Warning: This article contains photos of nude and partially nude sculptures. If that’s a deal breaker, look away now.
For the past couple of months, a woman named Norah has been touching herself in plain view at the Museum of Sex in New York City.
Norah ― wearing low slung underwear and an “I Love NY” T-shirt ― is actually a large-scale, paper-mache sculpture that currently sits at the center of the ongoing exhibition “NSFW: Female Gaze.” Splayed atop a floral-patterned arm chair, Norah delicately tugs at her pubic hair, her face frozen in an expression that reads as lost in fantasy or boredom.
The sculpture is the work of 26-year-old multimedia artist Shona McAndrew, who considers Norah to be not only a sculpture but a friend. “They feel quite human,” she told HuffPost of her various sculptures. “They really have a human presence.”
According to her own internalized narrative, McAndrew has been an outsider since birth. “My dad jokes he knew I was his baby when he saw me at the hospital and was twice the size of the other babies,” she said. Born and raised in Paris, France, McAndrew’s mother is Scottish and her father is Russian-American ― so they spoke English at home. Being the only American kid in a French school made her feel “a bit other” from a young age. Additionally, McAndrew was bigger than most of her classmates. “I was a chubby kid, and it didn’t help living in France where everyone is a tiny little shrimp,” she explained.
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But this deep-rooted feeling of otherness has since transformed into something more fruitful, McAndrew says. “I was an outsider, but I didn’t mind it so much,” she admitted. “That helped me become an observer.”
McAndrew has long loved to people-watch, and women are her favorite to survey and inspect. In part her fascination with femininity stemmed from what she perceived as an inability to perform it herself. “There are so many definitions of womanhood and I felt like I wasn’t fulfilling any of them,” she recalled. “I would observe what amazing creatures women are, while not associating as one.”
Eventually, observation gave way to documentation by way of drawing. Born to a Protestant mother and Jewish father, McAndrew didn’t celebrate religious holidays growing up. Instead, art was the family’s go-to tradition. Attending weekly classes and visiting museums were mainstays of McAndrew’s upbringing. “I was not a very confident child,” the artist recalled. “Drawing was the thing I did well. It also gave me the right to look at people. It made me focus what it meant for me to be an observer.” Specifically, McAndrew emphasized, drawing gave her the right to observe women. “Women scared me more than anything because I didn’t understand them,” she said. “I felt like someone drawing animals in the wild.”
McAndrew first exhibited her work at the tender age of 8 years old in a little-known museum called The Louvre. Her work ― a portrait of scuba divers ―was featured in a survey of children’s work from her school. “It activated the environment like you can’t imagine!” she joked. Despite the early exposure, McAndrew’s self-esteem worsened in high school. She suffered from body dysmorphia as she viewed her own body only in comparison to her petite French classmates. At that time, she was also diagnosed with the hormonal disorder polycystic ovarian syndrome, a symptom of which is weight gain.
“In high school, one of the cool boys in the class took me aside and told me all the guys had discussed it and decided, if I lost weight, I’d be one of the prettiest girls in school,” McAndrew recalled. “I’ve always felt that until I lost weight I wasn’t a candidate for womanhood. I used to hope people would watch me go into the restroom so they would know for certain that I was a woman.”
McAndrew studied psychology as an undergraduate student, but she kept making art throughout. Primarily, she painted women in watercolor. In the process of applying to graduate psychology programs, McAndrew decided on a whim to take a year off and focus on her art. The choice led her to apply to the master’s program at the Rhode Island School of Design. She got in.
Over time, McAndrew’s work began to shift. Instead of paintings, she started making massive, physically demanding sculptures out of paper-mache. And instead of idealizing the bodies of other women, she began taking inspiration from her own.
The artist begins her sculptural process by taking photos of her own body in various positions, which often place physicality and sexuality front and center. She combines these aspects of her body to conjure imaginary women who come to life in her paper-mache. In one sculpture, a reclining, naked woman named Alice gazes at her labia’s reflection in a Hello Kitty mirror. In another, Sofia waxes her legs in a watermelon-covered bathing suit.
“I try to make plus-size women not be ‘before’ pictures,” McAndrew explained.
For most people, photographing themselves naked, and turning the result into a three-dimensional sculpture, would be anxiety-inducing enough. For someone with body dysmorphia, the task is even more daunting. For McAndrew, the very accomplishment of making the works outshines their positive reception.
Yet another challenge McAndrew faces in bringing her “friends” to life is the grueling physicality involved in creating large-scale sculptures. “A lot of people are confused when they find out I’m the one making these pieces,” she said. “I think that has a lot to with with stereotypes about plus-size women and what we’re capable of. Here I am, making these physically demanding sculptures that make me fight so much for them to be in this medium.”
Over the past couple of years, McAndrew has felt less detached from the idea of womanhood, in part because she’s been able to loosen her understanding of what femininity looks like or should be. “I would see other plus-size women and think they were beautiful but I couldn’t see it in myself,” she recalled. “If you don’t love yourself, how can you expect anyone else to love you? It’s so annoyingly true.”
Currently, McAndrew is at work on a sculpture series that features her and her boyfriend together. In one work, the couple will appear in bed, naked, gazing at a laptop screen. McAndrew will be holding her partner’s flaccid penis in her hand. This marks the artist’s first time explicitly sculpting her own body. “I have’t faced what our bodies look like next to one another,” McAndrew said, describing her boyfriend is a typically handsome, surfer type.
“We have very different bodies,” she added. “I think posing them one next to the other will be very confrontational for me. I’m more nervous for how I will deal with it than how others will.”
“NSFW: Female Gaze” is on view now at the Museum of Sex. McAndrew’s first solo show, at Pilot Projects in Philadelphia, will open in March.