Ann Tyler, who grew up in Champaign, says she didn't worry much about her safety in public until around 1975. That was when she moved to Chicago after completing a graduate degree in graphic design at the University of Illinois. "With coming out I realized how vulnerable I was because of being different," she says. "I experienced some street harassment in Chicago, and it made me aware of the potential for heightened harassment or attack."
Tyler got a job designing books, brochures, and posters at a commercial studio. One day roofers working on a neighbor's house shouted at her and her partner from the rooftop, asking if they were sisters. "People go out of their way," she says. "Clearly they want to define the relationship in some way." Her work from this time deals with "how people are viewed and what makes somebody verbally aggressive in anonymous public situations."
Later she began to take note of news reports about hate crimes directed at homosexuals, and her work started addressing issues of violence. One of the first such pieces was about a lesbian couple who were shot while hiking on the Appalachian Trail in 1985. "Some of my work investigates the idea of nature being only a beautiful thing as a false construct," she says. "It has these violent elements to it. Some of the murders I've been interested in have taken place in small towns or more rural or country settings."
Her latest work, an artist's book called It's No Different Than, examines the 1995 double murder of a lesbian couple in Medford, Oregon, which took place near a trail Tyler had hiked. Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill were bound with duct tape in the back of their pickup truck and shot to death by Robert Acremant, who was trying to bilk them out of $50,000. In statements to police afterward, Acremant called the women's relationship "sick" and compared killing them to shooting at tin cans or chickens "or putting your sick dog to sleep."
Tyler, who's taught at the School of the Art Institute since 1986, was inspired by an antique children's book her great-aunt gave her that lets the reader mix and match different animal heads and bodies. Tyler's more sinister version encourages the reader to mix grainy newspaper photos of the two victims with Acremant's statements and fragments of a dog and a chicken. "Part of it is trying to understand that no one can understand how one is seen," she says. "I could easily be seen in the same way."
It's not the first time she's used the book form in her art. Last year Tyler realized she had collected a lot of clippings and other material about the 1995 murder of Scott Amedure by Jonathan Schmitz after Amedure confessed his crush on Schmitz on the Jenny Jones show. Lubb Dup (named for the sound of a heartbeat) contains elements of children's books like peepholes and pullouts and uses lyrics from love songs, quotations from medical textbooks, and images of hearts, newspaper articles, and the players themselves to examine the murder.
"The book involves a more personal closeness with the viewer," Tyler explains. "You can have multiple layers of impact with a print, but with a book you can develop that over more time as a person goes through it."
She assembled 500 copies of both books--a time-consuming process she says is justified by a larger audience. She still makes large-scale prints and is working on a series that further explores Acremant's mind-set. "There are many different aspects to his reasoning," she says. "On one hand, he was following the tradition that America was built on taking from others. He also had a desire to kill, and that was an alluring thing for him--as it is to many people. His is a very strange logic, but it's clearly a logic to him."
Though Tyler has a black belt in seido karate, she says she will probably never feel at ease in rural areas again. "It's an odd combination of openness and a closed vision of the world. You can't know what's going to be acceptable where. It really doesn't follow strict lines. It makes it kind of dangerous when you can't read the waters."
Tyler will discuss and sign copies of her work Sunday from 5 to 6:30 at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark (773-769-9299). It's free. --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.