Born in Syracuse, New York
Resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In Embodying Theory: Epistemology, Aesthetics and Resistance Tamsen Wojtanowski and Elizabeth Bishop announce their aim is to “make theory walk,” meaning render theory accessible and disperse knowledge to a diversity of communities. To describe this process, they use the metaphor of walking, an embodied activity that often takes place in public and communal spaces and opens you up to unexpected encounters and discoveries.
The idea of embodiment is also central to Wojtanowski’s artistic practice. There is a rich tradition of queer and feminist artists using photography to center the body by documenting its transformations—through costume, pregnancy, aging, and even plastic surgery. However, Wojtanowski takes a different tact and centers embodiment in the act of making. She blends methods from painting, drawing, print making, and photography to create images with layered exposures, collage, and hand-cut negatives. These methods privilege the artist’s hands over or working in concert with the machine of the camera.
This is particularly true of the cyanotype, a method of making photographic prints discovered in the 1840s that involves placing objects directly on photosensitive paper. It was often used to reproduce diagrams (the blueprint) and document specimens. While it limits the artist’s color pallet, it opens up the practice of art-making because of its simplicity and accessibility. Cyanotypes can be made without any special equipment and don’t require a darkroom. Cheap kits are sold in toy stores and museum gift shops. In that way, Wojtanowski can “make theory walk” by extending her commitment to accessibility to her own artistic practice.
Using this relatively simple process, Wojtanoswski creates complex images with startling details and tonal range. In “Everything We Need” a thick, undulating mass hulks around a delicate scene of a room scattered with toys, a stick (maybe picked up on a walk?), and a window to peer out of. In “Constellation” she builds a spectrum of blue wavy ribbons upon which float a stack of wide-open eyes. In both her cyanotypes and prints, her layers create playfulness and humor as in “Hahaha,” in which a grinning ghost giggles up from a bush or in “Hi bb,” with a tiny hand waving from between someone’s legs.
“There is a love-sick-teenage feeling in this work that is the same as the feeling in a great sad pop song. It feels all your own, but you know your kindred spirits will understand it completely,” writes David Oresick, executive director of the Silver Eye Gallery. “Though Wojtanowski playfully summons a teenage sentimentality, the anxieties and fears she confronts are not just for the young. Her anxieties are born from her roles as citizen, parent, artist, and spouse.”
While that anxiety may appear in the stacks of watchful eyes or in whatever lurks outside the room in “Everything We Need,” there is also a satisfying solidity in these photographs, a sense of an assertive objecthood. The eyes—which could just as easily mean a loving gaze as they can signify surveillance—are clearly delineated from the background, creating a sense of space in an otherwise flat image. In her artist’s statement, Wojtanowski describes herself as a “queer artist in the third trimester of my first pregnancy” who is feeling the push-pull of being “fiercely protective of this yet unnamed passenger inside of me” while also wanting to preserve her own independent self. She offers this protection and independence to each object within her images by clearly delineating them.
Wojtanowski writes, “I am experiencing a function of biological femaleness while finding myself existing somewhere on the cusp. On the cusp of gender, of before and after birth, of what now means in comparison to then.” In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson also meditates on the queer transformations of pregnancy: “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s ‘normal’ state, and accounts a radical intimacy with—and radical alienation from—one’s body?” Artists like Wojtanowski and writers like Maggie Nelson refigure pregnancy, not as the hallmark of heteronormative coupling, but as an experience that challenges a foundational idea of the heteropatriarchy: that independence and self-reliance is our highest purpose. Instead, we are profoundly reliant on one another and perhaps our aim should be to acknowledge, strengthen, and celebrate those bonds.
The layering within Wojtanowski’s images reflects the queerness of pregnancy and parenthood, not as a negotiation between self and other, but as a recognition of the messiness, creativity, and play between the two. Or is it one? Or three? Or some wild assemblage of selves and others we have yet to imagine? There is a buoyancy to these floating images, which urge us to delight in looking and remind us that looking is an embodied and communal activity.
