Vending (Scylla/Charybdis)

2012 Mother’s Day card
May 2012
Materials:  bile, cynicism, electrons


While the subject of abortion is never far from the news cycle, there has been a lot of unusual news this year regarding contraception and sex education, and the rights of medical professionals versus those of their female patients:

It is not without reason that 2012 has been called the Year of the War of Women. We have tumbled down the rabbit hole, and our fall does not appear to be slowing.

Many who oppose a woman's right to abortion are proud to champion a fertilized egg's rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, yet they seem to possess slight regard for those same rights when that egg becomes a woman. Collectively they have donated a tremendous amount of money towards electing politicians who think as they do.

Politicians who will remove sex education curricula from schools, with the predictable result that many girls won't know the connections between pregnancy and specific sexual activities.

Politicians who will limit or even eliminate access to various forms of birth control, ensuring that girls who have sex are almost certain to get pregnant.

And politicians who will ensure that, once pregnant, a girl will deliver her fertilized egg to term -- even if pregnancy complications might kill her in the process.

Insert dollar, get baby. The anti-choice political machine in action. From this comes "Vending", which I feel should be dedicated to women everywhere.


The most obvious element is the dollar, inserted into the woman's body from the left as though into a vending machine. The "INSERT FACE UP" directions are also meant to recall the Missionary Position favored by certain religious types as the only God-sanctioned position for procreative acts.

The dollar fuels the religious/political engine of enforced procreation, so its representation here has been altered to reflect that fact. The Federal Reserve seal on the left is now an ovum, apparently bristling with concave receptacles for sperm. Letters have been elided from the "legal tender" notice above it, which now contains common words in our political discourse around choice: "HIS, NOT I; LEGAL FOR ALL, PUBLIC". The word "PRIVATE" is obscured and so appropriately absent. Also prominent are the words "FEDERAL" and "STATES", both intruding into the woman's body much as the political entities do. Finally we have what those dollars are ostensibly purchasing: "THE [family] UNIT".

What of the woman herself? From her breasts to her womb she possesses conventional anatomy, because to certain religious institutions this is a woman's primary function. Outside of those she is monstrous. A woman may have a brain and an independent will (represented by her head), non-procreative sexual desires (legs), and a skill for activities other than child-rearing (hands), but to some people these are regarded as mere pathways to sin. So I have depicted each as an evil force of its own:

The snake head represents the perception of woman as the source of Original Sin. It recalls the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (shown here as the conventional apple). The apple is ringed by an ouroboros, another mystical serpent representing an endless cycle which serves here as a metaphor for the transmission of knowledge (and sin) from mother to daughter. But duality abounds in symbols. The coiled snake is also an element of the Rod of Asclepius, a symbol of health and healing.

Between the apple and the ouroboros is a symbol that many Christians would take for a demonic pentacle. Yet a closer examination reveals Greek letters at the vertices. To the ancient Greeks, the pentagram symbolized "hugieia": health and wholeness. It also stood for the the Greek goddess of health, Hygieia, from which we get the word "hygiene". The point-upward pentagram is also the symbol of the Wiccan (woman-centered) pagan religion. And of course, the five-pointed star is one of the symbols of America herself.

As for the torque around the woman's neck: that's just the lower part of the Federal Reserve Seal on the dollar where the city is shown. Really I just liked the look of it, but the metaphor of "government around our necks" works too.

The lizard legs/tail, as of a dragon, represent the perceived threat of women's non-procreative sexuality. The spiral tail fades into yet another dual-natured symbol that recalls both peril and beneficence: the labyrinth. Three labyrinths are shown: the triple-spiral superimposed over the tip of the tail, the circular maze behind it, and the labyrinth of Chartres in the background. At the heart of the Cretan labyrinth lay the perilous minotaur, half human and half beast, a potent metaphor for unbridled sexuality. Yet labyrinths, like the one at Chartres, are also used for holy contemplation and meditation.

The spirals and the watery form of the Chartres labyrinth also evoke the whirlpool and the legend of the Charybdis, which in Greek mythology was also a nymph turned into a sea monster and later identified with a whirlpool. Charybdis was paired with Scylla, other nymph-turned-monster, which I have intended as another interpretation of the woman's head. The expression "caught between Scylla and Charybdis" means "trapped between two dangers" or two difficult choices. If Scylla is the woman's head and Charybdis the feet, then midway between them is her womb. So the visual metaphor is particularly appropriate, given the nature of the pro/anti-choice dilemma that our society faces. No matter which way the laws come down, someone's going to be unhappy.

(Appropriately enough for the day, Scylla and Charybdis were also the names of two of the three cats that watched over my cradle after I was brought home from the hospital: a Siamese and an Abyssinian respectively.)

The multiple arms and hands symbolize a woman's capability (and desire) to devote her life to other activities besides motherhood. This, too, is seen as abberant or monstrous by some people. In Hindu representational artwork, the multiple arms of a deity (such as Kali) symbolize power and the ability to perform several acts at the same time. Here, the rightmost arm may be recognized as that of the Statue of Liberty -- woman's liberty being the essence of what is at stake.

The "2" on the woman's hand represents the notion that a pregnant woman is no longer a single entity but a chimera. Remember, you're eating for 2 now. This is reinforced by the two "1"s on the bill itself, which also stand for the separate male and female components of fertilization shown on the bill. 1 + 1 = 2.

The fetus purchased by anti-sex-education, anti-contraception, and anti-abortion dollars is nestled in the oval that normally ensconces Washington, the "father" of our country. Coming out of it is the umbilicus, the symbol of that which is also born but which is ignored or forgotten. The umbilicus is haloed by the treasury seal (attesting to its true parentage). Note the arrows leading off to the right, a continuation of the path of the inserted dollar. The umbilicus symbolizes unchecked population growth and all the social and environmental ills that come with it. The number "7040400000", rendered as the serial number of a dollar bill, is in fact the rough world population on the morning of Mother's Day 2012: seven billion, forty million, four hundred thousand.

