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Pop Filter Hot Pick: Mean Girls Art Exhibit debuts at SPACE Gallery, launches programming

The movement to combat bullying is not just playing out in classrooms, on street corners and in YouTube videos.
Here in Pittsburgh, an ambitious new project called Mean Girls is blurring the lines between creativity, community engagement and social action.

Mean Girls, which opened on February 22nd at SPACE Gallery in Downtown's Cultural District, is redefining the role that an art exhibition can play within local and international communities. Equal parts art exhibition and community engagement project, Mean Girls features new work by 10 nationally recognized artists, including four from Pittsburgh.

The ambitious exhibition uses contemporary art as a vehicle for addressing head-on the significant impact that bullying is having on young women around the world. Through the work itself, and a full schedule of multi-disciplinary events, Mean Girls aims to raise awareness about the current state of bullying--which has reached epidemic proportions--and facilitate open public discussions within a creative and inclusive forum.

During its debut weekend at SPACE, Mean Girls drew more than 500 visitors in just two days alone. But if you missed the opening festivities, do not worry, because the exhibition's curator and artists are hosting a packed itinerary of accompanying programs running through April 28th. Using art as a creative springboard, Mean Girls is getting serious about using art to build awareness, encourage dialogue, and promote positive social change against bullying.

From artwork to action

Curated by Jill Larson, the exhibition examines the complex dynamics of bullying--from starting at an early age on the playground, to its continuation into higher education, the Internet and the work place. The show focuses on the very startling fact that bullying between females take place every day in many forms, such as physical violence, verbal abuse, cyber-bullying, and even cell phone apps created for the very purpose of bullying.

Larson, who is passionate about using art to create broader social change and who comes to the project as a curator, visual artist and a mother to two boys--conceived the project to be a traveling exhibition that has the potential to serve as a national model and be customized for subsequent spaces in cities across the US.

"It really comes from being a woman for a very long time and having seen significant experiences of bullying. The word bullying is associated more with kids, but adults are actually doing the same kind of behavior. It's not always labeled as bullying, but it can mean exclusion and snide remarks," explains Larson, who has worked with some 300 artists and curated more than 50 exhibitions.

"The level of cruelty associated with the bullying of girls has soared, and the number of young people taking their own lives because of bullying is heartbreaking. I wanted to create this project because I a mother of two boys who have both been bullied at different times. I have seen everything in the news about how girls are really being cruel to each other, as well as the ways that cyber-bullying is impacting people in permanent ways."

The exhibition at SPACE features new multimedia work by Traci Molloy (Brooklyn, NY), Lilly Cannon (Atlanta, GA), Barbara Schreiber (Charlotte, NC), Marian Barber (Newark, Delaware), Andrea Evans (Boston, MA), Alison Stehlik (Greenbay, WI), Sonja Sweterlitsch (Pittsburgh, PA), Randie Snow (Pittsburgh, PA), Vanessa German (Pittsburgh, PA), and Jenn Gooch (Pittsburgh, PA).

A printed exhibition booklet introduces visitors to the concept behind the project, the individual artists and their creative practice, and the works on view. Works include everything from video installations to mixed-media assemblage.

"The exhibition has an obvious social bent, with the outreach programming, but it is also primary that it's intended to be a professional art exhibition by professional working artists," says Larson, whose curatorial work has been reviewed in national magazines such as Art in America, Art Papers, Fiber Arts, and Sculpture and Dialogue.

Mean Girls makes the culmination of a two-year development process for Larons, who has already started meeting with venues in cities such as New York, Boston and St. Louis about taking Mean Girls on the road.

"I hope this will be the national model--that is my goal. It's drawing a lot of attention already, so it's working."

Larson has also met with legendary folk singer Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, who founded the nonprofit Operation Respect to combat bullying. She speaks passionately about the concept behind the project and is upfront about her choice of the project's title.

"The name of the show is strong and that's intentional, to get people's attention. Unlike the movie of the same name, this show is very serious. A lot of the artwork addresses girls taking their lives. Bullying makes people feel they have no way out. Cyber bullying not confined--it can even be international. For each generation there are new lines defined," adds Larson. "I am trying to use art as a way to get the message in through the back door, to get groups of people interested and to start dialogues.

With more than 500 people visiting SPACE last weekend, college students coming in to view the work and numerous daily requests for tours from young people, schools and girls groups, it appears to be well on its way to accomplishing these goals.

Go beyond the gallery

As a visitor to Mean Girls, there are countless ways you can get involved in raising awareness about issues surrounding bullying, participate in art-based projects, lend your voice to the conversation, or take action.

The artwork that comprises Mean Girls is the subject of seven community events designed to address the topic of females not supporting each other. Events and activities, which are free and open to the public, include a spoken word performance, artist talks, a poetry reading, a dance and movement performance, an interactive public art installation, a lecture series, and a youth workshop.

On Saturday, March 23rd, an Artist Talk will feature Pittsburgh artists Sonja Sweterlitsch, Randie Snow, Jenn Gooch, and Vanessa German, while on Saturday, April 27 an Artists Talk will include Traci Molloy, Barbara Schreiber, Alison Stehlik, Andrea Evans and Marian Barber.

Local author Sherrie Flick will host Mean Girls: A Reading on Saturday, March 30th. A collaborative creative project conceived by a group of talented women writers, the event will feature Yona Harvey, Elise Levine, Jennifer Banaan, Ellen Smith, Chauna Craig, Sarah Shotland, Sarah Leavens, Lori Jakiela, and Lois Williams. During the literary event, participants will read original poems, essays and fiction that explore girl bullying and ask the question: what makes a Mean Girl?

A Youth Art Workshop will be offered on Saturday, April 6th from 1 to 4 p.m. Stop by SPACE to participate in an engaging and creative hands-on art making workshop for girls of all ages.

Don't miss a performance by the Staycee Pearl Dance Project on Saturday, April 20th at 7:30 p.m. Dubbed BEEAHTCH!!!, the work will pose the question: what if we all just let our mean girl hang out...all the time? Interpreting and mirroring culture and community while experimenting with innovative conceptual elements, the collaborative work will involve artists, musicians, choreographers, and sound designers.

For the inaugural exhibition at SPACE, Larson partnered with Strong Women, Strong Girls, an organization focused on empowering women and girls. She plans to collaborate with local organizations in each host city to present community engagement events, facilitate ongoing discussions, and examine the issue from fresh perspectives. Mean Girls is supported by a Seed Award from The Sprout Fund, and by the Heinz corporation.

Share your story

Visitors to Mean Girls are also encouraged share their own experiences, responses, memories, and thoughts via interactive figures that were designed to collect personal responses from the public.

The exhibition features two six-feet tall wooden figures: a red statue where visitors can share a confession about or an apology for bullying someone, and a pink statue where girls and women can write down how they felt when they were the victim of bullying.

Taking the shape of the iconic symbol found on women's restroom doors around the world, the figures will travel to college campuses, girls groups and organizations and community art events. Look out for the "Mean Girl Red and Pink Figures" at the Unblurred Gallery Crawl in Garfield on Friday, April 1st, and on the campuses of the University of Pittsburgh, Point Park, Carnegie Mellon, and Art Institute of Pittsburgh, now through April 27th.

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