The Complicated Role of Women’s Bodies In Art

Women have for centuries been a muse for artists and the main character in the narrative (or often the main decoration) where works of art are concerned. They were the subjects of paintings far before it was even acknowledged that they could be painters themselves. It is honestly rare for me to ever draw men. I always figured my pull to depicting women was because as a woman, that is the voice I can most comfortably speak from. However, even male artists tend to habitually depict women when figures are included in their works. I try within my own art to create a story and psychology around each figure I create, and so do many other artists working today and so have many in the past. However, just as many if not more use female figures in their work as a passive decoration, just as one may place a waterfall or flower in their composition, including many artists whose work I still enjoy. No matter whether the woman is portrayed as a decorative object or a narrator in a piece, they also all tend to follow the traditional standards of beauty for the time in which they were created, without a lot of deviation. This is something I had even noticed happening in my own art, a mold I worked to break out of in my most recent portrait based series.

These musings and observations are not a new topic, but it is a subject that jumped to the forefront of my mind last week when I read Manchester Art Gallery removed John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, one of the most recognizable pre-Raphaelite paintings in their gallery, not only from the walls but from print and postcard form in their gift shop as well. The room this piece hung in was titled “The Pursuit of Beauty”, a collection depicting women mainly as passive decoration as discussed above, or else tempting sirens, all in various states of undress. Guests were given the opportunity to post comments about the removal with sticky notes in the empty space where the painting used to hang. You can read the full story here, as well as some of the reactions to the decision.

5507

I am a feminist myself (Though, sidenote, as feminism has gone more mainstream in recent years and grown to include a wider audience, I often compare feminism and its many schools of thought to a religion with multiple denominations – You can put two feminists in a room together and they may not agree on anything.). Given that, obviously this singular portrayal of women doesn’t fill me with joy. But, for most of history and even sometimes still today this is how women were viewed! Putting this fact on display doesn’t mean it’s a good thing – but it is a true thing. I am a big proponent of learn your history no matter how unsavory, or we are doomed to repeat it.

6-_thc3a9rc3a8se_dreaming_balthus_copy_80105371There has been a similar instance recently where there were petitions to remove a painting from the Met that New Yorkers felt sexualized a young girl, a painting by French artist Balthus titled Therese Dreaming. The biggest issue was exposure due to how she was seated, and the fact that it was known the mid 20th century artist had an inappropriate infatuation with younger girls.

I have always been against censorship at all costs, rolling my eyes at protests of books being read in school, movies being shown at theaters, art being hung in galleries… If you don’t like it, don’t view it, but you don’t need to take away others’ personal autonomy. The counter culture of American society has always been against the filtering of information to the populace, against some overreaching authority handing out declarations of what is good and evil in popular culture, but it seems now the roles have reversed. What you might call the counter culture today seems to be more for censure and removing from the culture entirely those messages or images which they deem undesirable.

My first thought after hearing about these paintings’ definite or potential removal was that we are erasing history, and where does it end? Immediately a red light went off in my brain that this was the same excuse used over this past year to air grievance about the removal of Confederate monuments, which I was all for because honestly some legacies do not deserve celebration. To me, the issues in that circumstance versus this one are apples and oranges and not at all comparable, but it did lead me to question, do I have a blind spot?

One of my favorite artists, Ray Caesar, depicts young women and girls in what many would deem sexualized poses. However, in an interview with Hi-Fructose Magazine he says he views his work as a personal exploration, something autobiographical, and the women to him are the different voices of his own mind (Caesar is affected by Disassociate Identity Disorder). In his bio from his website, Caesar also discusses his time working in the Art and Photography Department of The Hospital For Sick Children in Toronto from 1980 until 1997. He was responsible for documenting cases of severe child abuse, surgical reconstruction, and psychology and animal research. He affirms that this experience greatly affected the images in his work, and ends by saying, “I now live my dreams for those that didn’t get a chance to live theirs … to do otherwise would be a sin”. As an artist myself, injecting one’s personal experiences into the art they create, especially when those experiences have been as emotional and life altering as the ones Caesar describes, makes sense. Could it traumatize others who have actually lived those circumstances rather than someone who as Caesar was looking in as an outsider? Does it bring awareness to those circumstances or glorify them, or does it do a little bit of both? Is it that fine line that makes people’s reactions to his work so strong? Isn’t it art’s job to evoke emotional response from its viewers?

