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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Helen Redman

San Diego,

Helen Barchilon Redman, MFA, is a figurative painter, mixed media artist and educator whose work runs the gamut from intimate portraits to satiric social commentary. She explores personal identity, gender stereotypes, health issues, and cycles of life in the expressive tradition of Alice Neel and Frida Kahlo. The sequential series she has created include A Life Line of Art (1964-present); Mediatypes of the Sexes (1975-1980); Parables of So Cal (1985-1991); and Birthing the Crone: Menopause and Aging through an Artist’s Eyes (1992-present).

Redman has taught at the University of Colorado and the University of Iowa. She has been an active and continuous force for the support and recognition of women in the arts, co-founding Front Range Women in the Visual Arts in Boulder, Colorado in 1974 and serving as the first president of the San Diego Women’s Caucus for the Arts in 1992.

Redman’s first of 43 solo exhibits was at the Salt Lake Art Center in 1964 and her most recent at Chicago’s Woman Made Gallery in 2006. Her work has been in numerous juried and invitational exhibitions including Le Centre Culturel Americain, Paris (1967), the Denver Art Museum (1971, 1978), the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska (1966, 1973), the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1969, 1977, 1983, 2003) and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (1978, 1984, 2000). Her signature series: Birthing the Crone: Aging Into Full Creativity, has been exhibited at the Thacher Gallery, University of San Francisco (2002), New York Open Center (1994), University of San Diego (1998), and Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, CA (2002).

Redman’s work serves as a catalyst for others to explore the issues she raises, and for women to communicate their knowledge with one another. Her ongoing “Creativity and Aging” workshops use art to foster personal creativity, elicit diverse narratives and re-frame aging.

While Redman shares her vision at studio gatherings, on college campuses and at fine arts, health and community centers, the Internet transmits her work globally. Her popular website www.birthingthecrone.com has been used as a study guide in college curricula and evokes responses from all around the world.

As described by Debra Koppman, Helen Redman ”...offer(s) a visceral sense of artistic growth and new vitality… (her) art functions as a kind of tapestry, weaving alternative visions of beauty found in experiences lived, love shared, pain survived, wisdom earned.”—Artweek, January 2002.

Feminist Artist Statement

Since the early 1960’s, I have created, taught and presented art that explores body image, personal identity, and life cycle experience from a feminist perspective. The subject matter includes pregnancy, mothering, the death of a child, various stages of my children’s growth and gender identity, menopause and aging.

My art trajectory is one of observation and action. As a feminist, I have consciously integrated self-awareness, social inquiry, commentary, and community building into my creative process. Female voice and expression are at the heart of my lifelong work to realize art’s healing power.

In a pre-feminist era, I managed to integrate being an artist and a mother when the two were considered oppositional. In 1964, as a recent University of Colorado MFA graduate living in Paris, I created a series of life-size drawings of my unborn daughter, Nicole, in utero. I was aware of declaring, “Here is my body, my child is within, and I am drawing myself as both a woman artist and an expectant mother!” This powerful affirmation helped me transform the grief of losing my first child, Paula, which occurred when I was five months pregnant with Nicole. Experiencing child loss and childbirth so close together, I developed a heightened awareness of life passage that has endured throughout my artistic career.

I continued to chronicle Nicole’s life from infancy through her own pregnancies and motherhood. The same scrutiny, humor, and care were directed towards my son Paul through the stages of his development, including an ongoing appreciation of his gay identity. Becoming a grandmother in 1984, added a third generation to my ongoing Life Line of Art series.

Having come full circle through the biological markers of female passage, I see the complexity and synergy of life’s layers. I create evocative portraits of myself and other older women, collaborating with them to celebrate the beauty of old, creative aging, and our shared connection to the earth.

Since the early ‘90’s, I have created and exhibited art that shares the process of aging from both personal and researched perspectives. Constructed in 1994, my website, http://www.birthingthecrone.com, was expanded and redesigned in 2007 with the intergenerational help of my son and granddaughter. Global, interactive and ongoing, my digital studio now reaches far beyond traditional venues, and contributes to an international dialog on feminism and female aging.

