Dec 25, 2023

Sexism in the Service Industry Is the Focus of Morgan Bukovec’s ‘Are You on the Menu?’ Series

By Jeff Hagan

This article was originally published in CAN Journal.

Morgan Bukovec has been involved in the service industry on and off since she was fifteen—including working the counter at Rudy's Quality Meats, her grandfather's butcher shop in Willowick, an outer ring suburb of Cleveland. But it was in the bar and restaurant biz as a server and bartender—working five days a week and sometimes pulling double-shifts—that she was put through the grinder of sexism, misogyny, microaggressions, and just plain aggressions.

At some point in that career, she began to take note—actually, notes—of what customers—men—said to or called her, from the seemingly innocuous ("young lady") to the outright harassing ("You’d look good with a cigar in your mouth"; "sugartits").

Bukovec's art practice has been centered around collecting found objects and assembling them into collages or saving them in her studio and memory for possible later use. She is a long-time journaler who works out her thoughts in words and drawings, clippings, pictures, odds and ends. She began to mull over what to do with all of these words tossed or hurled at her as a server with varying velocities and aims. The words themselves became her found objects. "How," she wondered, "do I make this a visual?"

Morgan in her studio

Browsing Instagram, Bukovec came across an artist with whom she was already connected who was doing cross-stitching work. Drawn to the way the stitched words looked "very old school and vintage," and aware of the history of cross-stitch belonging to the realm of "women's work," she messaged the artist to ask about the process. The artist sent her an A-to-Z letter-making guide. Now Bukovec had her medium but wasn't yet sure of her canvas.

"There was the question of where am I cross-stitching this? And I simply looked at the floor of my bedroom and was like ‘Oh there's a guest check pad,’ because these were objects that I was bringing home really unconsciously. I’d bring home pens all the time; they were always attached to me at work, in my pocket. So that's another part of it: this guest check pad being attached and part of my physical body while this experience is happening, and it being even a reflection of that body infliction, of that needle going in and out of this page that is fragile and breakable."

She took a guest check pad, penciled out the first word she remembers writing down back when she first took notice of what was said to her, and stitched it into the pad with red thread. The word was "Baby."

And so began are you on the menu? a series of work, now numbering 100, that was assembled as part of a solo show at the Kaiser Gallery in the fall of 2022.

"It's not typical to cross stitch on paper—typically it's done in fabric," Bukovec says. "The cross-stitch community and textile work and crafts work is really meticulous and strives toward perfection. So a cool part of it for me was straying away from that idea of perfection as I’m stitching the words. After I map it out in pencil and the alignment makes sense, there are rips and tears. Situations would happen where the back of the words would fill up with knots and these layers of thread. If you flip the work over, underneath you see this tangled mess. I really enjoyed that part of it."

"The underlayer of it is just really messy. And that goes back into the work: This experience has been messy and tangled and it's been internally frustrating and complicated; it has not been something that's been precise and easy to deal with. There's also beauty in that."

Some of the guest check pads from are you on the menu?

Bukovec calls working on this project "a healing journey, because it's really allowed me to confront situations, confront words, and just even the idea that, wow, this has been something so normalized in my life until my awareness of it." It wasn't something she could process when she first began experiencing it, and even now it's not easy as she encounters disbelief about her experiences even from family members.

"I think back to when I was young, [age] 15, I mean all through high school, 15, 16, 17, 18, I was working in the service industry and I remember feeling in those moments uncomfortable but also very silent, kind of this feeling of shame embarrassment, not knowing, not talking about it, too. So it's been a really nice tie into being the 26-year-old woman and sitting there and just thinking like, ‘OK I used my voice. I’m using my voice right now.’"

At the Kaiser Gallery show, her voice appears in a work called my unraveling, in the form of a runaway receipt roll issuing from an old cash register from Rudy's that she rescued from a dumpster (she had to clean off the meat juice and butcher grime first). She replaced the numbers and symbols of the register keys with her own choice of words and phrases reflecting her own internal processing of her experience: "step away," "speak up," "this is your fault," "this is not your fault, "fuck you," "no," "okay," "fine," "this is not okay."

With these contradictory ideas, she was asking herself, "Did I do something right? Did I do something wrong?"

It turned out, to her surprise, that using her voice was also giving voice to others.

When she first began posting the work on Instagram, starting with "Baby," she started to receive direct messages from women with similar experiences.

Bukovec says they wanted to share their own stories and were saying, "I connect to this work, I worked in the service industry," or "I’m an artist," and "I’m a massage therapist," and "thank you for creating this." The feedback led to another component of the Kaiser show: blank sheets of guest check books for a "share your story" wall.

"That was a huge part of this experience, that connection to others, to people I know but also to strangers through this online community that I was also not expecting at all." It reminded her of something one of her mentors,Emily Sullivan Smith, told her: "The deeper and more vulnerable we go as artists, the more universal it becomes."

A station allowing guests to share their own stories of harassment in the service industry at Kaiser Gallery in Cleveland, Ohio

Bukovec's interest in art was inspired by another woman artist—her sister, four years her senior, by whose side she would sit while the two of them sketched, with the older one annoyed with the younger's copycatting (it didn't last—they are both supportive and proud of each other now). In her junior year at Lake Catholic High School in Mentor, when a heavy-metal drumming, new art teacher arrived and recognized and encouraged her talent, she began to think seriously about her art, even selling her first piece at a school art show. In her junior year at the University of Dayton, after Bukovec found herself consistently wandering into its art department, she abandoned her early childhood education major in favor of a combined arts education and fine arts major. It was also at Dayton, when she witnessed the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement following the anguish caused by police violence against Black people and saw teachers weeping over the election of Donald Trump, that a political consciousness emerged that called into question the assumptions embedded in her upbringing in a conservative suburban hometown.

If Bukovec was ever fragile and breakable herself, she certainly isn't now. Brimming with ideas and projects, she is the inaugural artist-in-residence at Pop Life—a hub of creativity and spirituality practices, part ashram, part art space, in the Waterloo Arts District of Cleveland's North Collinwood neighborhood—helping to shape the residency's contours for future artists. The residency includes conducting monthly art workshops to build Pop Life's community and audience and provides access to a spacious art studio and opportunities to display and sell work, such as her "funky art kits," in its retail space. Her residency culminated in a solo exhibition of new mixed media work at Pop Life's gallery, opening Friday, June 2, during the Walk All Over Waterloo First Friday event.

Bukovec is now contemplating her next project. A product of sixteen years of Catholic schooling, she is thinking about what to do with her empty birth control pill blister packs accumulated over the years, considering ways to string them together in some sort of chain, as a way of addressing the increased threats over a woman's bodily autonomy.

And the Service Industry Stitch Project will live on. Though she wants to keep the collection together, she plans to sell reproductions of individual pieces that people have asked for, and with the advice and assistance of a minority business support organization, she intends to fully own her creative work by trademarking the idea and the phrase, "Are You on the Menu?" And Bukovec is currently working on creating a solo show proposal for the are you on the menu? series to bring the work to other galleries around the country.

my unraveling from are you on the menu?

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