If you were to look up “perseverance” in the dictionary, you would find a picture of Jennifer Hart. Raised in rural Kentucky in a home with no running water or indoor plumbing, the only art she was exposed to was that of sewing and quilting.
“I was raised in a community that cared absolutely nothing about art. Nothing. Zero,” she told Georgia Voice. “Not only that, my mother was very abusive. She was obsessed with crushing the creativity out of me. I learned very early on to hide my creativity, to hide anything I made. I’m really not supposed to be making art. I’m not supposed to try to make a living as an artist. All of the factors that would encourage art didn’t exist for me. From a lot of fucking work, here I am.”
Flash forward to today, and Hart is using her quilting background to explore uncomfortable topics. The artist’s exhibit, “Sex, Drugs and Butterflies” is now on display at the rek Gallery, a commercial art gallery in Tucker dedicated to contemporary and eclectic Southern art. “Sex, Drugs and Butterflies” features 20 different quilts that together create a mosaic of Hart’s personal and artistic philosophy about perseverance, transformation, and the radical recognition of beauty in that which we discard.
With her work, Hart aims to bring humanity back to those whom we dehumanize. Most of the quilts featured in the exhibit feature nude and seminude portraits of a diverse array of people. Subjects span race, body type, gender identity, and sexuality — revealing the depth and variation of humanity — but all are formerly pornographic photos that she has transformed into tender quilted tributes to the subjects’ personhood.
“To me, the bodies are beautiful,” Hart said. “When I’m looking at the porn [that I’m quilting], I’m not seeing what people want me to see, the dehumanized bodies. I see them as beautiful. They are beautiful. I use my work to rehumanize them … I make jewelry out of cans I find on the side of the road. No one else is driving by these cans and saying, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful can.’ It’s the same kind of thing. No one else is paging through the millions of naked selfies and porn online and saying, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful.’ I don’t know why [they’re not], it’s weird to me.”
Hart is not only rehumanizing subjects of pornography, but also those suffering from addiction, as well. Inspired by her best friend, who overcame an oxycontin addiction, two of Hart’s quilts feature pills.
“So many people say, ‘It’s just another addict, it’s their own fault,’” she added. “That’s what was in my mind when I was making Apple Pie (pictured above): It’s their fault? What about these drugs that you’re taking? People think [people with addiction] are lacking in personal responsibility, but America is taking these 50 drugs every single day.”
Using art, Hart wanted to help people like her best friend persevere through the harsh realities of addiction. Prior to the pandemic, she taught art therapy classes at the Hope Center, a Kentucky-based homeless organization that provides emergency homeless assistance and substance abuse recovery programs to those in need. In her class, she would give clients a panel of blank fabric on which they would draw something relating to the overall theme of a class-made quilt, like forgiveness and compassion. She also received a grant that allowed her to teach a more intensive weekly class for the women’s program on how to quilt and make their own designs.
Because many of the people she worked with hadn’t drawn since childhood or, like her, hadn’t grown up in an environment that fostered creativity, Hart said the class posed a great opportunity for them to overcome fears and develop self-confidence.
“This is something you’ve never experienced before,” she said. “You don’t want to do it. You don’t think you can do it. You’re scared to do it. But you did do it, and [at the end] there’s this profoundly beautiful [quilt] that you did. You have a bit of self-pride seeing that you can do something that looks scary at first.”
As an artist and human being, Hart is dedicated to the transformation of ugly into beautiful, of discards into masterpieces, of struggle into art, and she has persevered through obstacle after obstacle to give others the pleasure of witnessing that transformation. “Sex, Drugs and Butterflies” will be on display through February 28. For more information, visit rek.gallery.