My Janet Jackson Moment: Cover that up!
Back at School of Visual arts we had these fantastic life drawing studios that lasted all day. One of the assignments was a 16 hour large pencil study and I chose to render a study of the pastel Woman Having Her Hair Combed by Edgar Degas. My eyesight was so much better in those days, and it was meticulous work but I loved every second of it.
Decades later as a housewife, I had the piece framed and hung it in the living room to remind me that deep inside, beneath all that religion, repression, childbirth and domestic duties, I am an artist. During a certain point in its life, this piece sustained breakage and water damage. At the time I felt as if someone had sucker punched me in the stomach. Because hope springs eternal, I salvaged a small portion of the original drawing, the bather’s head, breast and arms and carefully tucked it away, vowing that someday I would use it as a seed for a new work of art.
A call was put out for self portraits and I pulled this lady out from the dark closet, got out paper clay, pastels, colored pencils and wax crayons and spent some time with her. The process was incredibly restorative. Adding color and texture to the previously black, white and gray drawing, I felt myself revived. Art is such a wonderful metaphor. So accepting, unconditional, resilient and alive.
I gave my bather the breath of life in paper clay, flowing waters to nurture her, green and growing things and a squidgy sort of red thingy in the corner, to be worked through later. Hey, it’s my drawing, I can do whatever I want with it. Or so I thought.
I submitted my piece with a sense of catharsis and satisfaction, and then got an unexpected response.
You can’t show that nipple here. You’ve got to cover that thing up.
At first I was hurt, outraged and mildly embarrassed. Really? The suggestion was to clothe my bather, after all I had already treated the drawing to other applications. But wait a second, she’s not meant to be a fashion model, that is not at all what I was getting at. And frankly, I hadn’t even given the nipple much thought. It was a copy of a classical nude, for heaven’s sake. What’s wrong with a nipple, or a breast? I myself nursed three babies and I am rather fond of my own. Proud, even. They have served me well. Then the thought crossed my mind: If it was a male torso, would the conversation had even come up? Geez, Louise, as mom would say.
I went to my zen place. Be a lover, not a hater. I went back to my drawing with the problem in hand and found my solution in a kind of black censor rectangle affixed with a silver metallic string. I did not want to permanently alter the bather, so it’s tied over her nipple like a kind of boobie g string or pasty. (is that what they call it?)
So then I went to a deeper place. I realized that what my poor naked bather went through is the female experience in society at large. Other peoples’ shame gets dumped onto our bodies, which are perfectly miraculous, life giving and intrinsically pleasurable. So there. I covered it up. It’s where we are at right now. And I can always go back and work on this piece in a year or two or ten. Who knows what the bather’s next incarnation will look like?
Image: After the Bath 1981-2011 graphite, mixed media, Renee Folzenlogen. The artist’s drawing of “Woman Having Her Hair Combed” by Degas has been damaged over time. Its remnants are a base for the application of various art media that serve as agents of healing acting upon both drawing and artist.