Donna Service


By D. Eric Bookhardt
January/February 1997; pg 56

Donna Service, TRANSPLANT
Delgado College Gallery
New Orleans, LA

Ever since the late 1960s ushered in an abrupt reappraisal of traditional values and gender roles - not to mention sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll - people have struggled to make sense of it all.  And while the reappraisal continues, some of the old 1960s ideals of race, gender, and ecological consciousness have quietly become entrenched, internalized by the American people even as they still agonize over the details.

Much of this occurs at a deep psychological level - a point at which art can function as the catalyst that challenges viewers to make those inner leaps, to change the settings of their psyche at the deep, nonverbal level inhabited by their feelings.  The exhibition of Donna Service's mixed media art works was a case in point, a provocative rumination on gender that some may have found disturbing despite its good humored, if ironic, tone.  And while it deals with women and nature and the sexuality intrinsic to both, it contained none of the recrimination so often attending doctrinaire gender art in the past.

Service's work falls into three groups.  The largest pieces include towering tree-women fabric sculptures with female lower halves and upper torsos like crepe myrtles, who share their spaces with affable snakes and wry woodpeckers who slither or peck, respectively.  Also included are some tree-men, fiberous outdoor types who exist only from their hulking feet to their waists, at which point they abruptly end.  Avian lewdness and suggestive symbols abound in a setting like some slapstick Garden of Eden choreographed by Freud, Joseph Campbell, and Laurel and Hardy (with input from the pre-Socratic Greeks).

Another group includes some rather straight-up rice paper prints of swooping woodpeckers ravishing acorns in mid-flight, and other, more suggestive images of botanical female anatomy, aboreal private parts and such.  All of which brings us to the surreal and often explicit drawings that caused Delgado College to very nearly cancel the show. (A state junior college, Delgado provides career training to a diversely ethnic student body.)

These are dreamlike evocations of the feminine psyche in situations suggestive of the mysteries that underlie everyday life.  I Play the Game and I Know It is emblematic (though not as graphic as some).  Here, a cat-woman stands, frankly nude and pink, in a green room with red curtains.  She has a hairy tail and ears, among other things, and long black claws on her toes and fingers.  She just stands there, holding a limp black bra - like evidence - in her outstretched talons, and the net effect is candid though not contrite, conveying the irony of the eternal gender games as they are now played.  Instead of sermonizing, the image invites us to see its double-edged psychic depth and complexity.  This is how Service sets off synapses in the more remote regions of the brain, making one come to terms with her feminine persona and, worst of all, with ourselves, through our reactions.  Wonderfully disorienting stuff.

THE TIMES; Living Section
Bring A Sense of Humor to Tower Gallery
by JoAnne Harris
July 27, 1999

The Tower Galler, Shreveport, LA

Tucked away in the farthest corner of The Tower Gallery is what is surely the wildest, wackiest and most wonderful art exhibit to be seen locally this summer.  "The Body Box and Other Oddities," featuring works by Donna Service is indeed sublimely odd, offbeat and often outrageous.

For a brief background, Service is a local artist who manages to stay involved up to her earlobes in all sorts of community art activities.  She [operates] the Renzi Education and Art [Center], providing tutoring and creative opportunities for inner-city and under-privileged children and youth.  All that, and she still finds time to create her own distinctive style of art.

Of the 20 pieces shown here, seven are drawings in graphite or prismacolor.  All are figure studies of a female seen variously as a goddess, mother or mythic being.  Each piece includes various natural or mystical motifs that symbolize fertility, nurturing or spirituality.  All are rendered realistically with a somewhat cool, detached style, often suggesting textbook illustrations.

The contrast could not be greater between these pieces and the other 13 works on display.  Here, we have three-dimensional puppet-like soft sculptures that are flamboyantly unlike anything Mother Nature ever produced.  Ranging in size from approximately 18 inches to 8 feet in height, each piece makes a token reference to something like a humanoid shape.  There is, at least, a torso, a head, upper and lower extremities and sexual appendages.  The rest is sheer fantasy.

Again, numerous motifs from the natural world can be noted.  Bird beaks and wings are plentiful.  Leafy twigs sprout from all manner of places.  Lush flowers blossom here and there.  None of the figures possess anything so mundane as human hands and feet.  In their place are a fascinating variety of bird feet, claws, flippers and tentacles.  Some figures have tails.  Many have only one cyclopean eye or multiple eyes scattered about the body.  This is really some weird stuff.

There is much gender-bending here, too.  Many figures possess the attributes of both sexes, making it next to impossible to identify most of them as one or the other.  Plus, the attributes are almost always ridiculous in size and number.

Even more fantastic is the range of materials used, plus the methods of construction.  Fabrics of the richest sort - velvets, satins, laces, lames, embroideries, leathers - provide the body or ground of each figure.  Colors are bright and glittery, always used in brilliant contrast.  Then come the embellishments - beads, buttons, feathers, furs, metallic threads and more embroidery.

Please note that these are not just slapped together with a little hot glue and the staple gun.  Each of these constructions is meticulously sewn, most if not all by hand.  Every bead, sequin or other tiny decoration is likewise attached by needle and thread.  Take it from one who has sewn her share of stuffed dolls and animals, the workmanship displayed here is far, far beyond that of the average seamstress.  Yea, this is art.

The inevitable question of course, is what does it all mean?  Service herself would probably reply, "It means what you want it to mean."  As to what she means, we can easily surmise that she is quite simply celebrating life in all of its variations - spirituality, motherhood, sexuality.  She takes a playful attitude toward the immense possibilities of nature and emphasizes the unity between man and all of creation.

1997 Visual Artist Fellowship Award
Comments by juror Lynn Herbert, Associate Curator of the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston.
In the juror's statement, Herbert states of Service's work: "Donna Service brings together a wide array of materials, some of which are very humble, to make, of all things, stuffed dolls and trees.  With these relatively quirky figures, she explores ideas with great exuberance and confidence.  From large scale installations to smaller more intimate pieces, there is a playfulness to the work that makes them very inviting, encouraging viewers to enter the realm of metaphoric possibilities.  Classical subject such as Adam and Eve in From the Earth, manage to sit alongside more personal and over-the-top figures like Mydonna and the Blessed Manshark.  Perhaps the most impressive work is Transplant, a large multi-pieced installation rich in detail and craftsmanship.  With its expressive trees standing amidst bodiless legs and nests, Transplant provides an abundance of food for thought."