Artist Documents Abortion Stories Through Sculpture

Lydia Nobles' artwork depicts abortion stories, including her own. (Credit: Twesha Dikshit)

Lydia Nobles’ artwork depicts abortion stories, including her own. (Credit: Twesha Dikshit)

On Bethune Street in the West Village sits a self-titled sculpture “Lydia.”

It represents the act of sitting and waiting, but in the past few months, the artwork has been traveling – first to Tarrytown, New York, then back to a studio in the Bowery, followed by a short stint at the Brooklyn Museum, and finally in its current location as part of the show “PAROXYSM.”

Crafted with a circular light pink tube with shades of purple and sandwiched with plexiglass, it nestles between what appears to be a regular brown chair. Orange latex ropes tie it to the chair, which the artist has removed. A screw runs through the middle of the circular structure. The chair belongs to Planned Parenthood.

“It looks very fragile,” said Lydia Nobles, the artist. “Looks kind of like my uterus.”

That’s by design.

On a Saturday evening in November, the temporary space of the Ross-Sutton gallery in the Bowery neighborhood in downtown Manhattan was filled with people looking at colorful sculptures that resembled chairs, uteruses and abstract patterns.

Each piece of art was inspired by a woman’s story. The crowd visited the gallery for an event during which women shared their abortion stories. Two of the women speaking had their experiences memorialized by Nobles in her exhibit “As I Sit Waiting.”

When Nobles unexpectedly got pregnant in 2018, her family felt that abortion was the right choice for her. Even without their input, she knew it was likely her best option, but she wanted to talk to her partner to see if there was another alternative.

In a waiting room at Planned Parenthood a few days later, Say Yes To The Dress — the reality show where brides go to stores to pick out their wedding gowns — played. The clinic on Bleecker Street was run down and looked like it had not changed since the 1990s. She felt disconnected from what was going on. The uncomfortable chairs did not help.

“It was all very in my face in the clinic,” she said. “They were playing [the TV program] which made me feel really upset because I gave my partner kind of an opportunity. Maybe it could work out, even though in the back of my head I was like ‘Man this probably will not work out.’”

Nobles’ experience in the waiting room stayed with her. The chair she sat on that day became the base for the first sculpture capturing her experience. It was the kickstart to the other sculptures she would create documenting women’s abortion experiences.

“I did do a little ceremony and write my fetus a little letter and I sent it off into the water here in New York. But it really wasn’t enough,” she said. “I mean I’m an artist so I needed to create a sculpture about it.”

The overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court last June has limited abortion access and choice for women across the country. Thirteen states have enacted a full ban, while other states have adopted partial bans based on the length of pregnancy.

The decision wasn’t a surprise after a draft was leaked earlier in the year, but for many artists like Nobles, it has meant mobilizing their art to document women’s stories and show abortion in a nuanced manner.

Nobles first wanted to document these experiences in 2019.

She had captured her own experience with “Sonogram,” but Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk about the dangers of one story not being enough to represent an experience got her thinking. Reflecting on her time in the waiting room where it didn’t feel right to talk to other people, Nobles wanted to know what it was like to get an abortion in Arizona, Michigan and other states.

Places where it wasn’t as easy as it had been for her in New York.

“I live in New York City where access is pretty accessible,” she said. “I just called and made appointments. I didn’t have to pay for it because I had really good insurance. It was a very privileged experience and I know that that wasn’t the case for most people.”

This was the conception of “As I Sit Waiting.”

Nobles has been drawn to performance art and pieces that capture attention since she created her first sculpture in sixth grade — a replica of the Roman Coliseum. It was the first time she remembers feeling proud.

“I just remember that, because my dad was so into it. He was like ‘wow.’ When you’re a kid, you secretly love that,” Nobles said.

Her fascination with the human body in middle and high school meant two potential career paths for her — gynecologist or artist. Nobles didn’t have the grades to be a doctor, so she pursued art, she said.

Since November, every inch of Nobles’ fourth floor studio on Bowery in Chinatown has been claimed by sculptures wrapped in green bubble wrap from her show. The doorknob is covered with paint splatters, one wall is covered in spray painting, and another has been claimed by weaving and random art supplies and colorful abstract tubes.

A half finished sculpture from last February occupies a small corner. It wasn’t ready in time for the November show.

She worried about the intensity of listening and honoring a person’s abortion story and the emotions that would be involved. But in 2021 when she received news she had been accepted to a residency in Philadelphia, she was ready. Her goal was to finish five sculptures by the end of the program.

“I was procrastinating a little bit on the project,” Nobles said. “Maybe I was a little bit nervous, too, to hold space for other people.”

Morgan Cousins ended up being one of those people. An artist, she met Nobles at an exhibit where they were both showing their abortion artwork. Intrigued by the project, she agreed to participate.

“As a Black woman sharing my abortion story and thinking about: what does it mean to create spaces for BIPOC folks to share their stories. Who is my story for?“ Cousins said. “There was something just very beautiful and it made me proud to see the [finished] work.”

It was Nobles’ anger at the Dobbs decision, which overturned the constitutional right to abortion, that fueled the fire and gave her a sense of urgency to finish what she started.

“I just felt so tired all the time, but I kept pushing,” Nobles said. “It is very hard to get out of bed for yourself, but if you have some kind of higher purpose or some kind of higher intention, then it’s much easier.”

Eighteen out of the planned 26 sculptures in hand she collaborated with Destiny Ross-Sutton for the show, but Nobles wishes abortion-related work received more attention.

“I think there could have been a much bigger push for something like this,” she said. “There’s certain times in history where you really need to start showing work about what’s going on.”

It was a cold Saturday night when people gathered in downtown Manhattan to take in both the colorful sculptures and women’s abortion stories. Cousins viewed the sculpture as a representation of her story for the first time. She participated in retelling her story live as part of the closing night collaboration with Abortion Stories, an organization that hosts live retelling of abortion stories.

“What a beautiful thing to have inspired. For my story to inspire this beautiful piece,” Cousins said.

Nobles teared up as she dragged a chair to sit next to each participant and hold their hand as they drudged up painful memories of assault, unsupportive partners, pregnancy complications and not being ready for motherhood.

Last September, Nobles went onstage to tell her story, with her mother by her side. They hadn’t talked for three months after her pregnancy announcement but now they were talking about it publicly.

They reconciled and started to talk about what had happened when Nobles wanted to do a social media video about it. Now, they were part of an Abortion Stories event taking place at another artist’s solo show that featured the artist’s relationship with her mother.

“That was a really cool conversation,” Nobles said. “I feel like now we’re really open about it.”

At her Bowery studio, the green bubble-wrapped structures taking over half the space serve as a reminder of what she has achieved. As Nobles moves them toward the door in anticipation of being able to show them at other places, the other half of the space contains her unfinished sculpture and a new set up for spray painting.

About the author(s)

Twesha Dikshit is an international journalist passionate about covering stories around the world, she is in the documentary specialization program at the Columbia Journalism School.