11 June 2013

Being painted by Ruth Angel Edwards

Ruth Angel Edwards 2013
Ruth Angel Edwards has produced an extraordinary painting that features an image of me, my girlfriend and some friends and acquaintances from London's queer community. The painting shows a group of people (feminists, women, queers) constructing a space out of wood amidst a forest against some mountains.

I came to be in the painting in a very informal way. Last summer, my friend Ele Cockerill (the one with the bucket) sent me a text to say that Ruth was looking for subjects on which to base a painting. I'd seen Ruth playing in a band called Covergirl and another called Yola Fatoush, and she is part of a scene of young artists, queers and musicians that has supported my own band. I didn't know she was a painter. We arranged to meet up with some other people I know a bit, and she explained what she was looking for. This would be a large-scale painting that referenced women's communities, back-to-the-land lesbian separatism, the physicality of building something yourself. She took some photographs of a group of us looking as though we were working and making something. That was that.

Michigan Dykes by Lynn Levy, 1982
Andrews-Hunt, C. (1983) Images of Our Flesh, Seattle: The Fat Avengers.
When I thought about the painting, I imagined a big landscape with small figures within it, perhaps looking like busy elves beavering away on a structure. I imagined myself as a stick figure far in the background and very inconsequential. I was amazed to see how the painting actually turned out. Far from being a marginal figure, my representation is central to the work. I feel simultaneously thrilled and shy about this, it's both unsettling and exciting to see myself in this way. It brings to mind the archival research I did whilst working towards my doctorate and my interest in the emergence of fat activism through lesbian feminist communities of the 1970s and 80s. I came across many photographic images of community where fat dykes were central and here I am, also central to this picture.

detail by Ruth Angel Edwards
Ruth has painted me as I looked on the day, in my Piggly Wiggly t-shirt and Birkenstocks, with my hair scraped back. You can see one of my tattoos, the grey along my hairline, my rosacea. You can also see a strong gaze, confidence, a powerful attitude. It's really flattering! As my friend Rachel Berger says: "She really captured you". It feels fantastic to see myself in this painting, as someone who is also constituted by a community of action and imagination, and that elements of my real community are here with me in the image, not least my fat girlfriend too. I love that this is a painting of (presumably feminist) collective action. It's not the structure that is central to the image, it's the people. I'm not a painter, but a piece of this scale and scope is, to me, about work and dedication, as is the image itself. It pleases me no end to see 'work' so much a part of the piece; things don't just happen, there is always work behind it all, often women's work, no matter how hidden.

This painting references a feminist past, and a present compellingly. I am probably the oldest one in the picture, maybe the only one to have had first hand experience of second wave feminist land-based organising in the 1980s. Many of my politics and values were established in that period, but I am also critical of it; it was often a terrible time in feminism for queers like me, for trans people, for people of colour. The painting represents a lesbian feminist utopia in some ways, but I feel that my critical presence undermines that somewhat. My boyfriend is out of the frame, for example, but was there when the reference photographs were taken, and is also part of this social group. I hope the inclusion of me enables younger feminists to resist adopting the more problematic aspects of vintage fundamentalist feminism unchecked, and to develop more progressive politics.

Pinky by Sadie Lee
Ruth's painting has made me think about other queer representations of fat in modern painting (which, sadly, excludes Allyson Mitchell, queer fat artist par excellence). By queer I mean that either painter or sitter, or both, are queer, or where there is a queer sensibility infusing the work. Lucien Freud's celebrated paintings of Leigh Bowery and Big Sue spring to mind, but so too does Sadie Lee's paintings Pinky and Amy's Room. What's interesting to me is that the people painting them with love and attention are not fat. The same goes for Ruth. When you're fat it's often hard to imagine your physical presence being anything but abhorrent to someone else, especially thin people, and lord knows we encounter social messages like this every day. But these artists value fat people and our bodies, not as cute or pretty, or as the potential to be normal and nice, or in a traditionally socially sanctioned way, and far beyond a rhetoric of healthy/unhealthy, but as we are and as they see us. It is fabulous.


masculine lady said...

Have I ever shared this with you?

It's also huge, by the way. Larger than life size, and intimidating in the best way. Molly did/does a great job showing bodies in a respectful and real way. I was honored.

Allison said...

The painting is fucking amazing!

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Yes it is!

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Wow masculine lady! That's fantastic! So good.

Veronica said...

I can't quite place my finger on why, but I really, really like looking at you in this painting. You seem... strong. You seem... as steady and as powerful as one of the mountains in the background. You also look a little bossy. It probably has something to do with the way she's placed you, but you seem like the protector of the group. And (and this is interesting to me, because I'm realizing that, apart from in the capacity of mothers, I've never really thought of women as protectors) I feel perfectly confident in your ability to suceed in protecting the group.

Anonymous said...

Oh wow, that's just amazing.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks all.

Psst, Veronica, I can't bang a nail or saw wood to save my life, heheh.

Veronica said...

Hehe, that's probably where the bossy vibe comes from then - those who can't do boss other people around. ;)