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...