Arts feature: Middle Child

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive
Melissa Vogley Woods and Agnes Ray with work from the first Middle Child exhibition at Planned Parenthood Columbus

It's not like a Planned Parenthood health center is a place you expect to find unique interior design elements. As a medical facility, the emphasis is on functionality rather than form, and on service rather than imagination.

And if the interior of a Planned Parenthood location is sterile, the exterior is liable to be downright hostile, despite the best efforts of staff and volunteers to provide patients and their support persons some safeguard.

“There are protesters outside. There's police at the door. The architecture of the building is set up to protect staff and patients from threat of violence,” Columbus artist Agnes Ray said, speaking specifically of the Columbus Planned Parenthood location on East Main Street.

And so one of the initial efforts of Middle Child, the inchoate art collective formed by Ray and fellow Columbus artist Melissa Vogley Woods, was to take art inside the health center in hopes of transforming the space in a way that would benefit both those serving and being served there.

“What we want this work to do is be a way of saying, ‘We recognize your dignity and we support you,'” Ray said.

The two artists, both established makers and curators, formed Middle Child out of a desire to curate and facilitate shows as a form of art practice, and to make exhibitions that come from a particular perspective and point of view. The opportunity to present at Planned Parenthood, first suggested by a PP Columbus board member, offered a way to begin the conversation Ray and Woods wanted Middle Child to initiate.

“We're both middle children, which means we're both predisposed to help make peace but also to stir up trouble,” Ray said.

“We like the idea of taking art outside the museum and gallery setting, making things a little bit more challenging for the art, to, as Agnes likes to say, ‘Make the work work,'” Vogley Woods said. “In a gallery, everything is there to support the art, and when you go there, you know that's what you're going to do. At Planned Parenthood, for example, people don't necessarily expect to see art, but it's a time in people's lives when encountering art could help.”

Middle Child is a few weeks into its second quarterly art exhibition inside Planned Parenthood Columbus. Artists Annie Chrissy Burley and Dan Jian were featured earlier in the year. Dana Lynn Harper and Gina Osterloh currently have work installed in the space.

“We weren't sure what would happen when we reached out to artists and asked them to consider participating in a show where most people weren't going to have access or see the show. We were hoping there would be artists excited about showing this way,” Vogley Woods said.

“A lot of work I've been doing discusses the effect systems can have on people. The pieces I had in Planned Parenthood are more abstract. They have multiple layers so they can be understood in different ways. You can get lost in the image, but it can also resonate in different ways,” Burley said.

Because Planned Parenthood is, by its nature, political, and because its patients are in times of trauma and/or crisis, all installed art must be approved by representatives of the organization. Ray and Vogley Woods said the art is not overtly political in nature, but that simply allowing one's art to be displayed at a health center is a political act.

“The whole thing is political. But we're also aware that the hope is that a very specific audience connects to and feels supported through the handmade-ness of an object in this stark environment,” Ray said.

“It's another level of care,” said Jamie Hamilton, health services project manager for Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio and former site manager of the Columbus health center. “As an organization, we're dedicated to providing that level of care and support. I can't say enough about how important this is for both patients and staff.”

“When my dad was sick, I spent so much time in the hospital looking at hospital art, so this was something I was already thinking about,” Harper said.

According to Hamilton, art is installed in three spaces inside the health center: two different waiting areas and a recovery area.

“It's possible you can be here for a long time. There are places to wait between counseling and meeting a physician, and of course following surgery,” Hamilton said. “Employees don't really leave once they're here. … So creating a space that's comforting, we'll continue to do this as long as Melissa and Agnes are willing.”