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In the Name of Joan: An Alter Ego Fights Back

by Cynthia Bellerose

In 2002, at the age of 39, I began a year long process of preparing for my grand entrance into midlife, my forties. I called my year long preparation the year of Wrap-Up. It was time to face my sorrows of the past and address my pain and fears; to wrap up all my scattered & shattered emotions as I sought order and a new focus for my life.

I was determined to turn 40 with a new attitude and strength but I had to take charge and begin to make sense of the bad situations and toxic relationships of the past, like the high school sweetheart who got my best friend knocked up. And yes, it was while I was still going steady with him. Then there was the college relationship with a poor, drug using, ex-Jehovah Witness-gone-bad who physically harmed me and stalked me for a year after the split up. The home invasion when my life was threatened by an armed robber while my children witnessed the ugly scene. These were a few of the disturbing memories that had to be wrapped up but the toughest challenge to face was emotionally healing from the betrayal and abuse in my failed marriage.

I will always remember 2002. It was the year I found my inner-strength while rediscovering the painter within. Between juggling my commercial art jobs and teaching, while my children were at school, I began my year of wrap up by writing in my journal. I spilled and spewed anything and everything without being told to shut up or fearing something being smashed and broken against a wall out of a fit of rage. Expressing myself on paper empowered me. I was slowly finding my voice again, the voice that had been stifled for too many years by overpowering men filled with anger and deceit.

Before long, my writings turned into editorial doodles and my doodles evolved into sketches and soon after, painting began.

It was 2:00 in the morning, kids were sound asleep and after stirring up emotions by writing and doodling out all the thoughts swirling in my head at the time, I couldn*#039t fall asleep due to my over stimulated mind and the dreaded fear of having another nightmare. It was time to pull out the paint and brushes and get whatever it was out of me. Not having planned to begin painting again after 13 years of putting off stretching that canvas, I didn’t have a proper surface to paint on until I found a perfectly square piece of corrugated board tucked behind my flat files.

With open jars of primary and secondary colors of acrylic left over from one of my commercial jobs, and a less than perfect surface to use, I simply started to slap paint onto my cardboard. Not knowing what I was going to paint, I just enjoyed the process, the feeling of paint filled brushes sliding across the surface. It felt good; I didn’t want it to stop. I stayed up all night applying random strokes of pigment, creating a bright image that had transformed into two figures, two figures that eerily resembled a married couple I once knew…myself and my ex-husband.

Gazing at my paint covered cardboard; a chill went down my spine as tears trickled from my eyes. My crudely painted art therapy piece was a success; it brought something out of me that forced a closer examination of my state of mind. The image of a very sad woman being verbally scolded by an overpowering man made me realize that I was still haunted by past events. My soul created this piece and my soul was telling me that I was still frightened and very sad.

In an attempt to shelter my children from the ugly truths about their father and mother, I would only allow myself sneak peaks of the painting when public eyes were not around. Finally, after several weeks of viewing and digesting my visual thoughts, I realized that I was still being controlled. I wasn’t controlled directly by another human being but by my very own emotions. This realization was a break through. It was a major turning point for me as I finally left the pity party I was throwing for myself and became enraged with anger…anger that would become my new emotion in need of attention. I was angry at the two-timing high school sweetheart, the now imprisoned ex-Jehovah Witness, the robber in the middle of the night and the ex-husband. But most of all, I was angry with myself for falling victim to their dishonest, controlling ways.

Emotion by emotion, I worked through my issues like one would experience the stages of death. Perhaps my stages weren’t in the usual order but I had experienced them all; denial, anger, guilt, and sadness, resulting into acceptance.

Joan Emerges
As I finally accepted the fact that I had been abused, my alter ego “Joan” emerged. Joan became the subject of my work as it was easier to express my emotions through her than to tell my tales in first person. It was a safe yet powerful way to let it all out. As my subject developed I would often think…WWJD…What would Joan do?

Well, the first thing Joan did was find her strength. With imagining Joan as a suppressed housewife from the 1960’s, I pictured her marveling at the many uses baking soda provided. It was a common ingredient in all her baked goods, an excellent tooth whitener for her dazzling smile, and best of all, it was the product of choice for cleaning and deodorizing all those nasty little messes in the home. Joan saw her box of baking soda and thought, “this is powerful stuff!”

Using Joan’s point of view, I painted my first piece, “Arm & Finger Bitching Soda”, just days before my grand entrance into midlife…my 40th birthday. It was a marvelous feeling. My year of Wrap Up paid off. I was on the road to recovery with Joan by my side as I found my new focus; painting to fearlessly express myself, using wicked humor as a coping mechanism which in time has become an invitation welcoming open dialog with others who have fell victim to abuse.

Soon after my birthday celebration the paints were pulled out again as I began my second painting of Joan’s famous Bitching Soda but this time it had to reveal its secret ingredients. By shifting the box to a view, I created a larger A and F box, and with Joan in mind, the Nutritional Facts listed on the side panel became the Neurotic Facts…

Active Ingredient:
FU Attitude
Eliminates Dawgs, Ass Holes and Inhibitions.