artist-raycaesar-41

27285_533898609974622_435312268_nThis whole debate really offers a lot more questions than answers. If you were waiting for me to come to a conclusive opinion at the end, I will admit I don’t have one. Women are undoubtedly valued from a young age based on their physical appearance above all other traits. How important is the art world’s role in this? Does it matter? Does art and entertainment have a responsibility due to the fact that it can shape our society, or is it just about the individual artist’s personal expression? What defines a sexualized image? Can depictions of women that are more sexual still be respectful? How far does talent excuse a harmful character, as in the case of Balthus, or a handful of other modern day actors and entertainers that come to mind? I have a feeling that the answer is probably somewhere in the middle of life’s complicated web.

Both women and men, the artists and non-artists out there, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please feel free to discuss and share what’s on your mind!

 

Advertisements

Year End Reflections And A New Project

As I mentioned earlier, after the completion of my “Unlimited”series I’d been experiencing a bit of artist’s block. I tried playing around with a couple new ideas, but nothing seemed to stick.

Design is pretty much my constant state of existence similar to, you know, breathing, so I stayed busy with commissions, crafting, my day job, and involvement in the Creative Team at my church. It was one of my projects for the team that would be the inspiration for my next piece. Upon the usual late December reflection, I discovered the themes explored in this piece really parallel what I’ve learned in this last year.

The series this image was designed for was titled Whole Heart, and though I hate being videotaped, I was somehow coerced into it so you can view this video explaining the concepts and thought behind the design. For a medium I chose a simplistic watercolor illustration with bold colors and sharp outlines. This would make the image clear and easy to read on a small app icon as well as in larger print form. The style would also appeal to any age from kids to older adults. I was surprised how even with a “story” that seemed so basic, people could strongly relate to it on multiple levels. Hearing how touched many were by image made me want to develop the concept into a more detailed piece in my usual surreal, mixed media style. Right now I just have the pencil outline, but keep checking back for in-progress shots!

whole heart orig brighten

The girl in this piece is doing something absolutely terrifying, and in no way should she be smiling or feeling any positive emotions such as liberation or elation, and yet …

I’ve always read things or heard speakers in inspirational youtube videos talk about the difference between joy and happiness, but for the most part it just sounded like a bunch of nonsense to me until this year. Suddenly – I get it. Happiness is about things that make you feel excited and content in the moment – it’s situational. Joy is about a balance of fulfilling what you need to be content, doing what you can to fulfill the needs of others or even the world or society as a whole, and learning how to deal with and process those desires that are not yet fulfilled, or those instances in your surroundings that are unjust, upsetting, or draining. Joy is about being your best self not just personally but in how you affect others.

Self care has been a huge buzz word this year, from making being comfortable into an art with lists of specific tenants required to reach maximum coziness level such as in the Danish hygge trend, to the increased conversation around kids needing “personal days” or “mental health days” in school just as adults get personal days off from work to reach their optimum ability and stay healthy. Articles about self care tend to revolve around taking it easy and giving yourself permission to indulge guilt free for the most part, but I read a really great article recently that discussed a far less popular part of self care. I suggest you read the entire thing for yourself, but the main highlighted, bold font point from this article reads as follows …

“True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from. And that often takes doing the thing you least want to do.”

Self care could mean finally making that counseling appointment you’ve been putting off. It could mean finally seeking help for your alcohol or drug addiction you’ve been struggling with. It could mean having an uncomfortable, challenging conversation with a friend or family member. It could mean either temporarily or permanently cutting a toxic person out of your life. Doing the hard things will give you not the temporary happiness that comes from giving yourself a free day relaxing in front of Netflix with a fuzzy blanket and a bottle of wine (Because you’re still going to have to go back to that job you hate after the sun sets on your mental health day … I speak from direct experience.), but the joy of a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.

