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Trust, Humor, and Gender: Sidney Mullis Constructs while Deconstructing

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Sidney Mullis Headshot

When virtual correspondents and Uber drivers prepare to meet artist Sidney Mullis (’16 M.F.A. Sculpture) and ask whether to expect a man or a woman, she feels the relevancy of making art about gender. Mullis, the program coordinator for the Penn State School of Visual Arts’ (SOVA) John M. Anderson Endowed Lecture Series, believes that sculpture can be a change agent.  

“I grew up dancing, which was a very gendered experience,” explains Mullis. “Learning about my body in a mirror and how to move it properly was something that naturally factored into my art. Sculpture provided me the faculties to reclaim power by addressing all of the day-to-day choreographies that accompany navigating space without scrutiny.”

After taking art classes in high school, Mullis attended the University of Mary Washington for her undergraduate degree in art and came to Penn State for her M.F.A. to study with Bonnie Collura, associate professor of art.

“She has always been so good to me,” said Mullis of Collura. “My undergrad advisor showed me her work, and I knew I wanted to come study with her. It was definitely the right decision. She really steps up to bat for all her students, past and present.” 

Societal conventions around being a woman and coming of age are two of the major themes in Mullis’ work and solo exhibition, Who is Puberty and how does she hit?—currently on view at the Downtown Art Gallery, the satellite space of Bucknell University’s Samek Art Museum in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Her sculptures are large and brightly colored, and project into the viewer’s space. Mullis knows that people want to touch her work, and thus plays with their expectations, making selfie sticks out of steel and incorporating humor into her art. Mullis wants to “warm you up” in the gallery, to elicit trust, and to create a safe environment for discussing the implications of societal norms about gender, sexuality, and girlhood/womanhood.

“It’s its own kind of foreplay. If two different people can laugh at the same joke and share a moment, then there is already something in common as a starting point,” she explains. “I think my work is part rebellion, part explanation, part coping, and part getting closer to understanding myself,” Mullis admits, citing Dakota Gearhart, Emma Portner, George Ferrandi, Crystal Pite, Katie Stout, Anja Salonen, Mika Rottenberg, and more as influences.  

Mullis was recently selected as Rowan University’s 2018 Artist in Residence. As part of her residency, she will have studio space and a solo show, Legs Together. Mullis will continue to coordinate the Anderson lectures for SOVA and split time between her fifteen-hour-per-week residency in Glassboro, New Jersey, and State College. After being out of school for the first time (she went directly into the M.F.A. program from undergrad) and now making work outside of the studio culture, Mullis is excited to spend time engaging with students, participating in reviews, and learning how another community makes art. Most of all, she looks forward to the art that she will make during “the golden hours”—late nights in her new studio space with new influences.

Similarly, a new question Mullis has introduced into her work is “How can I start making work with strangers?” For her Bucknell show, she commissioned a 14-year-old male YouTuber and aspiring makeup artist to create a video for the exhibition inspired by the work in the exhibition itself. Mullis is looking forward to expanding those collaborative opportunities to build trust with others and make something together with other artists.

For more information about Mullis’ show Who is Puberty and how does she hit?, visit the Bucknell website: https://museum.bucknell.edu/2017/08/18/who-is-puberty-and-how-does-she-hit-opens-october-24/.

To learn about Mullis’ upcoming residency, visit the Rowan University Art Gallery website: http://thewhitonline.com/2017/11/arts-entertainment/sidney-mullis-to-join-rowan-art-department-as-2018-artist-in-residence/