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Women, Painting and Power : Page 2

Women, Painting and Power

continued from page 1

THE SELFISH GIRL: Unafraid of putting herself first, of being needy and proud of it, of nurturing herself, of conserving her own energy, of filling her own well, willing to have limits, making her own self care her first priority, willing to be her own good mother, willing to take time just for herself, willing to confront and overcome her guilt about taking care of herself.

This is the first Bad Girl to show up when a woman attempts to have a viable creative life, and the first one I see when a woman walks in the door of my studio to attend a painting class. I hear over and over again from these women how much they have lost themselves in taking care of everyone else. How tired they are of putting everyone else's needs first and that they have come to this class because they want to do something that has no visible benefit to anyone else.

For a woman to be creative she needs to be willing to take time just for herself. She needs uninterrupted periods when she is able to enter her studio, sit down at her computer or her easel, and see what wants to come. She needs to let herself get dreamy, do nothing, stare out the window, and be seemingly unproductive. During these interludes in which she drops into a creative trance she is inviting the muse to enter her and inviting the often secret and mysterious movement of her soul to express itself.

In these moments, she begins to face herself through her art. She is able to get quiet enough so that she can listen deeply and start to ask some essential questions such as "What do I think? What do I like? What do I really want? What moves me, brings me pleasure, makes me feel alive?" It is a me, myself and I time, a time that needs to be treated as sacred and inviolable in order to allow the stream of those creative juices to flow unimpeded and to eventually turn into a raging, rushing river.

However, it's usually not long before the telephone rings or someone taps (or sometimes pounds ) on the studio door with the cry of "I need you! And I need you RIGHT NOW!" It could be a friend, a child, a mother, a husband, a work obligation, or a pipe that has just sprung a leak. All of a sudden, somebody else's needs become more important than her need to be creative, and the woman is faced with the eternal female question. "Do I once again close the door to my studio and turn my back on the needs of my own soul? Do I once again prove how reliable, dutiful, compassionate, caring, self sacrificing, available, loving, responsible I am, at the terrible price of my own creative self? Knowing that I have the small, and getting smaller consolation of being able to say. Well at least no one is going to be able to call me selfish!"

THE UGLY GIRL: Willing to buck the tide, to be her own unique self, to not always conform, to step away from the need for approval, to be willing to risk censure, to step outside of the box of what is acceptable as a woman in this culture, willing to be weird, different, unique, outrageous, bold.

The most common lament or desire that I hear from my women painting students is "But I just want my painting to be beautiful."

For most women, beauty is a need, a deep irrational hunger, and an unconscious compulsion. Our identification with the need to be beautiful is so great and so ingrained that we rarely, if ever, question it. Beauty is the key to the magic kingdom of well- being, happiness and success. It is the source of our value, the guarantee of love, our only legitimate access to power, and on a very deep level has meant survival itself. Because so much is at stake, the pressure a woman feels to be beautiful and to create something beautiful is enormous.

Our whole relationship to beauty shows up painfully and clearly in the painting process. While she is painting, there is always some beauty standard — whether she is aware of it or not — that a woman is trying to live up to. Maybe the ideal is of a painting that is neat and flawless where no mistakes or messiness, no drips or uneven lines are allowed. Or the idealized vision may be one of a painting that is balanced and symmetrical, a paragon of elegance, grace, and impeccable good taste. In this version of perfection, all the colors must match, and can only be in the range of muted pastels with the overall effect being soothing and pleasant, like a well put together design in a home and garden magazine.

Whatever the ideal, the energy put into achieving it is relentless. When I watch a woman paint I am always amazed by the passion she has for endlessly fussing over and fixing her paintings. Spontaneity is out of the question. She just takes it for granted that her painting must be well thought out, planned, and organized, and under as much of her control as is humanly possible. She is used to not trusting in her own innate beauty, and expects that the quest for beauty will entail nonstop work. She never questions the ceaseless dieting and exercising, the hours spent shopping for just the right outfit and the worrying over her skin, her hair, her nails. She always has and always will fall short of the beauty mark and just assumes that beauty is something she will continually struggle for and rarely, if ever, achieve.

The really sad thing is that she sees nothing wrong with this fretful and anxious approach to her self and to her artwork. This ceaseless and ultimately hopeless striving for the unattainable ideal is just the norm. It's really the only thing she has ever known.

These narrow constraints of beauty that a woman finds herself tangled in are always some variation on the Good Girl creed. These socially accepted standards are based on a definition of beauty that is related to being nice and non threatening, to not standing out too much and conforming to an established norm that is pleasant but not powerful. Beauty is related to compliance and convention, to following the rules and to fitting in. The Good Girl beauty ideal means that it's not OK to just be herself, warts and all. She needs to clean herself up and make herself acceptable.

When a woman is painting, the Ugly Girl often sneaks in as a mistake or imperfection, a smear or a smudge, something messy or uncontrolled. When the woman tries to clean up the mess, she finds with increasing horror that the muddle only continues to grow. She is constantly having technical calamities. The paint drips or runs, she can't control her brush, chaos reigns, and it seems like there is nothing she can do to make it stop.

She is desperate to get back to pretty. In risking spontaneity, she has found, to her horror, that she has created something that appears harsh or loud or imperfect. Or, even worse, something grotesque or malformed. She frantically tries painting more safe images, more flowers, rainbows, peaceful landscapes. But the flowers develop sharp edges and dark colors and grow completely out of control, the rainbow colors become wildly fluorescent, and the landscapes becomes populated with darkly mysterious shapes and figures.

At this point she has stepped out of the confines of charming and attractive, and into an unfamiliar landscape of the wild, the untamed the unkempt and disheveled. This is often the beginning of a relationship to the inner Wise Old Woman archetype, also known as the Witch. This is the face of the deep feminine that doesn't care about appearances. After all, the Witch walks around with missing teeth and warts, and obviously doesn't care what other people think. This is an awakening of the aspect of a woman's soul who is no longer a slave to approval and who has begun to walk down the long road away from woman as product and commodity.

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