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet and essayist based in Milwaukee. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Epoch, and The Crab Orchard Review and her art writing and cultural criticism has appeared in Paper, the Washington Post, and the Boston Review. You can see more of her work at www.ehooverink.com.
Little Box of Rocks by Tamsen Wojtanowski
“I used to do it all the time.”
“Pretend that no one could see me, until it seemed like I didn’t exist.” I felt the craving for a beer. We were sitting in a booth at the diner, the smell of eggs was making me sick. I passed the ketchup. The french fries were salty and fresh. “I liked the feeling, but now it’s all mixed up and I can’t tell anymore if anyone can really see me or not.”
“Then why’d you shave your head?”
“Why’d you shave yours?” I replied quickly, pushing a fry into my mouth.
“I didn’t, I’m a baby.” He sighed. “Just, it’s not exactly inconspicuous.”
Our conversation only imagined, I looked over at Gary with ambivalence. He looked up, stuffing food into his face, never breaking eye contact. He had some in his eyebrows, mashed into the folds of his neck underneath his chin, more across his chest.
“Would you like anything else today?” The waitress asked.
I glanced down at my now cold half cup of coffee and the mess Gary had made. “No, I think we’re all set. Thank you.” She left the slip, placed carefully so that it wouldn’t get wet or dirty. Gary strained to reach the salt and pepper shakers while I held onto the waistband of his pants with one hand and searched through our bag for a burp cloth to wipe down the table with the other. It wasn’t Gary’s fault, he was a baby, but it wasn’t the waitress' either. It was my fault that I had brought him there and had fed him fried food this early in the morning.
Outside it was both too cold and too warm for a jacket. I adjusted Gary’s stroller straps, picking a bit of ketchup off from where it had dried on his cheek. Gary looked up while I did this, never breaking eye contact, and I suddenly felt the urge to eat his face, to consume him and his loveliness. Grabbing him by the collar of his shirt, I growled. Gary giggled. He now had seven and a half teeth.
You were conceived in a heat wave. The hottest day in October in 78 years.
“It’s just science.”, I was told when asking about my own origin story. I had imagined a wind swept walk home in the rain at dusk, stars in the cold night sky, warm blueberry muffins and a morning spent inside.
So, let me tell you now, on that hot, humid, morning in October: You were a fervent prayer, tucked in between the chaos of marriage and family and work, the ache of lust and the itch to run free. That morning, I walked to work arriving a few minutes late, already a list and a line of things to do waiting for me there. I did my best to take the time to think of you as I was eating my banana. To share with you the view, a bird’s back and wings catching the sun as it shone, slanting between the buildings.The bird diving and then dipping back up again in dramatic fashion against the sand colored high rise next door.
It was never and would never be, just science.
“There’s always going to be someone telling you you’re doing it wrong, Gary.” I said over my shoulder, straining under the weight of the wooden post I was dragging across the yard. “Thank you.” I said to his back. Gary, who did not break pace, as he returned to the pile in the driveway of broken bits of bricks and collected rocks from riverbeds and long walks. Dutifully he delivered these to me, an ever growing pile at my feet. These would be added later, once the foundation set and the shape articulated. Maybe I could hammer them in, to spots where the wood was soft, hang them like decoration from wire or string, grind them into a powder, paint them on with a brush.
I had made drawings prior. Well, I had thought about it. I thought about it while feeding Gary yogurt before the sunrise, while feeding Gary midday, while he slept and I did his laundry, while sharing cheddar crackers and preparing canned pasta for our dinner.
Gary was growing strong and able. Physically confident in complicated movements. He communicated with movement. His arm darting up, hand outstretched, motioning to the sky. I hadn’t seen a blue heron in years. This was Gary’s first.
The monument wasn’t right. It was too angry, mean. The eyes uneven and too far apart. The mouth agape, nose scrunched up. I didn’t panic as it washed away in the heavy rains.
Gary was asleep and I knew he would be just as happy to build it again tomorrow.