Think "bully" and the stereotypical image is still a scowling young boy. But, as the art exhibition "Mean Girls" attests, the capacity to behave badly isn't limited to one gender.
The exhibition, at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's SPACE gallery, Downtown, invites a conversation about the effect that bullying has upon others and ways to stop it. A free, public youth art workshop on Saturday is an example of the community programming that curator Jill Larson is offering to complement the show and reach a wider audience. Other events include a dance interpretation and a session on bullying in the workplace.
The 10 artists whose works make up "Mean Girls" were not given specific guidelines. "They could come at this from an experience they had as a child, as an adult, an inspiration from the media or whatever resonated with them," Ms. Larson said. They were selected because "they all approached art from a feminist perspective, they are all women and some had worked directly with women's issues," she said.
The exhibition continues through April 28 at 812 Liberty Ave., Downtown. The STAYCEE PEARL dance project will perform "BEEAHTCH!!!" at 7 p.m. April 20 at the gallery. The five exhibiting out-of-town artists will give artist talks at 1 p.m. April 27 at the gallery.
Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, when on-street parking is free. Admission and events are free. Information: 412-325-7723 or www.spacepittsburgh.org.
Among the artworks in the exhibition are the beheaded figures and threatening animals of "Lore," allegorical drawings that offer a visceral interpretation of the theme by Marian Barber of Philadelphia.
The exhibition gave Pittsburgh artist Jenn Gooch "an opportunity to revise my own troubled childhood," she wrote in an artist statement, via a video in which she allows her "11-year-old self to become one of the 'mean girls' via my now 34-year-old body."
Traci Molloy of Brooklyn has for 15 years examined loss in relation to adolescent violence and bullying in her artwork. She exhibits two 44-by-60-inch digital prints of a young boy and girl. Painstakingly cut out of each are the names and ages of children who were driven to suicide by bullying, which lie like so many fallen flower petals beneath the prints.
As part of the exhibit, Ms. Larson designed standing wooden figures based on the universal symbol for female often found on restroom doors. The figures are made in two sizes to represent adults and children and are done in two colors. The pink ones invite girls and women to write about bullying they've experienced; the red ones provide space for participants to write confessions and apologies for when they acted as a bully toward another girl or woman.
The figures are periodically taken out of the gallery to public sites such as Market Square and to schools and campuses. "They'll just show up randomly on street corners, in parks, at bus stops," Ms. Larson said.
Not 'them and us'
The inspiration for the exhibition came "basically from being a woman in our culture and living a long time," Ms. Larson said. "I experienced some bullying when I was younger, and I've experienced some as an adult. I have two sons who have also experienced bullying. Depending upon how you define it, I think everyone has been bullied at one point or another."
Although bullying has received a lot of attention of late and anti-bullying campaigns are conducted in many schools, Ms. Larson said there is more to consider than is usually addressed.
"I don't think it's them and us," she said. "I think it's all of us."
She hopes that the exhibition will inspire people to "redefine what bullying is and look at themselves within the context of bullying, to see it as more gray and not the black-and-white us-and-them."
"I don't think bullies like to be bullies. At the moment [when they are bullying someone], it might feel good but later not so good. I think a bully doesn't feel good about him or herself," Ms. Larson said.
The Pittsburgh chapter of Strong Women, Strong Girls, a national organization that seeks to empower girls and women through mentoring, is the sponsor of "Mean Girls." Executive director Amy Parker said the exhibition has been "a fantastic conversation starter for many of our constituents."
When several mentors and volunteers were at an event at the gallery, the artworks prompted a discussion of "memories of their own and the future they want to see for our girls," Ms. Parker said.
During the organization's current program year, 160 mentors from five local college chapters are working with more than 500 girls in third through fifth grades.
"The mentors see bullying in the schools every day and also on their own campuses. It's pervasive," she said. Cyber bullying is evident, but verbal and physical bullying still exist, Ms. Parker said.
The mission of Strong Women, Strong Girls is to build self-esteem, and one of the burdens that girls sometimes have to overcome to achieve that is an experience of bullying, she said.