I have felt the most content and fulfilled this year than any to date in my adult life, despite the fact that I still experience bouts of anxiety from time to time, I still experience periodic stressers in both work and personal life at pretty regular intervals, and the fact that the news cycle and goings on in my home country of America have really, really done a fantastic job in 2017 of pushing the exact buttons that make my blood boil.

And that is definitely an awesome thing, but it is not even all about my own or your own personal well being or fulfillment. More and more, I don’t think the point in life is necessarily to be happy all the time; I don’t think happiness is the endgame.

Most moral people tend to think that the reason we shouldn’t do bad things is because though we may think those things will make us happy, there will be some deep, dark void inside of us that will eventually eat us alive or something. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is always the case. I think there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy celebrating greed, lying, assaulting and bullying, and causing great harm to others … until they get caught. Just turn on the news. That is why the level of our happiness does not always correlate to a good life lived. We may feel happier and more internally at peace living with our heads under the sand, ignoring all the problems and injustices going on in our world, accepting the unacceptable because “I can’t do anything about it, so why should I worry?” But … if every single one of us did that, how would anything ever change? Not that every person is called to be a world changer that will end up in the history books, but plenty throughout history have put themselves in some pretty miserable conditions in order to speak up for what is right – certainly not the road to happiness and internal zen – because the purpose of life is not simply achieving momentary happiness over and over and over again.

My hope for this new year is that we all continue to grow into our best selves, and continue to flourish in awareness, in empathy, in bravery, and yes, in joy.

Come at us 2018, we’ve got this :).

New Work: She is Sheltered By Faith

Organized religion has always had an interesting relationship with women. While many of the ways in which various religions are practiced (notice I say practiced, because often how one chooses to express their religion and how they are kind of supposed to practice it based on the basic tenants of their religion’s teachings can be quite different) have not been too kind to the ladies, even in this day and age, women on the whole are practicing their faith in greater numbers than their male counterparts. This is especially true in Christianity, the faith I will be discussing as it is the one I practice, and the one I am most familiar with.

Interested in this dichotomy, I knew I had to do a piece on women and faith for my current series surrounding women and the various themes that intertwine their lives. Thus, this art nouveau inspired piece was born, titled “April: She Is Sheltered By Faith”. The lush flowers and vines radiate in growth around the central figure, sheltering her from the rains of darkness. She is surrounded by a metallic gold halo of light, and smiling calmly and assuredly through the storm.

april she is sheltered by faith

As one who strives for equality for all, including between different genders, I often find myself in an awkward space where it comes to my Christian faith. Though Jesus himself surely stood for equality, churches don’t always do the best job carrying this message through in our everyday life today. One need look no further than the recent trending hashtag on twitter, #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear, to read statements that range from laughable in their utter lunacy to those that are absolutely heart wrenching.

…And, there are many, many more. These are not made up stories or exaggerations. As thankful as I am that I grew up in the same church I attend now that I feel comfortable in for the most part, many of these messages are familiar through the stories of friends of mine and through articles and advice in Christian teen books or magazines I remember from my youth. We need to do better, and it starts with listening to others’ stories, speaking up when you do hear any of these toxic messages spoken, and knowing the truth. I used to feel so uncomfortable about being the very antithesis of what both mainstream and religious conservative media would have you believe a practicing Christian is “supposed to” be, but nowadays I kind of embrace it. I feel like I’ve finally found a lot of my purpose in life, and besides, aren’t we supposed to stay true to what’s right and not worry about “fitting in” with everyone else? Maybe, this sometimes even means not fitting in with those within our own little group.

So what draws women to faith based lives despite the challenges of organized religion? I’d say it is because the Person they follow advocated for equality way ahead of His time, and that in the stories of His teachings and examples of how He treated others, justice and love have always been at the forefront.

I didn’t want this post to turn into a theology lesson so I kept the background brief, but here are some resources concerning women and Christianity that I think are worth a read, and that definitely challenge the status quo of what Christian women are hearing from society:

On Being A Christian and Being A Feminist … and Belonging Nowhere / Sarah Bessey / (Pst! This cool lady actually started the #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear thread.)

15 Christian Women Get Real About The Role Of Women In The Church / Huffington Post

Women’s Faith and Power / ReThinkChurch / “We believe advocacy for the equality between women and men results in positive change that improves the world.” – Yeah!

