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Female artists take on theme of ‘trophy wives’

Vicki Kessler smiles as she describes “Measuring Up,” her contribution to the “Trophy Wives” installation. Kris Kerzman / The Arts Partnership1 / 3
Sue Morrissey stands next to her assemblage “Trophy Wife in Armor,” which is intended to convey strength and readiness. Kris Kerzman / The Arts Partnership2 / 3
Clare Degerness talks about her quilted fiber artwork, “Coming Apart at the Seams.” Kris Kerzman / The Arts Partnership3 / 3

MOORHEAD – There’s a lot to unpack from the phrase “trophy wife.”

Those two little words embrace a wide spectrum of complex human relationships and troubling questions of gender roles and human objectification.

This made the theme of a rich subject matter for a group of seven artists who each treated it their own way for an exhibition on display at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.

The show, organized by Fargo-Moorhead Visual Artists, hinges around the idea of “labels,” and that central concept motivated these artists to begin discussing and reacting to the label of “trophy wife.”

The collaboration initially began after Sue Morrissey started toying with the subject.

“All of my work has to do with women, and I had this little effigy, this figure, about 6 inches tall,” Morrissey says. “And I had found this little glass case for her, which made her kind of special, honored and revered, trophy-like. And I called her ‘Trophy Wife.’ ”

Morrissey thought it was an intriguing idea for the F-M Visual Artists’ exhibition and shared it with Vicki Kessler, who then shared it with Donna Kjonaas, who frequently works with Kessler.

At first, the idea reflected a playful usage of the term that might be of interest for a whole group of artists, Kessler said. They issued a few invitations to artist friends, and from there the group of women began to meet on a regular basis to discuss the idea of a trophy wife. Over the course of their five meetings, the project began to take on new dimensions.

“ ‘Trophy wife’ can be serious, it can be tongue-in-cheek, it can be a real experience, it can be a political statement,” Kessler says.

These conversations sparked ideas and recalled stories that then influenced the presentation of each artist’s respective work.

“The whole process of discussing the four times we met was wonderful,” says Clare Degerness. “We expanded the definition of ‘trophy wife’ so far beyond its dictionary definition.”

“A story of someone’s marriage falling apart came to mind, so that’s what I based my piece on,” says Julie Richardson.

Her fabric panel depicts a bejeweled “trophy wife” bird flying in from above while a husband bird awaits her at his nest, which is ruined from the conflict of his divorce. In accompanying text, Richardson writes that, in the story that inspired the piece, friends of the trophy wife claimed their own sense of conquest toward the husband: “She went after him and she got him.”

Karen Anderson’s work takes the literal form of trophies as claimed winnings in a successful marriage, basing them off of the old English custom of “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”

They represent the mix of tradition and social pressure, and at the center, Anderson adds a new trophy: a sense of self retained through the experience of marriage.

At the root of much of it, Kessler says, is the troubling fact that women become little more than objects in the trophy wife scenario. Creating these works has proven the power of collaborative process by allowing all seven women to open new avenues of dialogue among themselves as well as the viewing public.

“The process being with this group of women, laughing and having wild ideas, was an amazing way to create,” Kessler says.

If you go

What: Fargo-Moorhead Visual Artists’ “Constraint Show: Labels”

When: Through Jan. 5

Where: Hjemkomst Center, 202 1st Ave. N., Moorhead

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. For more information, visit