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Women, Painting and Power : Page 3

Women, Painting and Power

continued from page 2

THE FAT GIRL: Willing to be big, be visible, to come out of hiding, to be a woman and not a little girl, to take up space, to be hungry, to say what she wants, to know what she wants, to be full of herself, to be too big for her britches, to be a full adult, unafraid to say yes! A fat girl isn't afraid to take up space and to take her place in the world.

In my studio I offer high quality paper that is of ample size, but students can tape the sheets together to make even larger paintings. It's a heady time when a woman can let herself spread out and take up some real space, when she can make a HUGE painting, one that can sometimes cover an entire wall.

Creating a giant painting is a dizzying and terrifying prospect, and a woman often needs lots of encouragement and permission to take this step. In fact I usually need to nudge her a little. She will start with saying something about MAYBE needing to go a little bigger with her work. She feels something pushing on her, wanting to come through, and so she will ask if it's OK to use two pieces of paper instead of one. I generously offer to get the paper for her but come back with four pieces of paper, instead of the asked for two. No matter how "nice" she is, at this point she is more than willing to make a fuss, to strenuously object about how it's too much, she could never fill up that much paper, she doesn't have enough to express, she couldn't possibly take up that much room in the studio.

But as I continue to calmly pin the four pieces to the easel, nodding supportively, yet ignoring her increasingly frantic protestations, I see the gleam in her eye. She wants this opportunity to take up space, to proclaim herself in living color, to be unmistakably seen, but is trained to not give voice to this desire. I watch her as she struggles with the forbidden excitement of the challenge, the possibility, the sheer daring of it. The door to a secret longing is creaking open on long unused and rusted hinges, opening to her hunger to be big, to be bold, to be outrageous, to be visible as completely and utterly herself.

THE BITCHY GIRL: Willing to be fierce and powerful; unafraid of her own anger, unafraid to speak up, to take a stand, to have limits and boundaries, unafraid to say NO! Unafraid to combat abuse, refuses to be treated badly, willing to break connections and walk away from toxic relationships if it means protecting your own wild and precious self.

Another major crossroads occurs in the painting process when a woman realizes how angry and enraged she feels and she lets herself express it on paper for everyone to see. However, the feeling of anger is so taboo and so threatening that it will usually sneak in the back door as just a little color. Some red or black appears on the page and then slowly or by "accident" grows larger than the woman had intended.

As this continues, the artist begins to feel a little uncomfortable. She will stand back from her now unruly painting with a puzzled frown and turn to me , saying something like "That looks awfully angry," followed quickly by, "You know, I'm not really angry. I don't get angry. A little frustrated maybe, but never angry." This is a very precarious moment in the process. I have had women actually walk out of the room to get away from this intimation of anger, put on their coat and announce that they really must leave now. I am generally able to coax her back to the painting for the rest of the class, but once she leaves I will often never see her again. The reality of her own angry feelings is just too scary, the prohibitions too strong, and all I can do at this point is hope for her that someday she will be able to feel safe enough to take that deep plunge into her own passionate and furious heart.

For the woman who is ready to take that terrifying yet thrilling dive, admitting that she is indeed angry can allow an amazing intensity of feeling to come flooding out. All the years of saying yes, yes, yes when she wanted to say no, no, NO to unreasonable demands, to abuse, to putting her own needs on a perpetual back burner, come out on the paper in a frenzy of paint, of color, and

For one woman it comes out as a bright red background, with black words painted simply and starkly to read "I AM SO PISSED OFF!" For another, it is a large image of a woman with wildly flying red hair, bellowing open mouthed and brazen "What the $#%@ about me!!!"

A 60-year-old woman, who has been married to a Methodist preacher for 40 years, surprises herself by painting a warrior goddess in hot pants, with a Colt 45 in one hand and a cake spatula (to be used as a whacking weapon when necessary) in the other.

The paintings sometimes depict images that are recognizable out of myth, such as a snake haired Medusa, and sometimes are expressed as a whirl of color and chaos, populated by weird, otherworldly creatures sporting very large, VERY sharp teeth. But what they all have in common is that they jump off the page with the ferocity of emotion portrayed. There is no mistaking the intent behind these paintings which is some version of "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

I RECENTLY READ an article in a marketing journal that was warning advertisers away from using the words power or powerful in ads directed towards women. The writer of this article was not questioning the issue of women's fear around power, just stating an obvious (to him) fact that women won't buy things that are associated with the language of power.

We have a long history as women around being disempowered and victimized, and we have internalized this fear of power, of our own power, for way too long. We are living in times of great change and uncertainty and it is critical that we reclaim our birthright of strength, authority and creative vision to take advantage of the opportunity that we have to recreate the world as a place where our most treasured values can survive.

There are many ways to face and to heal this power wound, and approaching it through our creativity is just one of them. But it's a good place to start. As my women students and I have learned over many years, it's quite possible to experience courage, transformation and self love by wielding the business end of a paintbrush. And breaking our long allegiance to the Good Girl and allowing the Bad Girl an honored place in our lives is not only healing, but makes life a lot more interesting and fun! •

Copyright © Chris Zydel 2007

Chris ZydelUsing counseling and the expressive arts, Chris Zydel, MA, has worked with hundreds of people to help them joyfully grow and expand into their full creative potential. More »