Jesus and Women / Christianity Today / “In His treatment of women, as in many other areas, Jesus of Nazareth was a radical contrast to the standards of His times”

The Case For Women In Ministry / ReKnew

On Being ‘Divisive’ / Rachel Held Evans

10 Ways Male Privilege Shows Up In The Church / The Junia Project

 

 

In A Black and White World, Be A Rainbow! New Work.

november she is entirely her own

I am still plugging along on my series that needs to be finished by mid-late Summer so that I can enter it into ArtPrize! 4 more pieces of 12 to go, wish me luck! This particular piece titled, “November: She Is Entirely Her Own” was a lot of fun, with lots of dramatic color and pattern – a true ode to creativity, independence, and expression. As it turns out, rainbow hair is as challenging to draw as it can be to create on an actual person’s head!

My series will eventually include 12 mixed media, surreal, conceptual portraits in which the meaning is influenced by the use of pattern and color. They will depict women of all ages, races, and time periods. Each will communicate a different theme, titled for each month of the year. I aim for the pieces to speak to women’s collective experiences beyond their differences. Though many of the pieces deal with difficult emotions, the overall feedback I’ve received is that viewers found the works in this series inspiring and encouraging. Over the last couple of years, I have really come into my own style as an artist. For the longest time, I thought in order for art to speak it couldn’t really be enjoyable to look at, and was so wary of my art slipping away from true art and into the category of “decoration”. However, honesty doesn’t have to mean horror and darkness, although there is certainly a time and place for that kind of art, too. You really have to just let yourself speak what naturally flows out of you as an artist, without trying to force a certain aesthetic or viewpoint just because you feel like that is what you “should” be making.

One of my all time favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, said this about creation, “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction (or art) could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” If this doesn’t just sum up my definite art goals, I don’t know what does.

Lastly, I will leave you with some of my recent wedding photos. Oh, you didn’t know I got married by the most highly respected robotic priest in all of Michigan on the 30th of March, my 29th birthday?

Ok, April Fool’s. I don’t think this particular marriage ceremony held at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum is technically legally binding, and the flimsy aluminum rings we exchanged couldn’t even fit properly on our gigantic sausage fingers. But nevertheless, spending a day at the arcade followed by delicious Italian food was a good enough birthday adventure for me. Perks, now everyone can stop asking us when we’re getting married, because we kind of already did, fools ^_^.

Continue to be the rainbow in a black and white world, dear readers. Until later …

 

New Work – September: She Is An Atlas

This was one of the most challenging pieces in my series thus far, because I was working with multiple layers of meaning and thoughts. It also is the most “mixed media” of all my series installments, utilizing not just mixed fine art mediums but fabric, metal chain, tiny rhinestones, and torn book pages. I have been so into metallic accents since the collaboration with my friend and student, Heather. I also blame her for the inclusion of rhinestones – she encourages me to be sparkly.

she is an atlas

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that when I feel, I feel BIG or not at all. There is no other way. The sketch that inspired this piece started as a way for me to process the weight of my own emotions and feelings of powerlessness. As  I began further conceptualizing this current series, I realized the idea could fit as one of the 12 pieces. For new readers, here’s my blurb briefly explaining the series (If you are already in the know, feel free to skip ahead 😉 ): I am creating 12 mixed media, surreal, conceptual portraits in which the meaning is influenced by the use of pattern and color. They will depict women of all ages, races, and time periods, and each will communicate a different theme. I aim for the pieces to speak to women’s collective experiences beyond their differences. Each of the 12 will represent a month of the year. We tend to think of time and events in terms of our own personal history or the history of the nation in which we reside. But of course, there are women everywhere living out their day to day life all over the world, with hopes, dreams, fears , relationships. Our situations and struggles are very different, but were we in some alternate reality all given a chance to meet, I suspect we would find some surprising similarities, maybe more than we ever expected. The title of each piece starts with the month it represents, followed by “She Is _______”. The figure in this piece quite literally has “the world on her shoulders” through the pattern on her clothing, much like the mythic Atlas. Atlas the physical object is also defined as a book of maps or charts, and can signify one feeling that they alone must have all the directions and answers to all of the world’s problems, a grand and impossible responsibility.

