In three weeks of arm wrestling training, I learned two important techniques: the immediate hook and to continue pulling your opponent’s arm toward yours. I failed miserably at both when the time came. No surprise. I’ve lost nearly all the arm wrestling matches in my life, including a string of bouts with hotel maids—little Central American grandmothers—who crushed me while smiling kindly.
Friday’s match at the Marjorie Barrick Museum, where six opponents (myself included) would wrestle artist Erin Stellmon, was particularly distressing.
Stellmon arm wrestled her way across New York City, garnered medals at amateur competitions and was even approached to go pro before walking away to focus on her art and save her arm from potential ruin. A trail of emotionally (and in one case, physically) scarred prepubescent boys marked her childhood.
“What if she hurts me?” I asked my girlfriend.
“You’re worried about that?”
I wasn’t. But I felt sick. Taking her on had a weird emotional bent for me.
- Feminist/Las Vegas
- Through May 21, free.
- Marjorie Barrick Museum, UNLV
I fight men. I tackle them in hallways, body check them in break rooms and challenge them to push-up competitions. The idea of taking on a woman depleted my weird sense of machismo, false bravado, brute force, etc. It stole my edge and my illusion of edge, leaving me whimpering before the match, despite heavy training. But then we were all nervous. The scripted nature of the event, the exaggerated characters and personas did nothing to soothe the pain of knowing we were likely in for a good, and public, ass kicking.
But it was all for Feminist/Las Vegas, an art exhibit celebrating the diversity of sexuality, gender, feminism and women—beyond the corporate sexuality of the Strip. The economy of heteronormative—and often racist—sexuality is something show curator Laurenn McCubbin explores in her own artwork. Her collaborator in the show, Crystal Jackson, a PhD candidate in sociology at UNLV, co-authored The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex, and Sin in the New American Heartland. Other artists included Weekly art critic Danielle Kelly, whose Bouse House project celebrates a fictional female-led art movement, and Wendy Kveck, whose work directly explores the idea of being a woman in Vegas.
Stellmon hadn’t necessarily identified herself as a feminist artist. Her work centers on the transformation of the city, but the competitive nature of arm wrestling, particularly for a woman arm wrestler, fit perfectly and also tapped into the competitive nature of artists, which, save for me, filled the roster of contenders that night.
Would she kill us? Hard to say.
Stellmon hung up her medals eight years ago, ending an amateur career that began in New York City after attending a World Championship arm wrestling contest on the top floor of the World Trade Center, knowing nothing about strategy, tables or women wrestlers. A contender, seeing her T-shirt, featuring a big arm and the phrase “Expect No Mercy,” invited her to an open call match the next day in Times Square. It was her first match and she came in second.
A month later she placed first in a competition at Coney Island, then second in a state championship, and she arm wrestled men in bars, which is where she met her fiancé, Aaron (who she’s never arm wrestled).
Feminist/Las Vegas artist Justin Favela, dressed in a black-and-white referee shirt, introduced each challenger, exaggerating our already exaggerated personas. First the women: “The Hostess” Kveck, a ’50s-era housewife carrying a plate of cookies; “Go-Go Get Her” McCubbin, a controversial figure and artist in stripper shoes; and me, “Mini-Hulk,” so named in response to bowling inadequacies that have me in a rage. Next came the men: “Lovely Lance” Smith, an artist and UNLV BFA student, looking gorgeous in drag; “The Other” Aaron Sheppard, who doesn’t identify as male or female; and, finally, “The Mentor” Stephen Hendee, artist and Stellmon’s former teacher in the MFA program.
And so it went. Kveck offered cookies to the audience, took the table and went down with a fight. McCubbin? Bam. Down again. Then me. No amount of strength training and practice matches sitting in the office break room had prepared me to think on my feet—literally. This match would occur standing up at a tall podium, extending my arm from the get go. I was down in 10 seconds. As my trainer, Weekly Associate Editor Ken Miller, lovingly said afterward, “I knew you were done for when I saw the angle of your arm. It was much more extended than what we were training for.”
The men bested Stellmon one after the other while the audience jeered and cheered within inches of the table.
Afterward it became a free-for-all. Stellmon greased up in Icy Hot. Artists discussed their work before a now-quiet crowd. A couple of women stormed out arguing that the artists in the show weren’t feminists.
Everyone else seemed to celebrate the exhibit, including Stellmon, who says feminism can be approached in different ways.
“I was a little worried that people would think I was making fun of feminism and get angry,” Stellmon said the next day. “This is such a serious topic. But if you can’t have humor about it then it really is a dead movement.”
Even if it includes arm wrestling.
Arm yourself: three tips for hand-to-hand combat:
•Hand grippers. Use them. They strengthen your grip, your wrist and your forearm.
•Use your back and shoulder muscles against your opponent, not your bicep.
•Pull your opponent’s arm toward yours. The more extended their arm, the less control they have.