She stands tall, looming yet unaware of me, gazing beyond me as if she’s heard a door opening or spotted in the distance a friend approaching. One could imagine her on a ship’s deck mid-ocean, catching sight of a whale cresting halfway between herself and the evening sun. Her face is raised just a bit as if to the sun, her shoulders want to turn as if feeling a warm light. But no, she stands in an ordinary corridor, tall, nude, and grotesque, a shock to my senses even if she only seems pleased—pleased by something far off I could never know.
“Yin Lady” is a six-foot statue of dark, welded steel. Her face is serene in expression yet pocked and rough, her eyes steady yet smallish against a bald, bulbous head. Her neck resembles exposed tendons through which we see a hint of the shadow inside her body. Her breasts sag, natural. Her belly is wide, burnished, a center of gravity with navel punctuating pelvis; one hand rests just below her hip while the other seems to reach toward her inner thigh. She’s shameless yet modest in her luster, unbothered yet bold in her pose, a Frankensteinian assemblage with weld seams showing. Nothing about her begs forgiveness.
The first time I saw her? Some kind of field trip to the college one town up from my southern Illinois hometown, perhaps a matinee performance of Nutcracker Suite? It was 1980ish and I was ten or eleven. We were too young to be allowed to wander in the Student Center so she must have been positioned somewhere visible to passers-through. I remember her standing on long legs, pigeon-toed.
Nothing about her was embarrassed and yet I remember a quick burn of embarrassment gawking at her. In the art world she was nude but to kids she was raw naked. My classmates pointed or pretended to avert their eyes. It’s too long ago to truly remember what happened, how my visceral embarrassment turned into a vague empathy. All I know is that I came away from her with a potent curiosity, remembered as awe by the time I saw her again.
I didn’t see her again until autumn 1985, when a high school field trip landed me back on the campus of Southern Illinois University for Foreign Language Day. My memory of “Yin Lady” stirred me enough to leave me disappointed when I did not see her where I expected. I’d like to think I set out searching for her but I may have just gone to find a soda machine and then—there she was. And I’d like to say I remember exactly where she was but I only recall her seeming tucked away, maybe behind a glass door, accompanied by a large potted plant, or forlorn between ballrooms B and C? I took my friends to see her, presenting her to them with a solemn “Voici la dame.” I was solemn in my second-year French yet her shock value was not lost on me. I loved a freak, thought I identified. One of my favorite books was Frederick Drimmer’s Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves and Triumphs of Human Oddities (1973) about sideshow icons like The Elephant Man and The Ugliest Woman in the World.
In the mid-1990s, as a grad student at SIU, I came to work at The University Museum and once again met “Yin Lady.” I worked in a gift shop just inside the North Hall gate and she stood adjacent to the shop. Lady Yin (I now called her) seemed not as tall as my memory of her—because I myself was taller and, maybe, because she came across less transgressive in the specialized space of a museum versus a Student Center with its soda machines and cafeteria trays. As well, with her back against the wall just inside the gate, looking down the North Hall to the Mitchell Gallery, some museum visitors walked right by her, noticing her only upon return.
Behind my register, at my counter, I valued her company. She stood by, looking far away into another world, while I observed visitors react to her. Whether they saw her upon entering or exiting, double-takes ruled, like she was a car crash standing there quietly. Visitors in pairs or threes might pose with Lady Yin for a goofy-ironic photo, all but locking arms with her as her hint of a smile remained private. A friend of mine felt tremendous admiration for the statue and posed alongside her for a souvenir photo, so the reactions were not incompatible. Those who were alone and stopped, turned, stepped forward, shifting books from one arm to the other or dripping rain from the hem of a coat, they seemed not to look but behold her. I felt close to them in their silence.
And then there were schoolkids by the busload. I braced myself for their gawky finger-pointing, their aggregate giggle, and whispers at the tops of their lungs. It made me sad to see her tormented. Lady Yin, was she really so unbothered? More than once I spotted a little hand reach out, timidly, to touch the Lady here or there. I couldn’t help think them grubby-handed but they were not, not really. Teachers never allowed kids to buy gift shop candy until the tour was over. Perhaps—like me—at least one or two of those kids cupped sparks of wonder at her feet, keeping it to themselves for years.
The statue had endured worse than souvenir photos and pointing school kids, however, which is why, at some point in the early 1990s, she was moved to the North Hall of the University Museum. My boss at the museum said a majority of people saw the statue as alien-like and scary and that, wherever she was, “Yin Lady” needed refuge. In the Student Center, she’d been repeatedly shot in the face with spit-wads. And worse: Someone stuck a maxi pad between her legs. My boss’s graduate assistant at the time, a metals student, painstakingly removed the adhesive left behind, gave the statue a general cleaning, and sealed the entire surface with a protective wax.
One day when I was on duty in the gift shop, a woman writing an article about the University Museum—for SIU’s alumni magazine, I think—entered with pen to notebook to ask me if I had a favorite Museum artwork. Pointing a finger at “Yin Lady” made for a compliment this time. The article offered a photo of “Yin Lady” with a brief description that mentions my childhood memory of her. I may have described “Yin Lady” as proud but I don’t think I saw her representing pride like the article suggests. There was more to her—a mystery sisterly, a sense of anticipation. It is true, though, that standing before her “a deeper appreciation may occur when background light shows through the skull.”
