Yesterday I was on a bus heading to the clinic to do some routine blood tests. The bus was the second vehicle after a streetcar had to be abandoned cause of some power outages on the tracks.
A man got onto the bus who proceeded to exhibit symptoms of being in a severe psychotic episode. He hovered between the back door of the bus and the alcove across from it making sounds kinda like what you’d imagine a human turning into a werewolf might make. His pants were dirty and hung low, suggesting weeks or months of living rough. Throughout the bus, people turned to stare, presumably asking themselves the questions: how does one get someone like that some help? And, might it be a good idea for me to get off this bus sooner rather than later?
It’s a weird time in this city and others – coming out of the pandemic, emerging into this inflationary situation, there is so much pressure on people, the mental health issues are blooming up abruptly like bursts of lava with nowhere to go.
Safe in my little box in the air, I find myself drawing and painting a lot of fat ladies.
It started with the thought of just taking a little break from the animal drawings and paintings – in part, the likely untrue thought that perhaps the human body is less complex than some of the animal bodies I’ve been drawing and painting (seemingly fewer joints, fewer planes given the upright tendency of humans).
Plus, over the last few years I’ve put on a considerable amount of weight – something I don’t find very interesting to talk about, but it brings plenty with it in terms of fallout. Some of it is pandemic weight, but it started a while before then, so it’s been accumulating for some time. I’m really not very interested in the dietary-industrial complex that holds women especially hostage and preoccupied.
At the same time, it is a bit of a strange new thing for me, being fat. So I figured, well ya know, I might as well DRAW something about being a larger, rounder female..
So, my first impulse was just to grab some charcoal and go wayyyyy back to yer classic fertility doll image, the Venus of Willendorf –
Like anything that old, they don’t really know what these old fat “Venus” figurines were about. They hypothesize. One list of speculations had ideas ranging from fertility symbols to protective talismans, to self-portraiture. The self-portraiture theory is my favourite, the image of these fat middle aged women – women who had maybe survived a pandemic or a famine – or who knows what kind of scary shit they had lived through – making little totems of themselves…
Anyways, in doing the drawings and paintings I found myself on a journey of questions regarding the challenging project of embracing the larger version of the female shape. Like hashtag body positivity kinda thing, but ya know, trying to dig a bit deeper about what this means, this more rotund form.
Roxane Gay and Jenny Saville are a couple of really interesting figures on this front. Roxane Gay in her book Hunger, a powerful treatise not just on fatness, but also very much on PTSD – draws you into the reasons behind her enormous weight, her survival strategy gone awry. Food, like any other substance, can be a refuge for folks with PTSD. And yet, while understand the traumatic origins of her relationship to food, she struggles with being fat.
I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women’s bodies, that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.
What I know and what I feel are two very different things.-Roxane Gay
Saville – a spectacular contemporary painter – launched her career with enormous low angle paintings of females. Although the paintings were received largely with cries of Grotesque!, she says her impulse came from feeling a sense of the power of these bodies.
I remember years ago in my 20’s, I was fascinated by a book of photographs by Graciele Iturbide, Juchitan de las mujeres. Juchitan is a town in the south east region of Oaxaca, home to the Zapotec people, a place where those amazing decorative shirts come from that Frida Kahlo made famous.
The photography book is full of images like these –
I seem to recall a story about a vernissage, a gallery opening for Graciela Iturbide of these images, this body of work. And the story went that some of the women in some of the photos attended the wine & cheese type affair in a fancy gallery in Mexico City, full of sleek and skinny influential big city women, publishers and marketing success stories. And these women from Juchitan, showing up at this rather high society affair as their big and relaxed selves, were totally unimpressed and distinctly unintimidated by these skinny big city women.
They belong to themselves as a matter of course.
En las juchitecas no hay ninguna inhibición ni cosa que no pedan decir, nada que no pedan hacer. No sé cómo son. La juchiteca no tiene ninguna vergüenza; en zapoteco no hay malas palabras.Andres Henestrosa
Approx: “The Juchitec women have no inhibition, there is nothing they cannot say, and nothing they cannot do. I don’t know how they are. The Juchitec woman has no shame; in Zapotec there are no bad words”.
I’d been so fascinated by the tales and images of this town that I spent an afternoon there – a bus ride in between other towns – and I walked through the center of town, through the market where women who looked just like the pictures sat beside their stalls selling vegetables, fat and sassy, laughing and drinking beer in the afternoon sun without a whiff of apology for themselves.
Late in the afternoon when I returned to the bus station, a skinny young man who worked there flirted with me a little as I waited for my bus, ending his approach with a note of desperation, hinting that the women in his town were a bit more than he was prepared to take on.
Anyways, I’ve been working a lot from this one figurine that was found in Turkey, in Çatalhöyük. They think she is maybe 8000 years old.
And I moved to working very loosely with watercolour, allowing the paint itself to lead the distortions between one version and the next. Something about being loose and watery felt right with the subject matter.
And also, looking for models, for subject matter beyond the ancient figurines, I moved onto a few drawings of Lizzo – the most famous body positivity figure at the moment – but eventually stumbled into a happy zone with an Instagram model, Kayla Logan, who both celebrates her plus size body and also talks about her struggles with an eating disorder, embodying the ambivalence of the situation she lives in.
So much rich terrain.
Having so much fun with the Fat Ladies.