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HB2 Squirrels shake up expectations of social norms,  shine spotlight on LGBTQIA+ issues

HB2 Squirrels, a pair of gender-symbol-wielding squirrels covered in multicolored war paint greet visitors in the main entryway of Mint Museum Uptown. The squirrels, part of The Mint Museum collection, pose a striking opposition to expectations of social norms and what one expects to be met with in a museum.

 

Michelle Erickson. “HB2 Squirrels,” 2016, salt-glazed stoneware, porcelain slips. Museum Purchase: Funds provided by the Charles W. Beam Accessions Endowment. 2019.3a-b

The HB2 Squirrels were inspired by North Carolina’s House Bill 2, commonly referred to as the “bathroom bill.” HB2 required residents to use the bathroom in public facilities that matched the gender on their birth certificate, launching a national outcry over civil liberties. The bill was criticized for impeding the rights of transgender people and other people in the LGBTQIA+ community who do not identify strictly within the gender binary, and was later repealed by N.C. Governor Roy Cooper.

Artist Michelle Erickson, outraged, took to her potter’s wheel. The result: two salt-glazed stoneware squirrels, grasping the gender symbols—one drenched in the colors of the American flag, the other in the colors of the LGBTQIA+ rainbow flag. “Congressional acts are temporary,” she says “but art is forever.”

The composition of the squirrels also was crucial. The squirrels face each other, seemingly holding their assigned gender symbols as weapons used to fight one another. The female symbol, a circle with a cross stemming down, is inverted and held by the squirrel to mirror the way the male symbol is held. Erickson said inverting the symbol was a call to uprooting the traditional view of women as a shield. 

The color of the squirrels is also indicative of the message being sent. Both have rainbow colored lines covering their face and body. Erickson said she wanted to use the rainbow motif instead of the colors of the transgender flag, to place a gentle reminder that transgender individuals are included as a part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

The squirrels also have different base bodies. The choice to make one black and one white was a conscious decision to ground it in societal tensions involving race, and to highlight the different viewpoints that stem from race within the LGBTQIA+ community.

When working with a new piece Erickson says she “allows the work to take [her.]” She starts with a design, but as the piece of clay is being shaped, it gradually takes on a new form. The overall product is as much a reflection of the process as it is the original idea.

HB2 Squirrels are a part of the past and present, she says, representing the processes of the Moravian potters, as well as speaking to the heightened political atmosphere surrounding LGBTQIA+ issues, and specifically the HB2 bill that was introduced in North Carolina in 2016. The resulting work of art challenged norms through revitalizing old processes and questioning societal implications.

The idea that became the HB2 Squirrels began as a study of a set of figural bottles from the 18th or 19th century. Erickson says the bottles originally intrigued her due to their lack of clear function and their unique construction. The bottles’ unglazed interior and overall shape indicated that they were made using a cast or mold. During her artist residency  at STARworks, Erickson began using traditional techniques with salt-glazed stoneware to see if she could create a similar design. The original designs of the squirrels were modified to be reflective of the modern era.