Outdoor art performance causes stir in Elgin

  • Side Street Studio Arts holds an outdoor "Live Paint the Moment" event on Fridays in downtown Elgin during Farmers Market hours. A July 3 performance caused a behind-the-scenes controversy.

      Side Street Studio Arts holds an outdoor "Live Paint the Moment" event on Fridays in downtown Elgin during Farmers Market hours. A July 3 performance caused a behind-the-scenes controversy. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/31/2020 7:29 PM

An outdoor live performance by an artist who wore a tinfoil phallus to paint on canvas during the Farmers Market in downtown Elgin caused a behind-the-scenes stir, with a cultural arts commissioner saying it was inappropriate and organizers advocating for art taking place in the open without censorship.

The artist was Melon Fernsebner, a 20-year-old transgender person and student at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago who took part in "Live Paint the Moment" held July 3 by Side Street Studio Arts. The art studio is among three nonprofits that last week were allowed by the city council to convert grant money -- in this case $7,353 -- into operational funding in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The event takes place during the Friday Farmers Market but is not part of the market itself. It features artists of color and LGBTQ+ artists who paint in the gravel parking lot across from the art studio, alongside Spring Street. The art studio provides supplies and artists keep the proceeds if they sell their work.

Cultural arts commissioner Jane Erlandson, an artist and volunteer for Side Street Studio Arts, said she was "dumbfounded" to watch Fernsebner's performance. "I said, 'There's families out there and this is a farmers market and it's Elgin, for God's sakes.'"

Her objection was to the setting, not the performance, said Erlandson, who said she is gay. "There is nothing wrong with that style of art but people should have the right to choose that. They could choose to go to an event where you could expect that, and that would be fine," she said.

Erlandson complained to the artist and later to the owners of the art studio, Erin Rehberg and Tanner Melvin, who were not present that day because they were battling COVID-19, from which they have since recovered. Farmers Market manager Christina Gonzales said the performance prompted complaints from at least one customer; she also said she is OK with the performance itself, but not the setting.

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Ivette De Santiago, assistant director for Side Street Studio Arts, who was there July 3, said she didn't get a negative vibe from onlookers, including families. "Anybody who complained, if they just stopped for a minute and kind of looked at what was actually happening, they would have understood there was a deeper message than just a shocking visual," De Santiago said.

Fernsebner, who uses the pronoun "they," said most feedback was positive. The performative art is titled "Scar Painting" and is about "radical trans presence," Fernsebner said. People typically assume Fernsebner, who was assigned female at birth and later had top surgery (a double mastectomy), is male.

"I don't feel like I can make work without acknowledging that," they said. "I think it's about time in society that we don't have this obsession with patriarchy that's aligned with the phallus. That's really where much of my art is coming from right now."

The open location of the Elgin event was somewhat a surprise because it had been described as a "back parking lot," Fernsebner said. Rehberg said it will be more clear the future.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"In my head it was, 'I was invited to paint here, and this is how I paint. If somebody asks me to stop, I'll stop,'" Fernsebner said. "Whatever response comes from my work, I'm here for it. I'm not offended."

Rehberg said she didn't know what kind of performance Fernsebner had planned, though it wouldn't necessarily have given her pause. Studio staff members informed Rehberg about the complaints and she decided to let things proceed after being reassured there was no hate speech and no one was getting hurt, she said.

While she understands the perspective of those who complained, Rehberg said, the goal is to give an open platform of expression to traditionally marginalized artists -- without deciding how, what or where is acceptable. "I don't know who gets to be the judge of that," she said.

So could explanatory information have been provided during Fernsebner's performance? The question then becomes whether that should happen with all artists, Rehberg said.

"I feel strongly that is up to them," she said. "There are artists who won't want to title their work because they don't want to put ideas in your head, and there are artists who have two-page explanations."

Rehberg said those involved with the art studio and others who saw the performance ended up having extensive conversations about the topic, which is positive.

It's important to talk about the trans experience, particularly in the context of children who might deal with that, Fernsebner said. "These are things that we need to acknowledge. There are problems caused by not acknowledging it, and the fear around it."

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