BELFAST, Maine — More than two decades ago, on a hot summer night in the upstairs of an old farmhouse after an exhausting day at the beach with small children, Lisa Kushner couldn’t sleep and turned on the news.
When she saw footage of abortion protesters holding up posters showing fetuses, she became upset. Then she had an idea that led to “The Belly Project,” photos of women’s bellies that were shocking at the time, she said, and whose power remains tangible today. The photographs are included in “Living In These Bodies,” an exhibit now on display at Belfast’s Waterfall Arts.
“It was a little in-your-face,” Kushner, now a psychotherapist, said of the project. “I don’t think it was revolutionary, but the images were shocking — surprising and affirming and shocking.”
While watching the news that night, she said she was struck by the lack of concern for or attention to actual women who decided to have or not have children. Pregnancy and child-rearing have intense emotional, mental and physical effects on women, she reasoned, and she wanted to shine a light on that.
“The strain of pregnancy is very physical at times,” Kushner said at Belfast’s Waterfall Arts. “I thought it would be good for people to see women’s bodies.”
And not in any kind of idealized, airbrushed way. Kushner had the idea of really showing women’s bellies, wrinkles, stretch marks, puckers, folds of flesh and caesarean scars included. She asked photographer Peggy McKenna of Montville if she was interested, and the answer was an immediate yes.
“She really got it. She was over the moon,” Kushner said. “It was about motherhood and reproductive choice. It was also about abortion — legal access to it.”
The duo had no troubles finding local women to model for McKenna’s fine-art belly portraits.
“People would pull up their shirts in the Shop ‘n Save supermarket: ‘Look, look, I can be in it!’” Kushner recalled. “It was the politics. Women were worried that their bodies would be taken out of their control.”
Under each picture is a simple caption with the featured woman’s first name, age and brief reproductive history, including abortions illegally and legally obtained. There’s Em, 38, who lost one infant and gave birth to two others, all delivered by C-section. Her scar is deep, cleaving the bottom of her belly in two. There’s Margaret, 78, who had given birth to twins, her belly soft and hanging down.
McKenna was particular about her photography. She had to have the lighting just so, and the bellies are captured in finely textured detail from under the breasts to below their navels, showing the curve of the hips as well as the women’s reproductive histories. The photos have a lasting resonance, according to area artists.
Mike Fletcher, an area photographer and artist, said he saw them exhibited at the now-closed Frick Gallery in Belfast when he first moved to the area in the early 1990s.
“I was very impressed,” he said. “I didn’t know it was a local photographer. I thought it was a national project.”
It did garner national attention, though, soon after Kushner and McKenna started to show and sell a poster with the photographs. The poster was featured on the back page of the Utne Reader. About 2,000 copies of it were sold altogether.
McKenna had many more copies in storage. When Martha Piscuskas, co-director of Waterfall Arts, had the idea a year ago to include “The Belly Project” in the summer art exhibit, the photographer was happy. McKenna was sick then with the ovarian cancer, which took her life just two months ago, so the exhibit is bittersweet, Kushner and Piscuskas said.
Just a week or so before her death, the women went to visit her and found she had enough energy to have a conversation about the project. McKenna, who was known for her jokes, her artist’s eye and as the undefeated “leg-wrestling champion” of Waldo County, spoke about her work and its impact with a strong voice and undiminished memory. The conversation was recorded and has become a powerful, poignant part of the exhibit.
“I wanted to make their bodies look like works of art,” McKenna said in the video taped conversation.
Part 1 of Living in These Bodies will run through July 25 at Waterfall Arts, located at 256 High Street in Belfast. Part 2, which features other artists, will open Friday, Aug. 1. The gallery can be visited from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, or by appointment. For more information, visit the website www.waterfallarts.org.