A wall full of flowers seems a little out of place for this Loveland, Colo., artist. They’re stunning close-ups of colorful petals, but not exactly the athletic pole dancers and artistic nudes that I have come to expect from G. Mark Lewis.
Oh, wait. Is that? Yes, yes, it is. That’s not a petal, after all.
This new collection of photos is called “By Any Other Name,” and it goes on exhibit at the Artworks Loveland gallery and art studio in downtown Loveland throughout the month of June.
The title of the exhibit (inspired by the Shakespeare quote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”) gives insight into its purpose.
As the story goes, at one nude photoshoot, Lewis decided to incorporate some flowers from a vase in his studio. He was surprisingly struck by how similar the flower petals looked to the model’s vulva, and that started him thinking.
Both things were a part of nature. Both a flower and a vagina even served a role in the continuation of their respective species. Both were beautiful, he thought.
Yet one was prominently displayed and admired, while the other was always kept hidden, insofar as it was even banned from being publicly shown.
Lewis thought about controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who did some lesser-known black-and-white photos with flowers.
Then Lewis thought about painter Georgia O’Keeffe, and how her paintings of flowers had been likened to representations of female genitalia, despite her repeated denial of it.
“Whether she meant it or not, they certainly look that way, and that debate goes on to this day,” Lewis said.
Then he stopped.
“Yeah, but what if you did do it on purpose? What if you tried to combine them?” he asked.
He began experimenting with the concept in photography and became intrigued with the idea. As a 20-plus-year veteran photographer and photography teacher, Lewis isn’t a fan of Photoshop. He set up all photos in studio, and the only post-production work was adjusting the temperature and tint so the vulva’s color matched the flower’s.
As people heard about his work, more people stepped forward to participate, until he had more than two dozen women and a waiting list. That’s when the project took another surprising turn.
“I honestly wish I could say I had thought this through, but I really didn’t. It just sort of evolved,” Lewis said. “Suddenly, I had women sharing stories, sometimes extreme stories about emotional grief, the need to reverse negative feelings about their bodies, to see themselves in a different light.”
One woman (all asked to remain anonymous, due to the intimacy of the photographs) wanted to feel like she owned her body again, after being pregnant and experiencing the trauma of birth.
“Everything felt foreign and broken,” she wrote in an email. “This allows me to look at my most intimate parts as my own again and as something beautiful.”
Another woman wrote it made “something beautiful out of a body part that I had perceived to be the cause of my pain.” She had been sexually assaulted by an adult when she was a pre-teen and had struggled with how to cope all her life.
Another participant said she was seeking liberation, after she had grown up feeling ashamed and thinking her vagina was disgusting.
“Seeing my vagina as part of a flower in nature reminded me that it is a beautiful and natural part of nature, and that all flowers are like vaginas, and each unique one is so beautiful and intricate.”
Another woman explained that her “petals” are a part of her body that she cannot easily look at.
“That part of any woman’s anatomy is simultaneously stigmatized as private and indecent and glorified as sexy and desirable,” she wrote.
She said the shoot allowed her to look at her body in a new, artistic light and connect with it in a way she hadn’t before.
The stories go on, and they make me think about my own body. I relate to the stories, the stigmas and I clearly see the empowerment. I could sign up for the photo shoot. But why won’t I?
I think my hesitation hides in something Lewis said: the fear of being misunderstood.
“This is a part of the anatomy that normally tends to be be for erotica or porn when photographed. It’s not a fine art feeling to it at all. It’s usually meant for arousal and a sexual nature, and that was not the intent of this at all,” he said.
Although the exhibit is not sexual, he still has to put a sign on the studio door to let people know there is nudity within. And although the photos are tastefully printed and framed in a designated hallway in the gallery and his artist’s statement clearly spells out the intention (“This is a fine art look at a part of anatomy that we normally don’t see as art, but, at best, as erotica”), Lewis said he knows some people will feel offended by it.
“Some people aren’t going to like it, and that’s OK. And somebody will find them sexual, but that wasn’t the intent,” Lewis said. “Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Art will always polarize people. Some will like it and some won’t. I welcome that. But I’m not going to apologize.”
Just like he doesn’t want the women to feel like they have to apologize for their bodies.
Like his project or not, he said, we have no reason to be ashamed of vaginas. Or of flowers.
“What nature and evolution has given us is a good thing,” he said.
See For Yourself
See G. Mark Lewis’s photos online at gmarklewis.tumblr.com. You can see many of the photos from his “By Any Other Name” project here. Photos contain nudity.