As a New York-based conceptual artist focused on gender dynamics, Lydia Nobles’ work explores complex themes in innovative ways. Her most recent show, “As I Sit Waiting,” highlights the dynamics of reproductive rights and the human stories associated with them.
“The main goal is to get people to relearn empathy. To stop allowing abstract principles and ideas they agree with to get in the way of connecting with individuals and our stories,” explains gallerist and international curator Destinee Ross-Sutton, who partnered with Nobles to bring this show to life.
We recently sat down with Nobles to find out more about the concept behind the show and how her own experiences helped shape her desire to move the reproductive conversation forward.
You started the work for this exhibition over a year ago. What was the key moment that inspired you to take on the subject of the global fight for abortion rights?
It was several years ago. I had become pregnant and found myself sitting at a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan, waiting to get abortion pills. The seats were ancient, it was cold, the colors on the wall were repulsive, and blaring incongruously from the TV was “Say Yes To The Dress.” My temper was beginning to flare, and my anxiety was high enough to shatter the vial of blood drawn to confirm my pregnancy.
The waiting rooms of reproductive health clinics are a space of transience. As I was being shuffled from one waiting room to another, I heard faintly drift from the TV: “the silhouette of this dress is a little flat.” I started thinking about all the chairs, the wood, the threadbare cushions. And about all the people who had come here for an abortion, those who came before me, those who would come after, and those with me at that moment.
These memories became “Sonogram,” later changed to “Lydia,” the first sculpture in the series. I had no studio at the time, but the idea for the sculpture was so compelling and persistent that I ended up making it right there in my bedroom.
It was cathartic. I had transformed something sad into something outside of myself. I knew my story was important, but at the same time, I realized how easy it was for me to get an abortion. I was pregnant, and then within 48 hours, I was not.
At the same time I was impacted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The danger of a single story.” My story was not the defining experience for all people who needed an abortion. And so my mind started thinking back to that waiting room. What would it be like to have an entire waiting room of sculptures honoring different stories and people? Powerful. Moving.
Tell us about the name of the show. “As I Sit Waiting”—how did it come about?
I began to realize that the original title of the series, “Choice Is Individual,” was centered too much on my own experience and privileged white feminism. When I learned that I was pregnant, the first person I called was my mother, and let’s just say that conversation did not go well. She was pressuring me to get an abortion.
You can be on one side of the controversy or the other, but either way, it is an individual experience, and there can be a lot of pressure from outside sources when it comes to making the decision. It induces a lot of resentment for the pregnant person and poisons the experience with shame and toxicity.
And only some get to choose. Even before Roe v. Wade, many Americans were forced to carry to term. Others want their pregnancy, but need an abortion regardless.
Cat missed the deadline for an abortion. She was forced by state law to keep her pregnancy. After two weeks of extreme postpartum hallucinations, Cat found the courage to surrender the baby to the hospital for adoption.
The title I had come up with did not reflect the essence of the people who participated in my project. I was called out on the series’ name and realized I had to change it … immediately.
I called my Dad, Edward Nobles, who happens to be a fabulous poet. We began what turned out to be about twenty arduous brainstorming sessions. The name that emerged was “As I Sit Waiting,” an allusion to Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” But what resonated most was that Faulkner was alluding to a line from Homer, where at his death Agamemnon, speaking about his wife, says, “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.”
In 2016 to 2017, my dog and I worked together on a series of photographs and performative videos, an alternative to a heteronormative relationship. I love the woman with the dog’s eyes … our stories are often shaped strategically for patriarchal gain. And yet here we are, powerful and knowing, even as we watch our rights get stripped away we remember and we do not stop fighting. Somehow I think there was probably a bit more reason for the unnamed wife to keep his eyes open…maybe to witness his crimes or his insensitivity to her personhood.
How did you meet Destinee Ross-Sutton, a curator and gallerist? Why did you decide to collaborate on this show?
Destinee is simply inspiring. Destinee’s work is brave, but she is also kind. You instantly want to know her thoughts and ideas.
My work is inventive; it’s also complex, using abstraction to extend subjectivity. The artworks require someone who allows strength and empathy to lead the way. And someone who isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers.
Do you think that artists are obligated to be socially and politically engaged?
No one is obligated, but does it keep the work from being boring? My earliest work was grotesque-looking objects splayed across my hips, between my legs, and over my vagina. In photos and films, I captured substances oozing from my mouth. And other photographs provoked people. Instead of questioning their own intimacy, they asked me about mine…asked whether I was intimate with my dog.
I’ve never been afraid to take risks in my work. I think artists need to ask themselves what type of artist they want to be and where that stems from. Fear?
The show has videos of individuals’ experiences around abortion, with each video accompanied by a sculpture. How many pieces are in the show? And can you tell us more about the process?
There are 18 sculptures in the show. Select interviews are playing on three iPads. Other iPads play interviews of Kwajelyn Jackson, the Executive Director of the Women’s Feminist Health Center in Atlanta and Courtney McClain, a New York-based full spectrum doula. This is part of a sub-series of interviews highlighting the people who support pregnant people behind the scenes.
Most of the interviews are from cold DMing people on social media. I wanted to be as unbiased as I could. I didn’t want to know too much about their story beforehand. I also wanted the interviews to be memory based and without an agenda. I wanted to ensure that the person felt comfortable to be fully vulnerable and real. It was important to me that once these interviews are on YouTube, they will resonate with people who need abortions. After the interviews are collected I use visualization to create various forms, adding and removing textures. Once I feel aligned with a specific shape, the process of creation begins.
