On a Saturday afternoon in mid-July, the Pink Nun is working the sidewalk in front of a tattoo parlor on Belmont between Clark and Sheffield. She's dressed in a hot pink habit with a wimple, belted with a chrome leash that suggests bondage gear. At the curb sits her bright yellow pickup truck, adorned with hand-painted self-portraits, the URL of her Web site, the slogan "Don't judge a nun by her color," and muscle-car-style flames around the front wheel wells. Despite the spectacle, few people slow down to gawk.
"Oh yeah, she's the Pink Nun," says a man passing by with a female companion. "She hands out condoms. That's sort of her raison d'etre."
Actually, condoms are about the last thing the Pink Nun would hand out. What she's doing instead is walking up and down the block carrying a small tape recorder, sticking a microphone into people's faces, and asking them personal questions: Do they think there's a purpose to marriage? If so, what? When would they say is the right time to start having sex? Do they believe there's such a thing as sexual purity?
A young man in a Nike visor who submits to the quiz voices doubts that marriage has much of a point. "Maybe there's some financial reasons," he says. "If my girlfriend was adamant about it, I'd consider it."
The roving interviews, which the Pink Nun conducts every month or so, are part of a larger enterprise that's half art project, half moral crusade, the thrust of which is to promote sexual abstinence outside of marriage. It's the same message she plugs through the sale of her Pink Nun Products, a line of merchandise that includes T-shirts, postcards, buttons, and fridge magnets, all bearing mottoes like "I am not your slot" and "Keep tight, Sister! Keep it tucked, Brother!"
The Pink Nun line extends to Chastity Undies, men's and women's underwear that comes in seven different designs. Some of the women's models have decals resembling traffic signs in front of the crotch. One, for example, bears the legend "Notice: No entry without valid license" next to an image of a padlock with a diamond ring positioned in front of the keyhole. For men she offers boxers embellished with silk-screened photos of the Pink Nun smirking beneath a choice of captions: "Lock your cock" or "You ain't gettin' nun."
The merchandise is designed by 27-year-old Chicago artist Lisa Bulten, an avowed Christian, feminist, and virgin--"But only until the eighth of August, when I'm getting married," she says matter-of-factly.
Bulten and the Pink Nun, who have never been photographed together, bear an uncanny resemblance to one another, right down to their identical nose rings and tongue studs. But Bulten insists that she and the Pink Nun are two different people and usually manages to keep a straight face while doing so. "Our goal is for people to think about sexual choices in general," she says. "I just think that so many people don't think into their sexual choices that much."
The Pink Nun's Purity Products first hit the market in 2001 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's MFA thesis show, where Bulten turned her ten-foot-square exhibition space into a Pink Nun boutique, displaying the merchandise on sales racks and working a cashier's desk by the door.
Bulten was raised in a conservative Presbyterian family in Florida but now disavows affiliation with any particular denomination. "I don't even like the idea of formal religion," she says. "With Jesus and his followers, it wasn't a formal church."
Bulten says that she's used to people misinterpreting the motives behind her collaboration with the Pink Nun. "A lot of people would see the Pink Nun as being sarcastic or making fun of that morality but if they talk to me more, they get the message," she says. "I think even if they just hear a slogan, the fact that it's in their head is a good thing."
Bulten acknowledges that some Catholics have taken offense at the Pink Nun's appropriation of Catholic symbols but argues that their criticism is based on a misunderstanding. "I just think the nun is a good symbol of chastity," she says. "Legalistic people might see the Pink Nun as blasphemous but I don't think she is because she's promoting the same morals and ideals that Catholicism preaches."
Bulten has always been up front about the religious motives behind her art. When she applied to SAIC's painting and drawing program in 1999, her portfolio included paintings incorporating biblical quotations with citations of chapter and verse. "She was a kind of a punk-rock, right-wing Christian," says painter and faculty member Gaylen Gerber, who interviewed Bulten in the course of the admissions process. "I remember arguing to let her into the school because I thought she had something to say. I remember telling her that I thought she'd have a hard time of things, but if she was up for it, then we were probably up for it."