The exposed heart necklace represents empathy, an open heart waiting to be wounded , left unprotected and raw. She leans against a bulls-eye wall, surrounded by an outline of thrown knives, a target girl like in the well known circus act. With each act of injustice and malice directed at others, she feels as if she is standing in their place, each offense a knife thrown at her, just missing. Though fearful, her face is strong and even. I’ve written before about how compassion and empathy does not equal weakness. To stick one’s head in the sand and be ignorant of the world’s ills is weakness; foolish, avoidant, and selfish.

Another way the subject can be viewed is not as the empathizer but as the victim. Some people are born into situations that are so difficult, living day to day is much like standing against a target with knives being thrown at them. It can be their geographic location, their income, the people that surround them or lack thereof, and the list goes on. Though yes, our personal choices certainly can influence outcomes, isn’t so much of life like a gigantic, living lottery when you think about it? Yet we shake our heads and wag our fingers when we see people who are struggling both around us and abroad, because certainly they must have done something wrong or things would look different? This way of thinking frees us of the responsibility to help others, and gives us a false sense of power that by doing certain things we can be 100% sure we attain the exact sort of life that we want. It all goes back to empathy and control.

One of the things I love about art is the way people can discern completely different meanings from a piece based on their own thoughts and experiences. Did something different strike you as you looked at this piece, did it remind you of something? Please share, don’t be shy!

 

Art Discussion: To Suffer In Your Arms

to-suffer-in-your-arms

Happy February! This art discussion seems appropriate given that February has been appointed the month of all things lovey dovey. This drawing is one of my older ones, from about 8 years ago. Still, I’ve remained attached to it even though I can see spots where my pen and ink skills have certainly improved. It’s just the right mix of elegant and morbid, and I used an interesting process to come up with the concept. I had an assignment in my college drawing class in which we had to create a collage first, and then draw from that image we created. I used to be big into collaging (This collage actually won a contest in Deviantart’s collage club, of which I used to be quite the active member.), so this technique was right up my alley. I liked how collaging helped me come up with new image pairings I may not have thought of through sketching only. The loving couple used to be a cheesy perfume ad – major upgrade.

Outdoors, people are rioting and attacking each other. The couple are “safe” inside, shut out from all the cares of the outside world. But, even though they seem deeply in love, they too have wounds that they have imparted on each other. The woman is so enthralled with the picture in her mind of that perfect embrace, that oneness, that sense of not being alone that she ignores her own suffering. A dead dove lies shot and bleeding on the table, his blood bright red like the cuts and bruises on the woman, and the morbid image of the smiling, bleeding woman on canvas hung on the wall.

Love and peace are two words that are often spoke of together, as if married. What is odd is that despite all this, love is often in fact a destroyer of peace. People do all sorts of things in the name of a feeling they call love. In favor of love, common human decencies are thrown out the window without a look backward. People ruthlessly force their own ideas on others, sometimes to that others’ demise, all the while saying and wholeheartedly believing that this behavior is only because they love them and want good things for them.

Take a look at the relationships of any number of people you know as well as your own: you will find that often times once romantic love infiltrates a bond, you can expect things to be anything but peaceful. Love adds two entirely new dimensions to the already multifaceted structure of a relationship between two people, each different person with their own separate ideas of what both giving and receiving love is supposed to look like. 7 years after I pondered the simplification of love as the solution to everyone’s problems, this fantastic article was posted to Observer; “When we believe that “all we need is love,” … we’re more likely to ignore fundamental values such as respect, humility and commitment towards the people we care about. After all, if love solves everything, then why bother with all the other stuff — all of the hard stuff?” Love, like any other experience, can be healthy or unhealthy and it would do us all well to remember that. 

