In This Issue

The Beauty Project: A Feminist Art and Writing Practice

Marin County, California

 

1. Ultimately Perfect

ULTIMATELY PERFECT, Kerry Vander Meer, California Craft Museum, San Francisco, CA, 1993.

I. THE GENESIS

IN 1993 BAY AREA ARTIST Kerry Vander Meer was looking for artists working on issues of cosmetic surgery. Her spark ignited the interest of a group of like-minded women artists to come together to explore feminist content in beauty and body image. Our artwork expressed many personal and public issues with a male-dominated society, and how a woman’s physical appearance, at that time, played a large role in shaping her professional success. Flash forward 22 years. The more things change, the more they stay the same. – Barbara Morris

Kerry Vander Meer came from a background in fiber arts and the Mills College graduate program, and had a studio practice in Oakland. In the 1990s she was at a crossroads, finding her self-esteem and art practice increasingly focused on issues of aging and wishing to maintain a youthful appearance. Around this time, French multimedia feminist/conceptual artist Orlan had undertaken an ongoing performance piece, The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan where she had plastic surgery done on her face to reproduce “beautiful” features from iconic artworks—the forehead of the Mona Lisa, the chin of Boticelli’s Venus, the nose of Gérôme’s Psyche. While Vander Meer did not go to the radical extremes of surgery, she states “Working with these issues in my own work, I thought there must be other artists working with them as well. I posted an ad…and was surprised by the number of women who responded.” She also encountered Naomi Wolf’s eye-opening The Beauty Myth (1991):

“I started seeing how women were being misled” to fuel the multimillion dollar corporations “the fashion industry, makeup industry, weight loss…” “I didn’t even question or think about it until I started reading that book,” she remembers, “because of how we’re programmed by society to feel inadequate—for not being beautiful enough, not being thin enough…”

2. On Your Hands and Knees

ON YOUR HANDS AND KNEES (detail), Lorraine Weglarz, Addison St. Windows, Berkeley, CA, 1993.

Wolf’s book focuses on what she calls “display behavior,” where women must adopt the polished and preened appearance of a fashion model, a demand that became increasingly prevalent in many career paths, running a gamut from business, art gallery staff, design industries, service industries, hostesses and waitstaff, and even to the hallowed halls of academia. While pressured to look pretty, one is simultaneously cautioned not too look too alluring, as that is seen as asking for sexual harassment. As Wolf puts it,

“This point, where beauty forms the bridge between women and institutions, is what women are taught to seize upon, and is then used as proof that women themselves are finally to blame. But to make herself grasp at this straw, a woman has to suppress what she knows, that the powerful ask for women to display themselves in this way. When power toys with beauty, the request for display behavior has been choreographed before the woman has had the chance to enter the room where she will be evaluated.”1

My own artwork at the time was focused largely on semi-autobiographical narrative paintings, and satirical works exploring stereotypical “women’s roles.” In February 1993, pregnant with a second child, I participated on a panel at the WCA national conference in Seattle called “The Balancing Act: Artist as Juggler,” focusing on how women manage to keep career and personal life aloft. Through WCA I also heard of No Limits for Women Artists, a support group founded by feminist/eco-activist Betsy Damon. As a result of my involvement with that group, fellow group member, Ines Kramer, fortuitously informed me about an upcoming meeting for women artists interested in working with the theme of plastic surgery. This was how I met Kerry and became involved in The Beauty Project.

II. THE BEAUTY PROJECT

3. Fat, Chest, Vogue, Skin

FAT IN THE CAN, panties, Crisco, Chest of Drawers, wood, rubber, Rubberized Book Cover, paper, rubber Skin Suit, rubber, color Xerox, life-size, Kerry Vander Meer (clockwise from upper left), 1993.

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN AN ARTIST’S collective and a consciousness-raising group, The Beauty Project began with a core group: Vander Meer, Emily Duffy, Leslie Frierman Grunditz, Joanna Katz, Ines Kramer, Lori Kossowsky, Liz Maxwell, Patricia A. Montgomery, Lorraine D. Weglarz, and myself, Barbara Morris.

Liz Maxwell worked in paint and sculpture with imagery including women warriors and portraits of aging nude women loosely inspired by herself. She might be regarded as the “keeper of the flame,” her keen involvement extended beyond hosting meetings to nurturing friendships that now have stood the test of 20+ years. Outraged at injustices against women globally, in 1994 she stated “Women and girls are routinely raped, battered, beaten, sold for prostitution and killed. Women who protest the political, legal and social systems which allow or even condone this kind of treatment often endanger their lives by doing so.”

A retired Forest Service employee, with a degree in Statistics, Liz overcame personal and professional obstacles to pursue art later in life and achieve recognition through important museum and gallery exhibits.

