Vaughan found claims as low as 25 years of age, she admits that it is near impossible to get accurate figures associated with these issues. “This [project] isn’t a scientific study. These numbers are completely unverifiable,” she said, adding that she settled on the number 42 as a symbolic representation of a truncated life expectancy.

“One of the reasons that number means something to me is that I’m getting close to that age,” Vaughan, who will turn 38 in May, confided. “I haven’t had any type of violence projected onto me but you don’t know when something can happen. So as I’m getting closer to that number I think about these things.”

At its completion, the project will have memorialized 42 transgender women. Each dress, of which four have already been created, starts off with a Google Maps screenshot of the location where the victim was murdered. Vaughan then uses Photoshop to manipulate the screenshot into colorful shapes and patterns that will ultimately become the fabric. The next step involves a collaborator who, in Vaughan’s words, acts as a “host” to the victim’s memory by performing a dance in the dress.

“When we think about [what makes life meaningful] we think about opportunities and experiences and these are people who had those opportunities and experiences stolen from them,” Vaughan said, explaining the incorporation of dance and travel as a way to symbolically give life back to these individuals.

The project’s first garment honored 23-year-old Paige Clay by transforming screenshots of the dingy alley in Chicago where she was murdered into an abstract landscape of primary colors on the cotton fabric. This dress traveled to Vietnam, where one of Vaughan’s collaborators filmed herself triumphantly dancing in the garment.

Vaughan’s latest collaborator, a Berlin-based dancer, was initially skeptical, “When he wrote to me he said, ‘I’d love to collaborate with you but I’m not gay, I’m not transgender, I’m very hairy […] why do you want to collaborate with me?’ So I wrote back, that’s exactly why I want to collaborate with you.” Vaughan hopes that by working with people who may not have that much exposure to issues plaguing the transgender community her collaborators will learn something and, in turn, teach others, “I’m seeking to expand this discussion because it needs to be expanded.”

Asked whether her work is didactic, she pauses to consider the question. Being a teacher, she recognizes a desire to educate, but she prefers to view the project as “seeding change.” Vaughan wants to increase discussion and visibility on the issue in non-confrontational ways.

“A lot of my work deals with accessibility, and the idea that when something is accessible you can confront viewers and audiences with big concepts that they themselves maybe are uncomfortable with because they have a way into that discussion,” Vaughan said, explaining the role of aesthetic pleasure in her work. “And sometimes it’s a bit subversive; they don’t really know they’re having that discussion until a bit later.”

These days, Vaughan is bringing “Project 42” closer to home by seeking collaborations with dancers in the states. The biggest hold-up for the continuation of the project has been funding. Since it costs Vaughan from 400-500 dollars to produce and ship each garment, she relies heavily on grants. Vaughan sewed a dress for herself that she wears when speaking about “Project 42.” At one conference, the dresses she has created so far tagged along and audience members were invited to wear them for the evening.

“I want this to have different voices and different lives,” Vaughan said. “Let it grow and expand.”

For more of Vaughan’s work visit her website www.fineartvaughan.com.