"Women Painting Women" didn't start as a movement; it was more of a ticking-off. It began as an observation by artist/blogger Sadie Valeri over a Sotheby's auction entitled "Women." The subjects were all female, though all of the artists carried XY chromosomes.
That moment of dismay sparked a conversation between Valeri and artists Alia El-Bermani and Diane Feissel. They knew that change was needed, and it was time for action.
"[The movement] originally started as a blog. We looked for women, female artists painting the female figure in a respectful way — beyond the male gaze," says El-Bermani. Their blog, womenpaintingwomen.blogspot.com, had a simple but winning formula: post the image, title and details of a work and link back to the artist's website.
"We [now] have nearly 500 artists on the blog. We had no idea; we created it for ourselves but because it was a blog it was public and became very popular," says El-Bermani. "We started in March 2009 and by that winter we were being offered an exhibition at Robert Lange Studios in Charleston."
Art history books might not yet have chapters dedicated to the "Women Painting Women" movement, but there's no shortage of press about the initiative. Hundreds of exhibitions later, there's no denying the power of these paintings that delve beyond the beauty of the female form to show women in all stages of life and with a celebration of diversity.
The traveling museum exhibition, "Women Painting Women: In Earnest," is curated by El-Bermani and Feissel and features works by 30 artists from the United States as well as Poland, Spain and Italy. Its next stop is in College Station at Texas A&M University's J. Wayne Stark Galleries.
All of the paintings contain a narrative. There's a self-portrait by Philadelphia artist Rachel Constantine: She is poised at the easel, paintbrushes in hand, and in the background is a nude man, perhaps spent after a night of lovemaking; the power is all hers.
In Mike Newell's 1991 flick, Enchanted April, Miranda Richardson's character is described as looking like a Madonna, though a disappointed one. Her mysterious doppelgänger returns in paintings by Colorado painter Haley Hasler. In Winter Madonna, the well-dressed mother in contemporary garb pays homage to the early pioneers heading westward. Our heroine appears again as Earth Mother in Nocturnorum Animalium, embraced by flora and fauna seeking refuge in her warm embrace.
There are nudes, as well, but you won't find them on the walls of the Playboy mansion. These paintings show real women, unaltered by Photoshop, though beautiful nonetheless as they have clearly been painted with love by the artists.
For the viewers, several of whom will be college-age women still forming ideas of self-worth, it's an important exhibition in that the subjects demonstrate both imperfection and strength. "They have such a great women's studies program as well," says El-Bermani. "There's a lot of collaboration; it's not just art majors or art history majors. And [the exhibit] is open to the public and it's free."
The painters, also, have benefited from the movement since that first blog post in 2009. "After that first exhibition I coordinated a weeklong painting retreat in Charleston. One of the artists told me later that she was literally applying for food stamps," says El-Bermani. "If you look at her career now she has sold out exhibitions and galleries across the country. It's so phenomenal to be a part of that turnaround."
"Women Painting Women: In Earnest" is coming to the J. Wayne Stark Galleries, Texas A & M University, Memorial Student Center, 4229 TAMU, College Station, open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. October 19 through December 16. For information, call 979-845-8501 or visit uart.tamu.edu/women-painting-women-in-earnest. Free.
Noon to 3 p.m. October 18, painting demonstration with live model, Wright Gallery, College of Architecture
10 to 11 a.m. October 19, panel discussion, Wright Gallery, College of Architecture
5:30 to 7:30 p.m. October 19, opening reception, Stark Gallery