What are the materials you used, and how did you select them?
Objects speak to me. I will often pluck something from the trash, even though my friends will tell me I am a hoarder and should throw it away. How I intend to use that object is almost always in flux. This is especially true of a wooden object I find. Wood is always talking to me, sharing its memories.
The highchair I used for the Blair piece was such an object, and it was just screaming at me. Walking late, around midnight with my pitbull Remi, I saw a girl looming over this angular-looking structure. When I saw it, I knew I just had to have it. So grabbing it with one arm and with the other trying to keep Remi from pulling me over, I painfully carried it home.
Blair had a multifetal reduction, which means that during a pregnancy of twins or more, one baby is not viable and the doctor has to perform an abortion of one baby to protect the vitality of the other baby.
Velvette was in a postpartum body when she realized she was pregnant again. She knew she needed to recover. Being a mom already and also knowing that abortion is a safe procedure, she felt a bit of sadness but mostly relief that she could focus healing and being present for her newborn.
Polyurethane I love because of the physicality of it. I’m hunched over sawing shapes. My whole body hurts the next day. Once I have the shape I want, I like to form its base structure quickly, and polyurethane gives me that flexibility.
Talking more about materiality: the silk I used for the “Urvi” sculpture first looked like milk before I dipped it in resin. Another sculpture, “Tameka,” has 5,000 tacks in it, coated with 20 layers of resin. And the back of “Rian” is window screening handwoven. Ultimately, I choose the materials that speak to the conceptual framework of each sculpture.
Tameka knew her partner was harmful and so when she got pregnant again she also knew an abortion in secret was her safest option. A couple years later her partner coerced her, developing into an ectopic pregnancy. The doctors said it was nothing, decentering her care and almost killing her.
Rian unexpectedly became pregnant. She was relieved when she could get an abortion and eventually exit her long-term relationship that was not in her best interest. Now she’s focusing on her own dreams and getting back to self-love.
Can you talk briefly about the colors you’ve chosen for the pieces and how they reference the subjects?
The people I interviewed were sharing that moment in their life with me from when they found out they were pregnant to when they had resolved to have an abortion. It’s often very raw and we might both be crying, laughing, allowing ourselves to feel.
I energetically widen my chest and let these moments take up time and space. I LISTEN! Some of the stories are being told in their entirety for the first time. For others, it’s a matter of adding or removing layers, as their memory shapes and reshapes the story they’ve told many times.
The colors in my work are like an aura of the person whose energy I call forth in the materials. But it is only a moment or a handful of moments when a person evokes these particular colors. We are constantly evolving, changing, and so are the colors that radiate in our lives.
Lymariz felt great about her life. Young and in her first semester of art school she knew that a pregnancy would offset any visions she had for herself. After her abortion though, she felt despair. The abortion brought up many core wounds for Lymariz. She didn’t confront them for another twenty years. Now she works with women as a life coach.
Was there a moment when you were very discouraged during the work, and how did you get past it?
“Gabriela” had a large claw-like structure attached to the front of it. It had a mood. It wasn’t Gabriela’s mood. I took off the large claw, but then I felt somewhat crushed. The whole identity of the work felt displaced and it felt too much to bear. I was really in my head about it, and I didn’t touch the work for 9 months. Eventually, with time, I was able to come back to it with a fresh perspective.
Gabriela’s pregnancy was unexpected and her abortion was straightforward. It wasn’t the right time and she was relieved when she could move past the pregnancy and continue on with her life.
What was the most surprising individual story?
What surprised me most was how much I didn’t know about our bodies and how much some of the people I was interviewing didn’t know until they were in the clinic or ER. Many people also felt uncomfortable telling their story. Many of those I asked declined because they were scared. The patriarchy want to keep us uninformed about our power and the healthcare options we may need so that they can continue to take away our rights. Sex Ed. is for the most part out of touch and limited. We need to seek out our own knowledge about our bodies.
Each story had commonalities, and each story was also unique. Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” was one of the first monumental installations to really capture our similarities and our differences. This is captured in my sculptures. The materiality, techniques and colors also possess commonalities but so many people come into the show and say how they love that each one is unique, individual. And I think that is the best compliment, because I love difference.
Which piece and story resonate most with viewers that have seen the show? Why?
What I am most proud of is that the sculptures resonate differently with different people. One person came in and was particularly drawn to “Temperance.” For that sculpture I was looking a lot at Eva Hesse’s “Accession” series created from 1967–68. Hesse was always confronting her identity throughout her life. I felt that Temperance shares that with Hesse. And so it made sense to reference Hesse’s sculptures while I was working on “Temperance.”
Temperance was in the navy when she found out she was pregnant. Knowing her career was an important part of her life journey, she opted for an abortion.
Another artist who used to work in healthcare felt drawn to Morgan. They felt the work captured a membrane quality. This type of viscerality is a thread that links the sculptures together in the series.
Morgan had an illegal but medically safe abortion in Jamaica. Despite the possible legal ramifications, Morgan felt it was more important for her life to proceed with an abortion.
What would you like to tell the world through this show? What feelings do you hope to inspire in the viewer?
I don’t think about this when I am making my work. I make my work and then I listen. What I love about abstraction is its ability to tell stories without being fully known. To be not fully known is to be powerful.