Personal and social identity explored in Library’s “Be Your Own” exhibit

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Chelsea Hipwell ‘18 watched in awe as thousands of women filled city streets for an International Women’s Day march during her semester abroad in Argentina last year. She knew this was what democracy, freedom of expression, and women’s empowerment looked like.

But as a Global Studies major studying public health, she also knew how little this celebration of women’s achievements and fight for gender parity resembled the reality for women in other parts of the world, where their voices often go unheard.

Hipwell, along with other Lehigh students, faculty, and staff, recently took their stories to canvas as part of a campus community effort that celebrates personal identity, creativity, and expression through art. A collection of their work is now on exhibit at the Be Your Own art gallery, which opened with a reception in the EWFM Library 6th floor innovation space on March 28.

Be Your Own began as a small program through Lehigh’s Center for Gender Equity, consisting of a series of four creation spaces where members of the campus community were encouraged to reflect on their identities and express their understanding, discovery, or need for healing through art.

With support from Library and Technology Services, Lehigh Art, Architecture & Design, and other organizations, the mixed media exhibit examines themes of gender-based violence, sexuality and sexual identity, mental health, and self care.

Hipwell’s piece, entitled “Ser mujer no es un crimen,” shares the space along with over 75 others -- some whimsical, some raw, many provocative. Her work -- translated in English as “To be a woman is not a crime” --  speaks to the struggle women all over the world face, simply because of their gender. “Women don’t choose to be women,” she said.

Event organizers Madison Williams '18 and Emily Ryan '18, said the goal of the creation spaces was to have participants be able to reclaim an identity, heal through art, and transform the Lehigh community through shared stories and experiences.

Another painting on display, created by graduate student Scott Grant, depicts a locked safe with its key lying just out of reach in the foreground. Grant explained that he’s often told he gives the impression of being stoic and aloof, even though he considers himself an open person. “I have lots to share with people,” he said. “I really don’t feel like I have much to hide.” He responds to them the same way he titled his piece -- “The key has been there the whole time.”

Some works in the gallery are anonymous, though many artists included a statement to describe their pieces, including one painting depicting a “life choices” fork in the road that reads simply, “Anxiety.”

Attendees who felt inspired were invited to make their own art in a pop-up creative space that included an assortment of materials, media, and tools  — including charcoal, glitter, beads, yarn, crepe paper, fabrics, markers, newspaper, glue and dried leaves and flowers -- while enjoying live music performed by Whippany Jazz Trio, a three-piece student group led by Lehigh senior Matt Korzen.

Hipwell says she and her friends welcomed the chance to express themselves through art and to create an openness about personal, cultural, and societal issues. “Like the #MeToo movement, this gallery provides a space to talk about the issues, conversations that both men and women should be having,” she said. “This project made me think about what it means to be a woman in my space in education, my space in the world, and as a traveler.”

Additional support for Be Your Own is provided by the Council on Equity and Community, Student Auxiliary Services, Faculty Committee on Student Life, the Humanities Center, and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Lehigh.

The exhibit runs through August, 2018.