• Erika Clugston's paintings were on display at the 2014 Research and Creative Works Symposium.
    Erika Clugston's paintings were on display at the 2014 Research and Creative Works Symposium.

Erika Clugston’s senior art exhibit, “Pressure Points,” featured paintings of easily recognizable celebrities and public figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Miley Cyrus, RuPaul, Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin.

But they looked a little different than they normally would. Their bodies and faces were twisted and stretched in what perhaps seemed like a stylistic homage to Van Gogh, but the portraits’ distortions go deeper than style. Each portrait was painted to conform to a set of points plotted on a graph using statistics from social issues.

“I was interested in portraiture and distortion and I wanted to make it meaningful, because a lot of artists do portraiture and a lot of artists do distortion and they do it really well,” Clugston said. “I was trying to figure out how I could do something meaningful that hasn’t already been done, and find my own way into that.”

Clugston, who is double-majoring in studio art and English, said both her majors influenced the development of her artwork, along with courses she had taken in feminist studies..

“With Marilyn Monroe, I was thinking about how she’s an iconic figure in our culture. She stands for certain things and she’s perceived in a certain way, so I chose to research statistics that had to do with women being treated as sex objects,” Clugston said. “I used those numbers as co-ordinates on the canvas, and then I plotted points with them and then fit the figure within the points, so that the portrait became distorted by facts, and had these ‘pressure points.’”

Clugston used the same statistics and “pressure points” to paint her portrait of Miley Cyrus. Her portrait of Sarah Palin, as well as a portrait of Rush Limbaugh that was not exhibited, used statistics about abortion and contraception. By using the same sets of points to distort the images of two different people, Clugston hoped to put those people in conversation, and demonstrate how, although the portraits shared the same pressure points, they were distorted differently.

“Using the same statistics with both figures showed how different individuals respond differently to different cultural pressures,” Clugston said. “How do statistics change when next to a woman or a man, or their political opinions?”

Clugston’s exhibit is all about conversations: conversations between political figures, conversations between individuals and statistics, and, for her, the conversation between her fine arts major and her English major.

“I’m questioning to what extent we are constructed by these cultural facts or norms or structures, and to what extend we can resist them,” Clugston said. “I wanted to do a visual exploration of that. It ties in with my English capstone which was about the carceral system that’s active at every level of society, that normalizes and trains and reinforces these systems and ideologies that we have. I wanted to think about to what extent are we even aware that we’re being constructed by that.”

Now that Clugston has completed both her capstones, she is excited to look for new ways to combine her interests in the professional world. She’s sold several of her paintings to date, and her website seeks to “dispel the myth of the starving artist.”

Although in the next few years Clugston hopes to explore her interests beyond art, painting will always be one of her passions.

“I’ve always drawn and taken art classes. I always see myself doing art, if not only that,” Clugston said. “In the near future I’m looking for a job, but I would like to get my art in galleries, and maybe one day in museums.”

−Elizabeth Stewart