The Ex-Mormon Feminist Who Paints Women’s Naked Bodies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because not all of Utah is devout.
Reported & written by Libby Coleman
Video by Nat Roe
Photography is one way to start a fight. Exhibit A: a black-and-white photo of a woman with “Fuck You Governor Herbert” painted across her nude body. She holds up a middle finger over her vagina.
Cat Palmer, the woman behind the camera, posted the image to social media. Droves of women tagged Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a conservative Republican, until, Palmer claims, someone from his social media team blocked her account. (Herbert’s camp says the photo violated Facebook’s policies and that they never blocked Palmer.)
Palmer, a self-described “photographer, provocateur and activist,” doesn’t back down in a fight, even when she’s clearly David to the government’s Goliath. Her work thumbs its nose at gender inequality and religious hypocrisies as much as it celebrates the act of free expression. She has parodied the Last Supper, photographed numerous women with shaved heads and shot nude women with statements painted on their bodies about how — radical concept — they should get to make decisions about those bodies. In short, Palmer has shaken up Utah’s art scene, exhibiting at Planned Parenthood and winning accolades such as best feminist of the year. “Cat’s been really visible, forging her own path in the state,” says art critic Scotti Hill.
You let her leave the house looking like that?
With dyed hair and a tat of the Salt Lake City skyline on her left leg, the petite 37-year-old doesn’t look like a former Mormon. When Palmer was growing up in Southern California, her family was religious. Her mom married at 16 and had her soon after. Palmer ended up moving in with her grandparents, opting for hot-pink dreadlocks and vintage dresses paired with Chucks rather than somber, pressed white shirts and black pants. She picked up a camera at age 15 and started photographing local up-and-coming bands. “People would say things about me to [my grandparents]. You know: ‘You let her leave the house looking like that?’ ” Her grandparents’ response? “So what? She’s not hurting anybody.” All the while, Palmer regularly attended church services (her grandmother was a prominent member of the chapter).
In 2006, though, the presidency of George W. Bush helped change Palmer’s worldview and, she says, “fueled a lot of my art.” Palmer slowed down the pretty-picture-taking and started taking photos that emphasized powerful women and the resistance to norms. Soon, she found it hard to explain her work to her community. Just imagine the scene when her elderly neighbor and assigned visiting teacher from the Mormon church heard about what Palmer had been up to one particular day: “I was photographing three sisters with gas masks on with writing all over their bodies in front of bombs.” As might be expected, the conversation didn’t go over well, and Palmer left the church soon after. (The neighbors eventually patched things up.)
Only half the residents of Salt Lake County are Mormon, compared with some 60-plus percent across the state, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. This divide crosses over into politics too. Salt Lake County was one of only two counties, out of 29, to go blue this past election and fuels the Democratic seats in the state Legislature. Salt Lake City is decidedly more progressive than the rest of Utah, with residents electing an openly gay mayor in 2015. As Salt Lake City continues to grow, some of its residents are increasingly influencing art across the state. “The art scene in Utah is evolving,” says gallery owner Diane Stewart. “It’s becoming more progressive, more varied, and collectors are responding.”
In the past, some community members would disapprove of certain art, with the result being few people willing to support the work. One influencer in particular — former Brigham Young University curator Jeff Lambson — put provocative contemporary art front and center and helped “move the needle in Utah,” Stewart says. Palmer, who has experienced some pushback, still has a lot to protest — including Utah’s major gender pay gap, the fact that only a few women hold seats in government and the controversy over whether or not to pull funding for Planned Parenthood. “Because of the repression,” she says, art brings “balance.” Which is why, when Trump was elected president, Palmer moved quickly to launch a photo series, the third installment of “Keep the Politicians Out of Our VAGINA.”
*Editor’s note: In the video, Cat Palmer refers to Salt Lake City as having the only openly gay mayor in the U.S. In fact, there are others, including Ed Murray of Seattle.