4. Beauty Screen

BEAUTY, ENERGY, FERTILITY, LIGHT, (panel details), Liz Maxwell mixed-media collage on folding screen, 1993.

The initial group had one exhibition, Behold Her, at Ghia Gallery, San Francisco (also a casket showroom) Later, for a Richmond Art Center exhibit, the group grew to include Libra Avery, Monica Bryant, Nancy Mizuno Elliott, Jan Hart-Schuyers, Rae Hayward, Gigi Janchang, Meg Mack, Charlie Milgrim, Theresa A. Smith, and Kyungmi Shin.

III. MEASURING UP

16. Way Out II

WAY OUT II, Monica Bryant and Barbara Morris, scales, photomural, WORKS/San Jose, CA, 2001.

OUR LARGEST EXHIBITION, Measuring Up, curated by Anastasia Shartin, was held at Richmond Art Center in fall 1994. The work explored the ways we felt society judged and categorized women. Kerry Vander Meer presented two collaborative pieces, one with Charlie Milgrim, the other with Lorraine Weglarz. She and Milgrim tackled the cosmetics industry and women’s fear of aging, by creating a bogus line of beauty products, Eternally 12. Statistics on cosmetic products cost per pound were juxtaposed with food scales bearing the vials, adjacent to ominous-looking industrial vats.

Liz Maxwell’s work in Richmond included a double-sided screen, Beauty Screening that juxtaposed images and text of women from art historical and contemporary sources, investigating the nature of beauty and female identity; and Iconoclast — a woman warrior from her Amazons series who trades her weapon for flowers.

Lorraine D. Weglarz worked nights as a clerk and photography teacher, and fit in art making as she could. On Your Hands and Knees (1993) was her first large-scale site-specific installation. It honored the unpaid or underpaid women’s work that supports society’s functioning. For Richmond, Weglarz photographed Vander Meer’s lips, blowing the image up to mountain-like proportions in Fine Lines. She also installed a large site-specific piece, Fe/Male Tears (1994), where hand-cast acrylic tears and carpentry nails were suspended from floor to ceiling over metal pails and sheets of mirror mylar. It alluded to the common myth, “men don’t cry.”

6. Way In and Iconoclast

WAY IN, Monica Bryant and Barbara Morris, Richmond Art Center, CA, papier-mâché sculpture with mixed media, 1994. Part of “Measuring Up” exhibition at RAC, Liz Maxwell.

Monica Bryant and I created an interactive installation running down the long entry corridor, Way In (1994), using more than 100 vintage bathroom scales, a massive dairy scale, small baby scale, and moss, scrims painted with Chinese characters, with motion-activated sounds of crickets chirping. Bryant reflects “The work addressed preoccupation with superficial aspects of gendered life, such as weight loss and consumerism. The feminist concern was to empower the voice of women.”

Nancy Mizuno Elliott’s work reflected her experience as a woman of mixed race and class, with a “low-brow” aesthetic that belies the complex thought process undergirding the work. Her mom is Japanese; her dad, from Canada, was in the Air Force. Elliott was working at the time “with images of geishas as being submissive, giggling and covering their mouths. I made ugly kimonos out of paper…and images of rude geishas…” Elliot reflected on her involvement with the Beauty Project, “I was very fortunate to meet you all, I was just a few months out of grad school, feeling lonely and disassociated… ”

Gigi Janchang was born in Shanghai, China. Her family fled to Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution, and Janchang moved to the Bay Area in 1987, earning a MFA in new genre and conceptual art at San Francisco Art Institute. Her internationally-acclaimed work investigates appearance and identity, challenging assumptions about scale and perception. She presented a mural-sized photograph, Facing the West where the profile of a long-haired Asian woman morphs into an abstract linear texture created by hair.

Ines Kramer’s shoe makeovers explored female obsession with footwear, transforming traditional ladies’ pumps with fringe and rhinestones, giving each a distinct personality. Joanna Katz painted large-scale portraits of nursing home residents; and Leslie Frierman Grunditz contributed a quartet of disturbingly altered Barbies.

IV. END OF THE ERA 

WHILE A FEW PROPOSALS WENT OUT, by 1995 our energy for working and showing together was waning. Final exhibitions were, “Pretty Little Thing,” curated by member Teresa Smith, at Ohlone College in 1994, and “Beauty Project at Levi’s Plaza” 1995 in San Francisco. Still, many of us continue to meet at Liz’s to discuss our work and lives, to network, and to complain about issues of discrimination…as well as other injustices in the art and larger world. Our deceptively genteel rubric is now, “Watercolor Group.”

