"..A woman in love with herself, is a woman in love with all of Life."
I recently modeled for the extraordinarily talented painter, John Nava, in his home studio in Ojai, CA. Six years ago he began a series of paintings for which I was the model.
He has now returned to an unfinished piece, a larger than life painting of me (not shown in this blog post). Nava's technique is exquisite: realism constructed through layers of oil paint, creating an uncanny architecture that somehow produces a replica of the subject.
As I sat, he explains to me a bit about how he selects his models, never looking for particular aesthetic qualities, but only for an indescribable something that he is drawn to, enigmatic and personal. During this conversation, John told me the story of how the first large painting I'd modeled for was sold. Also a large nude piece, it was purchased this year for the permanent collection of the MEAM in Barcelona, a museum devoted to great contemporary figurative works. In it, I look quite young, very plump and naive, and am gazing at the viewer with sloe-eyed confidence. The woman in the painting is raw, natural, unencumbered.
And yet, despite the glory of his exquisite work, the first time I saw the painting I was deeply embarrassed. Not by the nudity, but by the voluptuousness of the figure. Those breasts, that belly. so full, so round, I felt repelled by the image and self-critical thoughts washed over me. My mind told me that Nava had chosen me to paint because painting a big woman would give the piece a sense of controversy, of the grotesque even. For, in this old nervous pattern of thought in my mind, I defaulted to the painful and faulty belief that my body was not beautiful or lovable because it did not match the mythical airbrushed women who dominate media campaigns.
However, I knew this wasn't all all true and the reality was that John Nava's motivations were quite the opposite. When I explain a bit about these struggles with body image, Nava is visibly affected. "The fact that you ever thought of yourself as anything other than perfectly beautiful, causes me pain," he tells me. I learn that he hadn't even thought about my weight or size when he'd asked to paint me. He had been drawn to something innate in me, my essence, a quality any artist looks for in his muse. "Beautiful is beautiful," he explained.
I sat and watched as John mixed his paint, each color uniquely crafted. "These days everyone is doing anger," Nava muses, "I don't have to worry about anger, because they all have it covered," he chuckles "So I do Beauty, I focus on what feels good. Im most concerned with making something beautiful, something honest."
A beautiful irony lies herein: It turns out that the night Nava submitted the painting for review at the MEAM, he had done so having been fueled by residual anger spawned earlier that day when an art dealer had walked into his studio and without so much as a double glance, dismissed the painting of me all together with a wave of his hand. The man said that he'd never be able to sell the piece. For, not only was it a nude (for the most part Americans are indeed still grappling with the naked human form in contemporary Art) -but the figure was also an image of a voluptuous woman staring straight at the viewer, unapologetically. Who would want such an image in his/her home?
As John told me this story, various emotions and thoughts arose, but the dominant ones were essentially self-confirming thoughts about this work I have been doing with this blog to help women learn to love their bodies regardless of shape or size. It is the engrained automatic reactions such as those of the art dealer that need to be questioned and debunked.
If we could, as a society and as individuals, strip away all those layers of conditioning about what a body IS, and what is deemed worthy and attractive and desirable, we could save ourselves so much pain, redirect so much creative energy. If we, (each one of us!) could learn to look at an image of a full-figured women and think not first about what she isn't, but what she IS...we can help give rise to a culture in which all women are admired and respected just as they are, for ALL they are. - And this is a culture of LOVE, full of happier mothers, daughters, husbands, lovers, and sons, of friends and families.
For, a woman in love with herself, is a women in love with all of Life.