Since 2012, Molly Jae Vaughan has utilized her interdisciplinary approach to art making, to honor the lives of murdered transgender and gender non-conforming Americans. Through the creation of unique garments and diverse collaborative memorial actions, Vaughan raises awareness of the violence that transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, particularly trans women of color, face in contemporary American society.
The works that are created for Vaughan’s Project 42 bridge textile, printmaking, and painting processes into visually captivating patterns, each developed for a specific person. These patterns are then digitally printed onto fabrics and sewn into garments created for a specific collaborator to wear. Hand printed, stitched, and embellished elements further personalize each work.
Memorializing the dead is a sacred act, upon which entire belief systems are structured. Vaughan’s work, begun before most of the online data bases and websites dedicated to Transgender Day of Remembrance were established, raises visibility of the epidemic of violence the trans and gender non-conforming community faces by emphasizing each individual from her chronologically selected list of 42, with complex actions and labor heavy processes. For Vaughan, each individual’s life is worth equal time, whether they were a leader, a star, or simply someone trying to survive on the streets.
The process of creating each garment begins with a location where a life was lost. Using google earth, Vaughan captures visual documentation of the murder location from multiple distances and angles.
In addition to satellite images, Vaughan will often include captures from Google street view if available. From these captures colours and shapes pulled directly from the location are abstracted and incorporated into a pattern.
By using these specifically sourced visual elements, Vaughan is able to symbolically represent each individual without speculating who they were, what they liked, or who they wished to be. Like walking in a city where every inch holds untold amounts of memories from millions of moments, terrible and happy, the abstracted patterns can be easily consumed and overlooked. Like each life lived and lost. Perhaps by only asking why an artist would created this pattern and object, can a viewer, be pulled in for a larger discussion. Vaughan believes that in order for this violence to end, allies as well as those who oppose human rights, must be challenged to engage the issue with their own labor and research. From many interactions and conversations with the public, Vaughan recognizes that in order for things to change, society must take responsibility for all of the forms of oppression that the intersectional identities of the victims were subjected to.
The finished garment, flag, and background for Rosita Hildago installed at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.
It takes a village.
Mentorship, advocacy, community and knowledge building are vital components of the work Vaughan does. Dedicated to using her privilege as a means to raise up others, Vaughan shares her skills and experience with students and members of the community as a means to connect and engage. The works created for Project 42 are the result of many hands, each committed to adding their labor to these objects, charged not only with the spirits of those represented by the cloth, but by the energy, the joy, and the sorrow of those who came together to stitch, print, and construct it.
In the video above, you can witness the process employed to print 30 yards of organza for the dress used in the TEDX Seattle memorial action for Tyra Trent. The hand carved block for the printed fabric represents Poke Berry, a poisonous berry that grows in the area where Tyra Trent was murdered. The leaves of this plant are poisonous but also, when prepared properly, a staple of soul food in the region. This duality mirrors the dangers of being visible as a transgender or gender non-conforming individual, to live a true life can be nourishing but possibly also deadly.
In addition to assistants donating their time to the construction of the garments, personal offerrings to individual spirits are given. The most common offering is hair, which has been an important element to Vaughan’s work for over a decade. Much of the hand made fabrics in the garments is created from a monoprinting process that incorporates donated hair. Hair is also used in the production of amulets, infused with protective energies of memorial actions and thoughts.
Community engagement is vital if the violence that is effecting the transgender and gender non-conforming communities is going to stop. Project 42 helps to create spaces for conversations and actions through public workshops, lectures, and collaborative performances. Vaughan, who is also a Assistant Professor and a former k-12 teacher, uses her background in education to create opportunities in which slow labor offers a space for conversation and connection.
Assistant Anh Ngo helps print a relief print to be incorporated into the memorial garment for Rosita Hildago.
The collaborations are the largest component to the projects impact and activitsm. Collaborators can be anyone. And how they choose to create their memorial action is personal and is the result of their own willingness to share something of themselves with the spirit whom they honor and represent.
In the image on the left, collaborator Natalie Ann Martínez, wearing the garment created for her collaboration, returns to the desert region where Fred Martinez Jr. was murdered to honor his life and spirit.
