Strong women are everywhere.
Listen to them. Respect them. Support them.
And they will change the world.
I started this series of paintings of strong women as a way to process and respond to our current political atmosphere. It is astonishing to me that our country has not even passed the Equal Rights Amendment!! The more I talk about it, the more I find that most people don’t know that. A lot of people even know what the ERA is and when I tell them, they cannot fathom that the United States never made it a law.
On January 21, 2017, my step daughter and I, my sister and her daughter, and a handful of close women friends marched with thousands of others in the Women’s March on Washington, DC to protest the inauguration of our misogynistic, xenophobic, and racist President. It was extremely inspirational, and I wanted to do more, but I let things slide, kept my head down and thought things couldn’t get worse. The rest of my life got in the way and maybe in the back of my mind I hoped that someone else would sort it out. But, its only gotten worse. The “Me Too Movement” of the past few years and the bravery with which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford spoke about her experience with Brett Kavanaugh was so inspiring. And I thought, there must be enough outrage now that something would change, yet, our country put him on the highest court and set us up to have rights we have fought for taken away.
That was my tipping point. I couldn’t just watch anymore. This patriarchal society just isn’t working for the majority of this country. It never has. We are being led and manipulated by a minority. It’s time for a change and I truly believe that it will be women who will make it. I don’t know exactly where or how far The Art of Being a Hero is going, and right now it’s very much an act of processing, but I do believe that art can be a very strong form of protest and of inspiration. So, creating this work and honoring these strong women is not only helping me process my anger and frustration, it’s bringing me joy to focus on these every day heroes. Maybe it will also inspire and motivate people to support each other’s strength and speak up for our rights.
I had the idea to paint this woman among the elephant leaves of her front garden. Not because it was a specific symbol of strength but to my surprise it turned out to be. She offered me the chance to do a more traditional figure painting by unabashedly letting me paint her in the nude! Her lack of modesty especially with this being in front of her house where passersby may have seen her, was awesome! She is an inspiration in her willingness to participate in this project with me not once but twice. Her generosity and openness remind me of when we first met. I’d just moved to town and didn’t know many people. I signed up for a CSA that she managed and when I went to my first pick up, I thought she was so nice and so I asked her if she’d be my friend! It’s not my normal approach to making friends but she was just so approachable and kind to a new person in town. And sure enough, she did become one of my best friends. That was 13 years ago! In my opinion, the kindness and openness that she exudes in her daily life is a big part of her strength.
The Kitchen Of My Childhood
This painting is of my mom and her two best friends, who have been second moms to me growing up. This kitchen and these women have a special place in my heart and in my memories. Between the three of them, they have raised seven daughters and one son. They now have twelve grandchildren. We’ve all been blessed with directly witnessing the power that bonds close female friendships. They taught us how to be confident, where to find our own strength, and how to love and take care of ourselves and others. Plus, they are smart, sassy, and very funny. The greatest heroes have to have a good sense of humor!
This woman is a Professor of Public Policy and Politics and the Director of Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Virginia. She studies social justice advocacy, activism and direct action through social entrepreneurship. She’s published two books and many articles and has traveled the world doing her research. Most recently, she traveled to Mexico to work with refugees as our country continues to block entry and imprison people fleeing unbearable situations in their home countries. Our country and world need people like her and our community is lucky to have her.
“People intoxicate themselves with work so they won't see how they really are.”
”Next to silence, that which expresses the inexpressible is music.”
These two quotes by Aldous Huxley are favorites of Michelle’s and say a lot about who she is. She plays the bass clarinet like a bad ass! She studied music at the Manhattan School of Music but did not make music her career. I understand that. Sometimes something is such a part of who you are that you don’t want to make it “work”. So instead it’s how she plays! Her work is equally impressive though. She’s worked in the Peace Corps and for non-profits in Africa. She told me a story about having helped set up a radio station in an African village and how important that technology was to helping people communicate and know what is going on in their country and the world. Now she runs her own business as an Executive Coach & Organizational Development Consultant.
Every time I see this woman, she’s just returned from an amazing trip seeing and experiencing the world. She also travels for work as a landscape architect doing work for National Parks as well as local community park projects. She cares deeply for our world, this country and her home town and this is most apparent to me in the political conversations we often end up having. We’ve started meeting frequently with a group of friends to process all that is going on and figure out what we as citizens can do to help make positive change. Just knowing that we have each other is motivation to keep our chins up, get involved, write or call our representatives, to just participate in the process. I appreciate so much being able to do this with her.
Finding Her Way
This is my stepdaughter. She’s a bubbly, energetic, outgoing, extrovert who, even as she begins the broody teenage years, usually has a smile on her face. This scene, however, captures a moment of trepidation. We’ve travelled to New York city many times with her, but this time, she started to see things adults see. She noticed the homeless people in Grand Central Station. She experienced the discomfort of people asking for money. She really saw poverty for the first time. At the same time, she was old enough to have a little more independence and try a few things solo while in the city. The painting aims to depict the desire for independence that she, as a teenager has, while also showing the anxiety that comes along with growing up. In the reflection on the left, you see her father who is and always will be there for her when she needs it, but is doing his best to let her grow up.
Working With The Earth
She is passionate about working with and tending to the earth. She grows fruit and vegetables that she cooks and cans. All of the other trees and plants in her yard are native and designed to protect the earth and support birds, mammals, and insects. Her neighbors have noticed and given her space in their yards to tend as well. She composts and recycles but most importantly she minimizes buying new and disposable products. Ever since she was in grade school she’s been aware of the impact humans have on the environment and actively minimizing her impact. In eighth grade, that was 1985, she wrote a paper on climate change. In today’s world, that would be a common topic for a middle school student to write about, but over thirty years ago, that was very rare. If everyone cared for our earth and its inhabitants like she does, we’d be in a very different situation than we are today.
