THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Vinegar, not Jam

A magical, maximalist artist

by Marielle Burt

Illustration by Bryn Brunnstrom & Eliza Chen

published November 17, 2017


“The Two of Swords! This card is something to fear. It means stability, equilibrium. Of course! I’m fucking terrified of stability,” Jennifer “Vinegar” Avery exclaims with their signature cackle of delight. I hold a tarot card the size of a mini fridge with twelve other audience volunteers who have agreed to take part in a communal divination ceremony led by Vinegar—a performance artist, Providence personality, and recent graduate from Brown’s Resumed Undergraduate Education Program. Every seat is taken in the small black box theater at AS220, the non-profit art center where Providence’s creative community converges. Vinegar’s performance is the finale piece of AS220’s Luna Loba series, a recurring cabaret night dedicated to the full moon of the month. Tonight, the celebration is in honor of the Beaver Moon, a symbol of water, feminine energy, and sexuality.

Vinegar wears a seaweed green velvet jacket, revealing their bare chest and a tangle of golden and black lace necklaces. Their bright yellowish eyes are circled with thick eyeliner; gnarled black roots grow into the magenta tips of their hair, as if fighting the colored strands for headspace. Vinegar is tall, loud, and unafraid to laugh at themself. Their arms are decorated with a collage of tattoos, both detailed figures and simple geometric shapes. “I usually play the jester in my performances,” they proclaim to the audience, “but today, I’m just myself.” 

The crew of card holders waits to be choreographed, vessels through which Vinegar will work their magic. Vinegar’s heeled boots click against the floor as they pace around the theater, weaving in and out of the participants who hide the faces of their cards from the rest of the audience. Vinegar suddenly pauses, mid-strut, and looks directly into the eyes of a card holder. Vinegar pulls the startled audience volunteer into position, and squeals in response to the requested reveal of the card’s face before launching into the explanation of its symbolic meaning. The printed figures on the cards (designed by Vinegar on an electronic drawing tablet) have a childlike aesthetic: the royal figures are rendered in multicolored scribbled lines yet also showcase an impeccable sense of proportion and composition. There is poetry in the chaos, but no prediction of the future.

The performance lasts only 10 minutes, and the audience is enthralled. This may be in part out of confusion—Vinegar does not fully explain how the cards relate to each other or what particular message they might hold. But there is something captivating in the eccentricity and energy of Vinegar’s performance, even if the meaning of the piece is not immediately comprehensible. After Vinegar finishes the tarot card divination, the final piece in the night’s series, everyone in the theater jumps up to hug or congratulate someone. The performers and audience members all seem to know each other, citizens of this small, ragtag corner of Providence’s art scene. Erminio Pinque, the artistic director of the beloved BIG NAZO monster-puppet performance group is acting as photographer for the event, and Sheyla Rivera the artistic director of AS220 who organizes Luna Loba, is also present, as are several performers in FringePVD events (Providence’s summer theater festival) and art students from Brown and RISD.

“You can ask me questions while I change if you like!” Vinegar exclaims to me after the show, poking their head out from behind a curtain while I awkwardly lean against the wall of the black box. I laugh and tell them to take their time. Vinegar leads me outside to chat with them and a few of the other artists after the show as they smoke under a narrow awning to avoid the drizzle and pass around a bottle of espresso vodka someone gave Vinegar as a congratulatory token. “Alright, go ahead.” Vinegar says, turning to me, “Anything you want to know you can ask me in front of these people.” 

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Vinegar has not always been known as “Vinegar.” They adopted the name first as a Facebook alias when they left their first husband and wanted to cut ties. But like Vinegar’s art, the name is layered with meaning: from Vinegar Valentines, a Victorian tradition of sending rude valentines that featured caricatures or cynical poems; to Vinegar’s favorite flavor, and “how forceful it is;” to the eponymous line from the musical Cabaret: “a tiger is a tiger, not a lamb, you’ll never turn Vinegar into jam.”

