Historically, women’s place in art was on a pedestal. Depicted as beautiful, sensual objects of desire devoid of their own personalities, those women were bound to certain societal roles — “woman as lover, woman as seductress, woman as the focal point of someone else’s interest,” Cal Poly art professor emeritus Joanne Beaule Ruggles explained.
The narrative started changing, she added, when increasing numbers of women began taking their turn behind the easel instead of in front of it — becoming the creators of art as opposed to simply the subjects.
“We began to (re)write the script from our point of view,” Ruggles said.
In honor of Women’s History Month, here are three local artists who seek to capture the modern female experience.
The women who inhabit Lena Rushing’s multimedia pieces exude an enigmatic mixture of strength and vulnerability.
Some seem austere, others serenely bloodthirsty. Picture blond twins in pink pinafores gobbling a cake shaped like an anatomically correct heart, or a pair of chainsaw-wielding women slicing a giant snake like cookie dough.
“I paint the kind of women I admire: The tenacious type, not salacious mannequins for men to drool over,” said Rushing, describing the figures in her paintings as “complex, resilient and powerful.”
“Artists paint what they see, and I see women as fascinating and beautiful. That comes through in my work,” added Rushing, whose feminism-themed group show, “Powerful Women,” will run April 28 through June 1 at Linnaea’s Café in San Luis Obispo.
Rushing’s painting “Plagued,” which can be seen in the “Savages” exhibition running through March 30 at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, depicts a woman wearing a beak-like plague mask, her fingers sheathed in talons. The work speaks to themes of independence and protection.
Another reoccurring theme is duplicity, Rushing, 39, said.
“We all have at least one other voice chattering away in our heads at any given time,” explained the Huntington Beach native, who moved to the Central Coast in her early 20s to finish her fine arts degree at Cuesta College. “It’s there, pleading with you when you’re about to make a bad decision or arguing with you about self-esteem.
“When you’re hiking up a steep incline, either literally or metaphorically, it’s the voice telling you that you can do it ”
Indeed, many of Rushing’s subjects seem to defy danger.
In “Sleep to Dream” a slumbering subject lays on candy-striped narwhal horns, while a girl with rebellious red-and-white curls strolls with a moray eel in “We.” (Rushing, whose 2012 exhibit “Strong Women in Strange Company” paired women with exotic predators, said wild animals usually represent men in her work.)
“My paintings are personal and cathartic — sometimes (depicting) how I actually feel, and sometimes how I wish I could behave,” Rushing explained.
Joanne Beaule Ruggles
Like the heroic nudes of old — think Michelangelo’s “David” — the figures in Joanne Beaule Ruggles’ work are towering, timeless, and, above all, powerful.
“Lots of images of women are not strong. We’re more portrayed (in art) as boneless chicken,” she said.
But Ruggles, who turns 68 in May, uses female figures to tell essential stories.
One model’s arched eyebrows , chiseled cheekbones and dancer-like grace might evoke a Thai goddess, she said, while another might remind her of the Biblical matriarch Eve.
“A model brings their stuff to the painting and the artist brings their stuff — their skill, their intellectual content, their background story,” said Ruggles, who earned her bachelor and master of fine arts degrees from Ohio State University. She taught art at Cal Poly from 1973 to 2004.
Ruggles starts each piece with a base layer of paint and collage, then adds sketches from life drawing sessions — later fleshing out the figures in her studio.
Ruggles’ exhibition “Hanging by a Thread: Mother Earth in Peril,” which will run Thursday through April 27 at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo, uses images of mature women — not “young nymphs,” she noted — to portray the uncertain plight of a planet.
“I’m using these female models and poses to talk about concern, fear, the act of trying to protect,” she said, as well as grief and despair. “If Mother Earth was a human being, what would she be feeling right now?”
Although Ruggles wants to start a conversation about the environment, she said, “I’m not seeing the series from a holier-than-thou point of view. In a way, it’s to remind me to be more mindful.”
Like her hero, German artist Käthe Kollwitz, Ruggles said she feels obligated to use her artistic abilities for good.
“What you see is an artist who’s basically trying to use her skill to tell her story, react to the world around her (and) right some wrongs,” said Ruggles, who credits her art with helping her survive breast cancer. “My work is not simply to entertain you. I might be able to educate you. I might be able to elevate you.”
Asked why women feature so prominently in her paintings, Josephine Crawford’s response is simple.
“I’m painting me,” said Crawford, whose faint accent reveals her English heritage. “I was a dancer, so I can’t bear getting off the stage.”
Crawford, who made her stage debut at age 11, spent decades as a professional dancer, appearing in theater, television and film productions across Europe and the United States and opening for performers including Judy Garland and the Smothers Brothers. Later, she worked as a costume designer in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
Crawford’s talent for the visual arts came into focus when she moved to San Luis Obispo in 1980. After she took an art class at Cuesta College, her instructor arranged her first solo show.
Crawford’s show-business background is reflected in her colorful expressionist paintings, which are frequently populated by showgirls, streetwalkers and sex goddesses with “exaggerated, theatrical boobs,” she said, as well as feminist icons such as choreographer Isadora Duncan and performance artist and sex educator Annie Sprinkle.
Crawford’s “Pin-Up” series, on display at TigerLily Salon & Spa in San Luis Obispo through the end of April, includes images of corset-clad butterfly women stabbed through the chests by some unknown collector.
According to Crawford, her work usually features “a sensual female figure who’s saying something ”
“That figure is saying, ‘What is going on? What’s it all about? I can’t work it out,’ ” the 76-year-old artist explained. “It’s been (like that) all my life. I just always wanted to know what we’re doing here.”
Crawford, who cited her mother as another “big influence,” said much of her early work reflected the ambiguity she felt between her bold, brash self and the more calculated face she presented to the world.
“I felt that I was the Annie Sprinkle of the situation but would hide it for convenience, and so I felt guilty about the hiding ” recalled Crawford, who gradually became more comfortable with her identity. “I don’t feel guilty any more.”
“Women, for me, need to be their own truth,” Crawford said.