This painting is a representation of the need for self care and not about a specific woman. We need to take care of ourselves in order to care for others. Women often forget this as we take care of our children, the men in our lives, projects and people at work, our homes, and, well… everything. And women have the capacity for so much especially when we take care of ourselves.
This painting was the turning point in this series when I started to explore more subtle expressions of strength.
I’ve always admired the care that she takes of herself, her home, and her dogs (though you can’t see them in this painting, they are just beyond view for sure). To me that demonstrates her strength. She splits her time between the countryside of central Virginia and Washington, D.C. She works in a law firm in D.C. where she sometimes finds herself drained by the energy required to do what she does. So she has created a peaceful second home in the country where she can re-energize. Her space is very important to her and I think that knowing and caring for yourself is so important. If we don’t care for ourselves, how can we care for others?
I can’t recall a time when she was without a smile, though she always has so much on her plate! Taking this break was probably brief as she was probably running off to study for her Master’s Degree in teaching, or to drop one of her three children someplace… that would be the three children she raises all by herself! Or she was probably about to run off to teach or do Kung Fu or to teach special education in the public school system. Our community is certainly lucky to have this woman who is so passionate about teaching!
She’s also a breast cancer survivor and though it takes a lot of strength of character and will to keep going through an illness like that, it’s not what I find most amazing about her story. I have always been so awed that she opted not to have reconstructive surgery. She has embraced the shape of her body with its changes. I think she’s beautiful especially because she is proud of who she is and lets her scars tell her story, instead of trying to fit into what society thinks the female form should look like
They Tried To Bury Us, They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds
Like all the women I am painting, there are so many reasons that I admire her. The most recent and politically impactful is that while protesting the white nationalist — Nazi — descent upon our city of Charlottesville, VA, on August 12, 2017, she was almost run over when a man drove his car full-speed through a crowd of people, killing one and physically injuring over 20. She was lucky to not be physically hurt, but the emotional impact has been great and she has fought hard to regain her normal day-to-day. Her strength led her down the path of self-care and seeking others who shared her experience. It also led her to increase her activism and lean into the forces that hurt her. She continues to protest and fight for what she believes in. She walked hundreds of miles from Charlottesville to Washington, DC to protest white supremacy. She belongs to local organizations and regularly attends local political efforts to move our country forward, for example, to finally ratify the ERA. Before all of this happened, she volunteered for the Peace Corps and spend two years in Africa much later in life than most, learning not one but two languages to do so.
The phrase “They Tried To Bury Us, They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds” has a long history going back to an Ancient Greek poem, but can be traced, more recently, to Mexican activists who used it in support of the Ayotzinapa 43 — 43 students who disappeared in Iguala, Mexico in 2013. The statement has also been used in the current protest of how the United States is handling immigration in the Trump era. I used these words in this work because they directly connect to Mexico and immigration and this strong woman comes from a family of immigrants on her father’s side from Mexico. In addition, the metaphor of seeds offers the idea that those who have suffered immensely might help bear the fruits of justice later on.
Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum, Bitches
She is smart as a whip, and though she is endearingly, outwardly untidy, her ability to organize her thoughts, speak dynamically in front of a room of people, and remember facts and decisions is spot on. This was painted when she is was a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, but since then she’s gotten her black belt. She’s also a leader and teacher at her local jiu-jitsu academy, and she organizes and teaches self-defense workshops to women in the community.
None of this is even her job – where she leads a large team of people who facilitate the communication of cutting-edge scientific research that helps save lives around the world.
This was the first painting that I did in this series. I was pretty fired up at the time and wanted to create a confrontational documentation of the very outwardly obvious versions of strength. I chose the title to match. “Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum, Bitches” comes from the recent TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Though the phrase is technically made-up Latin, it has taken on a life of its own, as a sort of feminist rallying cry. These words mean “don’t let the bastards grind you down” in the novel. The TV series adds a modern twist with “Bitches” directing the statement outwardly and globally instead of inwardly and singularly. It also adds confrontation and camaraderie, both of which I think is needed these days. Women are often considered bitches when they are aggressive, the exact opposite of how men are regarded when they push for what they want. These words represent both the personal battles of this woman and her unflinching leadership in the work-place and on the jiu-jitsu mat. She is steadfast in all aspects of her life against varying voices that say she can’t or she’s wasting her time.
Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover
She has worked in the education field for 18 years, and though teaching children is by nature hard work, she always chooses the hardest of the teaching jobs. She taught in the inner city school system in Cleveland and Washington, DC. She was Principal of a small school offering children who did not fit into the traditional school system a place to learn and thrive. And now she teaches children with autism and their families how to lead full lives . She is passionate about teaching the next generation and bettering the world for it. She is also an amazing friend and caretaker of her family and mine. She helps me take care of my aging parents who both suffer from mental challenges as though they were her own parents. As anyone who has aging parents knows, it is often a major strain, but she loves them and helps me just by being there for us all.
Besides the obvious placement of this woman in the library of her family’s 150 year old house, “Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover” represents how she lives her life. She sees people who aren’t seen by society or who others see but turn away from. And she nurtures them. She confidently wears a formal gown one day, and drives a tractor around her farm the next. She is a classic beauty who chooses her 80 pound pit-bull over the attention of any man who adores her less. She will do most anything for friends and family, but there is no one who can tell her how to live her life. That is her decision only, and we never know where it may lead her.