Bulten says the hardest part of adapting to art school's "very liberal environment" was working with teachers who found her work hard to reconcile with their notions about evangelical Christians as humorless, naive, and lacking a sense of irony. "They didn't like that some of the work was tongue-in-cheek," she says. "I think it makes them more comfortable if they see what they're used to seeing: 'Go paint sheep and crucifixes or something.'" But the isolation Bulten says she sometimes felt was offset by the benefits of exposure to new artistic currents. "The Art Institute was good for me, because it totally changed what I was working on," she says. "I saw the new, postmodern work that I was getting more excited about. It opened my mind." The feminist artist Barbara Kruger and the art collective the Guerilla Girls were particular influences, she says.
Another key influence was Bulten's thesis adviser, photographer and multimedia artist Barbara DeGenevieve. In many respects the collaboration between student and teacher was a union of opposites: DeGenevieve's work is heavily sexual, and in the past she has courted controversy by teaching a course known colloquially at SAIC as "Porn 101." She also operates a Web site called ssspread.com, which bills itself as "the prime porn site for hot femmes, studly butches, lots of gender fuck." To put the icing on the cake, DeGenevieve has written that Christianity is "perhaps the single most destructive element (despite any positive influences) in the organization of Western culture."
"I was totally surprised when [Bulten] asked me to be her adviser," says DeGenevieve. "But on some level, halfway through the semester, it started making sense. Her strategies are much closer to mine than one would expect. The messages are extremely mixed. On the one hand, she's doing this morality thing, and on the other hand she's selling it via sex." DeGenevieve, who considers the Pink Nun "a cross between a drag queen and a porn star," speaks positively of her working relationship with Bulten. "She was really open to what I had to say. I challenged her a lot, but what I was really excited about was how strongly she kept to her own beliefs and what she was doing."
During the two-week thesis exhibition, Bulten sold $800 worth of Pink Nun paraphernalia, all of it priced under $10. Hoping to move her leftover stock, she took the Pink Nun on the road the summer she graduated, marketing her goods from vendor's booths at the Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois, an annual event catering to the harder-rocking side of Christian music, and at Ladyfest in Chicago. At Cornerstone Bulten took a break from her booth so that the Pink Nun could get up onstage with a band called Tantrum of the Muse to do what she calls "hymen rhymin'," which Bulten describes as "not so much like rap as like spoken-word performance." Although the Pink Nun dropped some of the franker numbers from her repertoire, Bulten says some festivalgoers objected to verses like "She thought that he would leave her / So she gave him head / And after he got some beaver / He still fled."
But the Pink Nun also won some admirers at Cornerstone, notably Jay Bakker--the 27-year-old son of deposed evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker--who since 1994 has been leading a punk-inflected youth ministry called the Revolution. "The first time I saw the Pink Nun I thought the Catholic church was trying to do something to be hip--like, what do they have now, a raver nun?" says Bakker. "But then I saw her booth, and I was really amazed. I was impressed that someone was trying to do something relevant with abstinence." Seeing that Bulten was receiving considerable flak from festivalgoers, Bakker offered her his encouragement and a financial donation to boot.
"I was really inspired by his support," says Bulten, who keeps in close touch with Bakker. "He said, 'Don't worry about people saying you're going too far.'"
At Ladyfest Bulten was expecting to sell a lot of her Kruger-inspired postcards, one of which features a collage of a lab-coated food inspector examining a chicken with a human vagina beneath the caption, "You don't need HIS approval"; instead it was her T-shirts and Purity Panties that moved the best.
The following summer Bulten ran booths at Cornerstone, at Ladyfest in Los Angeles, and at TOMFest/Portico, an annual "alternative Christian music and arts festival" in Beaverton, Oregon. Since then she's also used her Web site to sell Pink Nun products. Bulten says the number of hits to the site goes up whenever she drives around town in her eye-catching truck, a decommissioned vehicle from O'Hare Airport's ground fleet she bought on an online auction for $1,400.
