I paint a lot of naked women. It’s sometimes hard to explain all these naked ladies to my 10-year-old daughter, but she has grown up to know that the body is amazing, powerful, and to be honored. Your clothing is just what gets you through the day?—?your body is the real miracle. From the point of view of feminist artists in the latter 20th century, this practice is outmoded. I should know better than to be interested in the female form as a subject, or objectify her in a work of art that makes it permanently available for gazing. On the other hand, the most closely held tenet of art-school hallways is “Be free to follow your heart.” So, I confess that despite my own feminist principles, I find the nude in art to be an endless well of inspiration and mystery.
Kenneth Clark asserts, “The nude is not a subject of art, it is a form of art.” This sums up my attitude toward my field. I love art of all kinds, but figurative work casts a powerful spell for my own making and investigation. Who am I? What are you? How are you made?
I am obsessed with the way the skin folds itself like an upholstered cushion when it tucks into the underarm. I love the way the slips of the trapezius swirl around each other as they gather and travel up the nape of the neck, then sweep up along the sternocleidomastoid muscle and disappear behind the ear. The pit of a woman’s neck is mesmerizing?—?there you can see the tender translucence of thin skin, the fragility, the breath, the miracle of blood and energy. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent erasing and redrawing the line of a woman’s shoulder.
Beauty, to me, is a weapon of power. When I paint a breast, it is one of the most holy parts of a woman’s body. Shame about the body does not make you stronger. The people I admire and find appealing are those who have grown to be fully alive in both their bodies and minds. Creating a work of art that illuminates a woman’s duality of sensuality and intelligent consciousness is the holy grail of my dogged repetitive act of painting her body. When I paint her, I’m not trying to create an object so much as a force.
Now, talking about beauty is a double-edged sword for women. Beauty is commodified, sold to us in little bottles, and sales play on our sense of less-than and not-enough. We have learned not to trust it. For me “Beauty” is something much bigger than what you might find in a fashion magazine?—?which feels like a masquerade in a layer of pancake make-up and some uncomfortable shoes.
Our world is in desperate need of transformation. Sometimes when I sit in my studio, I wonder if making aesthetic images of women is really serving the pressing need to turn to a sustainable way of life. What is the point of painting a torso when the glaciers are melting? Then I remember that art can create a vision that helps people sustain one’s hope. The road is going to be long and inspiration is essential. I think beauty matters because it reminds us of what is worth struggling for, and what is possible. Idealism is a wonderful, fragile, underappreciated thing. We must visualize the world we want to create before we create it, and the role of an artist is to be a part of that action through conceptualization and world-making. The imagination is an underused part of our intelligence?—?thought to be best left behind on the playground or kept tidily on stage. Really, our imagination is one of our magic super-powers. It is vital component to transformation?—?nothing can be created without it. Not paintings, smartphones, Mars rovers or access to clean water.