Take a left at Vulva Junction
Lauren Petrie is still pissed off. Twenty years ago, a store owner asked a friend of hers to breast feed her baby in the bathroom. The slight, against what Petrie saw as a perfectly natural and life-affirming action, motivated her to install a breast-feeding witch in her front yard.
Eventually, that lawn display morphed into a “lactation station” and then a display encouraging self-examination for breast cancer.
She and her family live on a busy thoroughfare on Guilford Street between West Brattleboro and downtown. A stop sign stands just steps from her front door. For going on twenty years now, as vehicles come to a stop it’s impossible not to take in the rotating statements, scenes and sculpture she assembles there. Installation is not a term she prefers: Lawn Art.
When asked about the common themes, she responded, “Rage.” Frequently she thinks about them as sculptural, personal, political, conversation starters. Since the “witch days” she has received countless positive comments from grateful parents about the meaningful conversations with their children that Petrie’s work inspired.
She thinks of it sometimes as providing a public service. Parents and kids may find it hard to speak directly or unprompted about issues around sex and health. It eases tensions for both generations when they encounter Petrie’s lawn displays. “Over the years you provided a wonderful service to the community and inspired important and varied conversations with my children,” is how one parent wrote about it.
Autumn is the season when voters go to the polls, October happens to be Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Halloween. These events converged for Petrie and her art can be either playful, progressive, angry, sometimes even confrontational. She does not shy away from making a statement.
Passion is the fuel for her expressions. These center around accessibility, equity and self-determination in women’s health. The displays include the six-foot vulva with a private property sign, the pap smear simulation with the 12-foot skeleton, and most recently, the colorful signposts pointing the direction and distance to women’s health centers all over the world.
It’s not every day your neighbor hangs a six-foot uterus lit by small purple lights in a tree. “Not everybody sees it the way I do,”she said. When asked about any misconceptions the public may have had she recounted the time her home was mistaken for a Planned Parenthood office, and the awkward inquiry by a slightly intoxicated male if her home was a whore house.
The complaints have been few and far between, the gratitude consistent and overwhelming.
What started out as an outlet for shaming over public breastfeeding led to examining inequities to access health care and into a point of view on the world and a way to speak truth to power.
“I ‘ve worked at the middle school for almost twenty years and I see every day how there is such a divide between folks who have privilege and folks who do not, whether it is access to transportation or medicine,” she says. “It is women and the poor who suffer the most.”
Over the years her installations have taken aim at public figures such as Sarah Palin, Justice Kavanaugh in a vampire mask sawing apart a Roe vs. Wade sign and Donald Trump portrayed as a, “World-class Jackass.”
Two formative experiences shaped Petrie. The first, when she accompanied a friend to an abortion clinic. Before entering the building the two teenagers had to pass through a gauntlet of raging adults screaming at them.
“It was really traumatic for my friend,” she says.
When she encountered her own substance abuse issues a compassionate guidance counselor made sure Petrie knew her door would remain open until she chose to walk through it one day. She did, and now provides similar counsel, information, reassurance, and dignity for teens in her role as a Student Assistance Counselor at BAMS.
“In my heart I’m an educator. I spend a lot of time working with students who are having a hard time in school and home. It is empowering and uplifting,” she says. “I love the growth that students experience in those two years.”
Petrie observes states such as Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi denying women health care and self-determination to access abortions, inspiring her response: Men Should Not Make Laws About Women’s Bodies.
The nefarious way the Texas Legislature crafted their new abortion ban deputizes ordinary citizens while incentivizing them to turn in others. It makes abortion providers and anyone who, “aide and abets” liable for a civil lawsuit and a $10,000 fine. That means the Uber driver who takes you to Planned Parenthood risks his livelihood.
“It’s worse now then it was ten years ago,” Petrie says.
While it may be true, as one admirer quipped, that some men need a GPS to find Vulva Junction, Petrie is encouraging all Brattleboro to stick around and see the next trick up her skirt.
Lauren’s Facebook page is 802vulva.