Then of coarse, the “% Daily Value*”. Rather than listing Total Fat, Sodium, Total Carbohydrates, and Protein, Joan’s box of strength lists…

Total FU’s —————————– 100%
Sadistic ——————————- 100%
Total Crapbackatya ————– 100%
ProWoman —————————- 100%

* Percent Daily Values based on active passive aggressive behavior

After completing the box and the vintage tablecloth it sits upon, I just had to add one more thing to the surface…a knife, but not just any knife. I had to hand over the knife from my nightmares that had haunted me for so long. It had to be put to good use. In my mind, I felt that Joan could use the knife more than my night terrors could. It was important that I add the very same knife I desperately reached for 18 months prior as I attempted to defend myself from being strangled at 3ᚨ AM Mother’s Day morning. The same knife that I was unable to reach before the last act of domestic violence crushed my world into pieces. Adding my kitchen knife to the piece finalized the painting and surprisingly enough, finalized the reoccurring nightmares.

Although the painting was finished the entire piece was not complete. Gathering power tools, lights, electrical cord and glitter; I created a pink and purple sparkling light box, illuminating the tear tab opening of Joan’s 4 foot tall box of strength. After plugging it in and smiling at the glistening glitter, I titled the piece, “If ya gotta box, ya got the power”.

Now that Joan’s inner strength had been established, it was time to find that one moment that forced her to use her newly found box of Bitching Soda for the first time. I didn’t want to depict Joan as a battered woman looking for her box of power too late. Joan needed to be depicted standing up for herself before being physically harmed. Reflecting back on my own life I recalled the warning signs of abuse. Those red flags I chose not to acknowledge at the time, either out of fear or perhaps foolish hope. I remembered the belittling. And the worst type was the public humiliation.

A bitter sweet excitement rushed through me as I envisioned my next piece, a diptych titled: “Joan Finds Her Box”. Using paint, glitter, and a subtle application of double edged razor blades along with collaged pieces of images pulled from my previous painting, Joan’s first moment of retaliation emerged.

There was Joan, in the midst of intoxicated businessmen at the hubby’s office party, being introduced by Dick (the perfect name for Joan’s husband) as nothing more than a pretty little ornament. The businessman chuckles grew louder and louder as crude slurs were shared about her. Joan felt herself rapidly shrinking throughout the evening as the herd of suits continued with their beer drenched comments. As Joan’s esteem dropped, Dick’s pride grew larger with every jab poked at his pretty little dumb blonde.

A turn of events took place upon returning home. Joan found her box! Hovering over shrinking Dick, Joan expressed herself as everything inside freely poured. With glitter and razor blades spilling out of the collaged box of Bitching Soda, a visual statement of a woman standing up for herself as she recognizes her self-worth is conveyed.

Being quite pleased with my first figurative piece of “The Joan Series”, my head filled with more ideas while my own self-esteem became healthier. Every piece created gave me an increasing sense of empowerment. I felt in control…something I hadn’t felt prior to painting. The self-hate and anger I had carried slowly disappeared.

Joan Advertises Her Thoughts
Having a background in advertising I grew to love and hate the strategies used to promote commercialism throughout the years. The psychology behind a great ad campaign fascinates me as it influences consumers to believe they must have what everyone else has in order to fit into society. Advertising molds trends and social beliefs, and controls the weak, less educated consumer. I find the advertisements of the 1950’s & 60’s to be most fascinating as housewives were portrayed as happy-go-luck women cleaning their homes in high heels, pretty dresses and always wearing a smile on their face. Promoters advertised everything a woman desired; vacuum cleaners, laundry detergents, washers & dryers, big cars, even the Vibrusage which was often recommended by doctors to remedy women suffering from hysteria. Of coarse women were diagnosed with hysteria. Do you really think they were being represented accurately through the advertisements they read every day? There was societal pressure to be the perfect housewife and if you weren’t, you just needed to strive to be more like the models in the advertisements.

Influenced by vintage advertisements of the 1960’s, I developed the rest of “The Joan Series” depicting Joan as an ad model of the times. She shares her thoughts and fantasies through visuals and typography while always flashing her fake smile. The same fake smile I often wore to create illusions of happiness and to hide the abuse that lurked behind closed doors.

Joan’s advertisements began as paintings, later evolving into painted and collaged suitcases, forming a body of work titled “Joan Moves On”. Both forms of work tackle issues I have had to face, including betrayal, control issues, and emotional, verbal and physical abuse.

Joan Addresses Betrayal
The topic of betrayal is strongly addressed in “Joan Needs to Mend”. Displaying her sewing box equipped with her handmade, groin pierced voodoo doll of Dick, Joan proudly shows off her seamstress skills. With crude stitch work closing the crotch of real boxers collaged to the piece, Joan smiles with excitement as her box of Bitching Soda glows in the background. In “Confused Dick”, the message is more subtle when Dick finds a knife and a box of Joan’s Bitching Soda in his boxers.

Betrayal is also addressed on vintage suitcases. “Joan’s Old Baggage: Cheater”, literally spells out how Joan feels as she types a special message to Dick.

