You don't have to love the Mona Lisa...

I have recently come back from a life-changing trip to Rome and Florence. I've travelled a lot, but it was my first time in Italy. The journey only further solidified my suspicion that all my past lives took place in the mediterranean. I made the trip as a double whammy of art history learning expedition, and birthday celebration. I'm a happy introvert and love being alone, so this was mostly a solo trip. 

I've never had any official art education outside of my school days, so I have found I increasingly want to learn and understand as much art history as possible. I very much enjoy learning about other artists, from any era. I think it helps me to understand my place as an artist myself. I like to understand the context of things as well as what people intended with their work; where the work came from. For years I have read the biographies and watched the documentaries of some of our most well-known Western artists. 

But it's only been in the last six months that I learnt what terms like Etruscan, Classic, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Romantic meant. It is only in the last six months that I really learnt who Michelangelo was, and why we all know his name. It was only in this time that I learnt why his David sculpture is famous.

Shadow of the copy of the David outside Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Shadow of the copy of the David outside Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Christ's extremely human form in the Bandini pieta

Christ's extremely human form in the Bandini pieta

Seeing the David in real life for the first time was an interesting experience. I was struck by how non-human he looked. Not like Michelangelo's Christs in their various pietàs. I was also struck by the impressive size. But that was about it. I didn't get any feeling of passion for this work. I don't find it beautiful. It didn't aesthetically please me. It's not something I'd have in my home and it's not a sculpture I would make repeated visits to. And up until quite recently, I would have kept those thoughts to myself. I would have thought them ignorant, invalid. 

Some months before my trip to Italy, I wanted to know why I knew about the existence of this sculpture. Why did I know about this, and about van Gogh, and about the Mona Lisa, etc? Why are these artists and their works ubiquitous in our cultural landscape? Why are they so beloved? Why am I supposed to appreciate them? 

Maybe there is a contrarian part to my nature, but I find myself resenting the assumed implication that I must appreciate a masterpiece purely because that's what people say it is. I find it very difficult to appreciate a work of art unless it (a) simply aesthetically appeals to me or (b) I understand something of the purpose behind the work + the context in which it has been made.

A street art version of the Mona Lisa from artist Blub

A street art version of the Mona Lisa from artist Blub

To me, the Mona Lisa seems to be a nicely executed Renaissance portrait of a woman, with some interesting-for-the-time techniques, and that's about it. It's only on some cursory Wikipedia investigation that we find one of the main reasons for its fame: it was stolen by an Italian patriot a century ago. Another reason is, of course, her 'enigmatic smile'. I don't see this, I see the resting face of a woman. Personally, I think the Mona Lisa is perfect example of one of the phenomenona of art; it is often the viewer's reaction that makes it. The myth and hyperbole that has grown up around this portrait (and many other masterpieces of which we're all vaguely culturally aware) are what sustains it. I don't have to love it, or the David, or the Sunflowers. And neither do you.

Unless whatever masterpiece simply appeals to you, I'm not sure it's possible to appreciate without knowing as much of its purpose and context as possible. And whatever your initial thoughts are on seeing a so-called masterpiece, those thoughts are entirely reasonable. 

"I can't do that..." "Oh, but my darling, what if you don't?"

There is an alarmingly young Australian poet named Erin Hanson whose poem 'What If I fall?" I have bastardised for the purposes of this blog title.

"There is freedom waiting for you, On the breezes of the sky, And you ask, "What if I fall?" Oh, but my darling, What if you fly?"     Erin Hanson

"There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask, "What if I fall?"
Oh, but my darling,
What if you fly?"

Erin Hanson

I have had a peculiar path to working on art full time.
First I must preface this by saying that I am in the incredibly fortunate position of not actually financially needing to earn money. Thanks to the unquestioning, immediate & total support and extremely hard work of my husband, I do not have the pressure of needing to earn my keep financially. I have the luxury of choosing what to do with my time. He was happy to provide me with that freedom years before I was ever comfortable in accepting it. 

I feel like the journey of getting to the point I'm at now - spending the majority of my time painting and creating - has been an unnecessary, time-wasting inner battle.
I am not sure I sign up to the concept of Happiness, but creating illustration and art work is the only thing that truly satisfies me. It is challenging, thrilling, frustrating. It drives me and it feels like my purpose in life.
For so long I have felt that that wasn't permissible. That there ought to be some other reason to allow me to spend my life making art. Maybe I ought to be making work I could sell. Maybe I ought to be making art that serves others. Maybe I ought to be making work that was terribly clever. In fact, I should probably only create as a hobby, outside of working hours. I ought to justify and compensate for my need. I must earn my keep. I owe a debt to the world simply by existing in it, I ought to be a functioning contributing member of society. 

But now I am coming to think that the reason I must paint is that the alternative is too awful a thought. How can I not? What a terrible waste. If I met another person with a burgeoning talent and the opportunity to pursue that talent, I would never understand why they felt they ought not to. The world will cope just fine without me working in an office, earning a 9-5 wage, paying taxes. I am not a desperately needed cog. My martyrdom will satisfy no-one. But painting, whether the work is good or terrible or pointless or funny or interesting or ugly or beautiful or sad or shit, WILL satisfy me.

