This weekend: Artists take on the beauty industrial complex

Yale staff member Kate Henderson’s “Searching for the Fountain of Youth: A Feminine Perspective” is on display at City-wide Open Studios at West Campus.
Kate Henderson

Kate Henderson

The Fountain of Youth may be a myth or a metaphor, but in early November, visitors to City-wide Open Studios (CWOS) at Yale’s West Campus will have the opportunity to take a short journey in search of the fabled source of eternal youth.

Along the way, they’ll be invited to ask: What, exactly, does “eternal youth” mean?

Searching for the Fountain of Youth: A Feminine Perspective” is one of 13 projects specially commissioned by Artspace, the nonprofit New Haven art gallery and sponsor of CWOS, for this year’s event.

The project, led by Yale staff member Kate Henderson, is a collaboration between a multigenerational group of women artists who say they “seek to cultivate a creative space for addressing the beauty industrial complex and aging,” mainly as it pertains to women. The installation will be in CWOS’ Alternative Space, which for the second year is in the last remaining unoccupied building on Yale’s West Campus. The Alternative Space allows artists from around the region who do not have their own studios to show their work during CWOS.

Henderson, program director of information technology (IT) services in the Department of Pathology, says she and fellow artists Lee Walther, Roxy Savage, and Joy Kenechukwu Okeke were inspired by this year’s open studios’ theme “Older But Younger,” which aims to foster intergenerational collaboration among participants in the annual art festival. Commissioned projects feature collaborations between artists who are at least 25 years apart. Henderson’s team ranges in age from 23 to 78.

Despite the age differences, Henderson and her collaborators had a mutual interest in exploring both the ways in which the beauty industry feeds women’s desire to look young and the scientific concept of the “Mitochondrial Eve,” the maternal “ancestor” of all living humans. Their project, the artists say, invites visitors to ask themselves: “When you hear the phrase ‘searching for the Fountain of Youth,’ what does that mean to you? Is it searching for superficial ways to keep your youthful appearance? Is it defying age and being an explorer of ideas? Is it being as young as you feel? Is it about connection to the generations before us and those yet to come?”

Henderson and her collaborators have designed “The Fountain of Youth” so that visitors will feel almost like they are walking on a board game or a collage, she says. The installation is made up of separate stations in a series of rooms.

I want the experience to be playful and fun,” says Henderson. “I like the idea of letting people self-discover. This is meant to feel like a journey.”

The journey begins in The Hallway of Vanities, where visitors will examine age from the standpoint of external appearance and as it relates to the beauty industry. They will proceed to the Age of Explorers, where they will find images of famous women in history — activists, scientists, artists, politicians and rulers, warriors, and athletes — whose focus was directed on a passion or making a discovery rather than on their appearance. Guests will also have the opportunity to add their own heroines to the mix. Next, they will wander into The Age Cave, where they will be invited to write on a piece of paper how old they feel and then encouraged to “let go” of that somewhat arbitrary number.

A concept sketch of “The Hallway of Vanities”
A concept sketch of “The Hallway of Vanities”

Moving on, installation visitors will enter a park-like setting where they will be spritzed with Florida Water, which is believed by some to have cleansing spiritual properties (Ponce de Leon is said to have searched in Florida for the Fountain of Youth). Finally, they will arrive at a station called Mitochondrial Eve & The Fountain of Youth, where Henderson’s papier-mâché sculpture of the genetic originator of female life rises from a fountain.

The idea of Mitochondrial Eve is just a theory about female lineage, but I love the concept of it because, in a way, it means we are all ageless,” says Henderson. “If our mitochondrial DNA is being passed down, it means we as a species are always regenerating. There’s a timelessness about that.”

Paintings and other works by the team of artists will be on view along the journey. Henderson, a mixed media artist, also created the fountain for the project, among other prominent elements.

A 1989 graduate of the Yale School of Art, Henderson began working in the pathology department as a student, and has since helped grow the department’s digital imaging and illustration capabilities and IT functions. She says she likes combining the science she learns at work in her creative projects, such as making biomorphic paintings that are based on microscopy images. She has participated previously in CWOS and enjoys the arts festival not only for encouraging collaboration but also for drawing artists ranging from the amateur to the academy-trained. “CWOS is always a fun time,” Henderson says. “At the Alternative Space, you get such a variety of artists — people of different ages, cultures, and walks of life.

For the “Searching for the Fountain of Youth” installation, Henderson invited two scientists from her department to take part in a talk about aging during the Alternative Space Weekend: Anita Huttner, associate professor of pathology and a specialist on Alzheimer’s disease and neurological health, and Morgan Levine, assistant professor of pathology and an authority on epigenetics and the biology of aging. (See below for talk times.)

The artist hopes that her team’s project will spark visitors to continue their exploration of aging and the beauty industrial complex even after their stop at the “The Fountain of Youth.”

Maybe people will see the images of the women in The Age of Explorers and look up more about them,” says Henderson. “Or maybe they’ve never heard of some of them and will be spurred to learn more about them. I think people are not aware of all the amazing women out there who have influenced our lives. And they probably didn’t do that by caring about how much money they spent on their face cream.”

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