The Both/And of Expression Through Face and Body Language

During one of our class periods back in March (I know, it’s a throwback) led by Teaching Assistants Sabrina, Anderson, and Katie, my peers and I participated in the Sculptor/Clay exercise. As Katie led our reflection period towards the end of class, as memory serves me, she mentioned something about the importance of facial expressions in the exercise. Katie said that when she and Sabrina attended a conference over the summer, they participated in the Scuptor/Clay exercise with a small group of about twelve people, and Katie noticed that one of the “sculptors” in particular paid special attention to the facial expressions he had his “clay” wear. I found this especially interesting and I began to think about some of the other mediums in which the presence or the absence of facial expression is significant, such as Willow Tree® figurines, American Sign Language, the Baby Dolls, and, of course, Steve Prince’s art.

I have seen far too many Willow Tree® figurines in my life up to this point, because during my senior year of high school, I helped out my grandma at a small shop she used to run called The Peaceful Dove. These faceless figurines made up many of her sales in this little boutique, and I was often tasked with taking inventory of them. Many of our customers enjoyed developing their impressive collections of these figurines. I never understood it, because, as my mom would put it with these types of things, they’re just “another thing to dust”. Why collect these faceless statuettes? After much thinkING and conversation with my peers, I am drawn to the conclusion that this lack of facial expression opens admirers or buyers up to different modes of interpretation. Each figurine is given a generic name, such as “Happiness” or “Courage”; the name is not obviously displayed on the figure, rather it is hidden on the bottom, so you actually have to make an effort to pick it up to see this label. Otherwise, the figurines may really only be interpreted by body language, and this is largely what the Sculptor/Clay exercise was all about.

As a bit of a side note (though I am anticipating this so-called side note may take up more space than I imagine), after seriously delving into my memory of my time inventorying Willow Tree® figurines and looking through those listed on the website, it has dawned on me that there is little to no physical diversity represented in the figurines. The Willow Tree®s, though expressionless, all have what look to be varying shades of white, or very light, skin. Most ironic is the few figurines that are actually labeled as having a “darker skin tone and hair color”, especially compared to the skin and hair colors of the average figurines. Below, I have included two Willow Tree®s that go by the same title side by side, taken directly off of the website (link included above):

Is it just me, or does it seem like these figurines look almost exactly alike? Part of me actually wonders whether the background has been changed in these two pictures to add the illusion of more contrast. Willow Tree®s were commonplace in my life at one time; I looked at them every single day and it took me years and years to look at them with the careful consideration I have finally used to see the now obvious lack of diversity. Under the “FAQs” section of the Willow Tree® website, one of the questions says, “Can I customize a piece with different hair or skin colors?”, and the answer is, “Unfortunately, Susan [the artist] is not able to customize Willow Tree pieces to accommodate special requests for hair or skin color. Most Willow Tree pieces are painted with soft rubbed-off colors, blended lines and low contrast, which merely suggest hair and skin color.” I interpret both the passivity of the second sentence of the answer as well as the use of the word “suggest” here as an attempt at distancing the artist from ownership of the lack of diversity in the hair color and skin color of her pieces. This revelation was quite shocking given how long I have been exposed to this artist’s work, and given how long it took me to come to this conclusion. Unfortunately, racism, biases, and preconceived notions are present in more places that I previously thought.

On the contrary from the idea that a lack of facial expression can be significant and actually open up different schools of thought and methods of interpretation, facial expression is especially significant in American Sign Language. In my medical anthropology class this semester, we read part of the book Understanding and Applying Medical Anthropology: Biosocial and Cultural Approaches by Peter J. Brown and Svea Closser. Chapter 37, Coping with Stigma: Lifelong Adaptation of Deaf People, detailed the many obstacles that deaf people must deal with in their many interactions with non-deaf people. One of the issues discussed is the stigma and social construction of deafness as an illness. This is basically how other people know who is deaf and make assumptions about these people before they know anything about them or have even interacted with them. Some people may assume deaf people are dumb or disabled in other ways, although this often not the case. Because of this issue, many deaf people do not want to call further attention to themselves, so they will greatly suppress the way they communicate using American Sign Language. The book says that facial expression is an essential part of this language, yet because of stigma and to avoid embarrassment, many deaf people omit it in public.

It takes courage to put ourselves out there, because once we do, everything we do is open to interpretation. This is what Steve Prince once said about his art—that once it leaves his studio, it belongs to everyone, so he can’t become upset if someone sees it in a different light than he does. The Baby Dolls take courageous steps in this respect every time they walk at Mardi Gras. While they may see their outfits as an attempt at reclaiming an identity, or a show of feminism, or any other way in which they look at them, others may see them differently, and this is something everyone must accept; once we say or do something, we must realize that it can be perceived in any way at all.

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