<p>Pregnant Artist Self-Portrait</p>

Pregnant Artist Self-Portrait

During my ninth month of pregnancy, I created a series of drawings of my child to be, Nicole, as I imagined her inside of me. It was a way to survive the death of my first child Paula that occurred when I was pregnant with Nicole. In the midst of such continuing grief, I was nevertheless aware of artistic self-authorship: “Here is my body, my child is within, and I am drawing myself as both a woman artist and an expectant mother!”

The drawing is oil crayon on paper—a greasy, rough, expressionistic, scribbly medium that allows for no changes. My natural drawing scale is just larger than life size and the color choices are emotional. While I stare myself down in the mirror, I review fetus development in birth manuals to prepare for a natural Lamaze childbirth.

I had been trained to perform like male artists—the “universal” model of the time. After having been through a death as a mother at the young age of 24, I needed my art to visualize a healthy life for the new baby. In 1964, when Abstract Expressionism was giving way to Minimalism, I was a recent University of Colorado MFA graduate living in Paris. After my child Nicole was born, I continued to chronicle her life from infancy to her own pregnancies and motherhood. Well before the feminist art movement encouraged us to examine and respect our experiences as women, I chose to weave my life as a mother into my art.

Pregnant Artist Self-Portrait

During my ninth month of pregnancy, I created a series of drawings of my child to be, Nicole, as I imagined her inside of me. It was a way to survive the death of my first child Paula that occurred when I was pregnant with Nicole. In the midst of such continuing grief, I was nevertheless aware of artistic self-authorship: “Here is my body, my child is within, and I am drawing myself as both a woman artist and an expectant mother!”

The drawing is oil crayon on paper—a greasy, rough, expressionistic, scribbly medium that allows for no changes. My natural drawing scale is just larger than life size and the color choices are emotional. While I stare myself down in the mirror, I review fetus development in birth manuals to prepare for a natural Lamaze childbirth.

I had been trained to perform like male artists—the “universal” model of the time. After having been through a death as a mother at the young age of 24, I needed my art to visualize a healthy life for the new baby. In 1964, when Abstract Expressionism was giving way to Minimalism, I was a recent University of Colorado MFA graduate living in Paris. After my child Nicole was born, I continued to chronicle her life from infancy to her own pregnancies and motherhood. Well before the feminist art movement encouraged us to examine and respect our experiences as women, I chose to weave my life as a mother into my art.

Nicole On My Lap

My angle of vision is that of a mother as I both hold and draw my new baby. Historically, male artists defined their Madonna and child images by observing from the outside. I drew Nicole from within the cocoon we shared working rapidly and directly. A squiggly baby and a scribbly oil crayon demand immediacy; yet countless hours of life drawing classes underlie the spontaneity.

As a mother you constantly read a sign language of need—keenly aware of the way a baby plops its body, moves its lips, gestures its hands. After the loss of my first daughter, I could not take my eyes off of Nicole and my watchful maternal eye kept on recording her. Through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and even her own motherhood, I kept observing, exploring and affirming her life in my art.

The right to choose the subject of my own art and to weave it into my life as a mother in the heyday of abstract art was a pre-feminist choice. To be taken seriously at that time most women artists avoided traditional gendered roles and subjects. “Modern art” had no congruence with women exploring their roles as nurturers. My personal experience of bearing and raising children formed the core of my art and my life, no matter how many other subjects I depicted over the years.

Nicole’s Puberty

I composed this iconic portrait of Nicole with objects and mementos that were part of her world from quilts and fabrics to book characters and stuffed animals. As I watched Nicole enter puberty, there was both apprehension and levity in my perception of her and this female passage. The Rabbit from Alice and Wonderland looks at his watch—time is passing. Two large stuffed animals, a snake and a frog address Nicole’s unfolding sexuality. The serpent suggests Eve’s temptation; the cabbage rose, coming out of her head is a parody on the apple. Spectacled and freckled, still a kid, she explores vamping and femininity in a wrapped-around silk shawl.

