The artist’s new show makes a political statement out of white shirts.

Until 2011, Columbus artist Sue Cavanaugh’s work had focused mainly on the intricacies of stitching and gathering—of transforming fabrics into sculptures using nothing but needles and thread. But that summer, as she sat working on a piece, she heard a politician say something that would push her art from beautiful to political.

The nightly news aired a story about Mitt Romney’s campaign to win the Republican Party’s nomination for president. About a year and a half earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission granted corporations and unions the right to spend unlimited money on political ads to sway the electorate. Romney was on stage at the Iowa State Fair when hecklers started shouting angrily about corporations.

Romney flashed a smile, opened his arms to the crowd and responded: “Corporations are people, my friend.”

The phrase stopped Cavanaugh mid-stitch.

“I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re not!’” she says. “But then as I’m stitching and gathering by hand, I thought, ‘But if they were, what would their skin look like?’” She imagined it would be made of men’s button-down white shirts, iconic emblems of corporate America. It would be stitched and gathered, wrinkly like the skin of an elephant or rhinoceros. The ideas kept coming.

In May, the newish (Not) Sheep Gallery in the Short North will display the culmination of Cavanaugh’s notions in a show titled Real People Don’t Eat Other People. At its heart is her initial question: What would corporations as people look like? In her work, a corporate takeover appears as one stitched-and-gathered white shirt eating another. Other shirts devour the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution. The show also features cartoon panels Cavanaugh drew and captioned, for example: “A priest, a rabbi and a poultry processing company walk into a bar.”

“I don’t have anything against corporations. … My retirement income comes from investments in corporations,” she says. “But I don’t think they have any business being involved in our elections or in our politics.”

Caren Petersen, who opened (Not) Sheep Gallery in September, says Cavanaugh’s initial reaction—with humor at its core—is part of what makes this collection so powerful. “She’s not being belligerent,” Petersen says. “She’s actually asking the question: How can they be people? What if they were?”

That kind of question is exactly what (Not) Sheep was created to explore. Petersen also operates Muse Gallery, which showcases fine art that’s suited for, say, a well-appointed hotel lobby. Cavanaugh’s work—which has been exhibited around the world and has won numerous accolades, including an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in March—has been shown at Muse for years. (Not) Sheep gives Petersen—and Cavanaugh—a chance to showcase work that’s more provocative.

“The country is going in a direction I don’t agree with, especially in terms of our policies on things like global warming, women’s issues, how LGBTQ [people] are being treated, how many mentally ill are still on the streets, racism …” Petersen says, trailing off. “And I just thought, ‘What can I do?’ … Most galleries can’t tackle those types of issues because they need to make money. True art is important to document our times. It’s supposed to talk about issues that are difficult.”

Cavanaugh’s show runs May 4–26 at (Not) Sheep Gallery, 17 W. Russell St.

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