Make art, not money: local artist challenges gender inequality

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Make art, not money: local artist challenges gender inequality

By Kelechi Urama / For The Pitt News

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For local artist Elana Schlenker, gender discrimination was just something that she read about in books. But when a graphic design company hired her, she found that she was the only woman designer.

“We did all kinds of products, but I would always get the stuff for girls. I like architecture, and all of these other things, but I would consistently get the ‘girl stuff,’” Schlenker said.

As she began to learn more about wage inequality in the workplace, Schlenker channelled her creative efforts into developing a temporary storefront in Garfield. Schlenker, who graduated from Pitt in 2007 with a double major in studio arts and marketing, moved to New York after graduation to pursue a career in graphic design. She relocated back to Pittsburgh eight years later to start her own studio and opened the pop-up shop 76<100. The pop-up, which ran from April 1 through April 30, is part of a larger organization, which Schlenker co-created, called Less Than 100. This organization is comprised of a traveling shop that creatively shines light on those who are often underrepresented by challenging the wage gap. The shop charges men and women separate prices for merchandise created by a diverse group of local women artists.

The prices, displayed on green and blue stickers for men and women respectively, are determined by the shop’s respective, temporary location. In Pennsylvania’s case, women earn 76 percent of what men do, according to the Center for American Progress. Schlenker reflected this disparity in the prices of her shop’s ceramics, textiles, publications and other products. The pop-up will reopen in New Orleans this November, under the guidance of both Schlenker photographer Tammy Mercure.

The store offered an eclectic range of artwork, including hand-knit pizza slices, postcards with ironic sayings and Visa card-printed satin scarves. The pop-up also showcased other textiles, art prints, photography collections, magazines, homemade body products and pottery from female artists involved in the project, like Tammy Mercure, LaKeisha Wolf and Melanie Abrantes. All sales went directly to the featured artists.

Lisa Brush, a professor of sociology at Pitt, said 76<100 effectively conveyed the impact of the wage gap.

“Prices are not wage adjusted, so if you are a woman, buying groceries, paying rent and utilities, and making car and credit card payments, [they] all add up after a while,” Brush said.

Twenty to forty people visited the pop-up daily, and Schlenker said that her patrons have been surprisingly positive.

“This is something I’ve never done before,” Schlenker said of Less Than 100. “I don’t think of myself as an activist.”

Schlenker, however, is no stranger to leadership roles in activism. She started The Original Magazine when she was a junior at Pitt and recruited a staff of 40 students to run the publication. She kickstarted the magazine for many of the same reasons she began Less Than 100 — she wants to represent the underrepresented.

Delanie Jenkins, a former studio arts professor at Pitt who has maintained a relationship with Schlenker over the years, said The Original initially had an activist focus.

“[It’s] no surprise either that things that are important are the things she’s taking on,” Jenkins said.

While she describes her own experiences as fairly innocuous, other women’s stories have deeply affected Schlenker. One of her close friends, whom she declined to name, is also a graphic designer. A company employee openly told her she was rejected from a design job because of her gender.

“Maybe I’m naïve, but I didn’t even think that could happen anymore,” Schlenker said. “I had the idea [for 76<100] and thought it was something worth doing.”

She reached out to local organizations like the Women and Girls Foundation, an organization dedicated to achieving equality for women in Pittsburgh. The Foundation funded Less Than 100 and connected Schlenker with female artists in Pittsburgh. From there, Schlenker secured grants from the Sprout Fund, Soup N’at and Awesome Pittsburgh, which are each geared toward kickstarting community-based projects. The Pittsburgh clothing store Local 412 lent space in Garfield to Schlenker for the pop-up.

Tara Simmons, vice president of the Women and Girls Foundation, fully supported 76<100.

“Elana’s passion and vision for the pop-up shop have brought new and heightened awareness to the wage gap, both locally and across the globe,” Simmons said.

The store also went beyond the issue of the wage gap by holding events with local nonprofits and individuals to empower women in the Pittsburgh community. Progress, a nonprofit geared toward training women and girls in negotiation skills, hosted workshops such as a “Negotiation Strategy Brunch,” on April 18 and a bus tour on April 26 that introduced participants to Pittsburgh’s vibrant community of female artists.

“We wanted to look at the wage gap issue through a lot of different ways, and incorporate different groups and organizations,” Schlenker said.

She admits the Less Than 100 project is a work in progress. People have asked about the inclusion of women of color, who, on average, are paid 64 cents on the dollar, according to the Center for American Progress. She is working with intersectional women’s groups to reflect that in the shop’s framework, and runs a free newspaper called “What are Women Worth?” which is distributed in the store and gives a more detailed breakdown of the wage statistics.

“I really want to foster a dialogue,” Schlenker said. “And I want it to be a place where we can both talk about the issues and celebrate what women are doing.”

She also wants her success to inspire other young women to start their own projects for issues they feel strongly about.

“If you care about something and want to do it, do it. You can really get quite far doing something you care about, and make a big difference,” she said.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated the shop will re-open in New Orleans this November, under the guidance of photographer Tammy Mercure. This is inaccurate, as Schlenker will also be heavily involved.


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