All of my portraits invite you to know a person as they pictorially evolve on several levels. My penchant for color and patterns (awakened in Morocco) makes the art appealing to a child, yet the character inside Nicole is more complex and moody. Her girlish stance foretells the strong woman she will become and invites you to participate in her development.

Nicole Enceinte

Nine months pregnant, my daughter Nicole (now 20), is unabashedly sexual in her fullness. Her comfort in her own body and her choosing single motherhood are all being recorded by me. The back-story is hard, but we are both celebrating this numinous moment.

The empathic nature of portraiture, the empathic nature of mother and daughter are joined in this painting. Again I am aware of gaze—hers and mine—direct, female and flamboyant. Together we express the sensuality of her beautiful pregnant body and the sacredness of bringing her child, my grandchild, into life.

Continuing to surround Nicole with opulent patterns, I paint the quilt given to me at her birth. That same quilt (created by my colleague, Radka Donnell) is featured in several paintings of Nicole’s development. It symbolizes the sisterhood and handiwork of other women artists while adding the play of baby blocks. I announce the bigness of the moment in lush, vivid color and larger than life-size scale. This is a mantra of empowerment for all of us.

Hot Flashing

In 1992, I began exploring the passage of menopause using my own body as a creative source. Painting in acrylics, my palette became fiery and expressionistic in ways that echoed the stirrings in my body as they emanated from inside-out. I depicted the most obvious of menopause signals, the hot flash, by layering a progression of colors from flesh pinks to flame reds.

Returning to the self-portrait as a way to study my new wrinkles and strands of gray hair, I used humor to address the sense of transience and mortality which menopause brings to the fore. I surrounded myself with skeletal forms that mirror my passions: painting, swimming, walking and yoga. My artistic guides on this journey were Frida Kahlo, Posada and the Mexican esqueletos from The Day of the Dead.

When I began this work, menopause was emerging from the taboo zone into a highly commercialized/medicalized subject. I chose a natural route and had to fight for that choice just as I had years before to have natural childbirth. My art, along with the research and writings of other women, helped me to fully embrace this powerful and dramatic passage.

As I created and showed art about menopause, it stimulated dialogue with other women that continued to expand, reaching a post-studio zenith in my internet site (originally titled: Birthing the Crone: Menopause and Aging Through an Artist’s Eyes).

Wilting Blooms

The glasses on my ever-observing eyes are now skull sockets and I’m facing my own mortality. Playing with “memento-mori” and transformation, I am both wilting and still red with bloom. The bulb of my heart signifies regeneration and the agency of my life as an artist is again declared.

While this portrait begins with a literal look at myself in the mirror it soon takes on an imagined life of its own. Dualities of humor and fear, beauty and decay, inside and outside, are part of the hybrid mix in my aging self-portraits. To be honest in our age seems a feminist strategy in a culture that teaches us denial and self-rejection. I do not want the inevitable and natural changes in my face and body made malevolent. As women we need to find our own images of aging; “our bodies, ourselves” applies as much, if not more so, than it has all along the life span.

On Our Path

The golden young feet moving forward are those of my granddaughter Shira. The old wood textured feet astride and behind her are mine. She steps forward into the future—I support her from the past, but at this moment we are both present.

Shira comes to visit when I am working on a mixed media series called “Sole to Soul.” My elder explorations are no longer focused on face or hands. Instead, I look down at my aging feet and imagine figure and ground relationships physically and metaphorically inspired by my practice of yoga and meditation.

Once again, family walks back into my art and I invite Shira into my pictorial space. Together we create intergenerational footprints. The seven images (from 1964 to 2006) chosen for this Feminist Art Base are all part of my “Life Line of Art” chronicles. While many other themes and styles have occupied me, family continues to be a core component in my artistic life.

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