Personal archaeology : an autoethnographic illumination of a late-blooming feminist artist

WCU Author/Contributor (non-WCU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Dora C. May (Creator)
Western Carolina University (WCU )
Web Site:
Erin Tapley

Abstract: Originally seeking personal healing and restoration of balance in life through artistic expression and the creative process, I am enlightened by female precedents and empowered by their work and my own process. An aesthetic sisterhood with a twelfth century visionary, Hildegard of Bingen, informs the content and composition of my art work and provides a model of feminine power. Some connections relating Hildegard’s writings and circular compositions in her illuminations to contemporary global ecumenical, ecological, and feminist understandings are explored. Through Judy Chicago’s writings about The Dinner Party and Paula Harper’s history of the founding of the First Feminine Art Program, I discover a connection to the broader culture and the feminist movement, realizing that my own struggles with weight and body-image are related to the subordination of women in a male dominant culture. The resulting exhibition of art work is in three sections. The first part consists of five large works of construction-grade wall compound applied to plywood panels, imprinted with natural objects as well as patterned and textured materials found in “typical” women’s work. Embedded in the compound are images and messages cut from my food packaging. Paint and stain are added to the surfaces. The second phase of art work is a set of three life-size pastel drawings on brown butcher paper exploring my distorted perception of body image making use of the creative therapy of body-outline drawing. Finally, a triptych of mixed media collages, also life-sized and on various papers, explores the concept of “You Are What You Eat” by using personal food packaging to create images of anatomical systems, again using my actual body outline and the circle. Through autoethnography, a form of arts-based research, I discover that I am a microcosm of the macrocosm of present-day woman’s obsession with dieting and body image and I seek to offer personal insights to challenge outdated beliefs and stereotypes. Further, I come to believe that women’s weight and body-image struggles are rooted in the logical, analytical, linear thinking and design of the dominant culture which is hindering the attainment of gender equality. By allowing myself to consider a personal cosmology inspired by “Other” and pre-patriarchal worldviews, I embrace a cyclical notion of time and a more holistic daily existence. I achieve a sense of balance and empowerment and hope to share this illumination through the exhibition of my art and through my writing and teaching. The artist, researcher, and teacher are roles through which there are implications for further inquiry. Future directions for my art practice include three-dimensional, tape-cast body outlines of self and the use of wall compound as a way of casting positive relief imagery into paper-pulp and clay. Research avenues include ecological concerns in art with particular interest in sustainability--using trash and recycling in place of more traditional art materials. Directions of inquiry for the teacher include designing units to encourage problem-solving and discovery using unconventional, no or low cost materials such as personal trash. More in-depth study of Hildegard of Bingen’s prescriptive uses of plants and other natural objects for balance and healing is of interest. New insights into the differences between the dominant, patriarchal structure of school and the classroom will help me as the teacher to be sensitive to and accommodate the feminine, Native (as one third of my students are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), and all “Other” cultural values when they conflict. Also, encouragement to young women to research and use historical precedents in their own art work will help empower them and make progress toward gender equality. Lastly, communicating that the creation of art can be a therapeutic practice for individuals and communities is of value.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2012
Assemblage (Art)
Painting, American
Feminism and art

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