At Cindy Rucker Gallery, "Abortion Pills" boxes created by the group Shout Your Abortion feature a QR code that links to abortion resources. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

Last week, Politico leaked a Supreme Court draft opinion that threatened to strike down Roe v. Wade, and late last summer, Texas banned most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. In the United States, nearly one in four women will receive an abortion by age 45, but even though the procedures are common, talking about them is still rare.

This weekend, Cindy Rucker Gallery in the Lower East Side held a three-day festival honoring those often little-heard stories. The event offered a space for people to share their experiences with abortion and featured an exhibition of artworks inspired by them.

“I saw the writing on the wall with the Supreme Court,” writer Cassandra Neyenesch, who started organizing the festival last year, told Hyperallergic. “I said, ‘This stuff is gonna come around again, maybe we should be prepared this time.'”

Last October, Neyenesch sat in Tompkins Square Park with two chairs and a tent and asked people to tell her their abortion stories. She was surprised at how many actually did, and moved by the fact that for many of them, it was the first time they had ever talked about it. On Saturday, the nonprofit group StoryCorps visited the gallery to record some of those stories, which will be sent to and archived at the Library of Congress.

From a pile on the gallery floor, visitors could take an “Abortion Pills” box depicting a QR code that links to resources for those seeking to terminate a pregnancy. The boxes were created by Shout Your Abortion, a group dedicated to documenting women’s experiences with abortion. Their narratives are nuanced, touching not only on how they received their abortions, but how they felt.

Lena Chen, “We Lived in The Gaps Between the Stories” (2021) (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

A focal point of the exhibition was “We Lived in The Gaps Between the Stories” (2021), a large wreath created by artist Lena Chen out of plants that have been traditionally used for abortions. Beginning last June, she worked with an herbalist who uses plants such as mugwort, which is largely considered an invasive species, to offer out-of-clinic abortion support for women.

“I wanted specifically to work on a piece that celebrated the labor of abortion workers rather than focusing on the debate around whether or not abortion should be legal,” Chen told Hyperallergic.

Christen Clifford creating “interior portraits” (photo courtesy Cassandra Neyenesch)

“I feel that there’s a lot of art and important political activism that’s already addressing the latter, but what gets lost in the shuffle and the debate is the labor of these very real people who are dedicating their lives to something that is not just controversial, but can lead to them being victims of violence,” Chen continued.

Downstairs, Christen Clifford’s performance “Interior Portraits: We’re All Pink Inside” was being recorded and played on a loop on a television in the window facing the street. For the latest installment of the project, which she began in 2015 by taking portraits of herself, Clifford sat with her subjects as they used a sex toy with a camera attachment to take the video “portrait.” It was the first time she’d done the performance in a gallery space.

Clifford, who incorporates pleasure-based sex education into the courses she teaches at the New School, is focused on removing feelings of shame from women’s relationships with their bodies.

“At the beginning, there was some sort of interior scream of mine, like, ‘What do I have to do to get people to pay real attention to what bodies with a vagina and a uterus need?’” Clifford told Hyperallergic. The project has since grown to include all genders.

“This is not just a women’s health project, although it may have stemmed from that,” Clifford continued. “A lot of my research comes from early feminist art and early feminist body art. What I hope I’m doing is expanding that and exploding it a little to include all bodies, because all bodies deserve bodily autonomy.”

Christen Clifford, “Interior Portrait, Lydia” (2022), digital photograph taken at Cindy Rucker Gallery for Abortion Stories 2022 (photo courtesy Christen Clifford)
Lydia Nobles, “Jade” (2022), acrylic, acrylic latex, rubber, 41 x 22 x 30 inches (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

For her series As I Sit Waiting, artist Lydia Nobles created abstracted sculptures, each based on a different abortion experience. Nobles has been chronicling these stories — what it felt like to be in the waiting room, to get the procedure, the emotions that surfaced before and after — since 2018, after she received an abortion herself. She has mostly found people to speak to by messaging them on Instagram, and like Neyenesch, she discovered that many were willing and ready to talk.

Nobles told Hyperallergic that in the pro-choice and pro-life political binary, there is often a lack of space for women to talk about elements of abortion that were difficult for them. Even when they did not regret terminating their pregnancy, their stories are often misinterpreted.

“There’s so much spectrum that we’re really missing in the conversation,” Nobles said. “I’m trying to get into all of that nuance, because that’s often disregarded.”

Works by Darryl Lavare (left) and Rebecca Goyette (right) (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

In the exhibition, Neyenesch included abstract paintings created by her mother, Judith Vivell, who has her own abortion story to tell. In 1960, before Roe v. Wade was passed and when abortion was still illegal in California, Vivell drove her friend from Berkeley to Mexico and back to receive in abortion, and years later, Vivell had one as well.

In Morgan Cousin’s photographs, the artist documents herself receiving an abortion. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
Rebecca Goyette’s paintings imagine the life of her ancestor, who was hung as a witch in Puritan Massachusetts. In the foreground, a looped video showed Kwajelyn Jackson, the executive director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, talking about abortion access. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

The show also included work by Darryl Lavare, whose punk rock-styled paintings center the political discourses around abortion. In one work, cartoonish figures of conservative politicians are combined with pro-life messaging in what looks almost like a collage. Meanwhile, the paintings of Rebecca Goyette imagine the story of one of her ancestors, who was hung as a witch in Puritan times; on the same wall, Jamaican artist Morgan Cousins documented herself receiving an abortion in low-lit, intimate self-portraits.

A still from the short film Umbrella (2009) by Cat Tyc (image courtesy Cat Tyc)
Far right: Judith Vivell, “An Infinite Capacity” (2022), mixed media on canvas, 48 x 36 inches (photo courtesy Cassandra Neyenesch)
Lena Chen honors abortion workers in a ceremony at Tompkins Square Park.

Last Friday, May 7, at Tompkins Square Park, Chen used her wreath to perform a ceremony honoring abortion workers. Previously, people had told their abortion stories, publicly or privately, and clinicians had provided information about abortion access.

“I think holding space, and especially the emphasis on storytelling in this festival, is so important and so much of a contribution to political change itself,” Chen told Hyperallergic.

“I think it’s important to note that art is not necessarily the same as activism or vice versa, but art plays a really important role because often the work of activism is a long game that can become really disheartening at times, like this week,” she added. “I think the role of art is to sustain our hope and create a sense of possibility and resilience, especially during moments like this, when it feels like a lot of progress that’s been made is being pushed back.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.