Love of only one or few things can easily grow into an obsession. With obsession comes possessiveness, jealousy, and a loss of attention to all else causing any other parts of life to shrivel and decay. Our perceptions can be tricked into a sort of bubble of “only I and what I love matter in this world”, when guess what, a whole lot else matters. The world keeps turning, and we let things that will inevitably be missed later fall away. Similarly, an intense, burning, passionate love of too many separate entities can cause overwhelming anxiety and leave an individual asking,”How can I show love to all of THIS when I only have _______”. One can end up feeling like the only spring left in a world of thirsty travelers. It can be hard to forget you are not the center of all that you love. In the case of love that is unrequited, you may not even be on the edges of what it is you love. And inner peace further erodes.

I, however, am still quite a fan of love (and always have been) and believe it can
accomplish wondrous things. I guess what matters the most and what we must think about always is where our love is coming from. Does it come from our own fleeting wants and demands, is it forced or artificially manufactured out of a sense duty with no real
compassion behind it, or does it flow from a deeper source? Love should always be external, because of who other living beings are, not internal, because of what we long to own. Love that comes from selfish desires undoubtedly leads to brutality.

Art Discussion: New Year’s Resolutions

I have to admit, I never make New Year’s resolutions; partly because if you are truly dissatisfied with something, it seems silly to arbitrarily wait until the turning of the calendar to fix it. In part also because we all tend to set the same goals, those goals that we know everyone else is setting so we can easier relate to those around us as we share that we want to find our soulmate, get a promotion, or lose weight, and we can all laugh together about how we probably won’t actually do anything to work towards most of those things. But, what would happen if we committed to doing one thing that we were truly passionate about in this new year, one thing that we didn’t over analyze to death, asking ourselves, Should I want this? Is it too silly? Too shallow? Too lofty? Too weird? No one would understand anyway … 

1.jpg

During my senior year of college 7 years ago (Whoa! 7 is a big number.), I entered an art book into the Annual Student Exhibition at Central Michigan University. I asked a sampling of the people I encountered in a day, some I knew well and some I did not, to think of a couple of experiences they would like to have before their life was over, and pick the most obscure one to share with me. I chose 35 different submissions to illustrate, and Underneath was  born. This was my first experiment with creating art based on collected personal stories, something I would use to create many more projects in the future. I also ended up winning the Grand Award for this piece, which was the first time I’d ever won anything for my art aside from a coloring contest in 4th grade, and not a bad way to exit my college career ;).


As annoying as it may be that the first thing anyone asks when meeting someone for the first time after “What’s your name?” is, “So what do you do?”, we kind of are what we do. This doesn’t have to mean our day jobs, or even be workplace related at all. What we do with each day is a choice, and it is these choices that reflect what we value and shape who we will become. True goals can give immense insight into each individual’s unique personality, drive, and psyche. That is why I so enjoyed sifting through the responses I received for this project.

I was reminded of Underneath recently for an unfortunate reason. The young woman who 7 years ago submitted the far right response above took her own life in a murder-suicide earlier this month. She attended my high school, but our school was so large growing up there were tons of people who walked in graduation with me that I felt like I’d never laid eyes on my whole four years there. I never knew her well, but our paths did cross and I remembered her submission deeply affecting me back then, as the news of what occurred deeply saddened me now. A couple of my good friends had had classes and clubs with her, some even keeping up over the years at least through texting and facebook, and the news hit them even harder.

This may not be a typical resolution, but something to be mindful of in the new year is this: we do not know everyone else’s story. We have no clue about everything the people we run into in our day to day life may be going through. People learn to adapt, and to act, and to portray themselves in person, at work, and in social media as how they want others to see them. I know I do it; I think we all do to a point. I have always been fascinated with the dichotomy between individual’s alone personas versus their public personas. It is a concept that is interesting to explore. It can also be a concept that is dangerous, because it can prevent people from reaching out who need help. If you make one resolution (aside from foregoing all convention and chasing your oddest dream / within reason and lawfulness, of course), resolve to be transparent and authentic, and resolve to be someone who is willing to make that reach when someone needs support either in the form of just a listening ear or otherwise. Christmas falling on a Sunday, I attended the Christmas morning church service at MFMC with my family this year. We spoke about how there is the whole Christmas story which most of us, churchgoers or not, have known since childhood. But, we all have stories, and our story, how we live and interact, can change someone else’s story for the better if we allow it to happen. We have nothing to lose for trying.

To see the rest of my art book in order, visit the album on my website.