Artists often have specific subjects, symbols or motifs that recur in their work, sometimes for only certain periods in their career, sometimes throughout its entire span. Monet made countless paintings of the flowers in his Giverny garden. Georgia O’Keefe painted the shapes of skulls and flowers over and over. Sculptor Deborah Butterfield has been creating life-sized horse sculptures from found objects for several decades. I, still in the early stages of my art career, am recognizing my own artistic obsession: the female form and face. My sketchbooks, notebooks and drawings from early on through the present feature a world populated by anonymous, mysterious female faces. For a long time, I thought I was drawing by default—drawing what was familiar because I wasn’t interested in rendering buildings or still lifes. But now I’m realizing that perhaps I should pay more attention to what keeps rising to the surface and onto my canvas.
Born and raised in the U.S., I grew up in a culture self-titled as a leader in women’s rights. An American woman can do, and be, anything she wants, it says. American women enjoy the most freedoms in the world. We are equal to men and have the same choices and opportunities available to us. The Women’s Movement of the 1960’s peaked almost a decade before I was born. While I was learning to walk and talk, American culture was just settling into a newly transformed identity. And although I wasn’t around to witness firsthand the society from which the movement erupted, I live in the culture of its wake.
My formative years were swept along in movements of the time: the environment, technology, globalization; the women’s movement seemed more like history. We read about it in our text books. We learned about it as if had been checked of the list, its achievements and influence firmly rooted within the larger culture.
But, as I lived the ups and downs of my twenties— work, travel, studying, relationships — I began questioning the role of women in America. I saw with an ever-widening lens the social dynamics of which my female friends and I were a part. I learned the stories of the women of the previous generation and, as my artwork evolved, the female faces kept visiting, coming to the surface. The faces stared back from my pages: impassive, mysterious, questioning.
I can’t deny that women haven’t come far in the last 30 years. We earn (well almost) the same wage as men. We can have it all: career and family, and many juggle both. We can wear what we want, do as we please, pursue whatever is calling us. Sure, there are the lingering vestiges of sexism but those are meeting increased resistance as mainstream culture catches up. Social progress should be moving right along: the individual woman seems to be doing okay.
Here’s the rub: the individual woman IS doing fine. American society has granted rights, choice and opportunity to the individual woman; after all, individuality is Western culture’s great hallmark. But, the collective culture has not made the leap to embrace the larger feminine principles, the greater feminine experience and worldview.
In many cultural mythologies and even religions, the masculine and the feminine are regarded as complementary. Together, they create a whole, each representing certain traits or characteristics. For example, many Native American belief systems see the masculine realm as encompassing action, warrior, energy, courage, and social ordering; whereas the feminine realm comprises nurturing, community, intuition, and creativity. That’s not to say that men can’t be nurturing or women don’t act on aggression, but in terms of a healthy duality, there is a definite state of balance with these two energies.
When I pan out and look at this country, as a collective being, I see a being that is suffering. Modern America, the richest country in the world, is a land of increasing numbers of poor people. It’s a place where education is becoming more expensive and harder to acquire; where more and more people, especially children, don’t have basic health insurance; where corporations are collecting enormous profits while cutting jobs.
The duality is unbalanced and the community is suffering. Key characteristics of the feminine realm—community, nurturing, family—are nearly absent. The cause of the imbalance has too long a history and momentum for the Women’s Movement to have effectively transformed in a couple decades. The cause lies deeper. A male-oriented cultural system started gaining ground in early invasions of the European continent, wiping out matriarchal societies. Warrior gods replaced agricultural goddesses. Fast forward thousands of years to colonial England, where a culture of exploration and conquest emigrated to America. It landed, and brought with it the biblical model. One of the world’s only mythologies casting the female as sinner (and, incidentally, nature as corrupt), the Bible’s influence on an evolving culture prevented the wisdom and vision of the feminine from making much of a larger cultural impact.
With these cultural roots, it’s no surprise that our contemporary culture champions an aggressive military and the taming of wilderness. Ours is a culture that celebrates demonstrative power, the kind displayed by action heroes and soldiers. Derivative of this is a consumer culture that is taking over new markets and westernizing the globe’s myriad and diverse cultures. Left behind and vulnerable in the world’s richest country are children, the poor, the margins of society, social programs, natural resources and wildlife.
Yet in my everyday life, I hear and read about women doing amazing, heroic, courageous things—powerful things. These are women who are rebuilding communities, mothers who are standing up to gangs to safeguard their children’s futures, women who are founding companies that inspire hope and self-sufficiency there was none before. And this kind of power doesn’t fit in with the dominant cultural model. It is a power that invests in others, in community, in a collective future. Yet these stories and their impact haven’t been recognized and integrated into the larger culture.
While the individual woman in America enjoys equal rights and autonomy, there is still a sizable hole where there should be a collective feminine perspective. Our culture needs the feminine experience to balance the masculine, and an alternate model of power.
This unrecognized power that I see in women is one of potentiality. It is latent, potent, and pregnant; ready for the right place and time. It is called upon in childbirth, in protecting a community. In nature, this power is seen in the changing of the seasons and in the tides. It is immense. But most often, it is hidden, its awesomeness merely hinted at. Both woman and nature have the greatest power there is: to birth and nourish life.
This duality of dormancy and immense potential is intriguing to me. By exploring and painting it, I am rolling it around in my hand, to know it from all angles. I want to know what kind of change this power can effect, what American culture might look like if it were to embrace it on a larger scale. What if our culture celebrated feminine power together with masculine power, each having its own role and place?
The figures I paint, the ones that come back to me again and again, are anonymous and timeless. They are representations of the feminine principle, alluding to the goddesses and feminine archetypes of the world’s myths, as well as to the flesh and blood women of the world. They speak of power, of female intuition, of waiting and knowing.
In this series, I am exploring the feminine mind and voice, and so my paintings focus on the head and face. I am especially interested in expressions, and the deeper feelings, thoughts and ideas they convey. With each painting, I try to cast all this feminine power, the feminine experience, into a subtle but multi-faceted expression. I’m striving to capture the duality of power and subtlety. I work from live models, sketches, photographs, and many times my own reflection.
The landscape backgrounds of the paintings come from awe-inspiring or especially sublime natural settings I have come across or sought out. They are landscapes that grab hold and won’t let go—both in person, and in my sketchbook as repeated images. The bare branches in “The Pause between Seasons” were inspired by canal-side trees in Amsterdam that were releasing the last of their autumn leaves into the cold night. Standing beneath them, and on the cusp of autumn’s descent into winter, I was reminded of nature’s cycles, and how we are inextricably a part of them. An expansive vista view of an Australian mountain range was the basis for “Deep Breath and High Clouds” because in that place I remembered to fully, deeply breathe.
It is in nature that I’m reminded of the interconnectedness of the world, of stewardship, of the fact that humans haven’t in fact tamed wilderness. We have separated ourselves from nature and the feminine realm, but it’s time to mend the culture; And I’m hopeful that maybe we can, as I discover more inspiring stories of women’s work, of community-building over the internet, and of the ever vocal voice of young women. The time is ripe for a larger authentic female voice and power in American culture. Maybe that’s what the faces on my pages have been telling me all this time.
A native Californian, Jennifer Downey is an artist and illustrator living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her paintings have been exhibited in California and Ireland and can be seen at www.jidowney.com. Her illustrations, featured at www.jenniferdowney.com, have been published in books, magazines, brochures, and as greeting cards, logos and other publications. She welcomes commission work and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.