When the brick and mortar can hold no more…
“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs to harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.” ~ Virginia Wolf
In my childhood home hangs an oil painting of a silhouetted woman in black, white and grey hues. The paint is thick, and furrowed, the strokes wild. The woman sits on her heels, her feline curves of breasts and hips accentuated by her pose. She is naked. At first glance she comes across demure. Then you notice her arms above her head, as if she's posing for the sun, secretly taking in the light, enjoying herself.
My mother painted her.
To my younger self it was a strange painting. Who was this dark woman? What was her story? Why did my mother paint her, like that?
I grew up with fire in my belly. Very early on it was clear to me that I lived in a suppressed environment, and my quest for freedom took root. Then I didn’t know about my mother’s, my grandmothers’ sacrifices, but I felt their potent silences and sensed the secrets they held so tightly within their bodies, as if they feared they’d implode if they let go.
The men around us were loud, strong, opinionated, crushing our female wildness with their mocking and ridicule and self-proclaimed superiority. Painting, studying, praying, all done in private, stolen moments. Feminine wisdom shared in steaming, sizzling small kitchens. At about 5 years old, I got lost inside my mother’s closet, trying on her clothes and felt oh so womanly. In my tattered underwear, I staggered into the living room in her heels and pearls to show off my newfound self. My dad laughed at me. He said I suffered from decorations disease. Then, I didn’t know the disease was all his.
The painted woman knew.
Much later in life, I picked up a camera and began making images myself. At first, I got an analog 35 mm camera as a reaction to our rapidly digitized world; I wanted to return to the basics of taking photos, I wanted to learn about the light.
At the same time, I was creating a boudoir bedroom complete with candelabra and a heaven bed as if to bring more passion into my life. In the spur of the moment, I got a friend to photograph me as a gift for my husband’s birthday, wanting to show him the woman he fell in love with. In turn I photographed my friend and we had so much fun playing dress up in my boudoir, pouting and posing just so, forgetting our weary selves as our sensual selves came alive again. We agreed, this was a liberating experience every woman should give herself.
This led me to photograph women. Inspired by the 18th century Frenchboudoirs and Virginia Wolf’s Room of One’s Own, I called the studio Lolo’s Boudoir. At first an innocent and fun project, I soon understood the potency of this work: when a camera points at a women, let alone a naked women, everything shows up in the room: her insecurities, self-loathing, her stories of abuse, betrayal, loneliness, and all the ways she’s supplanted her power and self-respect.
Can I be beautiful? Women asked me. What if I don’t like what I see in the photos?
Many women, myself included, sat in the Victorian love seat, and cried our hearts out, as if to cleanse ourselves, before we could face our bodies, our selves, and show up for the view finder.
More and more Lolo’s Boudoir grew to be a sacred space for women, a safe place far away from the prying eyes of men and media and the beauty industries banking upon our insecurities. A place beyond our petty comparison games, where we could expose all the nuances of being a woman. Soft, sweet, and feminine. Coquette and playful. Elegant and sassy. Romantic and raunchy. Raw and naked. Lonely and longing. Assertive and powerful. Seductive and sexual. Mythical and mysterious.
Judgement was suspended in this intimate space of play. Not only did I have to fall in love with each woman to see her intricate beauty, I also had to take on her demons and despairs regarding her womanly self, so that she, for a moment, could feel her freedom to be and express herself.
One woman had dragged two suitcases filled with corset and bras and heel across the country, determined to own her sexuality. As we played around and tried different outfits, she suddenly said to me, “I think I’m done with these outfits. I feel more me, more powerful, when I’m naked.” Inside I rejoiced. She got it. We don’t need the props and the retouches.
Even so, the bricks and the mortar could not hold the pressure of the hundreds of women stories of betrayal, abuse, and self-hate that were building inside my studio and my being.
One night I sat in my bathtub, sopping uncontrollably. Burnt out, I felt like I’d been submerged in the shadowlands of our culture that steals our sexuality, our female bodies and souls.
What is wrong with us, with our society, that we can’t be who we are at essence?
I questioned everything, even my trade, and the possibility that I was in fact buying into this culture with my photos. My divine fury spilled onto the pages of my memoir and into an online program to support women in reclaiming their soul, sexuality and sovereignty.
There was no doubt: It is time for me, all of us, to move beyond the safe walls of the boudoir and show the world who we really are.
It is time to connect with the desire, the real possibility, that we can indeed take our sacred lives and bodies into our own hands and treat it with reverence and respect.
If not now, when?
From afar, I hear the barely audible prayers of all women (and some men), dead and alive, to step beyond the threshold of our silences, to stop the internalized patriarchal tyrant so fearful of our free song.
In the face of this calling, I wobble. Every. Day.
The painted woman is smiling.
She has known me along.