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Artist Niki Johnson Honors Women's Reproductive Rights with 'Hills and Valleys'

The feminist icon Gloria Steinem was in Milwaukee earlier this month to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the organization Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. Milwaukee artist Niki Johnson was a part of the event, unveiling a new work called, “Hills and Valleys.”

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Credit Niki Johnson
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The piece is constructed from signs collected from now-shuttered Planned Parenthood offices around the state, which have been defunded by the current gubernatorial administration. 

"The material itself, to me, felt sacred," says Johnson. "It was both a beautiful and amazing thing to pull into my garage and see, because of how I feel about Planned Parenthood and what they do for women and families across the country. But it was kind of like a graveyard at the same time."

Johnson is no stranger to controversial artwork – her 2013 piece, "Eggs Benedict,” is a portrait of then-Pope Benedict, woven out of condoms. That piece became part of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s permanent collection last year, sparking criticism from some who considered the work sacrilegious. 

In "Hills and Valleys," Johnson says she tried to be strategic with how she used the materials. "I knew that I needed to strike the right balance, in order to draw attention effectively to the value of women's reproductive rights. How, when we're torn down, we will rise. And to really just bring a second, and possibly more enlightened life, to something that had been set well, kind of, by the garbage," says Johnson. 

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Credit Niki Johnson
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A group of volunteers who helped create the work, "Hills and Valleys."

Creating this piece was difficult. Johnson and a group of students went out and cut these signs down - a task she says was both physically and emotionally taxing, but the real workout came later. "Hills and Valleys" is made up of small circles which had to be individually cut out from the signs, and Johnson couldn't do it alone. She put out a call on Facebook, and dozens of people volunteered to help. Their work not only helped form the piece, but it transformed the studio. 

"I've never seen my studio as a space for empowerment, but this is what people expressed as having happened inside the space," says Johnson. "It was phenomenal. My studio became a conduit for political action. And I felt many mornings when I got up, ready to go in, that I was just a very small part of a much larger, and meaningful experience." 

"Hills and Valleys" is currently on display at Material Studios and Gallery in the Third Ward.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect.