I Used to Be a Girl
One of my students at the Maryland Institute College of Art in the 1980’s titled one of his paintings “I Used to Be a Boy” and this phrase has resonated with me ever since. I remember when women were referred to as girls. It seems so long ago. But I was a girl once and that is what fuels my work!
In my art I love to celebrate traditional femininity and then undermine the sweetness with a dose of strangeness and pain. I was born in 1950 and I was immersed as a child in all of the trappings of growing up a girl in that decade. When I joined the feminist movement in the late 1960’s, I never left behind the best parts of my childhood …..my love of collecting and examining small, delicate things, my love of feminine clothing and accessories and my desire to be a good listener, to be gentle and kind.
Once at an art opening in the early 1980’s I wore a vintage blue dress that was patterned with little flowers. I knew it was a beautiful dress. An artist I did not know asked me if the dress was a joke! Wow. This memory sums up for me the strange conformism of the art world in the 1980’s that probably continues to today. Some artists, ostensibly disdainful of conformity, are sometimes not aware of how ridiculous they are.
Many of the girls and women in my paintings, prints, collages and assemblages are transformed in menacing ways. Many have flowers for heads, are pierced by stems and flowers, are emitting seeds and droplets from their orifices, are missing limbs, are raising their own skirts, have animals peeping at them, have their bodies filled with toys and flowers. Well, to quote one of my favorite book titles….”I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”. … I suppose the promise of traditional femininity is a rose garden. Instead of the garden my girls and women sometimes become roses with thorns and a future of being cut and displayed.
The characters in my art may be violated in some way but they are never defeated! Without heads and sometimes pierced by flowers and stems, they are still proud, cheerful and triumphant. They are calm, centered, and strong. I suppose everyone gets pierced in some way by life and I suspect I am exploring the duality of weak/strong, dark/light, soft/hard, feminine/masculine, child/adult. I remember in first grade my teacher was trying to teach us what opposites were. She said she was going to give us a word the next day and we would have to name the opposite word. I was terrified because I did not understand this. I cried a lot in the first grade because I was not perfect. At home my mother helped me understand what the word opposite meant. I do not remember what happened the next day at school. Funny that now my favorite art concept is contrast or opposites!
I have been making art for almost 50 years and right from the beginning I have used found and purchased non-art materials in my work. This material includes illustrations from coloring books, botanical catalogues, childrens’ books, instruction manuals, etc. As a young artist, I was inspired by the work of artists like Kurt Schwhitters, Hannah Hoch, Lucas Samaras and Joan Snyder. A very pleasurable part of my art making is shopping at 99 cent stores and discount stores for materials that inspire me. I have a collection of coloring books which I have purchased over the last forty years! I find the illustrations powerful as opposed to juvenile, another duality I want to explore. Felix Harlan and I met in the late 1970’s at Rutgers University (now called the Mason Gross School of the Arts) where we were getting our MFAs in the visual arts. In the early 1980’s we collaborated on an etching titled “No Underpants”. Felix was just starting out as a printmaker and I remember pressing lace into the soft wax sitting beside him in a borrowed loft downtown in NYC. We lost touch but reconnected in 2017 and decided in the spring of 2020 during the time of Covid to resume our collaboration. In the summer of 2020 I began a series of etchings at the workshop that Felix founded with Carol Weaver. I have been making collages and assemblages over the last twenty years, so it feels great to return to drawing and hand coloring some of the prints with watercolor. I admire Felix’s dedication to etching and his immense knowledge about the process. I am thrilled with our collaboration.
-Bonnie Lucas, 2020