V.  BRAS AND BALLS: A SUPPORT SYSTEM 

10. Mammolith, Bra Ball, Woman's Tryptich

From left to right clockwise: MAMMOLITH, mixed-media fiber sculpture, 2000. THE BRABALL (7,370 bras), El Cerrito, CA, 2001. WOMEN’S TRIPTYCH: Birth Control, Tampons, Douche-bag And Vinegar, 1993. All artwork by Emily Duffy.

ANY SYNOPSIS OF THE WORK of The Beauty Project would be remiss to neglect the work of Emily Duffy, whose contributions to the “Measuring Up” show included The Wrinkles That Ate My Face, painting with hidden loop recording of women talking about growing old (1993) and Women’s Triptych: Birth Control, Tampons, Douche-bag And Vinegar (1993). A few years later, Duffy embarked on a seemingly playful project that soon acquired a life of it’s own.

11.Mondrianmobile with Emily

MONDRIANMOBILE, Emily Duffy, (art Car, with artist in matching dress). Photo by Harrod Blank.

In October, 2000, I responded to a news item in the San Francisco Chronicle that a male artist was looking for a home for his large bra collection. I …immediately jumped at the chance to have some of the bras. Duffy stated. The male artist phoned me a week later to say that, not only had he decided not to give me the bras, but he was going to make my BraBall himself. He promised to give me ‘credit’ for the idea but, when pressed, couldn’t tell me exactly what that would consist of.

Duffy began a legal battle over copyright of the BraBall idea, and quickly began a grassroots campaign to create her own ball, with donated brassieres obtained initially from friends and family, receiving support for the project as well eventually from women around the world. Over 18,000 bras were finally hooked and rolled, like a rubber-band ball, into a massive object 5’4” in diameter “the height of the average woman.”

VI. THE ART OF LIVING BLACK

12. Coda, Rae and Jan (1)

THE ART OF LIVING BLACK LOGO, Rae Louise Hayward, Coda, acrylic on canvas. Photo of Rae Hayward and Jan Hart-Schuyers.

JAN HART-SCHUYERS AND Rae Louise Hayward joined the Beauty Project prior to the Richmond show. Jan, the more established artist, included the poignant Whatever Became of Bright Eyes, an autobiographical painting evoking her harsh awakening to the fact of racism, as she wrote “I thought I was Shirley Temple…’” Rae was working full time for Pac Bell and just beginning to explore the idea of showing her vibrant, cubist and African-inspired paintings. Nancy recalls “Rae was so shy, she didn’t feel comfortable showing her work at first.” Yet a few years later the pair brainstormed the idea of initiating an open studios event and exhibition geared toward African-Americans. The annual Art of Living Black exhibition has become an institution at Richmond Art Center, and Jan and Rae became highly-respected figures in the Bay Area community and art world. Sadly, both were taken from us long before their time, Hart-Schuyers in 1998 and Hayward in 2008.

VI. GENDER BIAS ALIVE AND SICKENING

14. Snow Queen Palace

Early Learning Center Snow Queen Palace.

WHEN WE LOOK AT THE SOCIETY around us, and at opportunities for women, it’s often a question of if our cup is half-empty, or half-full? In today’s “post-feminist” world, many may feel that the issue of discrimination against women has been settled, but the sad fact of the matter is that in higher echelons of the art world, along with the corporate ladder, women remain on the lower rungs, seldom achieving the kind of success that often comes more readily to men. While gender discrimination may be less blatant than that experienced by women of earlier generations, the bias remains.

15. Glass Cliff in Zhangjiajie Hunan

Glass Cliff in Zhangjiejie, Hunan.

VII. EPILOGUE 

THE BEAUTY PROJECT HELD A reunion two years ago, on the twentieth anniversary of our coming together to explore shared concerns, and marveled at how we still felt connected. A reunion show, “Glass Slipper to Glass Ceiling,” will open at City College of San Francisco in February of 2016. Younger women today often seem horrified that someone might call them feminist, as though it’s a communicable disease that should be avoided. Media stereotypes and misunderstanding have created the misconception that feminism is somehow about hating men—the phrase “castrating bitch” springs to mind. At its heart, feminism is simply the belief that women deserve the same rights and opportunities that men obtain as their birthright; reading of the feminist canon, along with any burning of bras, is, in the mind of this feminist, at least, entirely optional.

17. Wabee Sabee, Red in the Interlude, Walking Together

WABEE SABEE, work in progress (detail), Nancy Mizuno Elliott, 2015. RED IN THE INTERLUDE, (detail), Kerry Vander Meer, 2012. WALKING TOGETHER, (detail), Monica Bryant, 2002.

END NOTES

1 Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, copyright 1991 William Morrow and Company, pg 46.