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Bellevue Arts Museum exhibit explores gender roles, homophobia and violence

San Francisco artist Bren Ahearn stands in front of a large sampler he created that explores gender roles. His exhibit is on display at the Bellevue Arts Museum. - Ryan Murray/staff photo
San Francisco artist Bren Ahearn stands in front of a large sampler he created that explores gender roles. His exhibit is on display at the Bellevue Arts Museum.
— image credit: Ryan Murray/staff photo

Bren Ahearn doesn’t have time for your gender norms.

You can see as much in his current exhibit at the Bellevue Arts Museum, where “Bren Ahearn: Strategies for Survival” will hang until January of 2017.

Ahearn’s art is a series of “samplers,” or embroidered messages on large textile canvasses. Some are emotional, personal moments from his life. Others are slightly morbid and probe into what is accepted as “domesticity.” All are tongue-in-cheek or outright political messages fighting against what passes for femininity and masculinity in this country.

“In about 2007 I went back to school and went to a sampler collection,” he said. “It was eye-opening to see this interpretation of how girls were educated compared to the violence, which is the way men are supposed to be.”

Samplers were a way for girls and young women to receive some semblance of education starting in the 15th century in Germany, England and later the United States. They would learn how to sew, weave and embroider while also learning the alphabet and how to read and write.

Is there a better medium to challenge toxic masculinity?

In “Strategies,” Ahearn tackles gender roles, homophobia and violence in what has become a disturbingly relevant exhibit.

Not even 48 hours before a terrorist attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando killed 50 and wounded scores more, Ahearn’s already mildly-uncomfortable exhibit premiered at the Bellevue Arts Museum, and has gained much in the wake of the tragedy.

One piece, stitched in a bold font reminiscent of fraternity letters, gives the order of preferred options when dealing with a mass shooter situation. “1. Run 2. Hide 3. Fight.”

Another is a copy of what to do during an active shooter situation printed on a handy flashcard by the University of California, Davis, “lovingly” recreated by Ahearn to point out the absurdity of how casually many Americans treat gun violence in the United States.

“I’m sad that the pieces are so relevant,” Ahearn said after the attack in Florida.

Stefano Catalani, director of art, craft and design at the Bellevue Arts Museum, said when he saw Ahearn’s work on display at San Francisco State University, he knew Bellevue would benefit from having the works.

“In ‘Strategies for Survival,’ each work is like a personal, private page of his own diary,” Catalani said. “He is able to distill those defining moments down.”

In “Sampler 2,” Ahearn stitches the sentence: “When daddy dresses me in my blue uniform, I become a man” with the date after his birth underneath. Many of these samplers take a specific moment in Ahearn’s life and add some cheek to it, such as in “Sampler 2,” where “daddy” and “uniform” can mean quite a bit more than at first glance.

“You can see it says “aged 1 day,”” Ahearn said. “That’s a newborn baby being given gender roles by society.”

His previous work as a receptionist, questioning of violence and contact sports and enjoyment of crafts, flowers and other things that society deemed “not manly” make the viewer look at their own preconceptions about what it is to be a man.

While much of the message is playful, some moments address situations in his life where he wasn’t far away from death. Catalani describes the exhibit as “a crescendo from personal to political.”

Many historic samplers were somewhat morbid out of necessity, as not dying in childbirth was considered a pretty good outcome, all things considered. These samplers show a fascination with death and a nasty, short and brutish life.

Ahearn’s samplers deal with a more modern sense of mortality, including an HIV scare in the 1980s and a bit of vertigo nearly causing a fall after a late-night tryst.

“Bren Ahearn: Strategies for Survival” will be on the second floor of the Bellevue Arts Museum until January 2017.

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