Local artist creates Pope's portrait from condoms
In March 2009, Niki Johnson, a Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design instructor, was living in Memphis and, while eating a bowl of cereal, heard a radio news story that inspired her.
In the piece, a translator relayed this quote from Pope Benedict XVI, who had recently visited Africa:
"I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it."
Johnson was mystified that the Pope said prophylactics – condoms – would actually increase the AIDS epidemic in Africa. She was also inspired.
A few months later, Johnson made a donation to a health advocacy group in exchange for 6,000 condoms. She began to work on what, three years later, would become a massive art piece called "Eggs Benedict," a portrait of the Pope made from 17,000 colored, non-lubricated condoms threaded into a piece of wire mesh.
It's similar to a large-scale latch-hook, except instead of using pieces of yarn, Johnson used rubbers.
During the three years Johnson spent working on this project, she encountered a few hurdles. Because condoms do not come in enough different colors to create the necessary tonal range Johnson needed, she had to create new shades by stuffing colored condoms into other colored condoms.
Johnson also started to notice that the latex was breaking down.
"Several of the first condoms woven in the grid were beginning to become ashy, losing their vibrancy," says Johnson. "Then I was presented with the second hurdle: learning more about latex degradation."
So Johnson spent time experimenting with different preservation techniques, which took a year and a half. She laid condoms in window sills, on top of book shelves under fluorescent and incandescent lights, dipped them in castor oil, Astroglide, sprayed them with WD-40 and Armor All, as well as dusted them with talc.
"The results were pretty clear. First and most importantly, the condoms needed to be non-lubricated in order to inter-stuff them in an expedient fashion. Secondly, condoms treated with spermicidal lubricant, Armor All, WD-40, and castor oil crumbled or became more prone to snapping within 12-18 months. Talc, though effective in sealing the latex, dulled the colors. Sunlight, fluorescents and heat also were a detriment to the material," she says.
To increase the life of the piece, Johnson realized she would need to design an airtight case with plexiglass sides on the front and back that she could flood with argon gas.
By the fall of 2012, Johnson – who holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison – had moved to Milwaukee. Her husband, a biochemist, accepted a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and she got a job at MIAD.
"I was over 1,000 miles from my first condom connection in Memphis," says Johnson, who began calling and visiting Milwaukee-based AIDS testing centers and networking with health advocacy groups in search of a person or group interested in trading donations for condoms.
Finding more condoms – she needed 14,000 more – turned out to be a difficult endeavor.
"Many of the organizations that supply testing and sexual health information have been under fire for a number of years, and more recently following several conservative referendums are walking both political and financial tight ropes," says Johnson. "The last thing I wanted to do was in any way jeopardize the crucial services they provide by involving them in a project that could potentially be politically inflammatory."
Finally, in mid-November 2012, the cases of colored, unlubricated condoms arrived, allowing Johnson to continue the portrait.
"For months, I sat on the couch at night, X-ACTO blade within reach, methodically slicing open hundreds of foil wrappers, pulling out their contents, unrolling them and then bagging each color group," says Johnson.
Stitching the portrait and unwrapping, unrolling and bagging the condoms took about the same amount of time: 135 hours each.
Johnson is building the frame and a pedestal that it will rest on. It is not intended to necessarily hang on the wall, because the back side is as interesting as the front. Johnson is currently negotiating a temporary home for Eggs Benedict. Visit her blog or Facebook page for updates.
Is she considering creating a companion piece of the new Pope?
"Probably not," she says.
Way to stick it to the catholic church Nikki. Perhaps a Pope Fancis portrait made of birthcontrol pills?
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