Vinegar is in Providence for just over a week to perform in Luna Loba and set up an installation piece entitled The Fainting Room, The Vanity Table: A Period Piece or Cats and Pansies go f*ck yourself, open through November 25 in AS220’s reading room. The cramped room is a dizzying collision of color and texture. The walls are caked with vibrant silk scarves, glittery fabrics, body-like sculptures made of yarn, and beautiful scraps of trash. A yellow dress embroidered with the word “FUCK,” gloves with bloody tips, a teddy bear with vampire fangs, and a robotic head with orange plastic cups for eyes can all be found in the room that feels like a bizarre, 3D eye-spy. This piece, Vinegar tells me, is about how masturbation was used to treat female hysteria, and how women’s pleasure was at once recognized and pathologized. Viewers are invited try on wild costumes Vinegar made, and integrate themselves into this twisted sanctuary. There are secret party poppers throughout the space that explode with glitter when pulled so folks can “pop one off” so to speak, if they find them. The layers of materials are a bit alarming and can be difficult to connect to the broader theme, but the experience is thought-provoking and engaging. Vinegar’s aesthetic is defined by the fact that they create explicitly for themself, and claim to be unconcerned by how anyone interprets it. “My work is really selfish,” they say when asked about what drives them to create, “I don’t care at all what other people think of it. It just brings me so much joy! ” 

In addition to the AS220 installation piece, Vinegar’s art has been showcased in dozens of other art spaces, including Providence’s Yellow Peril Gallery and the SATELLITE Art Basel Festival in Miami, a showcase of promising new artists from around the world. Vinegar has also worked with Hermès Foundation, a Parisian fashion house with a silk workshop just south of Lyon that accepts three emerging artists each year to take part in a four month long, fully funded artistic retreat. The artists have full access to Hermès’ luxury materials and support from their staff. Vinegar was the first American artist invited to the program—while there, they produced 300 fabric creations printed with drawings, photocopies, and trash textures.

Vinegar’s creations are impossible to categorize into one artistic discipline. “It’s a beautiful nightmare,” they say when asked to describe their artistic practice. “I’m always inspired by what is just lying about and how I can turn that into a fantasy world.” Their fantasy sometimes manifests as a performance piece, like the interactive tarot card reading, and at other times as installation art, fashion, puppetry, fabric design, and homemade dolls. Nothing is off-limits. Vinegar works extensively with found materials, and is particularly interested in the integration of trash as an art medium. Vinegar views the process of transforming litter into art as a form of magic. 

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Vinegar’s magical, maximalist aesthetic has deep roots. They moved several times throughout their childhood, living in York, Maine; Dover, New Hampshire; and Vernon, Connecticut, among other places in the northeast. Vinegar lived in a trailer home for most of their youth, which was elaborately decorated with items Vinegar’s family collected. They found their decor in the same places Vinegar now sources their art materials: thrift stores, yard sales, and trash bins. Vinegar made a habit as a young child of stalking cats and snatching away the small animals the felines were preying up; young Vinegar constructed shrines for these dead vermin and orchestrated extensive funeral ceremonies on their behalf. So too, Vinegar’s grandmother was an important early influence: she was a doll maker and taught Vinegar her practice. Vinegar’s grandmother also introduced them to tarot reading at age 12, a practice which is still important to Vinegar both artistically and spiritually.

Vinegar’s early eclecticism led to their involvement in the local punk scene in high school. When they got in trouble for wearing spiked bracelets to school, they created paper maché versions to keep their edge while begrudgingly complying with the dress code. When asked what drew them to punk music, Vinegar’s eyes lit up: “I fell in love with the whole neo-cabaret of the early 2000s—that whole ‘crust glam’ thing.” Vinegar’s band was called “Army of Broken Toys,” for which they played bass, screamed a lot, and spat blood on stage. 

The motley Army of Broken Toys moved to Boston after Vinegar finished high school, where the band became part of an artist group called the Ominous Collective. The band squatted in abandoned buildings and made “wild youthful decisions,” only some of which have become fond memories of adventure. Eventually, Vinegar became fed up with the angsty egos of the musician community, and they ran away with the head of the art collective (which was quite scandalous, as both he and Vinegar were married to other people at the time) in the middle of the night, driving across the country to Portland hungry for a new start on a new coast. But Portland didn’t pan out, and soon Vinegar returned to the East Coast, ready for a change. 

Driven by a desire to help others and find a new sense of purpose, Vinegar enrolled in the nursing program at Bristol Community College and began working at a nursing home. Vinegar found the nursing home deeply depressing, and found that they lacked an outlet for their creativity. Vinegar started once again to consider that spreading their artistic passion might be a way of serving others.