"Bullying and trauma kind of go hand in hand if the bullying goes unchecked," said Chuck Lord, clinical liaison at The Bradley Center in Robinson, a regional behavioral health care and child welfare system for young boys and girls.
"The media portrays bullying as the classic playground situation where a boy pushes another boy down and steals his lunch money. It's very overt. Girls are more covert in their aggression. It's behind the back. I'm always on the lookout for that power differential," Mr. Lord said.
"Girls also develop peer groups which then target [another] girl," said Lisa Fox, Bradley CEO.
Bullying by girls includes name calling, gossiping and rejection of a particular girl, or boy, from the group, she said.
Cell phones: hole in safety net
The distinction between male and female forms of bullying, however, has begun to blur with the ubiquitousness of cell phones, Mr. Lord said.
"In our experience, there is more parity between boys and girls now," Ms. Fox added. "Girls are not always the victims; they're also the perpetrators now."
Cell phones also poke a hole in a child's safety net.
"In the past, kids were able to get a break from bullying ... home was a safe place. With cyber bullying, there's no safe place for them," Mr. Lord said.
Although more anti-bullying campaigns are being waged in elementary and primary schools, children still are hesitant to talk with adults about bullying, Ms. Fox said. She is heartened by the conversations that "Mean Girls" is inspiring. "The fact that people are talking is so hugely important."
Bullying doesn't necessarily end with childhood. The advocacy website www.healthyworkplacebill.org reports that 49 percent of adult Americans have been bullied at work or have witnessed workplace bullying and that 72 percent of bullies outrank their targets.
"The problem is not so much physical bullying in the workplace," Mr. Lord said. "There are means to deal with that. Verbal bullying -- even cyber bullying outside the workplace -- is more problematic."
The Bradley Center will conduct two sessions April 21 at SPACE, supported by The Grable Foundation.
The first session, which begins at 1 p.m., will focus on school-aged girls who have been bullied. The second session, beginning at 2:30 p.m., will focus on bullying in the workplace. The sessions are free and open to the public, but because seating is limited, reservations are encouraged at www.meangirlsartexhibit.com.
Asked who should consider attending the sessions, Mr. Lord answered, "Anybody who is a father or a brother, a mom or a daughter."
"In our experience, you don't have to go far to find someone who has been bullied himself or knows someone who has been," Ms. Fox added.
The "Mean Girls" art exhibition also includes works by Pittsburgh artists Vanessa German, Randie Snow and Sonja Sweteritsch; Lilly Cannon of Atlanta; Andrea Sherrill Evans of Boston; Barbara Schreiber of Charlotte, N.C.; and Alison Stehlik of Allendale, Mich.
Ms. Larson and the four exhibiting Pittsburgh artists will conduct the youth workshop for girls, mothers and daughters from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Participants will create artworks and chat informally.
"We envision sitting around the table and that the young girls will share stories, and that there will be some honest and open dialogue about their experiences of bullying," Ms. Larson said.
Hundreds of visitors have seen the exhibition to date, and they're not all female.
"A father who was there [recently] told me his teenage son told him that he felt 'sad' upon leaving," Ms. Larson said. "He also told me that they talked about the show and the topic for the entire one-hour drive home. That's the thing about this show -- it's a gateway for a conversation about something very important. Bullying and the trauma that comes with it can devastate an individual and alter a family for life."
That bullying is more common than she'd thought is one of the surprises Ms. Larson had while working on the project.
In addition, the figures on which participants are asked to write about their experiences have taught her something.
"I've also learned that younger females are less inclined to associate themselves with the pink figures because they don't want to be associated with a victim. They feel shame with that label. From what I've experienced, it's easier for older women to resonate with the pink figure. I didn't expect that generation gap."
People have asked Ms. Larson: "Is this about anti-bullying or is this an art exhibition?"
"Well, couldn't it be both?" she asked.neigh_city - neigh_west - artarchitecture - neigh_north - neigh_east - neigh_south - neigh_washington - neigh_westmoreland
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.