A concept captured and communicated visually creates a visceral relationship with the viewer in ways the written word can't, Niki Johnson says.
Through her portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, which was created with roughly 17,000 condoms, the Shorewood artist hopes to spark dialogue about sexuality and making healthy sex choices.
"There's so many ways to look at the types of conversations that can arrive from seeing a piece like this," she said. "Everyone is going to take away something different from it, and I feel like there are many communities that I would like to speak to. I think it's time for people to allowed to love who they love, be safe about it and make good choices with their lives. And, to have our world leaders support them."
While listening to a radio broadcast in 2009, Johnson heard Pope Benedict — who resigned last month — say the use of condoms would actually increase the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Johnson was befuddled by the sentiment — but also inspired.
Whether it be through the shock value of a prophylactic portrait of the pope, or through humor, or even out of anger, Johnson hopes to start broad discourse.
Johnson, an adjunct assistant professor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, wanted to use an appropriate material to enhance the relationship between a public figure and a belief system.
"In a way, it provides a deeper level relationship, a conceptual nuance, that goes beyond just an op-ed piece, or something that can be said in passing," she said. "Like with most art, that happens when you are in the presence of it. I hope that this piece has an opportunity to be in front of a greater audience, because seeing it in person is so much more."
Sex is an integral part of being human, Johnson argues.
"Healthy sex makes for strong communities and happy people," Johnson said.
Her portrait — called "Eggs Benedict" — isn't simply a shot at the former pope, but is a poignant piece that is meant to bring about these types of conversation, Johnson explained.
Johnson said the thought of backlash from those who might be offended by a portrait of the pope using condoms was in the back of her mind when she was creating.
"It is about wanting to have deeper conversations with more people, and engage more people," she said.
Creating 'Eggs Benedict'
From conceptualizing the piece to threading thousands of non-lubricated condoms through wire mesh, Johnson labored over "Eggs Benedict" for years.
In May 2009, she made a donation to a health advocacy group in exchange for 6,000 condoms. What started off as a small piece, limited to the Pope's face, progressed into a larger portrait.
"It would strike some nerves, but there would be a population that would be willing to talk about it," she said.
Johnson began to notice the latex condoms were breaking down, becoming ashy and losing their vibrancy, and she took steps to expand their lifespan. She began laying the condoms on bookshelves under fluorescent and incandescent lights; dipping the rubbers in castor oil and lubricant; spraying them with WD40 and ArmorAll; and dusting them with talc.
After moving to the Milwaukee area in 2012, she again went on the hunt for condoms, but the task proved difficult.
"Securing the last 14,000 condoms was almost like securing contraband," she said. "It was an event, to say the least."
Then for months, spent nights sitting on her couch, "methodically slicing open hundreds of foil wrappers, pulling out their contents, unrolling them and then bagging each color group."
Johnson is in the process of framing the piece and in negotiations with a local gallery to put "Eggs Benedict" on display.
For more on the process of creating "Eggs Benedict," and its message, visit Johnson's blog.