In honor of the heartfelt holiday ahead, husband-and-wife duo Rob and Jen Lewis are offering up Bloody Valentine, an abstract macro-photography art show that runs through February 28 at Rooster & Moon Coffee Pub. The display, curated by Jen, explores traditional images associated with Valentine's Day (hearts, flowers) through human blood.
This isn't just any old human blood, though. Jen, whose background is in art history, wasn't interested in traditional mediums like oil or acrylic. She wasn't even that interested in making art, actually, until she became fascinated with the patterns and shapes that her menstrual blood took when emptied into the toilet from a reusable, bell-shaped menstrual cup called the DivaCup. "Just from using the cup and emptying it into toilet, I found the interplay between blood and water really interesting and wanted to catch it on film," recalls Jen. "When I was in the bathroom, I was finding myself wanting to share what I was seeing with other people," Jen continues. Still, it took her weeks to muster up enough courage to ask her husband about the merits of photographing her blood drawings. Chalk it up to his passion for skateboarding, a pastime fraught with gnarly gore, but Rob immediately gravitated to the idea. The self-taught photographer and videographer has "always been really drawn to process and problem solving," he explains, and so the task of capturing blood in water was intriguing. "Jen has this ability to see beautiful and interesting images," adds Rob. "I knew if Jen was seeing something in the blood, there was something to it." With that, the two began experimenting with ways to capture Jen's periodic art. The result was a long-term, ongoing project the couple calls Beauty in Blood. The first efforts involved a lot of trial and error. The Lewises concocted a makeshift studio in their tiny bathroom with construction light, and started shooting the toilet bowl with whatever lenses they had lying around. By November 2012, they were showing photographs online -- at which point they realized they were going to need a more elaborate studio.
"In the toilet, you have great interplay between red and white, but everything is two-dimensional," Jen explains. The solution was a five-gallon aquarium with ample angles for capturing interesting details, such as blood penetrating the water.
Next, Rob started doing research on photographing liquid -- and that's how the Lewises got the idea to use a saltwater mix, which has a different density than regular water and actually slows down the blood as it moves. "We've done test runs with different solutions," says Rob. "We are talking about a biological material that changes day-to-day and month-to-month, and we can get completely different reactions when we start varying the amount of salt in the water and changing the equation." And then there are the tools Jen uses to create her art, including turkey basters, eyedroppers and "a tiny little dropper from Shaklee, maker of crunchy, eco home products." She also plays around with utensils and props like forks and barbeque equipment; once she even used a broken wineglass to paint the water with her blood. "Now, it's one of those things where we'll be walking through the grocery store and see something and start wondering how the blood would interact with it," says Rob. As for mechanics, Rob handles getting the salt and water settled; he also sets up the studio lights and frames and photographs the shots. Jen collects her blood, then draws. Rob typically takes about 400 photos during each shoot, a handful of which are released online -- quite appropriately, in monthly increments. The feminist art community has been very supportive of their efforts. "When I originally started working on the project," remembers Jen, "I didn't have a very impassioned feminist voice, and I really wanted the project to focus on abstract elements like color, shape, movement and pattern -- I didn't want people getting hung up on the material." But Jen quickly realized it was impossible to detach the project from feminism, since menstrual blood's role cannot be downplayed or ignored. The project also attracts mainstream audiences, though, and surprisingly, men have not been turned off by it. "Men of our generation are taking a much more active interest in their kids, and there are a lot of dads I'm meeting who are interested in the project because they have daughters," says Jen. "Some of my friends say their husbands are more interested in the project than they are because they are so curious about what's going on down there." Portions of the project have shown in Michigan, where the couple used to live, and a few pieces were included in a Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference in New York and the Feminist Art Conference in Toronto, which the artists will participate in again this year. Jen was invited to speak on a panel there, and Rob has been asked to document the entirety of the conference. They're now trying to raise travel funds through GoFundMe. Next month, four Lewis pieces will be part of a group exhibition at the Urban Artroom in Gothenburg, Sweden. The Rooster & Moon show is the team's first solo exhibition -- quick work, since they just came here in November. "We sort of got tired of Michigan," Rob says. While visiting a friend in Denver, the Lewises fell in love with the city and, a month later, they decided to move here. Now Jen devotes most of her time to her blood work, and Rob does contract video production in addition to his photography. For more information, visit Beauty in Blood online or e-mail the artists at email@example.com. You can also follow Beauty in Blood on Twitter @BeautyinBloodUS.
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