Artist Tiffany Pascal stands in her artist's cubicle at UND Hughes Fine Arts Center, surveying the pencils, watercolor palette and graphic drawings and paintings that have led her to self-publish her first graphic novel, "Femme Schism."
One of her images in particular seems to stand out. It's a watercolor comic book-style painting of a pretty young girl wearing a wide-brimmed hat, standing legs akimbo in a flirty skirt.
"You think I am sexually desirable right now because I look naïve, timid and cutesy ... like a little girl," the caption on the comic says. "That's f---ed up."
Pascal, 24, earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and is currently a Masters of Fine Arts candidate at UND. Specializing in drawing and time-based media, her current work is a fusion of comic art traditions and postmodern theory exploring themes of gender injustice, assimilation, and freedom.
Through Kickstarter, a grant organization for artists, musicians, filmmakers and designers, she received donations from people all over the world to help her self-publish "Femme Schism," an action/adventure comedy about an indigenous woman who is forced to shack up with a zealous white Christian missionary.
"Femme Schism" is a comic book with stories about gender injustice, interracial relationships, assimilation, religious intolerance and prejudice.
Comic books mostly cater to a male audience, and their female characters generally are damsels in distress, sexy vixens or the evil queen type. The heroine of "Femme Schism," Loto, is a strong, fierce, articulate indigenous woman who was inspired by one of Pascal's friends from UND, a woman from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Historically comic books have portrayed indigenous people in stereotypes; for instance, they grunt a lot and speak in metaphors, Pascal said.
"My friend, she's very witty," Pascal said. "She's very spunky -- sarcastic, kind of -- but not in a way that's at your expense. She's just one of those people when you are around her, you have a good time."
Pascal said she knew very little about indigenous cultures before coming to North Dakota and had her own stereotypes. Nor does she claim to know or understand everything about indigenous people now. She created her own indigenous culture for "Femme Schism."
"I didn't want to create more stereotypes by re-creating an actual present-day culture," she said.
In "Femme Schism," Loto undergoes a gradual change without realizing it. For instance, she has conflicts with the missionary, who becomes her friend, because of the crimes his society perpetuated against indigenous people. Pascal's graphic novel also refers loosely to the "unusual relationship" some women have with religions because of their negative teachings about women.
"Most of us are raised into a religion," said Pascal, who grew up in Chatanooga in the Baptist and Methodist faiths. "We don't question these things, whether it's misogyny or social stratification. But Loto comes from this very egalitarian society and is forced to study these ideas that totally conflict with hers."
For a comic book, this is not your standard Archie and Veronica, nor even Superman or the X Men. Still, Pascal sees comic books as a perfectly good vehicle for tackling heavy issues.
"I feel graphic novels and comics are very accessible," she said. "For me personally, I love the creativity of comics and I love to study gender and sexuality."
Pascal knows her comic book art, with its humorous commentary on subjects such as adult sexual relationships, homosexuality and contraception, plus its adult language, may make it offensive to some. She remembers how embarrassed she was when her proper Southern belle aunt made an unexpected visit and saw one of her drawings of two animals mating.
"Well," her aunt said, "you're not going to hang that one over the sofa."
Pascal said she's always been a feminist and, from the time she was little, has questioned her religion.
"I was raised a Christian and one of the things that bothered me was that if you were part of another religion, you were going to hell," she said. "I've been interested in that since I was a kid, trying to reconcile that."
Her work, including "Femme Schism," reflects her belief in the rights of women and girls to live free, to be educated, to choose their own marriage partners and to escape being bought and sold for sex. The statement it makes, she believes is one of tolerance. Care, courage and decent human behavior are what the world needs now, she said.
To learn more about Pascal and her art, go to http://femmeschism.wordpress.com.
Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.