After selling between two and three thousand dollars worth of Pink Nun merchandise last year, Bulten says that her profits were around $500. To make ends meet since graduating she's worked as a file clerk, a restaurant hostess, and an art tutor. Last fall Bulten scraped the "Lock your cock!" sticker off her truck and began commuting from her Rogers Park apartment to a suburban public school where she taught art to fifth graders. This fall she hopes to begin teaching at the college level.
Last year, Bulten started the Pink Nun Zine and has two issues to date. She was banned from selling the first issue--subtitled "For the Love of the Hymen"--at Cornerstone due to its graphic cover art, a drawing of a vagina, the labia being spread open by a hand into a heart shape, exposing the hymen. "A vagina shaped like a heart--I thought that was a good image," she says. "It's kind of sad, I guess, that they're afraid of a vagina." Before returning to Cornerstone this July she slapped a new cover with a picture of the Pink Nun in a prayerful pose over the original and sold the zine without further problems.
Inside Pink Nun Zine #1 are a half dozen examples of "hymen rhymin'" and a series of interviews with virgins, Christians who had sex but then became "virgins again" through prayer and abstinence, and married people who stayed virgins until their weddings. On the back page is the Pink Nun's "Purity Promise," which reads in part, "I will not engage in lesser physical acts which may bind me emotionally to others, hence giving myself away (including kissing, groping and sexual acts) until the proper time in a meaningful marriage commitment."
The second issue of Pink Nun Zine, published this summer, includes e-mails to the Nun from the public, some laudatory and some critical. A man who signs himself as "bub" writes in to say, "I don't think that wearing a shirt that says 'lock your cock' or 'no pets' on a pair of panties is gonna make a guy or women think about anything but sex. It's like having a campaign against stealing, showing how practical and easy stealing is."
"I should mention that I'm an atheist but I still think you have a cool message," writes Jeff, a student at Northern Illinois University who wants advice on coping with his guilt over having had sex. As a gay man, Jeff has an additional question for the Pink Nun: "Your message seems very universal, but when you preach messages about waiting until marriage, what should people that can't get married do? When do we know when 'it's right'?"
Chelsea, a self-described "non-religious, sexually-active, sex-positive bisexual activist," writes in to ask the Pink Nun to gear more of her content to men to avoid reinforcing "the madonna/whore complex." She also takes the Pink Nun to task for dodging the topic of same-sex relationships. "This is a tricky issue for some people, but you must take a stance for the sake of thoroughness and credibility," she writes. "I suggest that you think carefully before you take that stance."
"Thank you sooo much for taking the time to write out all your views," the Pink Nun responds. "I have been trying to think the last few days about how to respond to some of the things you mentioned." Homosexuality, she admits, is a challenging issue for her, because she believes that God intended sex to be part of marriage between a man and a woman. "How do I give options to the homosexual/bisexual crowd, who don't agree with me on my main idea of the best design for a sexual relationship? This is something that I have not worked out." For the time being, she says, she'll continue to restrict her attention to heterosexual matters. It's not that she isn't interested in the possibilities of homosexual purity, she says, "but for right now, I just don't know how to make artwork about it."
Back on Belmont, the Pink Nun presses on with the guy in the Nike visor. How long does he think it's right to wait before having sex? "As short a time as possible," he says. "There's gotta be some compatibility there. What if one person is a superfreak and the other is a Pink Nun? But I'd have to like the person. The possibility of commitment would have to be there."
She asks if he doesn't worry about the possible consequences of sex in the absence of an existing commitment. "Consequences? You mean if they gave me something?" he asks.
Not diseases, she explains: emotional and spiritual consequences.
"Oh. No, not really."
She thanks him warmly, gives him a Pink Nun bookmark, and moves on.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.