Finally, in the background are two passages from "Alice in Wonderland", representing the topsy-turvy nightmare that American girls have fallen into. On the left is the passage where Alice's neck has grown long and serpent-like, and a passing Pigeon sqwaks that she is a Serpent:

`But I'm NOT a serpent, I tell you!' said Alice. `I'm a— I'm a—'

`Well! WHAT are you?' said the Pigeon. `I can see you're trying to invent something!'

`I—I'm a little girl,' said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day.

`A likely story indeed!' said the Pigeon in a tone of the deepest contempt. `I've seen a good many little girls in my time, but never ONE with such a neck as that! No, no! You're a serpent; and there's no use denying it. I suppose you'll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!'

`I HAVE tasted eggs, certainly,' said Alice, who was a very truthful child; `but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.'

`I don't believe it,' said the Pigeon; `but if they do, why then they're a kind of serpent, that's all I can say.'

On the right, Alice rescues a baby...

'If I don't take this child away with me,' thought Alice, 'they're sure to kill it in a day or two: wouldn't it be murder to leave it behind?

...only to discover that the end result is not what she hoped it would be, as described by her conversation with the Cheshire Cat going up the right hand edge:

‘By-the-bye, what became of the baby? I'd almost forgotten to ask.’

‘It turned into a pig,’ Alice quietly said.

‘I thought it would,’ said the Cat, and vanished again.

Some social conservatives are very much concerned with bringing new babies into the world, yet they don't seem particularly concerned with the care and feeding of those babies once they exit the womb. Cutbacks in social welfare programs, in education, in neonatal care for the poor, in environmental oversight, all fuel a system geared to producing an ever-increasing number of consumers, cheap laborers, and cannon-fodder. The rich get richer, and in so doing spend ever-increasing amounts to convince the pious to pump more funds into the fetus-making machine.

By-the-bye, what became of the baby? I'd almost forgotten to ask.


Components and Creation

As usual, I used the GIMP for the digital editing, and my Wacom tablet.

I started with the dollar when assembling the composition; it provided many of the design elements used throughout the work. The ellipse of the portrait suggested a womb, so I knew I needed to find a fetus to go inside. There was a fetus drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci which I'd wanted to use in a composition for two years, so that was my obvious choice. To give the impression of an ultrasound, I flipped the portrait oval and the word above it into a negative.

Of course I needed a woman around the womb. I considered various depictions of the Madonna, but eventually stumbled upon a wax model from (catalog number A600051-Pt5). The title is: "Wax plaque showing a dissected female figure, Europe, 1801-1830." The note is "The female figure in this plaque had been dissected to show the kidneys, uterus and the blood vessels that supply the lower part of the body with blood."

I don't normally work with photorealistic images, so I tried a new technique: Gimp has a filter for "cartoonifying" a photo, picking out the edges and rendering them as lines. I basically went with a mask radius of 5 to 7 pixels and a black percent from 0.2 to 0.5, depending on the source image. Then I generally desturated the result and played with the hues to make various elements mesh. I was very happy with the results.

The head and neck was created by applying this technique to a photo of a green snake I found on the web. The snake was eventually tracked down to LEAPS, an environmental consulting service. The umbilicus was another green snake.

The legs/tail were a nightmare. I knew I wanted a scaly spiral. I tried snakes, seahorses, everything I could think of. I almost began drawing them damned thing by hand, but happily I discovered that the tail of a chameleon. has exactly the look I was after. This was the best one I could find; it's apparently an iPhone wallpaper. Still I had to do a lot of work on it: flipping it, tuning the colors, and slicing and warping it so that it would serve convincingly as thighs, legs, and tail -- even with the subtle suggestion of a knee joint. I made heavy use of the "IWarp" filter on this one.

The piece grew pretty much from the center outwards. I had no idea of the final design when I started. I let the picture elements decide. I love that the final shape of the woman's body looks like a violin's f-hole.

Other elements came from here:

What you can't see is all the stuff I threw away. I still wish I could have given her a fourth arm -- I tried Liberty's torch, an arm holding the Scales of Justice, even the arm of Rosie the Riveter from the "We Can Do It" poster. Nothing worked, either visually or thematically. I also wanted to have something on Liberty's tablet, but everything I put there seemed hackneyed and dull.

In the end I relied heavily on advice from my lady, Deborah, to guide the piece when I was caught between Scylla and Charybdis during my various false starts. She very patiently looked at numerous versions over the two weeks spent on this project, and endured my occasional bouts frustration when a day's effort had to be tossed aside because it just plain didn't fly.

Deborah also told me about the horror vacui; the fear of empty space in artwork, which (it seems) is one of my personal demons. I keep trying to shove more and more crap into the frame. When you do that, the eye doesn't know where to rest, and nothing makes sense. I still try to sneak in subtle elements by making them small, ghostly, or even blurry. Sometimes it just matters to me that they're in there, even if only at a subliminal or personal level.

The true boundary of the piece is the center rectangle where most of the content is, but since my mom displays these in 8-by-10 frames I knew I needed to resize the final piece and give it a suitable border to fill the space. I chose to extend the arrows to either side, since the money and the ever-escalating population effectively escape the frame of the events depicted here. I also did a special ghostly extension of the tail to envelop the signature, and nudged the neck out slightly. By design, the neck was slightly cut off by the upper-left border of the original frame, but when the whole thing was put together it just looked abnormally thin.