Some collaborations, like our performance and talk for TEDX Seattle, combine activism and art as a means to connect with extremely large communities. This form of memorial action places the individual’s spirit in spotlight as a conduit for expression and education.
See the entire TEDX talk by clicking the link here.
A center concept in Project 42 is interpersonal connection. The work hopes to raise more than just emotions within each collaborator, we seek to raise difficult questions, and to challenge each collaborator to shift from a place of allyship to one of activist.
For other collaborators, working with the project also creates a space to understand their own experiences as transgender or gender non-conforming individuals. To memorialize Tiffany Berry, Marcel Michelle-Mobama a recent victim of violence herself, used her history as a trans woman of color to explore the possible space in which her own last day is reflected in Tiffany’s final actions. Project 42 works with all collaborators who wish to engage in the work, but specifically only allows trans women of color to narrate a life or death of a trans woman of color. The intersectional reality of most murder victims in the trans and gender non-confirming community points to the many layers of oppresssion those killed faced. As a result those who do not have the same identity as the individual they are representing are asked not to imagine this persons life but rather to share events and actions cemented in human compassion. Respect is the core of understanding.
Though highly public memorials can have huge impact, the project also seeks to create quiet and private memorials, in which collaborators carry the weight of the spirit housed in their garment, alone, and without audience.
Zola Jesus, a musician who has inspired the artists and her work for many years, collaborated with Project 42 to honor Myra Ical. The woods where Zola lives are a place of contemplation and centering for her. By wearing Myra’s dress in this space, Zola shared a deeply personal connection with the spirit of a murdered stranger. These interior and personal actions are vital to the projects goal of elevating these stolen lives and making visible the invisible through human and compassionate moments.
Space and separation are important conceptual elements for the project and the collaborations that support it. Small spaces, whether during performances or the display of garments against background wall papers/textiles, represent the reduced area in which violence can occur, a tiny distance separating survival and demise.
Another type of space is geographic distance. Geography plays a key role in the development of each pattern, but it is also conceptually infused throughout the projects goals. Project 42 performances have taken place in 4 countries- Vietnam, Italy, Germany, and the USA. In the USA there have been performances in 7 states, with some cities hosting multiple actions. Travel, remains a key component to our performances in that it represents human experiences stolen from the victims via violence.
Listed in Chronological Order of Project 42 Completion*
- Emily Navarra - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam memorializing Paige Clay
- Mia D’Avanza - New York City, NY memorializing Tiffany Gooden
- Paul Gordon - Cologne, Germany memorializing Brandy Martell
- Jono Vaughan - Tulsa, OK memorializing Camilla Guzman
- Jono Vaughan and Moriah Fleeting - St. Petersburg, Fl memorializing Angie Zapata
- Anna Conner - Seattle, WA memorializing Brandy Martell
- Amanda Domenech - Rome, Italy memorializing Moriah Malina Qualls
- Marcel Michelle-Mobama - St. Paul, Minnesota memorializing Tiffany Berry
- Natalie Ann Martinez, Catherine Cross Uehara, and Amanda Pickler - Seattle, WA memorializing Fred Martinez Jr.
- Zola Jesus - Wisconsin (private location), memorializing Myra Ical
- Anna Conner - Seattle, WA memorializing Larry King Jr.
- Randy Ford - Seattle, WA memorializing Deja Jones
- Jade Vogel - Seattle, WA memorializing Lorena Escalera Xtravganza
- Amanda Pickler, Sarah Brown, Caroline Natsuhara, Rachel Hong, and Sarah Hong - Seattle WA memorializing Paulina Ibarra
- Randy Ford - Seattle, WA memorializing Tyra Trent
* singular performances in which garments were made for specific collaborators
Secondary Performances for Garments
- National Performance Network Annual Meeting, Tulsa OK - garments worn by volunteers at closing reception of conference
- Harvey Milk Festival, Sarasota FL - garments worn in Choreographed performance
- Transgender Day of Remembrance 2017, 2018, Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, Bainbridge Island, WA - garments worn by volunteers during annual name reading