Jennifer Gillia Cutshall
Inside Chasing Ghosts V: Meet the artist behind the Missing Women Series: Lynette Charters
"Sometimes people like my work until they realize what it is about. Other times people like it more when they realize the meaning."
How does your Missing Women Series interact with the theme of “Chasing Ghosts: Piercing the veil through remembrance, legacy, and beyond”?
The Missing Women Series reaches back in history to illustrate how issues of underappreciation, undocumented lives, undocumented achievements, and gender representation still haunt women today as it did in the past. When I paint this series, I sometimes feel as though the models are applauding me, especially the ones who suffered the most.
Your Missing Women Series examines the past in a piercing way while it also echoes the ever-changing political climate. Can you speak to this buoyancy in your work? It seems to create a new legacy while forcing the viewer to examine past, present, and future.
Yes indeed, we women live in a world where many of our efforts are invisible, in the past and in the present. Look in school history books to see how we’ve been edited away. The process of editing is no less obvious when observing the current social and economic effects of COVID-19. Although we are less likely to die from COVID-19, we are more likely to be out of work or burdened with childcare or caring for relatives while juggling work. (We’re not always the ones to do this and many wonderful men step in too but) we’re the ones usually expected to step in, and we’re often forced to sacrifice long standing jobs and work opportunities. This break in career to care for family is rarely fully recovered from or compensated and is seldom documented. It doesn’t help that the ERA still hasn’t been passed, which is a clear signal that the system is happy to make us work a large percentage of our lives for free. Added on to this are extra costs of healthcare, and in many areas there are substandard services for family planning. We are forced to live in a world where we are not represented and isn’t designed with us in mind. By representing women’s voided lives through the ages, the issues addressed in the series are still very relevant today. The gallery setting is an added reference to how women of all cultures are underrepresented by high end art dealers, publicly owned museums and galleries. The series seems to appeal to and speak in solidarity with any group in society which is underrepresented.
Does the idea of transformation influence your work and process?
Yes, I transform the images of women in history to a void space representing our unobserved and undocumented lives with the hope of instigating change.
What draws you to the medium you chose?
Women are always being compared with nature. I’ve always found this reference irksome and designed to reinforce gender roles, we are no more or less natural than men. My wooden voids are a tongue-in-cheek poke at this reference. The wood also has its own beauty and personality which I have always loved. In person the depth of the wood grain seems to occupy a space which recedes back from
the paint surface which doesn’t come across as much in photographs. I choose the knots strategically. They stare back at you. They are not simply being observed, but are inviting you into their shared experience of absence.
Tell us a little about your process (I don’t believe in giving it all away).
I first look for a likely candidate with a good story or relevant image. This involves trying to be inclusive even though most searches of fine art take me down the same usual well documented Eurocentric path which we learn in school. (I am always open to suggestions so my body of work can be more diverse and inclusive.) I have a collection of frames I found in antique and thrift stores, and I try to
make sure I have something fitting.
I prefer recycled frames because they have already lived a life and suggest the passing of time. Next I look for the plywood. With several possible images I check the hardware stores, maybe I find something, maybe I have to come back. The wood has to be close to the right scale, with the right personality and the wood grain has to be obvious and interesting. Having
chosen the right piece of wooden board, I cut, cradle and carefully map out the painting. I paint in acrylics so I don’t have to seal the wood first. This allows the paint sink into the woodgrain which, with translucent layering, brings out the texture. With each painting, I juggle how much the texture of the grain adds depth or is just a distraction. I build up several layers of acrylic paint to imitate the intensity of oil paint. This can be very time consuming, but I enjoy the challenge.
Who inspires you?
I had the great opportunity to work with Andy Goldsworthy on two of his outdoor sculptures. His drive was inspiring, as was his ability to take what he found in a given environment then turn it into something which speaks to a wide audience. Mostly though, I am inspired by anyone who takes the social and historical norms and traditions and then uses subversion to make a statement. I am drawn
to Manet’s work because he called into question how women were seen in gallery art. Gentileschi too offered up a different version of womanhood which was designed to challenge in its time. I also love the work of the early feminist surrealists like Kay Sage, Leanora Carrington and more recently I’m
drawn to Julie Curtiss, Mickalene Thomas and Kara Walker.
What do you do to get inspired?
There is nothing more inspiring than looking at real live art in galleries. It’s always inspiring to see what people make and to learn about their own inspirations and processes. It’s like being invited to peek into a small part of their lives and it nurtures empathy. Real art is always more interesting than mass-
produced art, and it usually comes with an intriguing story. I am a survivor of domestic abuse. Given
that women stand to lose so much ground politically, our current climate motivates me in my art
If you could have coffee or tea with any artist who would you pick? What would you have coffee or tea? What would you ask that artist?
I am American and British so I like both coffee and tea but a good pilsner is always good. The artist is a much tougher choice though. I love how Mickalene Thomas’ brain works and she’s fearless and she pulls no punches. But I also love Kara Walker for the same reason and would love to pick her brain too.
What do you hope your work achieves, in general, and/or specifically with this series?
Portraying women’s bodies from their own perspective is tough, because women are rarely viewed in art from their own perspective. People generally love images of women doing what women are traditionally seen to be doing, I just added a twist to challenge the accepted norms. I was trying to appeal to a wide audience and came up with the least aggressive way that I could express how women’s achievements are unobserved, while their lives are molded to benefit other people. Sometimes people like my work until they realize what it is about. Other times people like it more when they realize the meaning. Either way I present an alternative way of looking at the female experience. If I help anyone to “speak your mind even if your voice shakes” (thank you RBG) then I am happy.
What recently made you smile?
My family who are patient and very supportive of my efforts. It is a gift that I don’t take lightly. When I was in art college, the common opinion was that a family would hold you back. In some ways that is true given that everyone has needs and the care giver is always on call, but there is much to be said for
being surrounded by the catalysts of love and encouragement. I meet with friends for coffee once a week. These beautiful people keep me grounded and connected. Also, Kamala Harris makes me smile, she is a joy to watch in action.
What recently made you cry?
The death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I was in the car when I heard. Her loss is significant and I’m not the only one who felt a little orphaned. We lost one of the few women who had the position to fight for women’s actual needs, not the traditional idea of how women should be. She had grace and determination. We owe her a great deal.
What was the most powerful work of art you recall viewing? Where was it? How did it make you feel?
I can’t possibly choose just one. I saw Leonardo DaVinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, and Saint John the Baptist a few years ago in The National Gallery in London. It was stunning. I saw Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe in the Musee D’Orsay which was stunning in a different way because of the
context in which he painted it. For the same reason I was blown away by Mickalene Thomas’s response in her piece Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, which I saw in Figuring History at Seattle Art Museum. In the same show, Kerry James Marshall’s Shadow of his Former Self and his other works impacted me in a memorable way. Gentileschi was such a joy to see in the Vancouver Museum of Art. So powerful and passionate.
If you could tell your viewers one thing, what would you tell them?
My mentor as a student, the British painter Graham Crowley, always taught me to keep an open mind in art and to search for connections. The same is true in life. Being an immigrant teaches you that there is more than one way to see and do things. Life, as art, is a deliberate act of discovery. Often there is
no clear right or wrong way to do things, but proceeding with empathy is never wrong.