And in “Joan’s Old Baggage: STD”, betrayal resulting in the contraction of a sexually transmitted disease is expressed, using the term “The Jack” from the AC-DC song, “She’s Got The Jack”. After a quick fling with a whore, Dick brings home the “gift” that keeps on giving and poor Joan is left with a STD for the rest of life.

Joan Addresses Control & Abuse
Breaking free from Dick’s control, Joan portrays herself as a twisted version of Rosie the Riveter in the painting titled, “Joannie the Riveting”. Fashioning a yellow Latex glove, Joan sends a visual message with the classic caption, “WE CAN DO IT!”, above her head. Not only is she sending Dick a message, she is also sending a message to all women who need to break away from those who control them.

“Joan’s Killer Smile” shows Joan anticipating a clean break from her dreadful situation. Sick and tired of being controlled, she starts her day with a confident smirk rather than a fake smile as she realizes she has the strength within to seek freedom from the madness.

Then with celebrity puppets at her side, Joan turns things around by becoming the puppet master forcing Dick to his knees while being strangled by his own neck tie. In “Kukla, Joan & Ollie”, the puppets offer a helping hand as Joan takes control and dishes out a little of her own abusive revenge for viewing audiences to witness…one of Joan’s most grand fantasies.

Another celebrity puppet is included in a Joan fantasy, this time the puppet is a dummy representing Dick and all the nonsense he spoke when verbally abusing his wife. “Joan’s Old Baggage: Shut Up” creates the illusion that Dick was gagged with duct tape and by using the same bandanna fabric collaged around the dummy’s neck, a hint of it peeks out of the suitcase to suggest that Dick the Dummy is inside.

Finally, as a way to keep her sanity, Joan developed her own brand of coping solutions. Due to years of being controlled she searched for simple pleasures to distract her from reality. She calls these vices, “Joan’s Preservatives” using 2 dozen antique mason jars; I created an assortment of vices ranging from Evil Thoughts, Faux Serenity, Snooping, Self Pleasure to Binge Eating. To carry her preservatives, a large vintage suitcase is used to represent a traveling salesman’s case. “Joan’s Old Baggage: Preservatives” reveals Joan before using her preservatives, as a controlled woman loosing her head by the mystic evil powers of her controller. On the other side of the case, looking proud and confident, like a survivor should look, Joan is portrayed as part of a logo for “Joan’s Preservatives”.

Reaching Out To Help Others
I consider my Joan Series to be an on-going body of work reflecting not only my own journey through life but also the journeys of many women. Since revealing Joan to the public, I have had many candid conversations with friends, family and even complete strangers about abuse and suppression. Joan seems to encourage dialogue about a topic that is too often considered unmentionable. Domestic violence and emotional abuse are those dirty little secrets nobody wants to talk about, especially the victims. And the victimizers, well…they just don’t see it as abuse and tend to be in denial.

Although much of my work appears whimsical at first glance, the root of it has a wicked message. This is my way of drawing the viewer in to examine pieces more deeply and hopefully raise questions within themselves about there own life experiences. Abuse victims get it right away and others appreciate it because they know that friend of a friend of a friend who had been abused or betrayed by someone they trusted.

My hope is to continue creating my Joan pieces and encourage honest discussions about domestic abuse, the recovery process and the secret desires women share in our society. I believe, with public awareness, tough issues will someday become an easier thing to expose, so victims can feel safe to find the support they need and begin the quest of finding their inner-strength, inner-peace and the beautiful woman within…my beautiful woman is named Joan.

Artist Statement

Born an artist in 1963, Cyndi Bellerose-McAfee has excelled in many art related fields, both during her time studying at The Columbus College of Art & Design and after graduating with a BFA in Illustration in 1985. While attending college, her work was annually exhibited in student galleries throughout the school, and in the summer months she could be found drawing caricatures at Cedar Point Amusement Park, painting signs at The Ohio State Fair, or participating in community theater productions. Bellerose-McAfee landed her first professional job at Trott & Bean Architectural Firm as a graphic designer, later becoming an art director. After satisfying her desire to learn more about architectural design, she left the firm to pursue her growing freelance business, Studio 49. For over 20 years, under the direction of Bellerose-McAfee, Studio 49 has produced a wide variety of art ranging from illustration and graphic design to atmosphere design, which involves the design and construction of thematic spaces. Always seeking creative outlets, Bellerose-McAfee co-produced the award winning “Music, Oh My!” educational program consisting of musical CD’s and tapes along with children’s books to help Preschoolers better prepare for Kindergarten. For over 10 years, this active artist has also been an educator, instructing family art workshops throughout Central Ohio and teaching art part-time at Saint Mary Elementary School and The Wellington School, both located in Columbus. Although Studio 49 and teaching keeps Bellerose-McAfee busy, she still makes time to create fine art, including her work on The Joan Series. Since 2002, she has been producing an ever-growing body of work and has exhibited in Columbus, Ohio at Waldo’s on High, The Ohio Art League, and Sean-Christopher Gallery. Part of the Joan Series has also been exhibited at A.I.R. Gallery in New York City. Samples of Bellerose-McAfee’s commercial art and find art can be viewed at www.coroflot.com/cyndioh.

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