Oil and salt on canvas
30″ by 40″
Storied Women Final
Art Statement/Piece Exploration
People have been making art as long as we have been people. We have used the visual arts for story-telling before letters and reading. Cave drawings tell us of stories and traditions of many people long gone. Widespread literacy is a more recent phenomenon, so many large scale highly technical paintings exist explicitly to tell stories of our traditions. This is not where art exists in the western world today. “Painting is metaphorical thinking,” James Butler regularly says in the brief lectures of Middlebury art classes. Paintings no longer exist to simply tell stories, that is relegated to “illustration”. But much of the biblical art tradition is the passing on of stories, occasionally some reimagining, and not much builds out from it in the modern era unless one considers favorite characters like Adam and Eve. This semester, I aimed to reimagine and re-contextualize these stories more stories that hadn’t been yet. I wanted to explore them beyond the narrative structure and stained-glass format I grew up seeing.
Representations of religious/biblical women in my childhood church took on the nature of demure statues. They were strong in their softness, holy for their obedience. Women in the Catholic Church and women in the bible often do not say much and our relationships with them are heavily informed by not the text itself but the fanfiction and many interpretations of the texts. In my work this semester, I returned to the story, knowing these stories have been passed down and translated many times before they reached me, and knowing what I notice is a product of my place in this modern society. We take what need of what we read to suit our own needs. My art outside of this biblical narrative work examines my relationship to the sexual and intimate, and more broadly to things taboo. I took this interest in relationshipbetween myself and subject, to explore three women’s stories: Lot’s wife, my namesake Rachel, and Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth or woman of flames.
15 With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.” 16 When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. 17 As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!” ….
26 But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
Gen 19:15-17, 26 (NIV)
29But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. 30 “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32Remember Lot’s wife! 33Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.
Luke 17:29-33 (NIV)
Who was she? Why did she look back, and why was she punished? Is this punishment, or simply being “swept away” by the angelic destructive power? Is this a form of suicide? Or was she idiotically clinging to her life as Jesus interprets? Was this a moment of foolishness? “But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” This single action is what she did on her own will. She looked back to her home, what probably held her whole life, and died.
Lot’s wife exists in a space of maybes and possiblies. She can only be known by us through imagination and projection of ourselves and values, and that is how I treat her in paint. I work from life, so I tried to find her a space in my own Green Mountains because originally, the family was to head for the hills. She did not get far and maybe that is why my five pounds of kosher salt did not want to become a pillar of salt in the Bread Loaf Wilderness. I returned with willow branches, a rotting log, and found a quilted floral fabric that reminds me of my grandmother. I brought Lot’s wife into my daily life and through that, into a more intimate mental space. From ‘personhood’ to story and book, to culture and imagination and the reimagining through decades, to me and my mental energy, out of my psyche into my personal space and then in my painted language, she’s gone through many interpretations to reach mine. Her painting is dark and mysterious with moments of fake clarity and sharpness. We pretend we know, Jesus pretended to know, but we don’t know her. Paint is peeled back and the viewer can see earlier moments in the painting, as we might read older books. She is the most built out part of the painting, salt, galkid, oil and pigment make her body because history projects onto her.
26 But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
Her memory won’t rest in peace, but hopefully she does.
The painting of Deborah the Judge is a joint project. My interest in how people relate to their own names lead me to ask Deborah Leedy if she’s sit for this painting. We talked about our biblical namesakes while I painted her during our first session.
In elementary school Deborah asked her parents what did her name mean; they told her Deborah means, “hard worker”. Deborah isn’t named after a family and her siblings, Caleb and Anna, also hold old testament names. No one in her religious family is named Deborah so she knows she is named after Deborah in Judges. “Faith is trust in God, and religion is rules,” is how she defined her family’s relationship to religion that day.
She read a book named by a Deborah, who wrote about the name, the book said Deborah means, “to have a voice.” “This is the first time that I heard of the woman of fire thing…cause sometimes it’s translated to wife of Lappidoth, and sometimes is translated to woman of flames, I like the woman of flames thing” Deborah laughed, “I guess it’s been a part of my identity, I just didn’t realize it.” Deborah relationship is lighthearted and thought through. It almost feels hopeful.
