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Art by Susan Cushman, available for purchase via Etsy.

Image: Susan Cushman

When you see a classic heart shape—be it valentine or emoji—what do you think of? For Susan Cushman, that answer changed in 1988, when she attended a workshop by Stephen and Ondrea Levine. 

“I remember him saying, ‘When the lower heart is abused, the upper heart shuts down,’” she recalls. “And I thought, ‘Wow, I’d never heard my privates called a lower heart.’” Moved by the experience, Cushman—who had been molested at age 4—began sculpting labia from clay as a form of self-healing, which soon led her to a second realization.

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, the valentine—what we think of as a heart—is shaped more like a woman’s lower heart than the heart in our chest, which is shaped like a fist,’” she explains. “The true origin of the valentine is the woman’s lower heart.” [Ed. note: We recognize that not all women have labia and not all folks with labia identify as women.]

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Image: Susan Cushman

In 2007, Cushman had her first show at In Other Words, the feminist bookstore that doubles as the home of Portlandia’s Toni & Candace. A few years later, she hosted her first sliding-scale claybia workshop. “People think we’re going to talk about abuse, and we don’t!” she says. “We just talk about loving our bodies or how we don’t; and being able to say no and yes when you’re intimate with someone; and being able to set boundaries; just stuff about feeling good about your body the way it is.” 

Cushman’s workshop offerings have now expanded to include “nest building”—a practice inspired by a line from Sue Monk Kidd’s When the Heart Waits—that teaches participants to sculpt symbolic resting places for themselves and their higher power. “They’re always so different!” Cushman reflects. “A friend of mine retired from the forest service, and she built this tree with a place for nesting inside the tree, and branches coming out of it.”

Crafting not your thing? If you’d like to purchase a labia sculpture, Cushman has dozens of options on her Etsy store, including magnets, candy dishes, and candleholders. You can also find them at In Other Words, where—as seems only fitting—they picked up the attention of the Portlandia crew.

Portlandia had [comedian Kumail Nanjiani] going around to In Other Words and other places in their show,” Cushman laughs. “He saw my candle holders and said, ‘Why would you light a vagina on fire?’” 

Anyone interested in making their own nest, labia magnet, or flammable vagina sculpture can contact Susan Cushman at smilingheart9@yahoo.com for details. The next event is scheduled for Saturday, October 8.

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