Growing up with Barbie as an example of the “perfect” female body, followed by the pencil-thin models in the fashion world, young girls often develop unrealistic ideas of what they’re “supposed” to look like. It takes an artist, one who sees the nude body – imperfections and all – as the ultimate subject for a work of art, to properly celebrate the human form.
Ever since Susan Singer’s father told her to hold in her stomach or she’d look like her mother, Singer has known there’s injustice and prejudice in the world towards women’s bodies.
She began to draw as a forty-year-old mother of three, focusing on issues of the body which arose from the challenges of her own life. Feeling unseen by her ex-husband when she was pregnant with their children, Singer chose to first draw pregnant nudes in order to assure herself of their utter grandeur and splendor. Learning that others could also see their magnificence, she realized that she, too, had been beautiful and fecund and worthy. Her art helped her heal from the wound of not having been seen as perfectly beautiful.
“After a lifetime of mounting frustration at seeing the ‘ideal’ woman become taller and thinner, I felt called to do something about the idiocy of this unattainable ideal,” says the artist, as she began photographing and painting models of her own. These were not the models from Vogue or Cosmopolitan. Instead, Singer’s models are women you see in the grocery store or in the park with their kids or perhaps in your own mirror at home.
“In the beginning, the models were friends and other acquaintances whom I told about my project,” says Singer. “They did me the favor of posing for me for photographs which I later used as a reference to create the paintings. Later, once I started showing the work, people would come up to me and ask that very question which I took to be a lead-in to my asking if they wanted to pose for me. And so the circle grew…..”
Singer was soon overcome by the inherent, undeniable grace and beauty of each and every model. As the women paraded through her studio, their natural beauty asserted itself. A hand on the hip, a foot placed just so, and everything shifted. Singer began to see what has captivated artists for millennia – the inherent grace and beauty of the female form.
But not just of slender, lithe, socially-acceptable bodies. One of Singer’s early models was a 270-pound woman who waddled somewhat painfully into her studio but immediately let her presence be known. Here was a woman who had come to terms with her bulk and loved and celebrated every inch of it. Having grown up around her mother’s shame and embarrassment about each added ounce, Singer was transformed by this woman’s solid confidence and self-love. She redoubled her efforts to express this love and admiration for the authentic female form on canvas.
Susan Singer considers her paintings to be a collaboration and an opportunity for the models to do some self-growth work. “Most of them had strong reactions to modeling,” she says. “Almost all were positive, but a few were challenging. Mostly the women were delighted to see how amazingly beautiful they looked on canvas.”
“One woman in particular, however, ended up having very strong negative feelings about having posed and let me know about it in no uncertain terms. I withdrew the paintings I did of her from circulation and we had many, many conversations about it. Ultimately it meant the demise of our friendship. I think she was triggered by my work in ways neither of us could have anticipated. That was sad. For the rest though, it has been a fantastic experience. They bring their friends to the shows and point to their paintings with pride. Many tell me it has changed the way they feel about their bodies. Many of the viewers have said the same thing. Usually there are people in tears at the exhibits, moved by the beauty and power of the models, especially when compared to the ways the media portrays women.”
The following excerpt from Singer’s exhibition, “Not Barbie”, explains the appeal behind her work: “To see Singer’s exhibit of female nudes is to give one’s eyes the opportunity to adjust to authentic beauty much like a walk in the woods on a splendid spring day after a trip to Disney World. Both have their merits, but the woods, like Singer’s nudes, we soon realize, offer something real and fundamentally true, solid, and knowable, complete without plastic, glitz or shine. We realize we’ve come home to the place we want to be.”
As I said at the beginning of this post – it takes an artist to dare to see things as they truly are and to choose to portray them with the kindness, love and respect they deserve. Singer’s artistic statement says it all: “Observing and portraying life…..just as it is.”
Artist Credits for the images included in this post:
Susan Singer, Virginia
Oil on canvas
The Blues Woman
Lady and the Hat
Woman in a Chair
Susan Singer’s artwork can be viewed at: Susan Singer
The 365 Days Project
In 2012, Serena Kovalosky committed to writing an article a day for 365 days as an exploration into the lives of artists and the value of creative thinking in our society.