The resulting painting occurred as a result of action and reaction, like paintings are. I let ideas of what this painting should be go, so a painting might show up as it is—anything but hopeful. Though this piece started out as a reflection on namesakes and a call back to an ‘origin’ of a name, what turned out is a reflection of the times. Deborah was tired and frustrated while working on her computer every time after the first time she sat for me. My model wasn’t steadfast in her upward glare like maybe a Deborah of old—but I did not want that—that Deborah has been painted. Deborah Leedy starting at a computer screen working as a 21stcentury woman is more engaging than the storytelling aspect of paint. And in myself, there’s the sadness and anger, dripping with hopelessness and confusion. Alabama didn’t elect a child molester, but our president is a rapist. Our friends and brothers have violently hurt our sisters. Liz just posted a list of all the students at Middlebury they know are rapists/sexual harassers/sexual assaulters/emotion and physical abusers/etc. and the list grew and grew as people added more names. The painted Deborah is strong and a strength radiates from her slow burning anger.
I am named after Rachel of Genesis, but it is also a family name. I was told it meant “Good Mother” when I was a child, which Rachel of Genesis does not show. This next section will include an adapted and extended version of an essay that was displayed with the work on Rachel.
This final piece is a tribute to menstruation.
My namesake’s menstruation saves her life and gets her what she desires. Rachel leaves her home and takes her father’s household gods. Rachel possibly took these gods as a reminder of the past into the next stage of her life, as Lot’s wife turned around to take one last look of her home with her. But like Lot’s wife might have willingly committed suicide, Rachel might have had ulterior motives. Household gods is translated from the Hebrew word teraphim; it is repeated through the Old Testament always referring to an object of worship.* The meaning of stealing them is unknown precisely, but the objects might’ve been made of precious metals. Rachel and Leah (her sister) are vocally upset at their father; they respond together as a unit to Jacob’s plan to leave with,
14… “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money. 16 All the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, whatever God has said to you, do.” (Gen 31:14-16)
Rachel (might’ve) taken the household gods as a reclamation of inheritance.
We also see a rare moment where the sisters are united, against their father and they call out the capitalist and patriarchal system of marriage in place. Jacob worked for 14 years to marry them both, as he worked six years for flocks, the women had no choice in the matter, they, like animals, were Laban’s property to sell as he willed. Once they no longer belong to Laban, he gives them nothing and does not treat them like family. Stealing the household gods might’ve been a personal attack or it might have been less malicious, either way, it puts Rachel’s life in danger.
Jacob leaves Laban in secret, and Laban chases them down and confronts Jacob with a long speech ending with,
30 “…why did you steal my gods?” 31 Jacob answered and said to Laban, “…32 Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsmen point out what I have that is yours, and take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them.
33 So Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he did not find them. And he went out of Leah’s tent and entered Rachel’s. 34 Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle and sat on them. Laban felt all about the tent, but did not find them. 35 And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.” So he searched but did not find the household gods. (Genesis 31:30-35)
Maybe she’s bleeding, maybe she’s lying, but because Laban is culturally conditioned to avoid menstruating women, Rachel keeps the gods and lives.
The menstrual cycle is a powerful event that is hated at a societal level and the personal level and has always been in Judeo-Christian religions. I aim to reverse this trend and honor the period as the life-giver it is.So, in loving and accepting the power of my blood as Rachel loved hers, I create a menstruation shrine.
*Biblical Hermeneutics, StackExchange.com
Engaging with these women and their stories through art created a battle between what was visualized in my head and what wanted to be painted. I purposefully chose women whose art historical images I was unfamiliar with because I struggled finding my place in an art historical frame with the more popular women—I had an internal pressure to create scenes in which the actions of the women were shown. Instead, we experienced the unexpected together. My verbal and controlling mind turned off and allowed strange greens and blues to cover Deborah’s face, showing the emotions and struggle of this place in time. Lot’s wife came in and out of clarity and through many landscapes before landing in this last one. The drying and cracking (and coloring) of menstrual blood was all unknown to me before my namesake’s menstruation asked for a shrine, and I did not even know she wanted a shrine while I poured blood on canvas.
My fear of creating narrative, one-dimensional work was not realized this semester. I went with the flow and allowed myself to be confused. I had paintings and sculptures planned that never came into existence because the starting point too clearly defined the end. Women are not one-dimensional creatures and our role models and foremothers should not be described as such either. When I returned to the stories a listened for what was not said and looked for moments that did not fit into a simple-single narrative that is spoon-fed to us as children, I found possibility and created art.