The Visual Arts Studio Association is preparing itself for a new and life-changing photographic exhibit that will be starting its run on Tuesday. One of those preparations is a sign that will read ‘This Show is Rated Mature.’
Artist Star Newman has a way of putting it more plainly.
“Everybody’s naked. That’s the first thing you should know.”
The Edmonton photographer has spent the last decade taking boudoir photos of women through her business Acts of Beauty. That kind of work is what she describes as “helping women to see themselves as beautiful after a lifetime of being told by society that they’re never going to measure up.”
A few years ago, that evolved into an art project that was quite a bit more intimate in ways that strip away the glamour and eroticism of boudoir and dive right into the psyches of her models.
She started with an interest in simply examining how women see themselves, something that, she said, has very little with how they actually look. They’ve already decided what they look like based on years of living in a society where advertising, movies and fashion magazines have created an unreasonable version of beauty. The comments that they offer are far from what Newman and her camera reveal.
“You get women who are the same size, approximately the same shape, who describe that shape in incredibly different ways. One woman who says she is fat and ugly and used up and another woman who says she is strong and vibrant and beautiful. From the outside, these are women who are describing very similar bodies.”
“I think that women’s perceptions of themselves are even more confused than we think they are. We’ve got a simplistic understanding of how women see themselves that says that while if you’re overweight you’re going to see yourself in a certain way and if you conform to the modern standard of beauty, you’re going to see yourself in another way,” she continued. “The reality is that every single woman that I know is carrying around these awful scars and these nasty things that she’s saying to herself. It’s a lifelong struggle for every woman to find a way to love the body that she has, whatever shape that body is.”
There’s a lot of value in an art project such as this. For one, it affords the audience a chance to look past our clothes and see that we all struggle with our bodies and all of their little imperfections.
For the models themselves, they often come to Newman at times when they are in the middle of major life changes such as getting out of difficult relationships. They want to start to look at themselves in a brighter, happier light right after their darkest times.
To help them shed their old skin, she had them come together in small groups, all without clothes. Each model brought two lists of words that she would use to describe herself: one for the good days and the other for the bad. The words that came up ranged from ‘vibrant, strong, curvy, loveable, gutsy, bold’ to ‘broken, burden, shame, ugly, lumpy, fat, unlovable.’ The women would then take turns writing these words on the body of the woman.
“Everybody was naked. Everybody was vulnerable. Everybody was faced with the incredibly awful task of having to paint horrible words that they didn’t believe on the body of somebody that they didn’t feel deserved it. It’s one thing to call yourself ugly in the mirror but it’s quite another thing to write that on another woman’s stomach.”
One of the participants was an otherwise vibrant and enthusiastic “cheerleader” who even helped to recruit and organize the models for the project. She brought along her list of negative words but would only allow herself the word ‘curvy’ for the positive side.
It’s a powerful concept to imagine, and see for yourself. It was powerful for Newman too, as she often found herself in tears after each session.
It was even more powerful for the models, life-changing even.
“It’s amazing how much it can change somebody. Pretty much every woman that I take pictures of comes back and says, ‘I had no idea the impact this was going to have on my life. I relate to people differently. I’m confident. I look at my body differently. I’m more forgiving.’ Coming in and taking your clothes off for a stranger is one of the scariest things you can do. Once you’ve done that, it does give you this, ‘Oh, I guess I can do anything’ feeling.”
She didn’t realize how impactful the project could be on its subjects. That power is what fuels her to continue on with more models. There’s no shortage of people with the same issues, she said, and she expects that she’ll even be doing a series with male models. She’s changing lives through this art.
“I honestly consider what I do to be therapy through the medium of photography. I’m not a therapist but the process of being stripped bare and finding beauty in that and having somebody accept you is incredibly therapeutic. Every single woman comes in and she’s beautiful and she can’t see it. The process of showing that to her is amazing,” she ended, noting it’s been an eye-opening experience for her too.
“And that’s why I keep doing it. It’s not just for the pictures.”
Photography by Star Newman
Opens on Tuesday, Feb. 28 and runs until Saturday, April 1
Opening reception on Thursday, March 2 from 6 to 9 p.m.
The artist will be in attendance
Please note: this show is rated Mature
25 Sir Winston Churchill Ave. in the Hemingway Centre
Call 780-460-5990 or visit www.vasa-art.com for more information.