Tell us about your thesis project.
My thesis project is about women’s experiences in the evangelical church. I worked with dozens of women to document their beautiful, broken, or absurd stories and relationships with the church.
What drew you to this idea?
The project really stemmed out from some of the work I was doing during the first years of the pandemic: I was dealing with a lot of cultural issues, like the Me Too movement and sexual assault. At the same time, I was doing a lot of reading and reevaluating what was going on in my own life. I am Christian, and I was homeschooled and raised in a conservative environment in Michigan and here in St. Louis. I realized I’d been given a picture of what it means to be a woman—that my only purpose was to be a wife and a mother. If those things aren’t a part of my life, then what is my purpose?
Something I realized very quickly was that I didn’t want this project to just be me complaining — I had to invite other people in to create a conversation. During my time at WashU, I became interested in doing social practice work. So I put out a call on Facebook and invited anyone who identified as a woman and had any kind of church experience to be involved in this project. In the end, I worked with about 25 women. Their ages range from 17 to 72, their gender expression and sexuality are so diverse, they’re from as far away as Florida and Texas, and they represent a wide range of Christian denominations.
What was it like working with so many new people?
When I started doing these interviews, I kept having the same experience. They’d say to me “wow, I’m so glad you’re talking about this, nobody is doing this.” And I thought, well, that’s not true, I just talked to 10 other people who are talking about this. I realized the only thing they had in common was me.
I wanted to know what would happen if we got larger groups together, shared our stories, then did some art making from that sharing. We’ve done some collage, some stuff with wordplay and poetry, and a lot of photography since just about everyone has a decent phone camera. It becomes this really cool moment for them to share in the experience of making, tell their own story, build confidence, and be co-conspirators in this project.
What have you been exploring in this work?
A lot of the work has been exploring my own story, exploring within the stories of others, talking about what patriarchy looks like in evangelical spaces, how is evangelical turning into code for something else.
One part of my project is documenting messages to churches. I had the women in my group write messages to churches they’ve attended here in St. Louis. It could be whatever they wanted — super positive, super negative, something in between. I’m using a wooden pulpit as a stand-in for the women themselves. The proximity is what’s important — is the pulpit inside the building, outside but close, in the parking lot? It illustrates how they were or were not accepted, if they were silenced, whatever that dynamic looks like.
I came into grad school as a painter, and with this project I’ve explored photography. I think it’s a more relatable medium since it allows me to capture real life people in real life situations. I’ve been working predominantly with a Pentax K1000 film camera. I also use a Minolta from the ’50s that’s a medium format camera, and I’ve often used my phone camera as a way to sketch.
What do you hope people experience when they see your work?
I hope it will be a little bit challenging for people, but also encouraging for someone who is sitting in a pew on Sunday morning having these thoughts or feelings. It’s this process of sharing stories that helps create change.
I realized early on that I was going to have to deal with feminism, understand it for myself, wrestle with it. Feminism is like the second worst “F” word in the church. I specifically asked for a mentor who was a feminist, and she along with another professor pushed me so hard — it was the best possible thing for me. I now consider myself a feminist artist — when I started, I wanted to be a feminist but felt like a poser because I didn’t know much about it and spent much of my life believing it was this evil thing. Being able to take it on as part of my identity is super weird, but super cool.
As a Christian, as a feminist, I plan to be a major thorn in people’s sides for a very long time.
Megan Kenyon reflected on the scope of her practice, thesis project, and time at WashU. This is an edited transcript of Kenyon’s words as told to Caitlin Custer.