High Stakes: Choice

Laurie says:

This blog comes from a talk I gave at an artist’s panel for the NCWCA Choice exhibition at the ARC-SF gallery in San Francisco. The women who put the exhibition and panel together did great work. Professor Tanya Augsburg moderated the panel beautifully. I’m also grateful to my gynecologist Kaht Dorward, without whose help the photograph literally would not have been possible.

I’ll start with what I wrote in the exhibition catalogue:

When I was in my teens abortion was illegal and sex and resulting unwanted pregnancies were a big gamble. I’ve seen abortions and all forms of contraception become legal and available in much of this country. Now I’m seeing that in too many parts of the US and the larger world, the risks are increasingly greater and the deck is being stacked against women. I have known too many women whose choices were constrained by bad odds. What we need to do is stack the deck in favor of all women.


High Stakes - Laurie Toby Edison
High Stakes - Laurie Toby Edison



I have been thinking a lot lately about time and contingency. I’ve begun a project called iPad Still Lifes: Layered Images of My Life Through TimeA Life in Time involves constructed still life images – weaving threads of time and history. This image, “High Stakes,” is not part of that project – it’s a photograph, not an iPad image. But after I made it, I realized it is very much in the project’s spirit.

When I saw the announcement of the Choice exhibition, I was not planning to submit work. But it must have been in the back of my head, because one day I had a clear image of this photograph. I saw the poker table with the various options of choice in the pot.

Every object in the photo is real. I had an interesting time getting them. They include an IUD with its insertion device, a Plan B pill, foam capsules, a condom, a $100 bill, and an old black & white photograph of a 3-year-old girl. In an exhibition, a list of what’s in the pot is next to the photograph. The visual images of real items help make both the photograph and the issue real and grounded, rather than abstract. I’ve personally used every method of contraception in the pot except Plan B (some very briefly).

The choice of cards was very considered, both aesthetically and for meaning. The Queen of Hearts is balanced by the Joker. Poker is a game of skill and chance, with lots of contingent moments – What card will I draw? Like most card games, cheating works. And of course, if you have nothing to put in the pot, you can’t win.

Across time, women have fought for the right to control the outcome of the game. All too often, most recently here in the Red states, we are being literally cheated of our rights and choices.

The objects in the pot represent different threads in time, from the condom (one of the oldest forms of contraception) to Plan B. But they all exist simultaneously in our present, including the little girl who was a child in the 1940s and is no longer a child.

Winning is constrained by what you can put in the pot. That’s why the $100 bill is important. Privileged women have always had more access to whatever options for choice existed in their time. Right now in Texas, and many other times and places throughout history, poor women have almost nothing to put in the pot.

When I was young I was part of what is now called the abortion underground. Like most activism without political context, I felt at the time as if I was acting individually and alone. Feminism gave me and many other people context for understanding abortion underground work and many, many other acts. I’ve been making art and social change for much of my life, including my books Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes, Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes, and my Women of Japan project, which was done in collaboration with Japanese feminists. You can see more about these projects at laurietobyedison.com.

As I said earlier, I started with a clear image of the photograph. But in all of my constructed still lives, the nuances take a lot of time. It took me about 3 days to lay out all the individual elements of this photograph, so that they all resonated to create a resolved work of art. The aesthetic choices about colors, texture, shadow, light, and the elements and relationships of the objects all combine to create the image.

A Life in Time is about the threads of my life. This photograph is a piece of that weave.