So I will allow myself to spend my life making. I will allow myself to take it seriously. I will pursue and learn and create and dedicate time and energy and money. I will call myself an artist, and mean it. I will make work simply because I want to. I will not worry about who likes it, or what it's for. I don't care anymore. I am going to make, because I need to make.

Hello, and thoughts on femininity


The deeper I go into creating art, into learning my craft and developing my skills, the more I find myself musing on the philosophical side of creativity. I can get quite overwrought thinking about it. So I've decided to start a blog here to try to both communicate and think aloud. 

So hello, first blog post from me, the artist*. I have been painting solidly now for about 18 months, having come back to art slowly, in fits and starts, for a few years at the end of my twenties. I am enthralled with painting, with the creative process, with improving and learning and developing. I am allowing myself to become consumed and obsessed. I am in love. 


I am coming towards the end of my Pretty series, a meditation on the idea of femininity as a social construct. I will soon complete the final painting. The series is comprised of two triptychs, one of men, one of women. 

Having been a young shouty know-it-all Lefty lentil-eating liberal, I have found as I age that I am no longer desperate to shout my opinion, or debate my opinion, or to defend it. I have also found that it is quite a relief not to have an opinion sometimes; it is liberating to realise I don't know everything and that I don't have to. 
But I do still have opinions, and I do find myself needing to express them. And I think my art is how I am comfortable expressing myself. It is my language. 

The Pretty series was born of my own past feelings of prettiness and femininity being somewhat inaccessible to me. As well as having all the usual teenage female self-loathing, I was very tall with big feet, a pear-shaped figure, and a slightly bizarre & damaging upbringing which made me quite a weirdo. This lead to me being disregarded by boys and of an acquired taste to girls. I wasn't normal, and I didn't feel normal. I felt physically awkward, uncomfortable and unwelcome (I still do, though I don't let it stop me these days).

As I come to the end of the series, ready to set it free out into the world to be judged or ignored, I worry about it being misunderstood and misinterpreted. That is always, always going to happen with art. But I am not content to keep the meaning behind this series a mystery. I don't want people to battle to divine what I'm saying. I feel it's important that I am as clear as can be.

The series was originally only to be one triptych - the males. I had been thinking about who else is denied femininity. I googled 'pretty woman' 'pretty girl' 'pretty man' 'pretty boy' etc. All results were white, thin, young, able-bodied, cis (and very often blonde) (and of course lots of Julia Roberts). The men that made the cut (apart from some Korean pop band whose name I presume is Pretty Boy) were thin, delicately featured, with piercing eyes and just enough muscle to still retain an essence of masculinity. 

I decided to concentrate on men as I had already had an image composition come to me, and I couldn't shake it from my mind. I wanted to create striking images, something that really 'popped' and would make you pause if you passed it on a wall. I had imagined a Black man, facing the viewer, wearing a flower crown. 

The flower crown acts as a symbol of Prettiness. The flower crown sitting atop a dark skinned Black man with strong rounded features is immediately incongruous. It is not something we are used to seeing. Next I wanted a pre-pubescent boy. Males can be such harsh marshals of what is acceptable and I could well imagine how excruciating wearing a flower crown might be for a boy just coming into the age self-awareness and awkwardness. Finally, an old man. Have you ever seen an old man and thought he was pretty? I know I haven't.

The series was originally meant to end there, until I got approached by a gallery who wanted to exhibit six portraits. I could have gone in a different direction entirely, but I decided to use the opportunity to see how I could push the idea along. 

The women don't wear flower crowns. Instead: bows. The reason being that females wearing flower crowns isn't extraordinary. The image would not induce surprise. I wanted something equally absurd, equally incongruous, just as striking. I decided on over-sized bows as they are still somewhat unexpected. They are not in common use, particularly not for grown women. Thinking back to my googled results, I decided on three subjects; a (dark-skinned, larger) black woman, a trans woman and a larger, older woman with a disability.
Black women are rarely afforded access to Prettiness in our society, particularly dark skinned Black women with Black features (as opposed to the predominantly angular/pointy/small/thin features in eurocentric beauty standards).
Trans women face myriad reactions for the way they look, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of appearance. In many ways, they cannot win. Perhaps if Prettiness were socially permitted to all, trans women would not face as much hostility for their mere existence. In a world where trans women deal with polite bemusement at best, and outright danger at worst, I feel there is a desperate need to normalise all types of aesthetic expression.
Older women are almost invisible when it comes to Prettiness, although there is often a requisite need for them to perform femininity to a certain level so as not to be branded sloppy. Same for larger women.
And Disabled women appear to be left out of the conversation altogether. I chose to paint a woman with Down Syndrome as I have a family member with DS. Another reason is that many women with Down's, just like a lot of other women (including me), very much want to enjoy femininity. This also raises the aspect of infantilisation (does femininity automatically infantilise? Is it only patronising when it is enforced rather than chosen? Does it have the potential to infantilise men too, or just women?). 

I look forward to the series being completed and setting my Pretty people free. I hope they induce a second look at least, and perhaps a conversation.

If you made it to the end of this post, well done, and thanks for reading.


*It still feels alien, presumptuous, and a huge undeserved treat to describe myself as such. More on that another time...