I’d not bothered to look into who made “Yin Lady.” I read the exhibit label many times and still, it was like she preexisted being made. So knowledge of sculptor Preston Jackson and his other works had yet to influence my perception. Jackson graduated from SIU with a BFA in 1969, an era of counterculture and student protest even in southernmost Illinois (culminating in a massive riot in 1970 as students reacted to news of the Kent State shootings). I do not know how much of an activist Jackson was during his SIU years, but social-consciousness is pervasive to his work ever since—specifically a consciousness of the realities faced by African-Americans.
Preston Jackson is professor emeritus of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. His commissioned works for public spaces include a bust of Black Panther Party deputy chairman Fred Hampton, a cast bronze relief of poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and the ten-foot-tall “Acts of Innocence” from 2009 that commemorates the brutal Springfield Race Riot of 1908. The latter, according to its accompanying historical marker, represents “two charred chimneys rising from the smoldering rubble of burned-out buildings,” modeled after post-riot photographs.
More akin to “Yin Lady” are the small bronze figures in Jackson’s series called Julieanne’s Garden from the mid-to-late 2000s, a mix of history and myth, narrative and surrealism, dialect and critique, glory and the grotesque. Bridgitte Montgomery’s review, titled “Majestic Heroines of the Antebellum South: Beauty and Pain in Preston Jackson’s Sculpture,” compares his “earth mothers” to African Benin sculpture and Wobe ceremonial masks in how they “embody an air of unseen forces.” She also describes Jackson’s African-based lost wax process, how the modeling and casting is complimented by blowing air into the form:
Titles of the bronzes in Julieanne’s Garden include “Peanut and Momma’s Escape,” “Hog Killin Time,” “Queen Esther,” and “The Homecoming of Julieanne’s Daughters,” each accompanied by a short narrative or monologue. This is context we don’t get from the “Yin Lady” title alone. Does she have a history—allude to a history—despite being presented without a historical frame?
Lady may strike some as ironic. Yin is from Chinese philosophy, representing female energy and the earth. The title begs us to read her as timelessly female, or mythically female, yet I’d not considered her race. I’d seen her as outsider, as freak. I’d seen her grotesque, as critical theorist Mary Russo describes: “The grotesque body is opposed to the classical body which is monumental, static, closed, and sleek, corresponding to the aspirations of bourgeois individualism; the grotesque body is connected to the rest of the world.” Yet I’d not considered the role of race in Lady Yin’s outsiderness, in her freakishness, in her opposition to the classical body. Some to whom I showed a photo of the statue commented on race rather immediately. And no doubt it becomes difficult not to consider race with “Yin Lady” positioned among Jackson’s other works.
Jackson told the Chicago Tribune in 2006, “I wasn’t given the luxury—because of social conditions and so forth—of making art about things that I’m attracted to simply because of their beauty. I have to deal with social commentary. This is my weight.” He admitted to the Chicago Egyptian in a later interview that controversial subject matter has prompted some parts of the art world to shy away from his work. “I’m not able to exhibit my pieces as much as I would like. It’s an ongoing fight.” Even one of Jackson’s more straightforward statues—a nine-foot statue of Richard Pryor for the comedian’s hometown of Peoria, Illinois—proved controversial. Apparently Pryor’s legacy was at odds with the clean image the gentrification-invested city wanted to project. After many years of resistance, and thanks partly to celebrity support (including a fundraising show organized by George Lopez), the Pryor statue made its way home to Peoria’s historic Warehouse District in spring of 2015.
Preston Jackson’s “Yin Lady” was acquired by Southern Illinois University in 1979, with a matching grant from the Illinois Arts Council. I saw it for the first time a year or two later. Witnessing a powerfully grotesque sculpture like “Yin Lady,” I’d like to think it was more than just “a perceptual experience of grotesque beings (e.g. fused, enlarged, formless, gigantic beings).” I’d like to think it was also, in the academic terms of A.M.A. van den Oever, “the destabilization of the perceptual-cognitive routines” that makes any grotesque work of art not just an object but an experience. In other words, the brain’s kneejerk process of categorizing what we see, biologically and ontologically, becomes momentarily destabilized. It may be a moment we never forget, an experience we sooner or later seek to recapture.
Yes, Lady Yin has known a hard life—misunderstood, complained about, damaged physically. The University Museum restored her and attempted valiantly over the years to position her in safe and anodyne spaces. They shifted her again from the North Hall to a shadowy corner of the Museum’s auditorium and, eventually, sadly, into the archive where she remains today. Much like the Julieanne’s Garden figures, “Yin Lady” embodies an air of unseen forces. And now, archived indefinitely, she herself is an unseen force.
She always seemed to me to rise above her torment, unbothered, somewhere else in her imagination, and yet that is exactly how I needed, how I still need, to imagine her.
A. Loudermilk's prose has been published in River Teeth, PopMatters, the Journal of International Women’s Studies. He has published two books. His poems appear in reviews like The James White Review, Tin House, Salamander, Fogged Clarity, Smartish Pace, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. He’s taught creative writing and literature at Indiana University, Hampshire College, and Maryland Institute College of Arts.