As I Make Art, It Makes Me

Photographer and performance artist Angela Richardson invites us into her world of self-expression and discovery.

Through the process of creative expression I’m able to shape myidentity, flesh it out, and experiment with it. By making art I develop a clearer, more complex sense of self and of the world. Personal struggles serve as inspiration. My life experience drives my creative impulses.

I’m a performer, visual artist, and long-time Madison resident. Much of my work focuses on issues of gender identity, sexuality, body image, and on how women are represented in popular media and in the American cultural imagination. I often explore the idea of “community”—how communities are formed, how they operate, and how art plays a role in their vitality.

For me, making art is a way to figure things out and to make meaning of life. My “process” of investigation is just as important as the final “products” that I create. I use the media of performance, photography, movement, and installation as avenues for discovery.

One thing leads to another. Magically, every project of mine seems to carry the seeds of the next within it. Each curiosity I fulfill leads me to other queries yet unanswered. If the muse goes missing, life is always ready to serve up a new challenge. Over time, I’ve learned to welcome even the hardest emotions and most difficult situations. Usually, these serve as great raw material for making art.

I moved to Madison in the fall of 1990 to enroll at the UW. As the first member of my family to attend university, I had no idea what to expect from the college experience. Sure enough, my undergraduate years were intense, heartbreaking…and life changing. The education I received prompted me to re-frame my entire worldview! Not an easy or comfortable thing to do but a necessary one. As a student, I was compelled to begin exploring the territory that I continue to traverse as an artist today. It was then, too, that the activist underpinnings of my work were established. “The personal is political.”

Women’s Studies classes with the late Professor Mimi Orner had a particularly profound impact on me. She invited students to consider theories and ideas from class in relation to our own lives. Our personal stories became grist for the mill. I understood for the first time that I was not alone in my darkest and most painful struggles. Many others shared my lived experiences, too. I started to see how myths about identity—sexuality, race, class, gender, physical ability—are often held as truths, to great harm, and used to reinforce a system of social inequality. I began to understand that oppression has deep systemic roots. I felt wholly betrayed and duped by society. Horrified, I realized that I’d also internalized a slew of misogynistic beliefs. I was furious and afraid. The foundation of ideas on which I’d been standing my whole life began to crumble beneath my feet. Reaching out in search of something solid to hold on to, I found art.

I channeled my fury into making videos. Lots of them! I made pieces about having survived sexual assault, about the double-edged sword of pleasure/burden in feminine stereotypes, about my own sexuality. By making art I found my voice and my power. College is where I figured out that art could be truly transformational and that it was going to be a driving force in my life. The blinders were finally off. It was a very painful time. However, I gained the understanding that in art I had the tool I needed to survive. I was thrilled to discover that I could use art to provoke discussion, create community, and work for social change. I knew that I could use my creative gifts and skills to help others do the same.

In the two decades since, my work has taken many forms. I’ve played many roles: founder of a women’s video production collective, neo-burlesque performer, sexual health outreach educator, media literacy advocate, trapeze artist, feminist activist, arts event producer, and go-go dancing bicycle fiend! I’ve enjoyed all sorts of interesting opportunities and taken plenty of risks. I’ve created a large body of work. Here are a few highlights:

A hundred smiling faces peer in your direction. Top to bottom, left to right, photos of people in the neighborhood enliven a storefront window.

When I moved to Schenk-Atwood a few years ago, I was eager to meet people and make connections. So, I designed an art project that gave me the perfect excuse to do just that. I spent countless hours exploring the neighborhood, talking to people, and documenting the area’s many interesting faces and goings-on. This photographic portrait series called The Face of a Place honors and acknowledges the importance of individuals in the creation of community. The series captured a view of our neighborhood at a particular moment in its history and generated a representation of the diversity that dwells within it. Supported by a City of Madison BLINK grant for temporary public art, the display found a permanent home on Atwood Avenue in the workshop windows of Martin Glass.

A sorrowful woman wanders circles through a room filled with salt. Her many tears have dried but the weight of her grief remains.

In response to a personal loss deeply felt, I created a site-specific installation and performance called Salt Tears. Dogged by persistent grief, I had many questions. How much sadness can one endure? How many tears can one cry? Can the work of dealing with intense sorrow ultimately be transformative? The sound of the ocean echoed through the work shed. Piles of salt covered the floor and drifted against the walls. I moved in slow motion tending to distorted domestic tasks. The piece was my meditation on the cyclical nature of grief and the very solitary ways in which individuals cope with personal tragedy. It was performed in the Trachte shed at The Project Lodge as part of the RAW show of live performance art, curated by Christine Olson.

A crabapple tree in bloom becomes the invitation for people to share publicly their most heartfelt wishes, secret desires, and unspoken longings.

After the end of a long-term relationship, I moved into a new home. It was a huge transition in my life and a scary, thrilling leap into the unknown. The glorious blooming of a crabapple tree in my backyard marked the change. I imagined how different my life would be the following spring. Heart mended? In love? I was full of hope. But when the tree bloomed again, not much had changed. Looking at the pink blossoms outside my window only amplified my sadness. The tree had become a symbol of expectations unmet. I decided to shift the meaning of the annual bloom in the direction of joy. I created The Wishing Tree Project. I invited friends and neighbors to visit my backyard, write wishes on tags I’d prepared, and tie them to the tree. This participatory art installation was inspired by the tradition of “wishing trees” and sacred spaces worldwide. Now, every year I eagerly anticipate the opening of its gorgeous blossoms and all of the sweet revelations and backyard visitors that accompany it.

A bodacious blonde named Olive in a too-short skirt and crazy-high heels cracks a dirty joke. With a wiggle and a giggle, she makes you blush.

Curiosities I had about my relationship to my own body, and in particular, defining the self as ‘sexual object’ led me to explore the world of neo-burlesque. This sex-positive performance art celebrates the body in all of its glorious forms. As a member of Madison’s very own Cherry Pop Burlesque troupe I gleefully danced feminist striptease and toyed endlessly with cultural taboos. I did comedy to critique the status quo. And I indulged my hearty appetite for glamour and bling! I enjoyed the company of gifted creative collaborators and was reminded once again that working in community with other artists is always an amazing gift. It is in the interactions where my work comes alive and gains greater meaning.

A woman dons her ritual garments to dance before the camera. With every shutter, every shudder, she hopes again to catch a glimpse of her true self.

A Little Story is my on-going experiment in self-portraiture. Working with an elaborate set of personal symbols, I perform for the camera to piece together a cryptic narrative. Making this series is like working a puzzle. I wonder: What wisdom will my subconscious share given the opportunity? How can I use what I see in these photographs to lead a more authentic life? With these images, I project the self I wish to become and then move toward that image. I imagine the woman I want to be and make a photograph of her in hopes of activating the transformation.

As I make art, it makes me. Through art I perform the story of my own life. I never know exactly where I’m headed next. That’s fine with me. It keeps me on my toes! Living and working as an artist requires being especially comfortable with uncertainty. Having set my trajectory years ago, I now feel free to respond to interesting opportunities as they arise. Experience has given me the confidence to trust my instincts as I find my way. May my eyes and heart remain wide open for the journey.