Archives for posts with tag: Women artists

Self and slightly-larger-than-life portraits of some Great Canadian Artists

Last week, I worked with two sets of students to paint the portraits of eight Canadian Women Artists. The artists I chose for this project were relatively current artists, and most are living still. If they weren’t living and contemporary, I had good reason to select them (strong influence on other artists, international artistic influence, and influence in the realm of policy change.) 

As Women artists, these trailblazers have pushed their way forward to make pertinent, strong art. They are all women of their time, whose actions and freedoms reflect the reality of being a woman artist. They are all Canadian.

Lisa Steele, Janet Cardiff, Jin-me Yoon, and Anne Savage on the right side of the mural.

For most of these artists, the medium carries the message. The medium alone isn’t the message anymore. One could say that the work tends towards the more narrative/story-telling genres (eg video, film) that are content-laden by nature. However, even the most well-known of these artists in the field of film (arguably Joyce Wieland) worked masterfully in other media too. She worked in textile art, in public art, in installation, and more. The media had to suit her expression, she took control of the content and the implicit meanings of the formats.

As for this specific project, I chose portraiture to pay homage to these women. It’s a reflection on them, a reflection on the mind behind the visage we see. It’s a reflection of ourselves as we look at these faces and relate to them.

There were a total of 14 students who worked on this; none of them Art students. I was very impressed with them all.

The students used a technique called grisaille, in which one paints in shades of grey. Traditionally, a painter would then glaze translucent colours on top of this greyness, in order to achieve naturalistic colouring. We also talked a little about how this is related to chiaroscuro, the Rennaissance-invented method of modelling shapes through the use of dark and light. In a best-case scenario, a painter would use both aspects to create a likeness.

Before finding a permanent home, Joyce Wieland, Rebecca Belmore, Gathie Falk, and Betty Goodwin were celebrated in a hallway display-case.

I am proud of what the students and I did this last week. I am glad that the paintings have a home in Vanier College, in the Women’s Studies department. It was interesting to me that there were no Art students amongst the bunch of students who came to the workshops; perhaps they felt that they painted and drew a lot already, and wanted a break. It is sad that they missed this opportunity to not only connect with a live, professional artist from outside of their school system but inside their community (me), but they missed learning about these contemporary artists who, if the students continue to work in the arts, they will eventually hear about. In any event, it was an invigorating experience to not only guide the students in painting, but to introduce them to these artists and their ideas. 

Natasha Henderson, Montreal  

«Barren Ground Caribou» by Joyce Wieland, 1978...

"Barren Ground Caribou" Joyce Wieland, 1978

There are some Canadian women artists whom I personally adore. Over the years they have proven to be an inspiration to me for my painting. These women are: Joanne Tod, Landon MacKenzie, Sandra Meigs, Gathie Falk, and to a lesser degree Mary Pratt and Emily Carr. However, when recently asked to give a presentation about art for Women’s Day, I decided on a different list of Canadian women artists to share. Granted I pulled one from my list of personal faves, but I think that’s allowed.

The list that I suggest everyone look up is: Joyce Wieland, Rebecca Belmore, Lisa Steele, Anne Savage, Gathie Falk (yes she’s one of my faves), Betty Goodwin, Janet Cardiff, and Jin-me Yoon.

All of these women’s works are pertinent and intriguing, their lives and experiences are (or were) expressed in some way within their works. I would argue they are feminist artists, even when that’s not obvious. The examination of “Self” in a particular space or situation is linked to feminism and feminist art. These artists’ work speaks of the times they live (or lived) in, and it speaks about equality.

I used to think that it was enough to just be a woman artist that produces. I have begun to realise, however, that I need to know more about this society in order to understand my own questions, and quests.

I said it before, and I have to say it again: I recommend the book Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick.

Natasha Henderson, Montreal

Portrait of Mademoiselle Charlotte du Val d'Ognes (c. 1801)

When you look at the History of Art, you might wonder why there aren’t as many women in the books as there are men. Why is it that the grand, romantic notion of the solo artist, imparting brilliance and genius upon the sorry masses, is always associated with a male figure? Who says that this is really what an artist is?

It is a complex and intertwined mix of reasons why we often make these assumptions about art and artists. Societal power structures, misogyny, the fact that women and their works have been regarded as “lesser” than equal compared to the works of their male counterparts… all this and much more has kept women out of the books.

Much like what happened to my Grandmother in the early/mid 1900’s (when she married she was forced to leave her job as a teacher to stay at home), European women artists, upon marriage, would normally have to leave their careers behind. Those who didn’t and continued to paint were not only exceptions, but they were unable to maintain a decent amount of work.

You might think “well, yes, society has made it difficult for women artists to develop, to become great artists” and you would be correct. However, there have been absolutely outstanding female artists throughout Western Art History who have been respected as Masters (Mistresses?) in their time. However, when it comes to reading modern and mainstream texts about their work, words such as delicate, gentle, light, and feminine are used.

Even paintings that were once regarded as Master works are re-described once it is discovered that a woman actually painted it. A former Master Piece is now a Fraudulent Disappointment… but it’s the same painting! An anecdotal example is of a Jacques-Louis David that was purchased in the early 20th Century by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1951, Charlotte du Val d’Ognes was attributed to possibly Constance Marie Charpentier, another female artist who was David’s student. What was once described using words like austere, perfect, unforgettable, tasteful, and exemplary was re-described as gentle, lacking correctness and concealing weaknesses, subtle artifices and feminine spirit. It should be noted that women artists were finally allowed to enter the Salon after the French Revolution. Jacques-Louis David accepted many female students, encouraging them to not only enter the Salon, but to paint both historical and portrait works. Essentially, he treated them as equals.

When people ask “who wrote the text” with regard to power structures, it’s about more than the textbooks. This is about society and its structures, how we exist in our time in relation to history and what we know about it. Which philosophers guided us, what art do we value and think is important, what defines people, what defines a family, how does one identify themselves within their time and place and how one survives. A big question in the midst of all this is: How Can We Change? Through persistent, hard work, we can change. This is why I truly admire artists who have forged ahead and made strides for female artists and equality.

I recommend the book Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick.

Over the next few days, in celebration of International Women’s Day this week, I will highlight a few Canadian artists who I feel have made some strides for an improved society, and whose work I admire.

Natasha Henderson, Montreal

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