Though female artists have been reclaiming their bodies via art for sometime now, the #MeToo and Time's Up movements have helped spark a necessary rebellion that’s bringing the conversation about women’s rights to the forefront of everyone’s minds.
A larger collective questioning the ways in which we have been socialized has just begun, with both men and women asking themselves what part they play in spreading equality and inclusion.
Meanwhile, the culture war over the nude female figure shows no signs of waning. Strict censorship rules on social media mean depictions of women's bodies remain highly policed and criticized. More education and visibility is clearly needed to shift the conversation.
With that in mind, we talked to a group of emerging female artists who are baring it all to find out how they can use their platforms to champion authenticity and body positivity.
What inspired you to start painting (or drawing) the female figure?
Miza Coplin: I was a weird kid who was obsessed with fairies. There’s this artist, Amy Brown. She draws them and her work is super goth. Her fairies were cute and didn’t wear a ton of clothing, but it wasn’t sexual really. Just fairies and dragons and stuff. I felt really connected to them so I replicated her drawings all the time as a kid. Strong female characters in general have always inspired me, so they became the backbone of pretty much all of my work.
Frances Cannon: My own body!
Kristen Liu: I’ve always been drawn to the female figure because I find it beautiful and interesting. I used to paint men more often (and I still paint them occasionally) but I just have a lot of fun with the female form. Also, I’m a woman and a great deal of my work is about exploring my own experiences and viewpoints so naturally I’m going to represent women in my pieces.
Jillian Evelyn: My work is pretty personal, so it was only natural for me to paint the female figure in expressing my feelings and experiences.
What do you feel is lacking from the way women's bodies are represented in mainstream media today?
Miza Coplin: We have definitely made strides in the way of getting rid of dumb beauty standards. It’s not anywhere near where it needs to be be though. A lot of things are lacking! I take issue with the fact that the female form is often exclusively sexualized. I’d like to see sex in a more normalized context in general.
Kristen Liu: Women are still often valued only for their bodies — we all have our complexities (and differences) as human beings and that part of us is extremely underrepresented in mainstream media today.
Jillian Evelyn: I think this goes for both men and women, but the mainstream media plays a large role in deciding what a body should look like rather than focusing on the purpose of a body or the context the figure is being portrayed. I paint a lot of nude figures and I’m always baffled when an on looker tells me that my paintings are “sexy” when I feel that there isn’t anything sexual about them.
Our society has a poor association of the naked body, seeing it as a sex symbol, and it gets even worse when it’s broken down to specific parts, like "tits," when really women have them to feed their babies. I think that it’s important for us to not look at things so black and white, tits and butts can be very sexy but do they always need to represent just that? I believe we are more evolved than that.
In recent years, the body positivity movement has been gaining some traction but there's still a lot of work to do. How do you feel these issues are being addressed in pop culture? What else can be done to spread more acceptance towards the female figure and sexuality?
Miza Coplin: Shows like Drag Race and America’s Next Top Model have been doing a pretty good job of addressing some of these issues. It’s been great seeing women of all sizes, colors, and ages on this season of ANTM in particular. Reality TV can be problematic, but I think shows like these give our generation's new ideals a fairly wide audience. As for spreading acceptance and awareness, the trend of young people expressing themselves and speaking out on public platforms is probably our best bet for continued change.
Frances Cannon: Inclusion is always the answer. We need to see more kinds of bodies included in mainstream media! We need to see more representation of women of color, women with disabilities, trans women, fat women (not just curvy in the "right" places), older women.
Kristen Liu: I have noticed a lot more plus sized models in campaigns so that’s cool and there are some really great lines by artists and designers that have much more inclusive sizing. I think one of the best ways to foster body positivity and acceptance of female sexuality is to teach young people about these ideas and issues.
Jillian Evelyn: I think that people are slowly becoming more accepting and appreciative of different body types but that door hasn’t opened that much. A lot of culture is heavily driven by aesthetic — so sure, maybe it is more accepting to be more curvy now but that isn’t really accomplishing much. It’s still pointing out a body and putting limits on what is and isn’t acceptable. I honestly do not know what the answer would be to help create more acceptance but possibly to be more transparent and realistic about the body.
I think it’s important to look beyond pop culture as well. Little girls are often taught to be ashamed of their body parts or that their bodies are mostly tubes and parts that look like a rams head. If only girls were taught to not be ashamed of their bodies or their pleasure, I think that the there would be a lot less confusion on what it means to be a woman and to not let the media make their decisions for them.
What do you hope viewers can learn from the way you are showcasing and abstracting the female figure? What do you want them to take away from seeing your work?
Miza Coplin: I think I’m still figuring this out, but putting my subjects in a relatable context while exploring fantasy and the inner self is something I keep revisiting. The Id and hyperreality. Sexuality is a part of human nature and doesn’t need to be scary or taken so seriously for that matter.
Frances Cannon: I want people (especially women) to feel SEEN. I want to represent underrepresented bodies, as well as discuss mental health in an open and honest way.
Kristen Liu: I want them to be able to see themselves in my paintings. Ultimately my work is about me and my own experiences (as much of art is) but there’s a universal human experience that connects us all and I hope people can find that in my paintings.
Jillian Evelyn: I hope that they walk away connecting to the message or feeling the piece is trying to convey — and not focusing on the nudity as a topic or issue. We come into this world naked and it is one of our most natural states of being, so I’m hoping that my pieces will make them look at the female figure as exactly what it is — a body, something that we all have and doesn’t always have to be associated with sex.
