By Luwa Yin
Boston University News Service
In a gallery painted pink, a thread flows through the middle of the walls. It’s filled with cartoon characters and stories, which audiences may recognize from the books and television shows of their childhood.
“Growing Sideways,” a gallery created by Chilean visual artist and educator Catalina Schliebener, explores queerness in gender and sexual identity in childhood. Opened on Sept. 18, it is the first art exhibition at Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts since March 2020.
Schliebener points to the queer aspect of childhood, which marks the idea of “Sideways.” It’s a metaphor that “the queer kids don’t grow up, like up,” they said, pointing upward. “They grow up sideways.”
“Growing Sideways” is a floor-to-ceiling installation characterized by collage, which is, as Schliebener describes, an intentional way of documenting the outside world.
Cutting and rearranging elements from existing materials, Schliebener said, is a creative process. They likened creating a collage to “drawing with scissors.”
With collages, artists can always grow and adapt, said curator, John Chaich.
“It’s like when a band has their greatest hits, we go to a concert, and we want to hear the greatest hits all the time,” he said. “The artist has to find some way to make that same song a little more interesting for them.”
Schliebener calls themself a “hoarder,” and said the materials they use come from everywhere — everything from the school they work at to flea markets.
“I usually use images or objects that are embedded with a lot of norms,” Schliebener, whose work focuses on themes of childhood, said.
Growing up in Chile in the 1980s, Schliebener consumed much American culture, including images and books. Disney characters were an important part of their work, they said.
Some objects they worked with are cut out from Winnie-the-Pooh coloring books. By extracting and rearranging fragments from the original book, Schliebener created abstract images, with some body parts more difficult to identify.
They usually use “pedagogical objects” that direct children to behave in certain ways, and many have to do with gender norms.
“I like to play with all these norms,” Schliebener said. “My work has always been like questioning in a really subtle way.”
Society is embedded in norms, they said, and people absorb them without realizing it. Children, however, are “in the process of developing who they are and how they recognize themselves in the world.”
Children are curious about their own bodies, and adults, even educators, sometimes shame them for behaviors, they said.
“Something that we don’t talk so often about is that kids actually have sexuality,” Schliebener said.
Schliebener’s experiences of working in early childhood inform their practice and remind them of memories of their own body.
“I felt ashamed when I was a kid,” they said. “I feel that somehow those norms didn’t apply to me.”
Using tails and paws in their work, Schliebener said they felt intrigued by non-human characters. For them, childhood is fascinating because it contains elements between fiction and reality. Just like iconic Christopher Robin and Pinocchio, children seem to have a special relationship with animals, and they could connect with those characters, reflecting on their childhood.
“It’s not that [children] are pretending to be an animal,” Schliebener said. “They actually are animals when they are playing.”
They said queer adults always have to revisit their childhood to understand who they are. “It took probably longer to unlearn those rules,” which “we get them in such a short and condensed period of our life where many things that we learn without any consent,” they said.
Chaich said people approaching the show become different throughout the years, and so do artists.
“It’s interesting to be on that journey with them,” he said.
Schliebener said they try to use “archetypal images,” which reflect everyone’s childhood, not just their own.
Kinesha Goldson, who attended the gallery, said “Growing Sideways” resonates with her experience watching Winnie-the-Pooh as a child.
“This little Black girl that we saw kind of reminds me of me,” she said. “It’s always comforting to kind of see yourself in it.”
Audiences don’t necessarily need to understand artists’ expression, but they need an “entry point” because as appreciators, they are also in the middle of art, said Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, senior director of marketing and communications at Boston Center for the Arts.
“Art and humanity are so intertwined,” Berents-Weeramuni said. “Art is what makes us human.”
“Many of the things that I’m addressing in my work are not like a personal memory,” Schliebener said. “I think every person [has] the same experience.”