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Vinegar swapped their nursing scrubs for an artist’s smock. They changed their major from nursing to art, and began the most fruitful period of their artistic and personal growth. “I really committed then—like I am a fucking artist,” Vinegar told me. In the art program, Vinegar immersed themself in the technique of an array of artistic styles, thriving in the intense, detailed work. They studied realistic figure drawing and sculpture work, mastering how to capture the exact curve of a face and the shadow of eye in clay, charcoal, and ink.

Though Vinegar acknowledges that their art can seem “anti-technique,” they credit the Bristol CC arts program and their mentors there for teaching them to have a great “empathy for materials.” Their mastery of technique is also handy for Vinegar as someone who supports themself entirely by making art. Vinegar has been commissioned by a friend to sculpt ears for busts, an apparently difficult task, even for trained sculptors, that Vinegar does with ease. 

After two years at Bristol, Vinegar was selected as valedictorian of their class and their mentors encouraged them to apply to Brown. Vinegar saw acceptance as a pipe dream, but applied anyway. For Vinegar, dreams and reality have a way of converging: they were accepted on a full scholarship. At Brown, Vinegar found their artistic “fairy godfather,” Professor Richard Fishman, who they met in his class on Hybrid Art. Fishman connected Vinegar with an array of professional artistic opportunities, nominated them for the Hermès program, and encouraged them to seek out other art residency opportunities. 

Vinegar spent the summer after their junior year at the fine art residency program at Yale. They were frustrated by the program’s emphasis on critique and rigid aesthetic rules; Vinegar’s unconventional work was incompatible with this stringent pedagogy. But Vinegar was unphased by this critique, and continued to create work that resisted traditional aesthetic rubrics. Though Vinegar’s art did not mesh with Yale’s pedagogy, their work caught the eye of acclaimed art galleries and festivals. 

During their first semester at Brown, Vinegar submitted their work to the SATELLITE Art Basel festival in Miami, a renowned, multi-disciplinary arts festival. There, Vinegar met an artist named James who drunkenly called out to them while dancing on top of a bar: “Hey YOU! Do you want to make out in the bathroom?” The pair got kicked out of the bathroom for public nudity, and several days later, they wed in a ceremony officiated and attended solely by the cadre of artists that they met through the festival—making the wedding itself a form of performance art. James and Vinegar are still happily married a year later. They just bought a run-down manor house in Winsted, Connecticut, that they have grand plans to turn into a home, workspace, and artist retreat, living out what Vinegar describes as their own “Gilmore Girls’ dreams.” The decoration of this home, Vinegar says, is their next big project. 

Before they set up in Connecticut, Vinegar is heading to Paris to install an immersive performance piece called Pupa, Poubelles et Les Bêtes at the Palais de Tokyo, and will then bring another work to a Berlin Gallery, The House of Presence. Pupa, Poubelles et Les Bêtes, called The Beast Boutique when it was performed in Providence last spring, is a dark reinterpretation of Little Red Riding Hood, wherein Vinegar portrays “one fragmented patchwork body,” part Little Red Riding Hood, part Wolf, and part Grandmother. In the piece, set in a warped version of a doll shop, Vinegar alternates between selling their doll creations (made of mutilated stuffed animal parts, trash, and other found materials) as a symbolic act of sexual labor and greed, and creating new dolls as an expression of autoeroticism and corporeal passion.

The magic of The Beast Boutique, like all of Vinegar’s art, is in its contradictions: the piece is at once a fairy tale and a haunted house as well as a celebration of the multiplicity of femininity as animalistic, innocent, and generative, and a recognition of the social pressures that aim to regulate and contort it. Vinegar’s life as an artist is similarly defined by contradictions. They are a master of technique, yet often break technical rules in their work. They claim not to let critical reception define their art, yet depend on audience interest to make a living. Other artists who support themselves with their art face similar contradictions. These tensions are not easily resolved and may pose discouraging hurdles for those pursuing creative careers. But embracing broad and multiple contradictions is part of what defines Vinegar’s art, producing a quality that is simultaneously richly enigmatic and startlingly authentic. This openness to incongruity extends beyond Vinegar’s artistic work into their life—a naughty Valentine and an acrid flavor, Vinegar will never mold their individuality into the singular sweetness of jam.

MARIELLE BURT B’19 just had her first sip of espresso vodka.