How do you feel about Instagram's censorship rules around nudity? Has your work ever been taken down?
Miza Coplin: No, mine hasn’t. As far as I know, nudity in illustration is okay with IG. Although I don’t agree with Instagram’s rules surrounding female nudity, they do have a right to censor whatever they want kinda. If we want a platform to express ourselves fairly I think we should move elsewhere. I don't know, I’m not that attached to IG and I’d be interested to see something that’s community run.
Frances Cannon: My work has been taken down a couple times but not too much thankfully. I think the censorship rules are biased. Why are some nipples allowed and others not?
Kristen Liu: UGHHHH don’t even get me started. They say that as long as it’s “art or sculpture” it doesn’t violate their community guidelines but I’ve totally had multiple paintings taken down so now I cover up any vagina/penis if it’s fully depicted. It’s pretty infuriating since my livelihood is connected to my social media (and I work so many hours on a piece it’s stupid that I can’t show the entire thing) but that’s life and I’m not going to stop painting erotica.
Jillian Evelyn: My work has been taken down once, it was pretty annoying. Nudity has become such a taboo that I’m not even sure people even stop to question why they find it so triggering or offensive. Are the abstract tits I paint causing someone that much sexual discomfort or is it because someone told them it was bad and they haven’t really stopped to question it? I think it all comes back to working to break the black and white association of the female body to sex.
What do you find most empowering about your artwork?
Miza Coplin: I started out making my work to empower myself in a way. It was my own place to channel my thoughts and honestly to fill a void, but when women tell me they feel empowered by my work it is the most special thing.
Frances Cannon: For me I find the process of talking about my own mental health and anxiety through my artwork to be empowering.
Kristen Liu: The most empowering thing to me about my own work is that I’ve been able to make a career out of it. I never expected to be able to do this full-time; I never thought I was good enough, I never thought I could stand out but the fact that I’ve been able to do this for a couple of years now is both humbling and incredibly empowering.
Jillian Evelyn: I feel empowered by taking back the nude female figure and creating work that speaks from a place of being human. Most of my topics are seeded in mental health, fear, loneliness, etc. — experiences that we are sometimes told we should feel ashamed of just like our naked bodies. I’m hoping through my work people are able to connect with the pressure of fitting in or feeling uncomfortable with situations and to question those feelings.
Who are the subjects in your pieces?
Miza Coplin: Hmm.. the women of my dreams, me, my friends, a lot of people and no one at all. Powerful fantasy women. Whoever they are to you.
Frances Cannon: Most of them are me, but I also draw imagined characters and real life people as well.
Kristen Liu: They’re stand-ins for different versions of myself or who I wish I could be. They’re a lot more aggressive, dominant, and (occasionally) violent than I am in my real life but I certainly have those parts in me — I think we all do.
Jillian Evelyn: They’re not meant to represent anyone in particular — but most of the experiences come from my own and the people around me. I feel like my work gives other people a way to relate to a feeling that they don’t usually know how to express. Overall I guess they represent the women inside me and hopefully others as well.
What's your process for creating your art? Do you work from photographs?
Miza Coplin: It depends on who I’m making it for. If it’s for a commission there’s a lot of planning and sometimes a meltdown or two. I’ll come up with a general idea and do some sketches with photo references, by hand, or digital collage. If it’s for myself it sort of happens on its own. I usually anchor a composition with a female figure or two and then build around them as it comes to me.
Frances Cannon: I only work from photographs if I'm working on a portrait of a real person. Otherwise I prefer to draw from my imagination.
Kristen Liu: I tend to get ideas for a painting in a couple of ways. Either there’s a specific image or object that I feel compelled to paint (i.e. an aquarium) or I have an idea or theme that I want to explore and then I come up with the imagery to translate it visually. I usually do a really quick small thumbnail just to get an idea of where things will be and then I prime a cradled wooden panel. I draw the size of the panel on a piece of tracing paper where I then begin what I will use as the final drawing.
I draw the entire piece the opposite direction of how I want the final to appear since when you transfer the image you place it face down and transfer by redrawing over the backs of all the lines. Once the image is transferred I do all the background and gradients first since they’re the largest areas and will determine what colors I use for the rest of the piece. I make up all the patterns and coloring as I go along — my pieces are almost like detailed coloring book pages haha.
Jillian Evelyn: My process is always evolving, sometimes it starts with a particular feeling or thought and other times it starts from an inspiring photograph. I always end up in a much different place from where I start because I’m constantly questioning the motive and pushing the figure to bend in new ways.
How can we create more positivity and openness towards the female figure as well as different body types?
Miza Coplin: Well we should still, like, stop hating women first probably. I think we just need to deconstruct a lot of the commonly held beliefs about women and their sexuality. Maybe as we stop seeing them as sex objects exclusively these things will become less of an issue.
Frances Cannon: Once again: REPRESENTATION! The more the better.
Kristen Liu: As an artist, I just hope to keep making work that exemplifies body and sex positivity so that these issues continue to be a part of the conversation.
Jillian Evelyn: I think it’s important for all body types to speak up and take a part in the change. I am not capable of representing everyone’s experience because all I have is my own. If you feel like there is something to be said about your body and it’s important to you, take a stand and put that out in to the world for people to understand. It’s all about transparency and educating others when you can.
Next up; Yovanna Ventura talks YEEZY, workouts and Instagram dos and don’ts.