Outspoken, seems the word to describe artist Nikki Patin. Every inch the activist, Patin has taught hundreds of workshops on performance poetry, body image, sexual assault prevention and LGBT issues. She has worked as a sexual assault prevention educator for Rape Victim Advocates and as a case manager/program coordinator for Center on Halsted’s youth program. On the art front, Patin is a spoken word performer and vocalist. She’s released a book and an album. In 2004, she was featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and in 2006 made The Windy City Times’ 30 under 30 most influential LGBTQ people list. Yet despite Patin’s undeniable list of accomplishments, she recently found her artistic plans thwarted by the New Zealand government. Patin spoke with Our Town about the legislation of sizeism, her work with young women and even her recent audition for NBC’s The Voice.
Our Town What inspired your Vitruvian Woman Project?
Nikki Patin The Vitruvian Woman is my ideal, inspired by Vitruvius' theory on architecture. The idea that function creating form, and the function is what renders the form beautiful. I didn't know Leonardo Da Vinci drew "The Vitruvian Man,” but I loved the image of the person inside the square and the circle. I googled "The Vitruvian Woman" and couldn't find anything that matched what I imagined. I began thinking about how long it would take to get to my ideal: muscular, strong to do multiple pull-ups, to walk, run, jump, bike, swim, to be healthy and feel good inside my skin. I didn't look forward to weighing myself, so I came up with the idea of doing weekly outlines to show progress. I'm starting the project on August 1st. For me, this is the ultimate in evolution: apply science to heal my body and make it strong and use art to document it across different disciplines. I see my body as my tool for art and expression. If the tool used to make the art changes, how does that affect the art? If the tool is the artist, how will that change the artist? And how will the audience respond to the changed art and artist?
OT What are the implications of a woman using her own body as art?
NP Women and their art are inextricably linked. That's why female musicians have to worry more about their image than male musicians. Also, so much of our confidence is tied up in how we look. One thing about art is it reveals. If you aren’t confident in yourself, on some level, your art will not be honest and will suffer. I've had two major turning points in my life through art. The first was when I began running in place as choreography for a poem called "Sweat.” Sweating and being out of breath were incredibly embarrassing to me, as if I was living up to the stereotype of being unhealthy. Lots of internalized sizeism. However, choosing to run and speak at the same time pushed me into an emotional place that made the performance much more honest. That poem cracked my chest open and made me realize that vulnerability is what connects an artist to an audience. The second turning point came when, using Mos Def's "The Boogieman Song" as a vocal anchor, I weaved spoken word, song and stripping into a burlesque piece about feeling like a monster inside my skin. If sweating and being out of breath were uncomfortable, then being naked, on stage, under the brightest of lights, was the ultimate nightmare. I was terrified. Then I found out that I wouldn't die if I went on stage naked, that no one would throw things or yell mean things or laugh. If anything, people appreciate the bravery, though I realize that compliment is somewhat backhanded, like I'm brave for showing my body? Because it's so ugly, right?
OT Originally, you’d planned to work on the project in New Zealand. Why?
NP I toured there in 2009 and fell in love with a whole country. I feel that healing and strength are sown into the mountains of that land, into your everyday path through the world. There's a freedom to create and express there that I've never felt here.
OT You’ve since found your entry will be delayed.
NP Instead of the 7-10 days that it usually takes to process a student visa for someone with a normal BMI, it's going to take at least six weeks for me. My medical history has to be sent to a panel of doctors in New Zealand who determine whether or not my high BMI will place a burden on their healthcare system. Their level is 35. Mine is 45. I definitely need to lose some weight and have started to, about 20 pounds over the last few months. However, I'm also muscular; my weight isn't all fat and I think BMI, only a measure of height and weight, doesn't tell the full story. To be clear, I'm not mad they have a standard for health to obtain a visa to study, work and live in their country. I'm mad that their standard seems to only apply to people with chronic illnesses and fat people. If I were a thin cigarette smoker, no problem. If drinkers, smokers and extreme sports enthusiasts can get visas, then how the standard is being applied is discriminatory. One thing about social engineering is that it's effective. If you tie people's ability to study, work and live to legislation aimed at controlling their behavior, they will fall in line.
OT On a basic level, what can be done about this sort of discrimination?
NP Dialogue helps. Acknowledgment that we should have the freedom to choose our lives helps. Using that dialogue and acknowledgment to understand that chipping away at the civil liberties of others will ultimately lead to the destruction of our own freedom will help. The kind of vitriol that I've experienced over my weight shouldn't happen. Period. Statistically, fat people make less money, get treated with less respect by their doctors, (which leads to a lower level of healthcare), are less likely to get married, less likely to receive fair treatment in school. I'll continue to speak out about this, through art and education. I'm not going to change the whole world, but if people walk away from my work reconsidering how their negativity might contribute to the detriment of other people and choose to not use judgment and hatred as a way of controlling others, I'm happy.
OT Can an artist convert nonbelievers?
NP Many times, the audiences I perform to are people who didn't come to see me. That's where minds and hearts have been changed. I'm committed to performing in spaces that are not easy or comfortable. When I first started, I'd go to this open mic at this little Irish bar in the south suburbs. Most of the cars in the parking lot had Confederate flags hanging in their windows. Clearly, not "my" audience. I'd get up, read my poems and sing my songs and come away with a fan or two. Every time. Why? Because being a hater's no fun. In our heart of hearts, we want to come together, to relate, to connect. If artists waited for sympathy or interest, no art would ever be created. Reaching and converting non-believers is a matter of believing in your work more than your fear of ridicule, persecution or hatred. Art is the great equalizer.
OT You recently auditioned for The Voice. What was that like?
NP Picture it: thousands of people lined up, all chasing the same dream, all imagining themselves that lucky one out of a million. It was really beautiful to see all shapes, colors, sizes, ages and genders gathered. I didn't get a call back, but that anxiety around my looks was gone. The show's premise is an incredible one. It inspired a lot of people, who'd normally stay home and not even acknowledge they have talent, to show a little bit of themselves. It was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, plus I've never seen so much glitter and hair glue in one place in my life!
OT You’re also active on a community level in terms of body image education. How are things changing for women/girls?
NP We're talking more and have more models for diversity in womanhood than ever. Today, many of my female students can spot misogyny a mile off and they're critical of pop culture's indulgence in turning the female body into a commodity, bought and sold to the highest bidders. They're putting out their own books and albums, producing events and figuring out how to raise money to get to far-flung parts of the world to educate other young women. They're fired up, well read and strong. I have other female students who aren't quite there yet, who reject feminism quite easily. The fact that they know enough of feminism to be able to say they reject it is progress. I don't agree with them, but I like it that we're in a time where they can choose. Less than a hundred years ago, that was a choice that didn't exist. We now have women who know that they deserve to feel safe, to feel good and to be healthy. That's progress and the very epitome of real change.
To learn more about Patin's The Vitruvian Woman Project visit thevitruvianwoman.com.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," is forthcoming from Counter Point Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez