Fat and sassy

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.

Dark Waters

Some weeks ago, on a still bright evening, I was out at the waterfront with a friend, and a couple of women with youngish kids full of beans were just behind us as we leaned out to get a closer look at the water. There is no tall guardrail or anything at the lip of the boardwalk – quite easy to fall in, really, if you aren’t paying attention – so when one of the kids came up closer beside us for a good lean over the water, his mom snapped at him to step back, saying to us, “dark waters – those are dark waters”.

So true! I remember the light blue of the water at Cayo Coco, Cuba – you know that Caribbean thing with the impossible white of the beaches and then the transparent turquoise of the water, and it’s so clear you can see pretty multi-coloured fish from a distance, gorgeous and brilliant, swimming around…

No, no – up here it’s the great lakes, the water is deep and very dark, and we’re on the edge of a harbour where recently a fisherman pulled up a muskie he didn’t expect to find.

Just walking along the waterfront, you can see the flicker of a shiny belly sometimes. Right now most of the geese have left, but there’s still a few mallard ducks and a number of cormorants who dive and sometimes will suddenly appear on the surface after a long deep search, but there are other obviously scaled bellies that will flicker up above the surface for a moment… mysterious large prehistoric looking fish.

I’ve been thinking a lot about elements lately, as I recently signed up for a seminar about “energy medicine”. It’s something I’ve checked out a bit in the past and loved, but then in the chaos and sweep of other life things got distracted from. But the last few years I’ve had this little health thingy developing that has been demanding some attention, and I have to admit, a visit to the doctor sometimes seems to cause more problems than it solves, so checking out what else is out there, available, and potentially helpful strikes me as worthwhile.

Just this week someone posted this quite spectacular paragraph from Virginia Woolf about the, ahem, “journey” into dark waters health issues can take us on –

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm chair and confused his ‘Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this and infinitely more, as we are so frequently force to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

~ Virgina Woolf

So, since I seem to have found myself with a need to learn more – or maybe it’s a need to learn something different – about how to take care of my health, I’d signed up for this workshop. It’s stuff that borrows a lot from Chinese Medicine – meridians and such – but has been kind of synthesized and reshaped by some California white women types who have turned it into a bit of their own thing.

And gosh, Saturday morning of the webinar, just doing some of their very simple exercises was feeling so awesome, and they are little things that are so easily integrated into anything else you might be into – yoga or dance or whatever – and I was feeling better minute by minute, and was so excited to be reminded of how much I enjoy this practice, when the webinar went to lunch break, and some music was put on for the break period –

Did you hit play there? Did you check out the level of insipid swill?

If so, I’m taking a gander you’ll understand how every cynical bone in my body was triggered into overdrive, that all the goodwill and trust I’d been feeling towards this teaching retreated, the faint hint of bile could be felt in the back of my throat in reaction to the sacharine insipidity, the kind of tune you’d expect to hear on Romper Room or Mr Rogers.

Okay, okay, maybe I’m being harsh, but you know, I came up on tunes like this –

And even now the kind of thing I listen to is better reflected by a local track I can’t get enough of – that speaks to me partly cause it feels like it represents the kids in the city where I live (so much talent, so much class), and then also cause the video is shot just around the corner from our building, just down Cherry St, with a bunch of epic shots in the parking lot where the grain towers are, and you can see the condos across from us in the background…

Both White Riot and 24 are such full-bodied tracks – different schools of music, different cultural references, but they are genuine and rockin’ and don’t have an insipid bone in their bodies.

Anyways, I’d had such a visceral reaction to the musical soundtrack from this workshop that I played it for a friend when she was over. “Oh! The worst of America!” she gasped. So, okay, maybe not quite America, all things considered, but perhaps some of the worst of California.

Werner Herzog – a highly original artist / human in both his films and in his person – has got to be the best at taking the piss out of all things California (where he lives!) –

Of course, California is also where some of humanity’s most astonishing stupidities started, like the hippie movement, New Age babble, stretch limos, pyramid energy, plastic surgery, yoga classes for children, vitamins and marijuana smoking… There are a lot of well-educated people doing very silly things in Los Angeles, like a man in my neighbourhood who one day casually mentioned his cat was in some sort of a frenzy, so he called the cat psychic. He put the receiver to his pet’s ear and for $200 the animal’s problems were solved. 

~ Werner Herzog

Okay, personally I adore both yoga and marijuana (neither of which were invented in California) and find hippies and New Age babble to be pretty full of potential, but given the degree of the woo people can take things to, yes, I feel the same derisory snorts at the story of the pet’s psychic.

But here’s the thing – I do feel a distinct positive gain from doing the “energy medicine” stuff these California ladies are teaching.

So is it just – “take what you like and leave the rest”?

Art installation by Elwood Jimmy

Cause I’m not sure if maybe I feel another question poking out of the corners of my consciousness as well, and I think that is :

How much change, or which change, is necessary to heal what is out of balance?

How deep and how far reaching does the change need to be?

Art installation by Elwood Jimmy