It started with the catcalls and other remarks as Ashley Hairston Doughty walked down the streets of Chicago in 2010. Some were sexist. Some racist. All were unwanted.
Doughty, a Black woman, felt targeted. “There’s this crazy stuff that’s happening to me,” she remembers. “I’m just going to start typing it down on my phone. And initially it was just the quotes themselves, things that I’d overheard or things that were said to me. Then, eventually, I started to take what I was doing when I got back to my apartment and write responses.”
Now the UNLV art professor has turned those experiences into artwork for her first solo exhibition. The Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art opened her show in August and it runs until Oct. 9.
Shelves along the museum’s walls support pillows in a rainbow of colors with remarks from the catcalling strangers printed across the front. “How you doin on this fiiiine day?” asks the text on a purple pillow. Nearby, a yellow pillow shouts, “Hey!”
More phrases on deeper layers of pillowcases are faintly visible through the cloth. Run an app across the QR code stickers on the shelves below the pillows then this deeper layer of context begins to open up.
Above the pillows, stylized images of Black women’s faces are painted on the wall. These are the stereotypes Doughty imagined the strangers were holding in their minds as they looked at her. One she calls “Miss Priss.” Another: “Video Vixen.”
A block of writing on the wall takes us through the frustrated thoughts that ran through her mind as she reflected on the experience afterward in the safety of her apartment. This sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition, an interdisciplinary mingling of design, sculpture, and personal writings that give us an insight into the open-ended complexities of the artist’s life.
Her approach to art and text was crystallized by a creative writing class she joined while she was studying for her MFA in Studio Art and Visual Communication at the Art Institute of Chicago. In that class “I made whole new words based on what a word sounds like. I started playing more with the text on the page and used its location to help describe who was saying what and varying the weight of the text.”
Now text appears on her paper sculptures. A poem turns one side of the gallery’s freestanding wall into a giant page. Her attention to the nuances of what people are saying is visible in subtle touches, like the inclusion of a comma on a yellow pillowcase. It reads, “Miss,” — that comma appealing to our imagination. What was said next?
The Barrick exhibition has given her an opportunity to change the way she presents these works. Previously she exhibited the pillows in a group. Now the separate shelves turn each remark into an individual event — events that come one after another after another.
The solo show of multiple works gives visitors a sense of how multifaceted her concerns are — how her self-critique isn’t aimed at just one thing, like her inability to respond instantly to catcallers. The same attitude travels through her series of logo-like illustrations and into a line drawing that evaluates parts of her body like a specimen. It infuses the poem-like writings on the walls, leading us around a corner to a set of sculptures shaped like cootie catchers, the folded paper toys that flip open to reveal your fortune.
In Doughty’s hands, the fortunes are all meditations on the idea of having a child, something she’s been turning over in her mind recently. Some of the fortunes are positive while others predict disaster. The fears she voices are sometimes comically exaggerated — one imaginary attempt to have a child ends when “a meteor hits the Strip. We all perish” — but more often, the phrases are genuine and intimate.
Is she ever afraid she’s revealing too much? How does it feel to have this private information out in public where anyone can read it?
“A lot of the topics I hit on are things I keep seeing in the media,” she says. “These are all things I know other people out there are dealing with. I’m just dealing with them all at once and putting them all in one spot. Knowing that there are people out there who may understand aspects of it made me feel comfortable.”
She mentions the in-person feedback she receives at opening receptions as another important source of support. Due to pandemic regulations, Kept to Myself had to open without a reception. Entry to the exhibition is free, but visitors are asked to make a booking in advance so the museum can monitor the number of people in the gallery.
How does she connect with people in the age of COVID? She uses her Instagram account a lot, though she notes that, since most of the people following the account are already friends, it’s perhaps not the most balanced way to gain feedback.
The exhibition hasn’t been up for long but she’s already thinking about new ways the artworks might change in the future, bringing her audience even further into the context she values. What if the information from the QR codes could be embedded in the fibers of the colored pillows? What if that information somehow included the sensation of holding the pillows, so that those textures (hard and scratchy or soft and light) could give you a sensory understanding of each phrase? What if the show traveled to other states and she added new texts wherever it went?
“This is the ninth city that I’ve lived in,” she says. “I wrote a lot in Chicago because there was just crazy stuff that happened there. When I lived in Nashville, I didn’t write very much; in Houston, I didn’t write very much.”
And Las Vegas?
“Las Vegas is just such an interesting place. It’s not like anywhere else that I've lived before. Writing came a bit easier to me here. And I think that started with the fact that I could wear a tank top and walk around and not get whistled at. And I don’t know exactly why that is. I don’t know if it’s because everybody is used to people doing what they want, expressing themselves, but experiences like that are unique to here.”