Thursday, June 22, 2017

Little Joan with Mask

I sent Joan a photo of a collage called “Little Joan with Mask.” She had been the model who posed for “Little Joan” 30 years before. She asked me what was the significance of the mask, and I could not come up with a good answer. But now that I think about it, I’m beginning to grasp what was a purely unconscious when I created the collage.

Little Joan with Mask
I was teaching art at the University of Southern Mississippi, and somehow—I don’t know who might have recommended me or how it came about—I was invited to do a one-person who at Itawamba Junior College 200 miles north near my old hometown of Tupelo. The faculty in the Art Department there seemed to like my work, but apparently the president of the college and some others did not. They locked the gallery doors and put up a sign saying that because some of my paintings might be offensive people who wanted to see the show should go to the Art Department and ask to be let in.

There were some nudes in the show. I thought they were rather mild and couldn’t imagine them offending anyone, but we were in the Bible Belt.

A note of explanation: I never gave much thought to whatever meaning or symbolism there might be in my paintings. I was all about color and shape and texture, and if there was any emotional or symbolic content it came from my unconscious and was something that in my mind simply was. Whatever it was.

I thought it was funny that the college administration was upset about my paintings, and as a joke I imagined it would be fun to make paintings of naked people with clothes people could put on them if, say, old prudish Uncle Mike was coming for a visit. Kind of like paper dolls that have changeable wardrobes. It was such a fun idea that I decided to do it. I started asking my friends to pose for me both naked and clothed. Dress in any way you want to, I told them.

Big Joan (naked)
Big Joan (clothed) with artist
I was surprised at how many people were willing to pose in the nude. Two women who lived in our apartment building, my wife, a guy who hung out around the Art Department, the one semi-professional model who posed for figure drawing classes, my studio assistant and an older student named Joan—all women except for the one guy, so I had to do a self-portrait to have more than one male.

Joan was 50 years old at the time, and her fellow students who were in their 20s thought she looked amazingly good for her age. Fifty seemed older then than it does now. I was 42 or 43 at the time, and I also thought she looked great for 50. She was gorgeous.

The “Paper Dolls” were a series of paintings of nudes on Fomecore board with oil sticks. I cut them out to the shape of their bodies and painted separate clothing, also on Fomecore with oil sticks, and cut to shape, that could be put on or taken off. They were each about 15 or 16 inches tall. I also did a few larger than life on the kind of thin board hollow-core doors are made of and cut to shape with a jigsaw. I titled them with the names (first name only) of the models: “Little Joan” and “Big Joan,” Little Debbie,” and so forth. “Big Joan” was seven feet tall. She drew lots of stares when we drove her across campus in the bed of a pickup truck.

I painted a large mirror behind “Little Joan” in which her backside was reflected. On “Big Joan” I made the mirror part of the detachable clothing and painted on the mirror a reflection of the artist (me) painting her.

Approximately 15 years after painting “Little Joan,” I saw a picture of a mask in a magazine and, on a whim, I cut it out and used it to create a collage. I didn’t give any thought to the significance of the mask, but visually I liked the way it contrasted with the figure. Another 15 years went by before I reconnected with Joan via Facebook and she asked me about the significance of the mask. I had never thought about it before, but in all the “Paper Dolls” the clothing was a kind of mask. With clothing, we present ourselves to the world as how we want to be seen, but naked there is no guile, no pretense. My friends as represented by the “Paper Dolls” stood proudly and unashamed in their nakedness. When clothed their true selves were masked. “Little Joan with Mask” is a more literal statement of what all the “Paper Dolls” were. I just didn’t see that at the time I painted them.

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